Buried-lakes story wins top award

Some readers may be unaware of our sister publication, Science News for Kids, a weekly online magazine for middle-school readers. This morning, we learned that one of the site’s feature stories — Where Rivers Run Uphill — won this year’s top science journalism award for reporting news for children.

SMILING WINNER Freelance writer Douglas Fox won the top science writing award for his Science News for Kids feature. D. Fox
EMBEDDED IN ANTARCTICA Carpenter’s saws are standard issue in this super-cool environment. Here, Fox takes a break from digging a pit to shield a propane-powered generator from blowing snow. D. Fox

The piece, which also appeared on the main Science News website, describes the work of a small team of scientists on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, 380 miles from the South Pole, as they deploy instrumentation to study effects of subsurface lakes on the ice above them.

Those lakes “might act like giant slippery banana peels — helping the ice slide more quickly over Antarctica’s bumpy bedrock toward the ocean,” the story explains. To report the science, Douglas Fox, a San Francisco-based reporter/photographer joined the research team for nearly a month as it camped out (yes, in tents) at the end of the world.

Most of his story focuses on Lake Whillans, discovered only a few months earlier via satellite anomalies. “We are the first humans ever to visit it,” he notes in the story. And he ferried our young readers along with him on snowmobile jaunts over a frigid surface — underlain with lightly covered, life-threatening crevasses — to set up ultra-precise GPS boxes and begin reading their data. For the next two years, these instruments would continue to measure dynamic geological processes.

Currently, the region’s mysterious water bodies must be probed indirectly, Fox points out, because they’re “two Empire State Buildings below our feet.” Data emerging from them now show that as it flows over them, parts of the ice sheet can slowly bob up and down atop these buried lakes by as much as 10 or 15 feet.

Fox’s vivid description of the research, of the environment in which it’s being conducted — and of the very challenge in accomplishing any major task in this forbidding, oh-so-cold world — apparently wowed the judges. As it did us at Science News for Kids when Fox first contacted me with the idea of writing the story.

He’d never before written for children — something that proves surprisingly difficult for most writers.

“I kind of tortured over the story more than usual,” he says. After the first draft, Fox reread his story again and again to identify passages that “seemed a bit starchy.” Then he’d “loosen up” the language, make it more sensory and put more of himself into the action. And it worked.

Was describing the hydrology difficult for young readers? Actually, he found, “Of all of the different things I’ve written about (neurons, retroviruses, the placenta, chemical fossils, etc…) glaciers, ice sheets and subglacial lakes has really felt like one of the easiest things to make sense of.” People know ice and water, so they can imagine this environment more easily than invisible agents of change, he says — like magnetic fields, gravity or microwaves.

The challenge, Fox says — and reward — was figuring out how to articulate the ways in which water’s properties can change when there’s suddenly billions of tons of ice, a mile thick, floating on it. “Suddenly you get lakes and ‘rivers’ under the ice that bow and bend to the demands or pressure more than they do to gravity,” he says.

One thing Fox was not prepared for when he set out on his austral summer excursion to Antarctica: how his body would react to six weeks of unrelenting daylight. It crystallized when he was finally headed home: He found that the thing he anticipated most was darkness and starlight — even moreso than the idea of taking a long, hot shower.

So congratulations to Doug for winning the 2009 AAAS-Kavli Science Journalism Award, children’s journalism division. And you can see another of his Science News for Kids feature stories next month: this time, on self-assembing computer circuits.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has been managing a science journalism contest since 1945. This year’s AAAS awards were renamed to honor a major endowment by the Kavli Foundation of Oxnard, Calif.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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