Ask A Scientist: Wildlife

From Tucker High School in Atlanta, Georgia:

What kind of animals live in Antarctica? Do they live there year round?

The only animals that live at McMurdo station year round (except for humans) are the Weddell Seals. They survive the winter by chewing holes in the ice allowing them to have access to air even during the harshest antarctic storms. During the summer months, Adelie Penguins show up as well as Skua. Skua are essentially the southern ocean equivalent of seagulls except they migrate huge distances and are much nicer to look at. They fulfill the important scavenger role in the ecosystem. Later in the year we get more larger marine wildlife, including Minke and Orca whales. Emperor penguins stay to the north of McMurdo proper but occasionally show up as do a few other species of seal, including Crab eater seals. There is way more life than I can describe under the ice and we will show images of that as we continue in our research.

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Ask A Scientist: Food

From Tucker High School in Atlanta, Georgia

What kind of food is available for the scientists to eat at McMurdo Station and where is it grown?

We eat almost entirely food that is flown in or brought in by ship the year (or in some cases many years) before.  The  food is pretty amazing as a whole team of chefs make a diverse array of fresh breads, desserts, meat and veggie options and sides galore.  The real challenge is not eating too much.  Fresh salads are delivered by plane but when no flights come down these disappear from the menu.  Later in the season we will take you on a tour of the Galley and Dining area so you can see first hand.


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Crazy Weather, Cool Toys, and an Ice Helmet

Our first two full days in Antarctica have been amazing. It’s a whole new world down here. The sun and moon skirt across the horizon like they are circling us, instead of rising in the east and passing over head.

The first sunrise didn’t occur until 10 days ago and already the sun is up for 6 hours. Each day gets longer and longer so quickly, I worry we’ll miss our chance to see the aurora australis (a.k.a. the southern lights). Within a month it will be light out almost all day long.

The first day was calm and clear, but still very, very cold. The second day I woke to 30-40 mph winds and a wind chill  of -39°F! To illustrate how cold that is: I squeezed in a short workout in-between some of our safety/survival training and was running a few minutes late.  I did not dry my hair thoroughly or I was still sweating from the workout when I ran out the door to make the next class. I put on my gloves with my hat tucked under my arm as I ran out. When I went to put my hat on mere seconds later, my hair was frozen solid. I freaked out and put the hat on immediately, so there is no photo evidence of my ice helmet.

The science and support staff at McMurdo station is out of this world. I’ve been to a fair amount of field research centers and this place surpasses them all. They have all sorts of high tech science “toys” and fancy equipment here and multiple people to help you use it, too. It’s really remarkable that a place this remote, in such an extreme environment, could run this smoothly. My hat is off to all the scientists and staff… but not for too long because, ya know, my hair might freeze again.

A Clear(ish) Day


Ob Hill from the lab


As with every Antarctic adventure the first few days on ice are getting our new remote lab set up and lots and lots of training to make sure 1) we are safe and 2) that we do not damage the pristine environment that we study and 3) that we actually get our science done. In that order. That involves the following trainings:

Outdoor Safety Lecture
Food Room
Field Communication
Crary Lab Orientation
Laboratory Safety
Diving Briefing
Environmental Field Briefing
Protecting Antarctica’s Environment Briefing
GPS training (optional)
Refresher Snowcraft training
Sea Ice Safety
Snowcraft training
Information security awareness
Piston Bulley training (i.e. how to drive a tracked vehicle)
Small equipment training (drills, generators, and chainsaws)
Light vehicle training
Light vehicle practical
Arrival briefing
Science support briefing
On-Ice POC meeting
Waste management briefing
Propane heater training.

And all of that has to be up and running by the time we get to do science.  We have gotten most of them scheduled or completed so while we wait to get in the water to collect samples we can be all set to be ready to handle them.

Other than that we were greeted with nice weather to start the trip and get used to the cold that we get to enjoy. In addition we are thawing out some buildings that have had a rough winter. For example my bed is next to window that has some extra insulation that does not work in more gentle climates (i.e. Ice on both sides).



Rory’s welcome to Antarctica

The night before our flight we received word that our departure time had been pushed back and we were not report until noon instead of our original 6:30am. Extra sleep is always nice. We were greeted with an introduction safety video showing some of the wonders and dangers ahead of us. Then things got real as we suited up in our newly issued safety survival gear and gathered with the hundred other support staff and handful of scientist for the final pre-flight briefing. The scene reminded me of the scene in Star Wars: A New Hope where brief the pilots before they attack the Deathstar.

Then it was off to board our flight, a HUGE C17 aircraft. This was my first flight in a military cargo plane and I was blown away by everything. You could have driven a dump trunk inside the cargo hold and still had room left over. The insides were mostly exposed and you could see all the inner piping and wiring making up the skeleton of the C17. Oh, and the seats were great. I had more elbow room and twice as much leg room as any of the previous flights, I wish I could have taken this plane the whole way from the U.S.


Five hours later our flight crew informed us the current temperature and time, negative 31°F and I’m not sure about the time because all I heard was NEGATIVE 31°F! The pilot came on the speakers to welcome us to Antarctica and warn us they intended to take off in 45mins, so the engines were not going to shut down, and we were to turn right upon exiting or risk “items” being sucked into the jet engine. The doors opened and there we were sitting on a giant glacier. WOOO WHOOO!!! There is only a about an hour of light each day this time of year, and it was dark when we landed but I didn’t care. I couldn’t wait to step out a see the first glimpse of Antarctica. The runway was abuzz and all lit up with all the transport vehicles. I was so excited I almost didn’t realize the cold… almost. I was quickly made aware of the cold when the steam from my breath froze on the balaclava I was wearing. We were able to get one quick snap shot on the run way and then rushed into our waiting hagglund, a sort of snow tractor transport to McMurdo Station. The expedition has officially begun.

Mid travel stop

The normal airport experience

Airports are wonderful places to catch up on work mid travel. LAX was no exception.

The first leg of our trip takes us across the pacific and south to the lovely island of New Zealand.  Both Rory and I departed Portland Airport within a few hours of each other for Los Angeles but on separate airlines.  I flew on United and Rory on American as the later had the more cost effective ticket but the former flew directly to NZ instead of OZ and then NZ.  I was traveling with frozen phytoplankton that was not allowed in Australia so couldn’t have a layover there, and was only allowed in NZ with a permit (which I had).  My flight was a red eye that took me directly to Auckland, a wonderful flight, and then on to Christchurch where spring is starting to rear its face and the long winter is abating.

The flight was 13 hours from LAX to Auckland. MAF (the equivalent of US Agriculture) was very friendly and processed my permit right away.  However it still took them 45 minutes of a 1.25 hour layover and I made my connection with literally one minute to spare.  I lost a bag on this last flight but it joined me later at the hotel with no problems. Overall a great trip. Rory arrived later that day and we went out for a wonderful meal and then returned for a good night’s sleep.

The next day (now yesterday) we headed over to the CDC (clothing distribution center) to get out survival gear allowing us to be safe and warm in the frigid temperatures that we will face… Hopefully on Monday.   Strong winds and mechanical issues have kept the flights south behind schedule (which is part of the schedule –being delayed). However we are off to the airport with hopes of a cold reception as we land at McMurdo station.  Or not? One never knows

The preparation.

Welcome to the blog of our great Antarctic adventure. Two of us have been going through a crazy amount of preparation prior to our two and a half month deployment to McMurdo station, Antarctica for which we leave tomorrow. There is still much to do but all of our equipment has slowly (and finally) shown up. We embark on a minimum five day journey that will have us end at 78 degrees south, the farthest south we can dive bellow the ice.

Please follow along as we show what it is like to arrive into the middle of Antarctic winter. We’ll update photos and stories over the next two months of what our research is like.