Ask Scientist: How cold is the water?

Dear Polar Scientists,

I like to watch Frozen Planet on tv because it’s interesting because there’s lots of strange creatures that live in the arctic. My favorite is the Woolly Bear caterpillar.


My question to you is; What is the temperature of the water where you are and how do you protect yourself from the cold water?


Stay warm!

Adelina Brown | Second Grade | Beaubien Elementary | Chicago, IL

I like the Frozen Planet too. The Icy Finger of Death Brinicle time lapse video is my favorite, and we saw the place they filmed that shot two days ago.  The water where we are diving is -1.8°C or 28°F. That’s below freezing for fresh water and the approximate freezing temperature for sea (or salt) water. However, that is still much “warmer” than the air temperature has ever reached since we’ve been here. In fact, when we drill a fresh dive hole we see steam rising off the sea water (like a hot tub) which gives a false impression of warmth.

We try our best to protect ourselves from the cold water. We have special dry suits and dry gloves for scuba diving to make sure we are in minimal contact with the water.  Our mouths are the only exposed part of our body and they go numb almost immediately. I had a glove leak once during a dive, and although I was able to finish the science goals for the dive, it was quite painful.

This is what we wear underneath our drysuits. We start with expedition weight long underwear and then add between one and two pairs of socks. I use a thin fleece pair with a thick wool pair on top. We then get in that big fleece jump suit and add another sock layer. Our feet and hands get the coldest of all.

The real secret to cold cold water diving is dry gloves. These gloves attach to our suit so our hands stay dry throughout the dive. Underneath I put a very thin fleece liner and that is it. Even with all of this, we always end a dive with cold hands – there is just no way around it since we can’t put our hands in our pockets to warm them up like someone can on the surface.

The final addition to our setup are three hoods. This is the inner one, called a gorilla mask, and the two holes are for the mask and regulator. We then put a latex hood that is attached to the suit over the top of this and then a normal cold water diving (neoprene) hood on the outside. On a good dive our hair doesn’t even get wet, however they are not all like that. The hoods are very uncomfortable on the surface but underwater we don’t even notice they are there.

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