Employee of the month

We recently completed another crucial time point (week 4) in our big 6 week experiment. WOO WHOOO!!! The end is near. All the live animals have been sorted and the rest of the samples preserved for later analysis. A huge plus for us is that none of our super critical science equipment that we transported down here has broken yet. Although when we first got down here and we were ramping up for the start of the big experiment we were running into problems right and left. In an attempt to remedy this situation we started a little incentive based encouragement aimed at our science equipment. We awarded “employee of the month” to our extruder, the only piece of equipment that was not giving us any issues.

Employee of the month

The extruder is just a little device that allows us to sample and section the sediment into different layers from the surface on down. We made a little photo employee of the month sign and hung it next to the window in our lab and wouldn’t you know it all the equipment has been working beautifully ever since. Well another month has come and gone and it is time to select the next”employee of the month” less Murphy’s Law goes into full effect. This gives me an excellent opportunity to introduce a few of the other instruments we use to complete our science down here.

     The first two clear front runners are the oxygen sensor and meter combo and the dissecting microscope with the digital Canon camera with the microscope eye piece attachment that allows Andrew to get all the super detailed close up shots and videos of the animals in the sediment.

Science toys. Clockwise from top: digital canon camera with microscope eyepiece adapter, oxygen sensor connected to oxygen meter in the front right foreground and dissecting microscope with ipod headphones hanging from the oculars (music helps pass the time during long hours on the microscope).

The underdog in the science equipment race for employee of the month is our under water sediment core transport rack, which is really just a milk crate with a bunch divider ropes strung through it and carabiner for attaching it to the dive line. Always carefull not to offend we never call it a milk crate in front of others, and it also really ups our science cred around the dive tenders to give our home made items fancy names. The milk crate also doubles as a support rack in our respirometry table. The respirometry table is an aquarium tank with 1.8°C seawater flowing through it to keep the animals that live on and in the sediment at the same environmental conditions as where we found them. I have a soft spot for underdogs so my money is on the multitasking milkcrate.

Underwater sediment core transporter (A.K.A. milk crate with rope strung through it).


Happy Camper

On Monday and Tuesday we had Happy Camper, which means spending a night outdoors getting a genuine taste of the Antarctica field experience. The goal of the course is to provide Antarctic survival training on what to do in case you get stranded out in the field.

The group at Field Safety Training Program (FSTP) take a handful of individuals from each station. Sometimes the weather is nice and sometimes it is really nasty. Lucky for us it was gorgeous out… gorgeous for this time of year in Antarctica (light winds and 3°F).


We started in a classroom and then packed into a delta vehicle shuttle and sped out at max speed (15mph). We camped on a glacier near the base of Antarctica’s second largest active volcano, Mt. Erebus! There were spectacular views all around.

View from camp of Mt. Erebus smoking in distance

We dug snow shelters, made ice walls to block the wind, and set up tents. We all split up into tasks and our volunteer chef prepared “boiled water” from scratch, using only glacier snow and a whisper light stove.

dugout “kitchen” with ice wall

Just before our FSTP instructor Cory left us for the night, he gave us the dehydrated meals we were to add boiling water and have for dinner. When I asked which ones were good, he smiled and said “They’re all good as long as you add enough of the world’s best spice: hunger.”

Right he was. Your body burns an incredible amount of calories trying to stay warm in these extreme conditions. When trying to stay warm you can eat, hydrate, put on layers, or move around to increase circulation. I did all of them and paid for it in the middle of night when I had to leave the warmth and comfort of my sleeping bag to get up and pee. Next time I’ll just wear everything I own, drink a modest amount, eat like a horse, and shovel snow.

Ice wall protecting tents from wind

Everyone was up and moving breaking down camp at 5:30 am… well, everyone except me and one other non-morning person. I sort of shuffled around in a circle nursing my instant coffee until my eyes fully opened. We all had more boiled water with instant oatmeal and instant coffee, and then awaited pick up.

breaking down camp and awaiting pick up

The rest of the day was spent learning how to use very high frequency (VHF) radios and repeater towers when there is no line of sight. We also learned about high frequency (HF) radios for extreme field sites. Then we tested all the training we learned in a pretend scenario wherein we were told we had 15 minutes before a storm hit and we needed to set up camp and radio for help using just one survival bag and HF radio.

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.

Ask A Scientist: How does your equipment handle the cold?

My question is what’s the extreme ratings for the equipment you use, and since it would seem that some would be life dependent are you required to bring redundant equipment for the expeditions you go on?

Your Concerned Uncle Dave | Connor-Winfield, Aurora, Illinois


The tanks, regulators and dive computers are all provided for us down here. These are the most important pieces of equipment we use, because if your tank or tank regulators fail you won’t have access to air.

We have two regulators on every tank.  In case one fails, we have a backup on hand and a buddy with another extra regulator to follow us back to the surface. That is just one example of the redundant equipment we use to stay safe.

Luckily, these items are maintained by the dive safety supervisors here at McMurdo. It is amazing how well this equipment holds up to these extreme conditions. Just look at all the ice covering our regulators after a dive.


Ask A Scientist: The amazing shape shifting octopus

From Hill’s Hope Academy, homeschoolers in Plano, Illinois:

That first picture of the octopus is amazing!  But later you show it very small in the palm of your hand.  Does is really get that small? Or are they two different creatures?





Yes, all of the photos are of the same octopus.

What I found most amazing was how quickly the octopus was able to change not just its size and color but the color and texture of its skin too. The octopus is a master of camouflage.

Check out this Roger Hanlon video from NPR’s Science Friday and see if you can spot the octopus.

Ask A Scientist: Can anyone go to Antarctica?

These questions come from Tracey Rojo’s IB Biology class at Tucker High School in Atlanta, Georgia:

Is it possible to go to Antarctica without being affiliated with a research team at a university? And what do you do for fun?
Yes, it is possible to go to Antarctica even if you are not a researcher. The National Science Foundation contracts out many different types of job opportunities for people to come down and work. There are carpenters, electricians, janitors, dish washers, heavy machinery, fire fighters, etc. and  everyone has the most interesting background stories. We met this one guy, Sven, on the way down who used to be one of the California smokejumpers (forest fire fighters that jump out air planes to control forest fires), but he wasn’t coming down to be a fire fighter… I think he was a heavy equipment operator for the summer.

To be honest there are far more support personnel than science personnel. Most people come down to live and work here for 4-8 months, and I believe 18 months is the limit on the amount time anyone can stay on the ice. There is a minimum age 18 to work down here.

There’s a lot of amazing hikes if you want outdoor stuff and coffee house with theatre libraries, and lounges for indoor fun.

What is your housing like?  What type of meals do you eat?

Housing is a mix of different arrangements.  Some are dorm style, some buildings were left over from the old Navy days, and there are talks of modernizing all the housing soon.

There are three meals a day always at the same time so your body gets sort of trained to get hungry around these times, like it knows it is due for a feeding. An excellent team of chefs prepare different things each day and it is all you can eat.

Syringe sampling and exploring our Cape Armitage dive site

Now that we are finished with all the sea floor sediment sampling for the big experiment we can to go back and dive our Cape Armitage dive hole, which I’ve been looking forward to revisiting for quite some time.

Sampling sea-ice interface at our Cape Armitage dive hole.

I’m not saying that our normal dive site at the Jetty isn’t cool, but for a majority of the dive we’re focused on 5 X 5 foot section of mud. Well… I think Andrew’s focused for the majority of the time, but I’m still in awe and easily distracted. We have had SEALS swimming around us and calling back and forth to each other while we’re working on our past three dives! How cool is that? I mean you’re not going to NOT try and swim off and play with them…


Today was zero sediment collection and the only goal for the dive was for me to collect three syringe samples in order to determine if there are any of the bacterial predators I’m studying for my PhD research in the Antarctic. While I sampled Andrew photo documented the dive site. My sampling is super quick, just a syringe from the sea-ice interface, another at 15 feet and one just off the sea floor, which leaves a lot of time to explore. Cape Armitage is such an amazing dive site. I can’t write the exact words to tell you how incredible this site is, but I can show you what it looks like through the lens of Andrew’s underwater camera.


Giant vase sponge on Dayton’s Wall.

The sea floor at the Armitage dive site is very steep almost like a wall or a cliff with all sorts of life clinging to it. Above is the shot Andrew got looking almost straight up, and you can see our dive hole and down line off to the right.

Sea Ice Training

It was spectacularly beautiful outside when we headed out with the instructors of the Field Safety Training Program (FSTP) to wrap up our final in field sea ice training. The class was small, about 10 people including Andrew and I, and included a diverse group of skilled workers from all over station. We all piled in the FSTP hagglund and headed out of McMurdo Station for the sea ice.


We started out practicing how to make ice anchors (V-shaped holes in the ice that we pass rope through) to make sure ourselves and our gear doesn’t get blown away in rough weather. Then we all profiled a small crack together with the instructors and popped in our dive hut so everyone could visualize just how thick the sea ice is right in front of station. Next we traveled to Hut Point to profile our first major pressure ridge crack. We cleared layers and layers of snow (shoveling and more shoveling) to get down to the sea ice before we drilled a series of holes perpendicular to the crack taking measurements as we went along to map out the profile of the crack.

Pressure ridge profile

These measurements allow us to determine which types of vehicles are safe to cross. One of the major cracks that form every year around hut point is named Big John after the big john tractor which fell through years ago.

Pressure ridge near Hut Point

The course ended with a trip out to the ice runway road where we got to take a look at some very unusual cracks around the permanent ice shelf and the multiyear ice intersection. We were basically about a half mile out to sea with impressive views all around, which was easily my favorite part of the day, because we got to see a different perspective of Ross Island and the surrounding areas.

View of Mount Erebus from the sea ice

Ask A Scientist: Under the Ice

From Tucker High School in Atlanta, Georgia:

When you dive under the ice, how long do you stay under the ice with each dive? Even with the special scuba diving gear, do you still feel cold when you are under the ice?

Each dive has it’s own mission and time can vary, but our average time has been 35-40 minutes. How long we stay underwater is a function of the amount air we take down and the depth at which we are diving. Since we only use steel 95 tanks, which hold about 96 cubic feet of air at 2400 psi, all of our dives times are regulated by how deep we are diving. We use the some of the same gas laws developed by scientists around the end of the 18th century to plan our SCUBA dives in order to make sure we have plenty of air. As you take these tanks down under water the deeper you go the more pressure there is from the water column, and as Boyle’s law states, the volume of a given mass of gas is inversely proportional to its pressure, if the temperature remains constant. Thus, the deeper you go the more ambient pressure there is and the mass of gas per breath increases because the air gets compressed to a smaller volume, which means you have fewer breathes off that one tank at 100 feet verses 20 feet. Just to be clear here, the density of the gas you are pulling out of your tank immediately goes to ambient as you are breathing through your regulator. So at depth you breathe more gas per unit volume due to the increased density, and since density increases as a function of depth, the time your gas supply will last decreases proportionally. However, Boyle’s law doesn’t account for temperature and that water is COLD. So we have to use Charles’s gas law to account for an even greater reduction of volume when we dive in ice water. There are also safety concerns about nitrogen dissolving into your blood at higher pressures, which is another important item we take into account. We have been trained thoroughly on how to take into account all these factors so that we stay well within our safety guide lines when we go below and always come back safe and sound.

Cynthia Spence photo of Rory climbing out after a dive

Our SCUBA dry suits and special dry suit underwear, a sort of fleece onesie, help keep us “warm” and dry in the ice water.  There are certain tricks you can do to move some of that warm air around your core to your hands and feet which really help to keep you from getting too cold. Stay down for any amount of time and you can feel that cold starting to sink in, but again a small price to pay for this kind of science.