Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Answers for 1st Graders at Hillel Day School

Hi folks. You have been asking me so many great questions. Today I'll post the questions and answers from the 1st graders at Hillel Day School.

1. Where do you go to the bathroom?
This depends on where I am in Antarctica. Right now I am at McMurdo, which is a small town in Antarctica. Right now there are about 1200 people here, but nobody lives here permanently and most people leave before winter (remember winter here is during the summer months in Michigan). Here we have running water and plumbing and bathrooms like you have at home or at school in Michigan.

The last couple of weeks, however, I was living out at a field camp near where we were collecting samples. At the field camp we had to use an outhouse (below)
The tough part is human waste has to be separated into liquids and solids, so we can only do one thing or the other. Not both at the same time. We end up sealing solid waste in "Poo Buckets" and liquid waste in "Pee Barrels" and these are transported out of the Dry Valleys by helicopter. The Pee Barrel is that orange barrel next to the outhouse in the second picture. The poo bucket is in that wood box with a toilet seat on top of it.

I'll talk more about the difference between life at McMurdo and life at field camps later.

2. What do you do if you run out of food?
We check in daily with the people at McMurdo who manage all of the science field groups in the area. When we are low on food we call in a request with the folks at McMurdo and the send the food out on a helicopter. When we go on day trips or anywhere far from a base camp we take an emergency kit with us that has dehydrated food in it. If we run our of food we just need to add boiling water to these dehydrated food packets and we have a meal that will keep us going. They pack enough food, a stove, and fuel in the emrgency kits to keep two people a live for 3 days. I haven't had to eat this food yet (except in my training when I fist got here). Hopefully I won't need to use the emergency kits while I'm here. This dehydrated food is similar to the type of food you can buy at outdoors stores for backpack camping. I have had it quite a few times backpacking in the U.S.

3. What happens if you get sick? Do you have medicine with you?
I had to undergo an extensive check up and I had to get lots of shots before I came here. There are some medical resources here. We have first aid kit in the field and there is a medical doctor and a clinic at McMurdo, but we have to get airlifted back to New Zealand if anything serious happens. There are lots of people who are well trained in first aid to care for people who get hurt, but it's a long way back to a country with a real hospital.

4. Do you get to change clothes?
I get to change clothes a lot more when I'm in McMurdo. While I was at the field camp I only had 5 pairs of socks and three sets of long underwear for nearly three weeks. I was pretty smelly when I got back to McMurdo. I immediately changed into my regular clothes when I made back, and put my stinky field clothes in the wash. The dorms at McMurdo have laundry machines.

5. Is is negative degrees there?
The temperatures can be negative even during the summer. Right now it is -9.5 degrees Celsius, which is 15 degrees Fahrenheit . It has been below zero Fahrenheit a few days while I have been here, but it hasn't been too cold recently. I have been told that it will be much colder at a field camp I am going to at the end of this week at Beardmore Glacier. McMurdo is at sea level, but the camp at Beardmore Glacier is at a much higher elevation (I think 6000 ft), is much farther south, and is on a glacier, so I think those three factors will combine to make it pretty cold.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Life at Lake Fryxell

For the past two weeks I have been staying at a camp in the Dry Valleys on Lake Fryxell. The camp has a heated hut with a kitchen and electricity generated from solar and wind power.

I sleep in a tent, but it doesn't get dark at night. Before going to bed I boil water and put it in two water bottles to put in the my sleeping bag to keep warm. This works pretty well. I have not been checking the temperature, but I think we have had a few days where it has been above freezing. There have been some cold days when my drinking water in my water bottles has frozen while I was out collecting samples. I have started warming up my water before heading out on hikes to collect samples.

We get water from "glacier berries" which are big ice chunks that fall off of a glacier that is near the camp. We collect these giant ice cubes and put them in the ATV and drive them across the lake back to the camp and melt them over our heater in the main camp hut.

We cook all of our own food at our field camp. We can use a radio or satellite phone to call McMurdo and order food, which is brought out by a helicopter.
We have mostly canned and frozen food, but we get fresh fruits and vegetables sometimes. We have cereal (like cinnamon toast cruch) and crackers (like cheezits) but most of the the snack food we get is past the expiration date. These snacks usually still taste fine, but we had some chocolate chip cookies that were really awful. We have normal dinners like pasta and fajitas and stew, but we have to make it with all frozen and canned ingredients. We also have desserts like these apple turnovers.
From A day in the life at Fryxell camp 2010-11-10

Our camp has additional huts that we use as labs to work on preserving soil samples and for getting our gear ready for collecting samples. In the picture below you can see some tents in the foreground, our James Way hut (our living space with the kitchen) is the left most "building" and the other 5 huts are our labs and storage areas. The solar panel is on the right. That snowy frozen area in the background is Lake Fryxell, and there are some glaciers in the background. I have really enjoyed living here for the past couple of weeks.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


I have been in the Dry Valleys for about a week. Most of Antarctica is covered in snow and ice, but the dry valleys are very cold deserts with mostly bare mineral soil. My understanding is that this place is too windy and dry for snow to stick around the same way it does in other parts of Antarctica. However, there are lots of snow packs, which are places that are sheltered from the wind where the snow accumulates. The people I am working with are trying to understand more about these snow packs. In some of the new pictures I've posted you will see some instruments that my colleagues were using to take precise measurements of the size of the snow packs. They do this a few times over throughout the course of the year to determine how the snow packs change through a season.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Snow School

Within hours of getting off the plane I started snow school, which is a field survival course. Two mountaineers taught us the basics of how to camp and survive out on the ice, or anywhere where it is cold and snowy. I think we were on the Ross ice shelf, but we might have been on sea ice or the toe of a Glacier where it fell into the sea. Regardless, it was a white and cold and flat landscape surrounded by mountains. I think that is Mt. Erebus in the photo album.

While camping we ate backpacking food. These are basically dehydrated meals that you can buy at outdoors stores and they are ready to eat after adding boiling water. These are really easy to make and they are light weight. We didn't have any astronaut ice cream for dessert though.

Arriving at McMurdo Station

Williams Air Field (above)

I know Mrs. Radner's class has been following the weather, but for anyone else who is interested here is a link to one of the weather stations here at McMurdo.

Flight to McMurdo
I finally got on board the plane to McMurdo on Wednesday evening and we landed at Williams Airfield early Thursday morning. Our flight was on a C17 military cargo plane. We landed on a runway that is on sea ice! We then got a ride in Ivan The Terra Bus to McMurdo Station.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) Gear

I have discovered that like many government agencies the USAP (United States Antarctic Program) likes to use acronyms. Yesterday I spent time at the USAP CDC (clothing distribution center) getting my ECW gear. The USAP provides researchers with the clothing and gear that they need to survive in Antarctica. People don't need to bundle up in the buildings at the research bases, but they do need the ECW gear when they are out at camps. For my work, I will be camping in the dry valleys and working out in the elements and I will definitely be bundling up then.

We also need to wear the ECW clothes on the flight from New Zealand to McMurdo, presumably so we are prepared if we have to get out of the plane in an emergency situation. Plus the ride from the airstrip to the buildings at McMurdo is probably pretty cold too. To the left is a poster that is up here at the CDC that explains the what clothes we have to wear on the flight, and there are also some pictures of other clothes that we get for when we are working out in the elements.

Each person working for the USAP gets assigned a set of ECW clothes. The big red down parka is lovingly referred to as "Big Red." None of our clothes are heated. What these clothes are designed for is insulating our body really well. If you are insulated, your body produces all the heat you need by burning the food you eat. Your body metabolizes food, which has potential energy stored up in the bonds that hold the food molecules together. When your body metabolizes the food, it releases the energy that holds the food molecules together as heat. So if we eat a lot, and wear clothes that insulate us well when it is cold out, we should be able to handle some pretty cold temperatures.

Speaking of the weather, I am still stuck in New Zealand waiting for the weather down at McMurdo to clear up. It seems nothing is certain, and we need to have flexible schedules. This works out well for me because it is giving me some time to post these pictures.