Sunday, January 15, 2012

Answers for The Students in Mrs. Fridson's class

The Students in Mrs. Fridson's class asked:
Our first graders, along with Mrs. Cooperman's and Mrs. Dvorkin's classes are starting to learn about Antarctica. We also have a couple of questions. Are there many bugs in Antarctica? Over 100? What is the temperature there right now? This is their summer, but you can't stay there in June, right? That would be winter in Antarctica. 
Hi Mrs. Fridson's class, thanks for the questions!  It seems that the number of species of insects that live on the continent of Antarctica are fewer than 10 (maybe only 3 or 4, but I don't know how many species of spring tail have been described).  See my post below.  As a side note, there are no true bugs in Antarctica.  True bugs are insects in the order Hemiptera (like the giant water bug, a.k.a. the "toe biter").  So if you ask an entomologist about "bugs", he/she will think you are asking about hemipterans (and not beetles or ants or bees or flies, etc.).

I just left McMurdo today, and I'm now in Christchurch, New Zealand, where it is summertime!  The temperature when I left McMurdo was probably a few degrees above freezing (so the 30s Fahrenheit).  Still chilly, but not too bad, and probably warmer than Michigan is right now.  Some people do stay at McMurdo and the South Pole during the winter, but not very many, and you have to have a good reason to be there.  You're right, that is when it is really cold, and I will probably never be in Antarctica in June.  There probably isn't very much biology to study then, because most living things survive by going dormant (becoming inactive) during the winter months.  

Answers for Mrs. Nosakowski's First Grade Science Classes

Mrs. Nosakowski's First Grade Science Classes asked:
We have been studying insects in first grade science! We have been discussing common insects that are found here in the U.S. but are wondering what insects can be found in Antarctica? Can you share with us some cool facts?
Hi Mrs. Nosakowski's First Grade Science Class!  Thanks for the questions.  Insects are some of my favorite organisms to study, but there are not very many in Antarctica.  The only insects in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where I work, are Collembola (a.k.a. spring tails).

Image from
These are tiny microscopic insects that live on moss mats when there is flowing water in the Antarctic summer.  I haven't seen any of these in person, but I have been looking.  When I first took an entomology course (entomology is the study of insects) these guys were considered true insects, but I think that may have changed in the past few years.  The only other insects that live in Antarctica are midges (the family Chironomidae, see this link), which live on the Palmer Penninsula, which is the part of Antarctica that sticks out toward South America.  This part of Antarctica is further north and a little warmer than where I work.
Image from
You can find both spring tails and midges in Michigan, but they are different species than those that live in Antarctica.  Sometimes you can find springtails hopping around in the snow.  They look like fleas, and are sometimes called snow fleas, but they are not fleas.  Midges look like mosquitoes, but they don't bite.

The only other "animals" that live in the Dry Valleys are very small (microscopic) animals like mites, water bears, and round worms.  These things all live in the soil and they can survive the harsh winters by becoming dormant during the cold months.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Answers for Mrs. Cooperman's First Grade Class

Mrs. Cooperman's First Grade Class  asked:
Our first grade class just began learning about Antarctica. We are fascinated by the frigid temperatures and that animals are able to survive. Do you know how penguins are able to survive the cold? Also, we read on your blog that when you are out on field study, it can take a few days to complete your experiments... Is is difficult to sleep in a tent when the wind is blowing so hard? We learned that some winds can be up to 200 miles and hour! Also, when you put up your tent, have you ever had to pitch it on ice? Do you actually sleep well? Also, we want to know about electricity in Antarctica!
Thanks for the questions!  I don't really know much about penguins, but most of the larger animals, like seals and penguins, can survive because they have lots of insulation in the form of fat or blubber.  My guess is that they eat as much as they can, and then their bodies use that energy to produce enough heat to keep them from freezing, and their fat keeps the heat from escaping their bodies.  I'm sure there is a lot more going on with these amazing animals to help them survive.  I will see if I can find anything else out.  

Here is a picture of a juvenile emperor penguin.  The first emperor I've seen in person!
Sleeping in a tent here is a lot like sleeping in a tent back home, during a winter day.  Tents tend to act like a greenhouse by letting light in, but not letting the energy escape.  So if it is sunny, the tent can get pretty warm (like 50 degrees F), even if it is cold outside.  We also get really warm sleeping bags and sleeping pads.  I really like sleeping in tents, so I think it is a pretty comfortable situation.  The light doesn't keep me awake, especially if I'm really tired after a long day of field work.  

It can get pretty windy here, but I haven't experienced 200 mph winds.  We had a katabatic wind storm a couple of weeks ago where a few unoccupied tents were blown away.  Katabatic winds occur when dense cold air falls from a high place (like a mountain, or the polar plateau where the south pole is) to a low place (like the McMurdo Dry Valleys).  I made sure my tent was secure so I didn't have to worry about it blowing away.

Solar panels at Lake Hoare Camp, McMurdo Dry Valleys

Solar panels and the main hut at Lake Hoare Camp
The field camps I have been to all have electricity.  Most of the science projects require instruments and tools that need electricity, so the field stations are well equipped.  I have seen solar panels at all of the field stations I have been to, and there are also wind generators at some of them.  Ironically, one of the wind generators was damaged by high winds during a katabatic wind storm last year.  There are also diesel generators that serve as a backup if we don't get enough power from the sun.  It seems the solar panels do the trick, because we haven't had to run the diesel generator at the field camps while I have been out there this year.  

We do use diesel to power a heater in main hut where we cook and eat, and we use propane to power a stove and refrigerators and freezers for food and science samples (we keep samples and food in different freezers). 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Thanks for the mail!

I received some mail from Mrs. Radner's fourth graders!  I saw that the letters were dated December 22, 2011.  I received them on Saturday, which was January 7, 2012.  However, I think my mail actually arrived in McMurdo on January 5, and they sent it out to a field camp, but I was no longer there and the people at the field camp sent it to me at the science lab in McMurdo.  So the letters and cookies made a little extra trip out to the Dry Valleys and then back to McMurdo.

Thanks for the letters!

...and the cookies (Thank you Noa and Noa's mom !), they were delicious!  I enjoyed them in my office in the Crary Laboratory in McMurdo, and I shared them with my friends here.  

Answer for Mrs. Radner's Fourth Grade Class

Mrs. Radner's Fourth Grade Class asked:
Dear Dr. Sokol:
We are exploring the "Westward, Ho!" movement and learning about travel in a wagon. We discussed the items we would bring if we were travelling out West. We saw that you travel by helicopter and that you said you put a lot of gear in that helicopter. We were wondering if the kind of gear you put into your helicopter is similar to what we would put in a wagon to travel out West.
The answer to this question depends on whether I am heading out to the field just for the day, or if I am heading out to a field camp for many days and nights.  When we have a lot of work to do in the Dry Valley desert, we will camp near the work site because it will take us more than one day to complete our tasks.  When I went out to Lake Fryxell Camp I had to pack food, clothes, a tent, a sleeping bag and sleeping mat, some tools, hiking boots, and lots of socks.  I bet this list is similar to what people had in their wagons when they were traveling west.  However, I also took science gear with me.  This included whirl packs (which are plastic bags for collecting samples), instruments to measure the amount of water in the soil, flags for marking plots where we sample, test tubes, and a special liquid chemical for preserving the DNA in soil (so we can study it later).  I suspect that these items would not be found in the wagons in the "Westward, Ho!" movement.  I've included some pictures, below, of other things that we brought out to the field with us...

An instrument that measures the amount of carbon dioxide coming out of the soil.

Stabilizers - these strap on to my hiking boots and give me traction on the ice, so I can walk across frozen lakes and glaciers.

Here I am with my water bottle.  It's as important to have something to carry water in so I don't get dehydrated.

Here is Adam next to a stream on top of a glacier (Canada Glacier).  We stopped to get some water from this stream.  

On the left is a hand held GPS (global positioning system) - this tells us where we are.  We use this to record the location of all of the places from which we collect samples.

Here is Adam sampling some soil near Canada Glacier.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Back from the field camp

I just got back from a week in the Dry Valleys, specifically Taylor Valley. Between work and internet outages at the camps, I wasn't able to update the blog, but now I'm back in McMurdo so expect some more updates and pictures.

My tent at the camp at Lake Bonney in Taylor Valley
I had lots of different tasks while I was in Taylor Valley.  This year I am working on projects that are part of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research Program.  Lots of scientists have been working on this research for a long time so that we can understand how the ecosystem works in Antarctica.  I'm working with the soil scientists so I got to do lots of hiking to collect soil samples to bring back to the lab.  I also had to use a machine to measure the amount of carbon dioxide coming out of the soil, which we can use to figure out how active the soil microorganisms are.

I had a chance to hike over the Canada Glacier, and hike up to the Hughes and Taylor Glaciers.  The Glaciers are very impressive up close.
The Hughes Glacier

Expect more blog posts and pictures and answers to questions in the coming days.   Oh, and Happy New Year!

Angelica asked:
Which part of Antarctica do the penguins live in? Also, have you seen any big groups of penguins?
That's a great question!  The penguins live in rookeries.  Rookeries are the places where the penguins build their nests, and they are near the coast of Antarctica.  However, there are places in Antarctica where the ice over the sea never melts (this is called the ice shelf), so they have to be far enough north so that they can find places where the ice melts or cracks so they can get into the water to find food.  

The place where I am is McMurdo Station, which is on Ross Island, which is partially surrounded by ice shelf (does not melt) and sea ice (does melt).  Because we are near ice that melts, we have penguin colonies on this island, but I haven't been able to see them because they are on a part of the island that you can only go to if you have a special permit.  I have heard that when the ice melts near McMurdo Station later in the year that we will see more penguins and whales.  I hope that happens before I have to leave.