The University of Chicago Magazine February 1996
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Life on Ice


November 30: At the Clothing Distribution Center, I was handed long underwear, socks, parkas, mittens, gloves, field pants, headgear, goggles. Via videotape, the congenial "Dr. Sherry Balaclava" held forth on Antarctic style (red is in) and advised that "fit is everything."

Ah yes, fit. I tried on three pairs of fleece bibbed pants before deciding that they were designed for tall, skinny men. As for the long underwear, both pairs came with the oh-so-convenient little flap in front. Again, not my size. And I had to take an enormous red, down, fur-hooded parka--an expedition jacket--in order to fit my hips. Word of advice to women: Leave your hips in CONUS! [Antarctic lingo for "Continental United States."]

December 1, McMurdo Station: On the plane, I slept for four hours; when I awoke we were over the Antarctic continent. The skies were cloudless, revealing every ridge of the terrain below. I glued myself to a porthole until we began to descend. Seven hours to the minute after taking off, we landed on the ice runway at McMurdo.

From the panoramic windows in the science building, I can see across McMurdo Sound. Everything is white--only the shadows define the landscape. It's after 9 p.m. now and I'm wide awake and energized. The sun will only circle around the horizon, dipping slightly, and never set.

December 3: The constant sunlight here is very disconcerting. In fact, in CONUS time, I've almost completely reversed day and night--I'm going to bed at 7 a.m., Chicago time. We've been blessed with fabulous weather--sunny, temperatures just below freezing, and moderate winds. In the morning, puddles that had melted the previous day have frozen over, but by noon the rivers are running in the streets again.

December 5: Yesterday I went out in the field with a group that calls itself the Wormherders. Led by Colorado State biologist Diana Freckman and including several Dartmouth scientists, the Wormherders are prospecting for nematodes--tiny invertebrates--in the soil of the Dry Valleys. In this harsh environment, nematodes are the top of the food chain.

Because there are so few species of organisms in the soil here, it's easy to study their interactions. It's an ideal setting for a soil biologist looking at the effects of climate or other environmental change on the ecosystem.

After a 45-minute flight by helicopter, we landed at Lake Hoare's permanent camp: several small buildings and a smattering of mountaineering tents. We were there to check a 20-meter-square grid plot that the Freckman group established to study climate and nutrient effects on the soil's nematode population.

We had enough time before our next stop to explore the lakefront. Scrambling over the rocks, Dartmouth graduate student Melody Brown showed us a mummified seal. With no scavengers to eat it, and precious few bacteria in the soil to decompose it, no one knows if this frozen carcass has been here five years, 50, or 500.

At our next stop, Alatna Valley, about 75 miles away, we collected soil samples that Melody would later analyze. Surrounded by glaciers and snow-capped peaks, Alatna has a reputation for being even windier than Chicago. In the upper valley, every rock is pitted, pelted by smaller rocks hurled by the wind.

After looking for melt ponds--glacial runoff where algae can flourish--in the lower valley, we returned to the camp. Literally at the foot of a glacier, it's a stunning location. Because the camp is a site for long-term ecological studies, its 20 or so residents try to minimize their own impact. "Gray water" from dishwashing and showers gets evaporated or shipped in barrels to McMurdo; a combusting toilet uses propane to burn human waste; and recyclables are airlifted to McMurdo, then shipped to CONUS for processing.

December 6: Yesterday, about 20 McMurdo residents--an assortment of scientists, Navy officers, Antarctic operations staff, and myself--reported to the Field Training Center for two days of survival training. First lesson: how to climb a steep, snowy slope using an ice axe.

After lunch we practiced techniques for building shelters out of snow. The ice shelf's hard-packed snow is ideal for cutting blocks that are lightweight, stackable, and fairly sturdy. We learned to build three types of structures: a wall as a windbreak for a tent; a snow mound; and a one-person roofed trench.

I chose to dig a trench--deep enough, so I thought, to give myself good headroom with the roof on. I was exhausted when, at 10 p.m., I slid my two foam pads and sleeping bag inside. It was a tight squeeze. Between cold feet, the continuous light, and intermittent claustrophobia, I barely slept.

After lunch today, we put on climbing harnesses and roped together in two teams of ten. We hiked across a field of mostly bridged crevasses. Some of these natural bridges are sturdy; some aren't. Being roped together meant that if one fell in, nine others could catch his or her fall.

At one open crevasse, we were lowered down, one by one, to see inside. I roped up and, on my stomach, slid feetfirst over the edge--slowly, slowly, 10, 20, 50 feet down. Ice crystals dangled down like tentacles, filtering blue light through the dark, narrow shaft. A few minutes later, I was hauled up by my colleagues, hand over hand, to reemerge into the bright daylight.

Antarctica may not be a tropical beach, but you can still get a bad burn. Despite using SPF 50 sunblock, I acquired a very painful sunburn on my face during training. I've learned the hard way the mantra of the snow: reapply, reapply, reapply!



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