Antarctica is the "highest, driest, most isolated, and cleanest place on Earth." It also is one of the coldest: the worst recorded temperature was below -170 degrees Fahrenheit (- 112 degrees Celsius). The continent's severe temperatures and howling winds are unavoidable factors in any projects of Antarctic researchers. Anyone working "on the ice" must also follow the multinational treaty promising to not pollute, to not molest the animals (a $10,000 fine), and to minimize any human influence overall.
Doing science here requires careful advance planning. Scientists have re-supply problems, and they need special training about survival in harsh conditions. They also need to have constant awareness of the interactions between the environment and their experiments, whether they are inside the laboratory in McMurdo Station or out at field sites. Even simple glue is classified as a toxic pollutant here, for example. And any trash and much of the human and food waste must be properly sorted into barrels or bales for shipment back to Seattle.
When scientists first arrive at McMurdo or at the other U.S. stations on the continent, they must take various types of survival training, depending on what type of field work they will be doing. Scientists are most commonly trained on using portable radios, snowmobiles, and snocat machines; helicopter passenger safety; driving safely across the sea ice that covers much of the area; and surviving outdoor work in extreme conditions during a two-day "Happy Camper" school.
Most of the 1,000-plus people using McMurdo as their main base live in "town" -- sharing very basic rooms in large dormitories and eating together in a cafeteria in the center of town. They watch movies and attend church services in the Chapel of the Snows, dance in one of the three nightclubs, bowl and play volleyball and Dungeons & Dragons, and listen to the local volunteer radio station. So, although McMurdo is 8,000 miles from Los Angeles and is a very grungy town of metal sheds and drab wood buildings, it also has some creature comforts.
But nearly all scientists do most of their research out on the sea ice, under the ice if they are scuba divers, or up in the mountains on the glaciers. Some even work on the side of Mt. Erebus, which is an active volcano not too far from McMurdo. Travel to these research sites can be dangerous, with cracks always opening in the sea ice and in the snow fields on mountainsides. There also are blizzards that come very suddenly, making it impossible to see any trails. And sometimes your snow machine may break down many miles from anyone who could help. For these reasons, everyone who travels out of town must check out by radio, say when they will return to town, and also carry survival bags with tents, sleeping bags, food, and extra clothes. All of this makes doing science much more complicated than it might be in a place with good weather and a good freeway system!
There are many things to learn about survival in Antarctica. You always look for cracks in the ice. The ice usually is more than 6 feet (1.83 meters) thick but can break open because of tides in the water underneath. If your snocat has tracks 6 feet (1.83 meters) long, you should never try to cross a crack more than 2 feet (61 centimeters) wide. You also must watch for groups of seals lying around on the ice because they come up through openings in the ice to breathe. So, seeing seals is a sign of a possible bad crack. Every vehicle contains a hand-powered ice drill, and you need to drill often to test the thickness of the ice. Anything less than 30 inches (76 centimeters) may be too thin for a heavy vehicle. Cracks also open in glaciers as glaciers move slowly downhill. Because of this, scientists who cross snowfields and glaciers must learn to rescue someone who falls into such a crevasse.
One important lesson learned in Happy Camper school is how to build various kinds of snow shelters. The shelters are for sleeping and cooking and for taking care of anyone who may have hypothermia or frostbite and need to be kept warm. These shelters may take several hours to make, but they are worth the work. It can take only minutes to become seriously cold in Antarctica. The simplest shelter is a trench about 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 meters) long, a bit wider than your shoulders, and waist-deep or deeper. If you want, you can dig into the sides of the trench parallel with the surface of the snow, making sleeping benches like little caves sideways from the main trench. The best cover for these trenches is an A-frame top made of snow blocks about 18 inches (45 centimeters) long cut with an ice saw.
Another type of snow shelter, called a snowmound or a quinzhee, is easy to make. You pile all your duffel bags or packs on the snow and shovel a big pile of snow on top. Dig a tunnel to your packs, take out the packs, and hollow out the inside. You must pat down the snow hard as you pile it on top. The snow must be the kind that presses down and becomes a hard surface. And the buried bags must have a minimum of 2 feet (61 centimeters) of snow all over. When you hollow out the inside, you must stop when you begin to see blue light. That's when the walls are about 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) thick. Never operate a stove in such a shelter!
The igloo is the most difficult snow shelter to build, but also the most fun. Again, you must have the right kind of snow, the kind that holds together when you saw out blocks and lift them. An igloo that is 6 feet (1.83 meters) across on the bottom will take 50 to 80 blocks. So it's a lot of work. All of the blocks need to be the same size, too.
The first layer of blocks is placed in a circle around a center marker, such as an ice ax or tent peg. You shave off the tops so they angle in and down toward the center marker. Then you shave off the tops of the first layer again, so that layer spirals from one end of a block having almost no height, around the circle to the last four or five blocks full-sized and right next to the skinny first block. The rest of the blocks, which you add as you move around and around the igloo, are all full-sized on one side. But you keep shaving the sides and top so they wedge together and angle inward toward the center marker. As you add these blocks, you also stack them slightly closer to the center with each layer closer than the last, so they begin to form a dome shape.
Of course, someone has to stay inside the whole time, to add the last block on top as a plug! Make certain the person inside has a shovel. That way he or she can shovel toward you while you are shoveling a tunnel entrance into the igloo toward him or her. If you need more space inside, you can dig down into the floor and also dig it wider, but far enough under the circle of blocks above you.
So, now you know what to do if you ever get trapped at the south pole!
Diane Edwards is affiliated with the department of microbiology, Montana State University. She is studying the effects of human sewage on animals living in water and on land in Antarctica. The drawings are from the Field Manual for the United States Antarctic Program. Photos are from the Teacher in Antarctica Program Web Page and were taken by Dom Tedeschi.
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