Friday, October 26, 2007

Students' Questions about Antarctica

Fourth Graders from Logan Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Michigan sent me some excellent questions. Here is my attempt to answer some of them...

Is being in Antarctica harder then when you went before?

So far, it is not harder than when I came to the ice 22 years ago, to do my Master’s Thesis field work. But I have not been through the real test yet. I am still in McMurdo, not in the field! And perhaps the fact that I hurt my back is telling me that my back is a little weaker than it was last time I was here…

What is your favorite part about being in Antarctica so far?

There are so very many favorite parts, it is really hard to decide. The part that comes to mind first is the airplane flight into Antarctica on the LC-130. As you watch the ice-covered continent come into view below you, and realize that you are flying over that distant, remote, ice-covered continent of Antarctica, you are awed by the beauty and variety of this planet we live on. That awe makes my insides do somersaults! It’s a feeling that changes your view on the world and your place in it. It is just an amazing feeling!

Did you go to any other headquarters?

I went last week to the New Zealand base, just a couple of miles from here. It is called Scott Base and it is very small, only around 50 people there (compared with more than 1,000 people here!) There is a lot of cooperation between our two bases, and they invite Americans to visit their base on Thursdays. Here is the view out over the ice from Scott Base.

Have you seen any weird fish?

Yes, I saw some Antarctic Cod, which have been collected to study a natural chemical in their body called antifreeze. This is something that protects them from freezing – and is a chemical that people who live in cold climates need to use to put in their cars to prevent them from freezing! Well, the Antarctic Cod produce it naturally! Since the sea around here is all frozen, I did not see them in the ocean. I saw them in somebody’s laboratory (Dr. Arthur DeVries) who has been studying these fish for many years. They catch the fish by going ice fishing.

Have you dug for rocks yet, and if you have how many cool ones did you find?

On Ross Island, where McMurdo Station is located, there are volcanic rocks all around me because the island was formed by a volcano. In fact, there is still an active volcano on this island: Mount Erebus! The volcanic rocks are very interesting, and have lots of holes in them where gases were trapped at the time when they were blown out of the volcano.

Other than that, the only rocks I am seeing are those that come up in the ANDRILL core. There are all different rocks in the core, all representing different environments. Many rocks were deposited by glaciers – and they have chunks of many different rock types in them, and are quite beautiful. When you go on the gravel pit field trip this year in fourth grade, you will see glacial deposits in Michigan. Those are piles of rock that were picked up by glaciers and they moved down from Canada. When the glaciers melted away, they left these rocks behind. They are all shapes and sizes, with many different types of pebbles inside. That is exactly what we are seeing in the ANDRILL core! We are seeing other types of rock in the core as well, representing different environments as well – such as warmer times when the glaciers had retreated and there were rivers or oceans covering this area, or times when volcanoes were present. So I have seen MANY cool rocks!

If you were to stay in Antarctica for the rest of your life, would you prefer living in Antarctica or Ann Arbor?

Wow… As much as I love Antarctica, I could not live the rest of my life here. The main reason for that is that my family and my work are in Ann Arbor. If I could take my family and Ann Arbor Public Schools with me, I could happily live in Antarctica! But without them, I must return to Ann Arbor.

What type of food do you receive at McMurdo Station and in your survival pack?

You wouldn’t believe how well we eat in McMurdo! We eat everything imagineable! Steak, fish, chicken, pork, food from all different cultures, lots of vegetarian food, amazing breads and desserts… The “freshies” (that is, fresh fruits and vegetables) depends on a flight coming in. We haven’t had a flight in from New Zealand for awhile, due to the weather, so we are all hungry for “freshies.”

At Survival School we had freeze dried food, dried soup, dried everything. It was really yucky! But it is still important to eat, because your body needs the calories to stay warm. We also ate a lot of chocolate, for quick energy.

How quickly will the ice sheets surrounding the main ice form and melt?

This is precisely what we are studying here in the rock core! The “main ice” is called the “ice cap” or the ”ice sheet.” The ice on edges of the continent, that respond relatively quickly to changes in climate, are called the “ice shelves.” Ice shelves can melt and disappear much faster than the ice caps. Sometimes huge pieces even break off, or “calve” in a matter of weeks, such as the Larson B Ice Shelf. The ice caps take longer to form and to melt.

The answer to your question depends a lot on whether you are talking about the Arctic or the Antarctic. I have given your question to one of the scientists here to try to get the most accurate answer I can find. It is still something that many scientists are working on. I promise to get back to you when I get a good answer! Perhaps you will be in the next generation of scientists to help answer that question!

What are the differences between now and before?

Last time I was here, many of the people were from the military (Army and Navy). They provided a lot of the support for the science research. Today, the Air National Guard flies the American aircraft, and maintain the aircraft and work in the Meteorological Center (weather) – but other than that, there are few military people here. Today, most of the jobs in McMurdo are filled through a company called Raytheon Polar Services. Believe it or not, there are 8 “support” people for every 1 scientist! That is a HUGE amount of support!

Have you found any fossils?

Yes, there have been some fossils found in the core. But not as many as people would like to see. We have found both microfossils, that you can only see with a microscope, and macrofossils, those that you can see with your bare eye. We also have a whole team of paleontologists ready to work on the fossils as soon as they appear in the core. The fossils tell us a great deal of information about the age of the rocks, as well as the environments represented by the rocks.

Have you seen any avalanches?

No, I haven’t. I hope I don’t – because they can be very scary and dangerous! Fortunately, there are not too many of them around here.

What has the coldest temperature during the time you've been there so far?

The coldest temperature has been around minus 33. The coldest windchill, which includes how cold it “feels” after taking into account the wind, is around minus 50. But this is nothing compared to the south pole, where it has been so cold, that people have not been able to travel in our out!

Are you having a great time at Antarctica?

YES, YES, YES! And I am learning so very much too – and I can’t wait to share it all with you!

Why did you have to ride on a slower plane?

The bigger, faster, more modern plane, the C-17, was broken down for a couple of days. By the time they got it working again, there were lots of people waiting to go down to the ice. So the pilots used 2 aircraft on the same day to fly people to the ice. I just happened to be on the slower plane – but that was fine with me!

Have you ever slipped on the ice?

Yes, I have slipped a little bit. It is very slippery!! It will be especially slippery out in the field area, when I finally get there. But I will be extra careful. And I will have something on the bottom of my boots called stable-icers – to help me get a better footing on the ice.

What is the funnest part about Antarctica?

Truly and honestly, I am having fun all the time! Perhaps the “funnest” part is getting to know all the different members of the ANDRILL team, from all over the world, and to learn about their backgrounds and how they came to be involved in ANDRILL.

What is the most interesting thing you have seen in Antarctica?

The core is the most interesting thing I have seen. It amazes me to bring up rocks from the deep, and to hear people discuss and interpret ancient worlds based on the rocks in the core.

Have you ever been on a big mountain of snow or ice?

I have not had the chance to do too much exploring on this trip. But I certainly did last time I was here, in 1985/86, when I worked in the Central Transantarctic Mountains. They are magnificent mountain peaks made of flat-lying sedimentary rocks.

Is it hard setting up the tent?

No, it is pretty easy to set up a Scott Tent – as long as it is not too windy.
When it gets windy, it’s a whole different story. Scott tents are great – they are just very heavy, so you need lots of people helping out.

What is your favorite food there?

Chocolate. ANY kind of chocolate. (I’ll be my students could have answered that for me!)

What has been your favorite sight so far?

My favorite sight so far has been late at night when the sun gets to its lowest point, and the shadows are long and beautiful. Sometimes you can see the layers of ice reflecting the sun, as in this picture. It is quite a special sight!

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