Posts Tagged ‘McMurdo’

Welcome to Part 2 of our Special Edition Q & A

Thanks to the inquisitive minds of Windsor VT middle school students, we’ve received a whole new supply of Antarctic questions!

1. What does “avoiding skuas training” look like?

Well, unfortunately it probably sounds way more exciting than it actually was! We didn’t get to practice dodging flying objects, nor did we take turns role-playing an angry Skua (although someone should probably suggest these things for next year). Instead, Skua-avoidance was just discussed as part of our “general safety training”, where they basically told us that these birds will attack if they get the sense you are carrying food. So to avoid giving them that sense, we have to make sure we don’t waltz out of the cafeteria so preoccupied with stuffing cookies in our mouths that we’re oblivious to the giant hungry gull soaring towards our heads. (Yes, we’ve actually witnessed this). Skuas seem to really enjoy taking people by surprise, so our best defense is keeping food hidden and one eye to the sky.

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Slightly disappointed that he couldn’t steal our food, this Skua flies off to scrounge elsewhere.

2. Do certain colors mean different things about the plants, such as dying or living?

Great question. Even though it’s a cold dry desert, we see lots of colorful life out here…but most of it is pretty small in size and close to the ground or water. There are no shrubs, trees, leafy or flowering plants, but there are lots of species of mosses, lichens, algae, and bacteria that thrive in these harsh conditions. And these are the types of organisms creating the colorful patches we see near ponds and stream-beds. It’s pretty tricky to tell which are alive or dead because each type has a different set of pigments that give it that unique color. Sometimes these colors can be a little counter-intuitive – where we live in the Northeastern US, we usually see brown, black or orange leaves that die and fall off the tree each fall. But out here there are species that regularly grow with those colors! We see bright orange microbial mats that line the bottom of streams and ponds like a thick carpet. There are dark black leafy mats that look like crusty dead matter, but are actually alive. Some of these organisms grow in very shallow water which makes them extra exposed to sunlight and UV-radiation. This can damaging to them, just like it is to us. So to combat this they make special pigments that act as sunscreen, protecting them from the constant bright light of summer months. And sometimes even the dried and shriveled-up material at the side of streams are actually specially adapted to survive total dryness, so they may come back to life in the presence of water!


Black, red and orange mats lie in a tiny bit of water on the margin of a stream-bed

3. Do different color plants (besides green) have chlorophyll?

This is actually one of the reasons microbial mats are so unique and interesting! The mats we mentioned earlier are built like a sandwich with multiple layers, and each layer contains different kinds of bacteria and pigments. These allow them to maximize their growth even when conditions in the environment change – for example, mats often have protective sunscreen pigments on the top layer (where they’re more exposed to solar radiation), and chlorophyll or other pigments tucked away in the lower layers (more protected from harmful UV radiation). So often when you flip over a bright orange mat, you may actually see bits of green underneath. In fact, some bacteria will actually move up and down within the mat, which may be a way for them to escape intense solar radiation during certain times of year.


A large microbial mat shows off different shades of orange on the side of a small pond

4. How is it able to get sunlight through the ice? And do plants in Antarctica have special adaptations to help them grow?

Yes, ice can definitely reduce the amount of light entering the water. If the ice is thin and clear and the water is shallow enough, organisms with specialized light gathering pigments can still absorb enough to perform photosynthesis. But anything living underwater in Antarctica has to deal with drastic extremes in light (from total darkness in winter and under ice, to ultra high light in shallow ponds in summer). Plus, many water bodies are frozen all the way to the bottom in the winter, freezing these complex underwater structures in place. So to deal with these challenges they have lots of special strategies, such as producing cold-shock and anti-freeze proteins that protect them when the water around them freezes, or using specialized pigments that work extra-efficiently under low-light conditions.


Here at the end of the glacier sits Lake Bonney, which is frozen even on this bright summer day.

5. What is the reason why microbes have certain colors?

The color of microbes is due to the different colored substances inside the cells. Each substance absorbs and reflects different wavelengths of light, and we see the colors reflected. Chlorophyll reflects green light and absorbs the other colors, giving plants their green color. Cyanobacteria are unique because they perform photosynthesis much like plants. These bacteria got their name because they have special pigment called “phycocyanin”, and this gives them that blueish-green color. But bacteria also use pigments for functions other than photosynthesis, like protection against UV or antioxidant activity.

6. Do micro organisms affect the color of the streams? 

Good question –actually any bits of material in the water can affect the stream color as they absorb and reflect light. Often when large amounts of bacteria are healthy and growing they can cause water to look brown or green, although this happens a little less in streams where the water is constantly moving. But in lakes and ponds during the summer this can be dramatic – have you ever seen the water turn green in lakes near you? Because the water is very cold and often nutrient-poor, streams and lakes in Antarctica tend to be pretty clear water. But if you look at the bottoms of water bodies down it’s a different story – that’s where all the colorful mats and microbes hang out.


Long filaments wave like green strands of hair in the shallow water of this Antarctic stream.

7. Why do the microbial leaf mats look like rocks?

Mats come in a wide range of shapes, colors, and sizes. I think some resemble leaves, others definitely look like rocks, there are flat mats that cover the sediment like a big shag carpet, and there are strange tubes that grow vertically like underwater towers. It’s not clear exactly why each of these has such a unique shape and growth pattern, but most likely they all position themselves in a way that maximizes their ability to do things like absorb nutrients and light in their environment. The result is pretty elaborate!


A view of one of many small melt-water ponds in the Miers Valley (can you spot all the orange mats?)


Then, just under the surface of that same pond you get a new perspective – thick mats completely take over, covering the sediments, growing in all dimensions, and creating an underwater microbial city.

8. Do you need a special camera to take underwater pictures?

Yes! I use a GoPro with a waterproof case to take underwater footage. And since the water is very cold, I try to mount the camera onto a long rod so that my whole arm doesn’t go numb in the process!


The GoPro allows me to snap some shots of the underwater life in ponds and streams.

Thanks again to all the excellent questions & stay tuned for Part 3!

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Back at Dartmouth, we have some fellow grad student friends who are currently Graduate Fellows in Dartmouth’s GK-12 Project. This is a great program which funds graduate students to partner with local middle school teachers in the region to gain teaching experience. Through this project, they get to spend time in the classroom, help develop curriculum, and brainstorm creative ways to introduce middle school students to the exciting world of science! So Ruth and I thought it would be fun to dedicate a few blogs to answering questions sent in by these middle school students on what it’s like to work in Antarctica.

 The following questions were sent in by middle school students in Windsor, VT:

  1. What is the distance to Antarctica from Windsor, VT?

It is 9,577 miles from Windsor, VT to McMurdo, Antarctica. This would be like traveling the length of Vermont 61 times! And because it’s such a remote place, it actually takes us multiple days to get from the US to Antarctica. We spend over 30 hours just in the air. And since the conditions are harsh and the environment is very sensitive, we first have to travel to New Zealand to get outfitted with special cold weather clothing and training before we can even step foot on the continent. Ruth and I left the airport in Boston on Dec 28 and arrived in McMurdo Jan 1st!

Here is our route from Boston, MA to McMurdo, Antarctica. Also notice that there’s an 18 hour time difference between here and back home…so we’re always one day ahead of Vermont.

  1. Do you have alarm clocks to keep track of time during the 24 hour daylight?

Definitely…we’d all be pretty lost without clocks or watches out here! It’s a lot harder to keep track of the time of day. But even though there’s constant light, the light does change in subtle ways, taking on different shades and hues and brightness throughout the day. So although we DO sometimes have to do wear our sunglasses at night, the light in the evening is usually a lot dimmer. Also, McMurdo operates 24 hours a day, so there are lots of people living here who work at night and sleep during the day. That’s when you definitely need an alarm clock.

  1. How do you sleep when it is so light?

Well, one thing you notice right away is that it’s easier to stay up late every night! It’s amazing how long your body takes to get tired without darkness. But eventually staying up late catches up with you, and everyone tends to find their own special method for dealing with sleep in the light. People who live here at McMurdo have bedrooms with thick shades that they pull down when they need to sleep. But when Ruth and I are out in the field it gets a little trickier…we usually sleep in orange tents that shine like glowing orbs when laying inside trying to sleep. Ruth likes to lay something over her eyes to help her sleep and I sometimes pull the hood of my sleeping bag over my head to block out the glow. But like anything, eventually your body just gets used to the light and it gets easier to sleep while it’s bright out. It also helps when we’re totally exhausted at the end of a busy day!


Here’s my orange tent in the evening out in the Dry Valleys. We camped right next to a lake called Lake Frixell, and in the background you can see the edge of the large Commonwealth Glacier.

  1. Do you ever need to get soil samples in the winter?


    Ruth collects soil samples with a scoop and places them into a plastic bag to bring back to the lab.

Great question! Getting soils in the winter would be way cool! Not much is known about what soils are like in this time of year, and it would be really interesting to study how the tiny organisms living in these soils are able to survive the harsh winter conditions. But since the soils down here are frozen in the winter, collecting samples during that time would be really tough.

  1. How much snow is there in Antarctica?

There is a lot of snow in Antarctica. Most of the continent is covered by a giant ice sheet that’s more than a mile thick, and this ice is covered with layers of snow. But actually, living in Vermont you get much more snow per winter than here in Antarctica. In fact, Antarctica is a desert and only gets only about 150 mm of precipitation every year, most of which comes down as snow. But unlike Vermont where the snow eventually melts, in Antarctica it’s cold enough that what snow does come down usually sticks around.

We actually do research in a pretty unique area of Antarctica called the Dry Valleys. In this area there’s very little snow on the ground except for the mountain tops. In fact, just last week we got stuck out here for a couple days because of some unusual weather…there was a “snow storm” and snow accumulated on the ground! Of course, it was really only a dusting and you could still see the soil through snow. So in Vermont you probably wouldn’t think twice about something like this, but out here in the Dry Valleys, this was considered a lot precipitation.


Here is the campsite during our “snow storm”!

  1. Do penguins distract you when you work?

Well…there are occasionally Adelie Penguins on the coast around McMurdo, but not nearly as many in other areas of Antarctica. The biggest Adelie Penguin colony is about 20 miles north of where we are. So we occasionally see them out on the ice, but not in large numbers. We do see a lot of seals. They like to haul themselves out of the water and lounge for hours out on the ice. But seal-watching isn’t exactly an action packed activity. Once they are out lounging, they don’t move very much at all. From a distance they sort of look like giant slugs scattered across the ice, occasionally rolling over or stretching, and then right back to lounging.

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Those little black dots out there on the ice are all seals.

But the animal we probably get most distracted by is the Skua. These brown seabirds are scavengers, eating whatever they can, whenever they can. They are powerful, crafty, and hungry. When given the chance, penguin eggs are a favorite delicacy of the Skua. But around McMurdo their favorite spot to hang out is outside the Galley building, where the cafeteria is located. From their perch, they quietly watch and wait for unsuspecting humans to exit the building. Then, they’ll choose their target and swoop down at someone’s head, frightening them into dropping any bags of goodies they’re carrying. And while the person is trying to figure out what just happened, they fly away with their lunch. In fact, when we first arrived at McMurdo, avoiding Skuas was actually part of our training! So although they’re not penguins, we definitely do get distracted by birds.

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This Skua was very curious and followed us for a while we took a hike. Probably hoping we’d drop a granola bar.

Thanks for all the really great questions! Keep ’em coming!

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Southern migration.

After four days of bouncing through airport terminals, Ruth, myself, and the members of the LTER soils team (http://www.mcmlter.org/) have come to our southernmost Antarctic destination at last!

Now, truly seasoned travelers (i.e., polar scientists…and Arctic terns) have come to find such a commute pretty standard fare. Yet for an Antarctic newbie like myself, this level of perpetual motion left me feeling as though we had traveled to the bottom of the earth. Fittingly, we’ve ended up just there. A mere 30+ hours in the air has landed us at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Route Boston to McMurdo

But let’s backup for a moment.

Up until leaving New Zealand, our travels had all been standard commercial airlines. But for NSF funded projects such as the McMurdo LTER in which we’re participating, travel to the field happens on Air National Guard LC-130 cargo planes. So in preparation for this we all spend a day in Christchurch, NZ at the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center), where we are briefed with orientation videos, our computers are security checked, and we are outfitted with our polar gear.


When we arrive at the CDC, we step into a large changing room where two orange duffle bags sit waiting for each person.

Gradually we pull out piece after piece of cold weather clothing. This ranges from giant puffy jackets and white rubber “bunny boots”, to silky long underwear and wool socks. The warehouse here is impressive and fully stocked.

gloves comp


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After all of our gear preparation is finished, Ruth and I take to the streets of Christchurch. Walking downtown it’s immediately evident that the city is still in recovery, even three years after their devastating earthquake. Piles of rubble are fenced off on city blocks, and large open spaces are left where hotels, restaurants, and apartment complexes used to stand.



We walk through the city’s new “shipping container-chic” shopping centers, where fallen buildings have bee replaced by funky colored shipping containers selling street food, clothing, books, and jewelry.

In the evening, we walked to nearby Hagley Park to bring in the New Year. Crowds of people sat in the grass swaying to the sounds of local cover-bands singing Jonny Cash in Kiwi accents. Finally, per New Zealand tradition, we were all enchanted by the Arch Wizard of Canterbury as he casts an explosive (fireworks were involved…) spell on the crowd for coming year.


The Arch Wizard is projected onto a giant screen as he casts his spell.


The next day, we go back to the CDC to don our polar gear, check our bags, and get briefed by the ANG on flight to the ice. It’s a toasty ride for those 8 hours to McMurdo, as we have to wear our big red jackets, snow pants, and bunny boots on the plane.20150101_112747



Soon enough, we feel the plane glide onto the ice and we step out into a blindingly white world. The team has officially arrived in Antarctica.

Photo credit: Ruth Heindel

Stay tuned for updates on the science we are now preparing to do!

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