Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Heindel’

For the past few years, my time in Kangerlussuaq has been very busy and well organized. Last year, in order to measure over 11,000 lichen diameters and collect over 300 soil samples, I maintained a strict schedule, spending full days in the field and taking only one day off per week (in order to shower, download photos, write blogs, and do laundry). After all, when your field sites are so far from home, and your field season is so short, you better make the most of it.

This year, however, since my soil erosion project is wrapping up, I have had minimal field goals. My focus, instead, has been working with the JSEP students, a group of awesome high schoolers from Denmark, Greenland, and the US.

JSEP students roast marshmallows during their camping trip. Working with these high school students has been a highlight of my field season.

JSEP students roast marshmallows during their camping trip. Working with these high school students has been a highlight of my field season.

With my mind not consumed by the frenzy of data collection, I’ve had time to think big. I’ve had time to wonder, ponder, question, plan, dream, devise. Time to imagine the science questions I’d ask if resources were unlimited. I’ve been pondering the difference between north- and south-facing slopes, wondering about the hydrology of such an arid landscape, devising systems to monitor the permafrost. I’ve been dreaming of returning here in the winter to look at snow cover, planning experiments to test how well shrubs can colonize eroded patches.

Big thinking is best done with colleagues. Here Rebecca investigates the soils around Kangerlussuaq, getting to know the dry soils so different from other Arctic systems.

Big thinking is best done with colleagues. Here Rebecca investigates the soils around Kangerlussuaq, getting to know the dry soils so different from other Arctic systems.

Big thinking is very different from the detail-oriented thinking of fieldwork, but it’s just as critical to good science. The creativity required to ask new and interesting questions is a skill often overlooked, rarely taught or discussed. During our fast-paced field seasons, stopping to ponder may seem like a waste of time. Yet how will we devise our next project unless we do? Returning home now, full of new questions and ideas, I’m pledging to always push myself to think big.

I've also had more time to sketch during this field season -- an activity that helps me to think big by forcing me to look at the landscape from new perspectives.

I’ve also had more time to sketch during this field season — an activity that helps me to think big by forcing me to look at the landscape from new perspectives.

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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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