This is the 37th entry in the Armed with Science series, Dispatches from Antarctica. The series features Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan’s first-hand experiences on OPERATION: DEEP FREEZE, the Defense Department’s support of National Science Foundation research in Antarctica.
In our effort to engage students and teachers, we asked students in Ms. Vogt’s class at Arnold Elementary School in Arnold, MD, to submit their top questions about life in Antarctica. As you probably guessed, bugs, penguins, and food were on their minds.
Stayed tuned for two more question and answer series from elementary and high school students at the Department of Defense Education Activity. Please feel free to let us know what you think in the comment section. Off we go!
1. How did you prepare for your trip to Antarctica?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: The first thing I did to prepare was complete Arctic survival training. Even though I worked in Antarctica, surviving in the Arctic had many similarities.
I did this training in Greenland in 1992. It was known as barren land Arctic Survival Training because there are no trees and few if any animals in Antarctica to help with survival. In that training, we learned how to fashion living quarters out of the snow and ice. We also learned about hydration and not overheating by working too hard because that might lead to sweating underneath the heavy gear and later hypothermia.
In order to specifically get ready for Antarctica, however, I was left to my own devices. For that, I talked to people who had been there many times before. I asked them what they recommended I bring to supplement the basic cold weather gear issued by the government.
Most people discussed having a good water bottle that I could refill and wash easily. They mentioned sunscreen, yes even in a cold place the sun can burn any exposed skin like face and neck. They also recommended I bring lip balm and skin moisturizer for the extremely dry air. Some were able to suggest particular brands of long underwear and glove and sock liners that are designed for extreme cold regions like this. Again, the key is to wick away excess moisture from the skin, while maintaining warmth.
2. What do you eat?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: These days, both the food and accommodations are quite good. There’s a PhD nutritionist in charge of food service at McMurdo. Fresh meals are cooked every day. There are always dishes with meat of some kind, plus vegetarian style dishes for those who do not eat meat. When the C-17s are flying frequently, to and from New Zealand, then we tend to have more fresh eggs and vegetables, called “freshies”. When there are longer times between flights, then we may eat egg mix or frozen or canned produce.
Here is a video all about the cuisine we enjoy in Antarctica courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Jabs, Culinary Manager for all of US Antarctic Program:
3. How do you travel in Antarctica? Is it a place where people could live?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Excellent question. We travel by airplane, helicopter, and overland using a variety of tracked and wheeled vehicles. In the old days, people traveled by dog-sled, and occasionally by horse, but that practice has been banned in Antarctica due to the risk of dogs and animals carrying diseases that might spread to local species.
To give you a sense of the travel conditions, here is a video of an inbound flight to Antarctica as viewed from several different people with different perspectives:
People do live in Antarctica at the various science stations and remote outposts scattered about. However, these people require outside support. Food and fuel from other places must be brought in to support them. These supplies are brought in via airplane, tractor, overland traverse and other methods.
There are some expeditions who attempt “unsupported” crossings of the continent, meaning they will carry all their supplies with them and not require outside help. However, these are very difficult treks and can result in calls for emergency help when they fail.
Check out this video I made about the living conditions at McMurdo:
4. Are there bugs in Antarctica? How do they survive?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: That is a loaded question and took me a long time to ponder. I think you probably mean garden variety bugs like flies, mosquitoes, bees, and spiders. The answer to that is no. Although some bugs will accidentally stow away on an airplane, once they hit the sub zero temperatures of Antarctic air, they usually perish. If that doesn’t do them in, then the lack of food, lack of mates, and poor conditions for reproduction will eventually wipe them out. Taken another way, though, there are many “bugs” in Antarctica.
Paleontologically and Archeologically speaking: scientists have recently unearthed evidence, 45 million-year old turtle bones actually, that suggest the coldest continent was once a tropical rain forest with many species of bugs. According to scientists working in Seymour Island, Antarctica was once connected to New Guinea and Australia. During the Eocene Epoch, roughly 50 million years ago, the combined continent known as Gondwanaland, supported a tropical rain forest. Given the diversity of life found in such a climate, it is reasonable to expect that there might be ancient bug remains scattered throughout Antarctica. Maybe someone in your class will be among the first scientists to find proof.
1st Lt Languuth, Flight Nurse at McMurdo Station: The seasonal cold at McMurdo Station is lovingly referred to as “The Crud.” Annually, as the population grows on station, the amount of cases seen at the clinic increases, both because of the number of people exposed as well as the close living quarters and multiple common areas, including the galley. Other diseases or infectious processes are magnified by these conditions as well. So yes, some “bugs” are alive and well here.
Here’s a quick video tour of the McMurdo Station medical facilities to see how we treat these “bugs”:
5. Penguins…are they friendly? Seen any eaten by leopard seals?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Of course penguins are friendly—to each other. But they can also be rather cantankerous and territorial too. Per international conventions and rules, none of us are permitted to approach penguins or other animals for any reason. Only specifically authorized scientists can do that in the interest of scientific research.
So I offer this excellent site all about penguins in Antarctica. It has downloads for teachers and students, stories, pictures, videos, and places to send postcards. It is www.PenguinScience.com. And if I happen to see a penguin chased and/or eaten by a Leopard Seal, I will film it and post it on this website. To the best of my knowledge, there are no vegetarian Leopard Seals, so penguins look out!
Below, I’ve posted a never-before-seen glimpse into the penguin world, courtesy of the Jean Pennycook, National Science Foundation. That’s right — you are the first ones to see this!
For more penguin feeding and nesting footage, check out my previous blog post, Advancing STEM Education through Penguin Research.
6. Have you had any encounters with dangerous animals?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Although in past seasons, I’ve seen Orcas in the waters around McMurdo Station, I’ve had no direct encounters with them. Whether or not they are “dangerous” is a matter of perspective and opinion.
Certainly they are capable of eating a human, so I would prefer to watch them from a distance. Leopard seals are dangerous to penguins and from a small fish perspective, lots of animals might be dangerous. Species such as Polar Bears, Musk Oxen, Arctic Fox are all found in the Arctic and not Antarctica.
I think the only universally dangerous species in Antarctica, and after watching Happy Feet my daughter might agree, is humans.
7. Based on your data, what is happening with global warming? What are you studying?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: As part of the military here, my role is to support the scientists in their work. We provide airplanes and ships to help move people, fuel, and cargo to support scientific research. So while I don’t have a particular science project of my own, like you, I enjoy hearing about the work of the men and women here that we support. For more on recent findings related to global warming, I’d recommend visiting the National Science Foundation’s website.
In the meantime, below I’ve posted a video interview with Dr. Terry Deshler, a scientist who is trying to better understand how pollutants contribute to the ozone hole. For 25 years, he and his teams have chased, tracked, plotted, observed, measured, and outmaneuvered the annual ozone hole over Antarctica.