University of Southern California

Six Feet Under, on Purpose

Wes Dowd, January 15, early morning — The allure of Antarctica for a biologist is simple and compelling: Life here exists under extreme conditions and has been isolated in many ways from the rest of the planet for millions of years.

The reality of Antarctica is that the science has to take a back seat to safety and survival. There are 38 of us here on “the ice” as part of a course on the biology of Antarctic organisms, but what we are really getting is a quick schooling in just how challenging it is to live and to get anything scientific done in this extremely harsh and breathtakingly beautiful environment.

Much of our first week has been occupied with training of various kinds: how to start and operate a snowmobile at -60F, how to avoid frostbite and other cold injuries, handling radio communications, learning helicopter safety, etc. Even a simple recreational hike within a mile of McMurdo can quickly develop into a life-threatening situation, because the weather is fickle and the terrain treacherous.

In this vein, the assistant instructors in the group spent the past two days in “snow school,” which, like everything else in McMurdo, has an official name (Snowcraft I) and either an acronym or a nickname (in this case, “happy camper”). The point of this training is to introduce the instructors to skills that will help them identify risks in the field and cope with emergencies.

Geared out in our ECW (extreme cold weather clothing), we drove out the ice road to an empty patch of the Ross ice shelf. After some quick instruction on how to operate and repair camp stoves and some of our other gear, we set out to make camp for a party of 16. This is not a simple process; even deciding the orientation of the tents is tricky. Where do you make camp? Is the ice thick enough (in this case, we were standing on a foot of loose snow, about 200 feet of ice, and hundreds of feet of ocean water below that — try wrapping your head around that one)? What are the prevailing winds? From which direction will a storm approach? Do we have radio contact from this location?

Okay, now we’ll spend two hours sawing out 1' x 1' x 2' blocks of hardened snow to make a snow wall to block the wind, then an hour setting up all the tents and readying them for the 40-knot winds that could roll in overnight, then an hour or two digging our kitchen and boiling snow to make drinking water and hot water to rehydrate (“cook” would be too generous a word) our dried chicken teriyaki noodles for dinner.

In the meantime, we’ll battle dehydration (this is a desert, after all), cold and wind, and group dynamics.

With all this manual labor, who has time for science?

Not one to pass up the full Antarctic experience, I opted to dig myself a survival trench to simulate life without a shelter. While the concept is simple (dig a hole to get out of the wind and cold), the execution is a bit tricky. I spent a sweaty hour digging my trench, measuring it, devising a roof out of a banana sled covered with a foot of snow, and modifying the depth and volume of the cave I was carving below the ice surface. When I was done, I had created a cozy bedroom six feet down into the ice shelf, with just enough room to lay out my sleeping bag, stash my gear and food, and wiggle awkwardly out of my enormous bunny boots. When I settled in for the night, I was overwhelmed by the complete feeling of isolation, despite the 15 souls camping within 50 yards. The light penetrating the ice sheet takes on a spectacular bluish tint that is impossible to capture on film. The silence was profound. I slept deeply and comfortably, woke up before the rest of our crew to boil water, and started planning new additions to my snow cave.

That’s me if you look carefully, peeking out of my cave.

wes peeking out.jpg

Our snow school took place in midsummer, on a day when air temperature rose above the freezing point and the minimum wind chill was a balmy +13F (temperatures are just as often negative as they are positive here, so + or - is always specified). A real emergency probably would not occur in such forgiving conditions.

Does wearing a white bucket on your head really prepare you for whiteout conditions? Could I perform all of these tasks in gusty winds and temperatures 50 to 100 degrees colder than most people have ever experienced, and with the added responsibility of caring for a sick or injured team member? Hopefully, we will never know, but I take comfort in the fact that decades of cumulative experience and planning influence every aspect of our time here.

Now it’s time to learn something about the biology.

Wes Dowd is a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station.

6 Comments

Reading the blogs has been the highlight of each day for me. What a surprise to find my son's there. Keep up the good work and hopefully you'll get to do some biology soon. Say hello to the penguins for me!!!
After a year in a tent in the wilds of Kenya, a night in a snow cave must have been a piece of cake! These daily blogs from all involved make great reading for those of us who will most likely never have the opportunity to experience anything quite like it. Thanks for sharing the adventure!
Wes, I loved reading your blog and it was definitely an eye opener. Great picture of you looking out of your snow cave and now you can get to work "to do" some biology. Keep sending the wonderful pictures of the penguins.
Really interesting stuff, Wes! Lindsay pointed me to the blog entry and I found myself surprisingly engrossed. It really seems like you're making the most of the opportunity. Very jealous of the ice cave! I hope I get the chance to hear more from the Great White Beyond.
After reading your blog, I've read all the others and I'll be eagerly waiting for more entries. The excitement and adventure you are having is coming through in everyone's entries. Your survival trench was impressive (great photo Wes)!
Hello from your sister's math 7 class! They love the pictures and all of the blogs. Keep writing and keeping us posted. They especially love all of the penguin pictures. They also say "Congrats on the half marathon!"... Way to show me up! Some of them are very excited about going to Antarctica one day... maybe even with you!