University of Southern California

Rounding the Home Stretch

Deneb Karentz, January 27, evening — I don’t think that anyone wants to think about leaving, but it is time for the participants to start preparing to go home. The return flight to Christchurch will leave in a few days, and there is still much work to be done.

Our experiments so far have included taking samples through ice holes, collecting planktonic organisms with fine mesh nets, profiling light and temperature in the water column with electronic sensors, drilling ice cores to look for life in improbable places (and finding it there), and applying a variety of molecular techniques to study the physiology and diversity of organisms that live and thrive in the coldest environment on earth.

sampling.JPGAn introduction to Antarctic fieldwork is a key component of the intended training provided by the course, and taking samples in a cold, windy, icy environment is not a trivial undertaking. How do you collect organisms through five feet of snow covering more than 10 feet of ice floating over 1,800 feet of ocean, when the cells you want to study are at the very bottom of the ice layer? Our participants found out that this is possible, but requires a great deal of logistics, an immense amount of time and even more muscle power.

My rule of thumb for Antarctica is: Determine how long you think it might take to do something, and then multiply that by five. In order to collect ice or seawater samples, we must first learn how to drive and maintain a snowmobile; take courses in cold weather and helicopter safety; practice deciding where to walk and work on the sea ice; and get training in how to operate a variety of field equipment and instruments.

In addition, we are always faced with surprises and delays. How do you manage to deploy an instrument through a hole drilled in the sea ice, when it is occupied by a fat Weddell seal who views your sample hole as a convenient place to catch a breath of air? How do you transport 14 people plus field gear to the snowmobile staging area on the Ross Ice Shelf in one pickup truck? What happens to your schedule when helicopter flights are canceled because of high winds and poor visibility?

As the time to leave gets close, we have a long “to do” list. Students and instructors are rushing to collect final time points on experiments and to analyze data for the mini-symposium that present the research conducted over the past few weeks.

We also have the not-so-glamorous task of clean-up. Everything we have used needs to be returned to the stockroom; waste chemicals need to be labeled for disposal; lab benches must be washed; and the large seawater tanks in the aquarium room that have been housing fish, urchins, sea stars, scallops and a variety of other marine life need to be emptied and cleaned. Animals will be returned to McMurdo Sound, and the tanks will be scrubbed clean for the next round of scientists who will arrive in August.

I have mixed emotions about leaving. The challenges of working in the Antarctic are many and occasionally insurmountable, but the team will go home next week with a large sense of accomplishment, the feeling that they have truly done something special, and the sense that their lives are forever changed by this brief experience at the end of the world.

Deneb Karentz is professor of biology at the University of San Francisco.