IceBite Blog: Living in a Freezer


Science in kitchen tent: Alfonso Davila, testing his samples to determine what types of salts are present, adds some science to the dining table mix!
Credit: Jen Heldmann

NASA’s IceBite project will spend three austral summers in Antarctica testing ice-penetrating drills for a future mission to Mars. A team of seven scientists recently returned from the first field season, installing scientific probes in the ice and frozen ground, and scouting for sites where the drills will be tested the following year. One of the team members, Margarita Marinova, wrote a blog of the team’s activities. In this installment, she writes about the difficulties of daily life faced by Antarctic field researchers.

Dec. 10, 2009. Daily Life in Antarctica

I’ve written a lot about working in Antarctica, but what about living there?

Practically everything is different from our daily routines at home. In some respects that’s nice (no bed to make in the morning :), while others are challenging.

My alarm is set for 7:30 am. With waking up comes the dreaded thought: “Do I really have to get out of my warm sleeping bag into the freezing cold tent? And then change?!” We have very warm sleeping bags, so sleeping at night is very comfortable. But in the morning somehow you need to change into your clothes for the day. By now I have almost perfected the art of changing inside my sleeping bag (which is rather exhausting). There are no showers on site (and anyway, showering at -15°C – basically your freezer! – would not be my first choice…), so we use Wet Wipes to keep clean. The bathroom facilities are an unheated tent with a bucket. Your choice in the morning is using the pee bottle we always carry around, or braving it to the bathroom tent.

In the Dry Valleys we are not allowed to contaminate the environment in any way: no solid or liquid wastes at all can be deposited on the ground. This is why we all have pee bottles, and a big drum where all liquid waste goes. Breakfast is great! We have a great variety of foods, and the toaster contraption for the propane stove works amazingly well. The kitchen and work tents have heaters. For the work tent this is a must since a lot of electronic equipment (including laptops) is rather unhappy being chilled down to -15°C. The kitchen tent is heated while we are in it, and at night (and sometimes during the day while we are out working) everything freezes solid. The water that we brought from McMurdo we keep in coolers, trying to keep it from freezing. We are using about 6 liters (1.5 gallons) of water per person per day. That is the amount of water a shower uses in about 30 seconds! It is an everyday reminder of how much more frugal we can be with the use of natural resources in our lives.

During breakfast we talk about the day’s goals and determine what everyone will be doing during the day. Usually we work in groups of two, both because it makes work more enjoyable and because it’s much safer. Because University Valley is rather small – about 0.8 km by 2 km (0.5 miles by 1.3 miles), we come back to camp for lunch. Food is the fuel your body uses to keep warm, so it’s really important to eat well. Liquids are like the lubricant for your body, so staying well hydrated – especially in this super dry air – is also very important.

Alfonso Davila (l), Denis Lacelle and Chris McKay (r) perform improvised field surgery on a sampling drill to extract a chipped tooth. The procedure lasted more than an hour but was ultimately successful.
Credit: Jen Heldmann

Evenings are my favorite time. It’s wonderful looking back on the day to see what we accomplished. And all of this over a great meal. Food has never tasted as good as it does here. We are lucky that everyone on the team is great at cooking, but also after a day of hard work in the cold every cell in your body is desperate for energy. It makes the food heavenly. And we always have good desert too :). Food is cooked on a two-burner propane stove. Instead of washing dishes we wipe them clean with towels – part of saving our precious water. No food is ever thrown out – the leftovers from dinner are incorporated into the next day’s lunch. No fridge is needed since everything freezes solid during the night.

But having dinner is just the start of the night. During and after dinner, we spend hours talking about science. We talk about the day’s accomplishments, the observations we made. Because of the wide variety of expertise on the team, sharing observations means we can get everyone’s perspective on what we have found. I am still amazed how many new research ideas we have already come up with during our week in the field! After dinner is also when we make the plan for the next day.

With time, the conversation shifts to numerous other topics: the future of space flight, exploring the planets, history of science and exploration, current news and events. The conversation is always fascinating, and only the thought of having to get up early the next day can convince us to go to bed.

Two aspects that permeate everything we do in Antarctica are mitigating risk and the weather. Risk and the potential to get hurt are everywhere: whether you are at home in a city or out in the field in the middle of nowhere. But at home if you get hurt, an ambulance would be at your door in a few minutes, and state of the art medical equipment in a hospital would be working to fix any injuries in no time. When we are in the field, it would take at least two hours (roundtrip time from McMurdo to our field site) before we could get medical help. And that assumes the weather is good and that the helicopter can land where the hurt person is.

Just the way we take risks at home, everyone knows that there are risks in exploration. There are always risks when we push the limits of what we know or what we can do. Just as airplane test pilots know the risks, so do all explorers: astronauts, Antarctic field scientists, deep submarine divers, and so on. Risk cannot be taken out of any situation. But being far away from medical help reminds us to take only meaningful risks.

Margarita Marinova (l) serves a slice of pie to Jen Heldmann at the conclusion of the IceBite team’s Thanksgiving “feast.”
Credit: Dale Andersen

In the field we are also always at the whim of the weather. If the weather is bad, nothing can fly, and everyone stays put. To that end, at camp we had to have a week worth of rations stacked away, in case our ride home was delayed due to bad weather. As an example, while we were in McMurdo, even though the sky was blue and there were no winds, for three days a thin layer of fog hung on the ice (where the planes land) and no one could go in or out of town.

During snow school we do a “whiteout” scenario, where they put buckets on our heads to simulate whiteout conditions. We have to figure out how to find someone who has gone missing – in zero visibility. Certainly 10 people walking around with buckets on their heads is humorous, but Antarctic weather is known for changing incredibly quickly. And even small pockets of bad conditions can develop and make for dangerous situations. At the beginning of our trip Chris, Jen, Denis and I decided to drive over to New Zealand’s research facility, Scott Base, just 3 miles away from McMurdo. The weather in McMurdo was generally good. But half way to Scott Base we were suddenly in complete whiteout conditions. With a cliff on one side.

The least dangerous thing to do in a situation like that is to stay put. We had our big, warm jackets on and could have waited all night if we needed to. After waiting for 10 minutes with no change in conditions, though, two of us decided to go out and see if we could see better from outside the car. The visibility was marginally better this way – just enough that we could mostly see the edge of the road. With the two of us walking in front of the car, we slowly moved forward. About 20 meters later, the visibility suddenly increased. Scott Base was only about a mile further.