Ice Diary 3: Cheer for Team Meteorite

Ice Diary 3

Cheer for Team Meteorite

Ed. note: On March 4, the U.S. McMurdo station said that fifty U.S. workers will be airlifted off Antarctica on a special flight to spare them from spending the winter on the frozen continent. The mission will come a week after U.S. flights to Antarctica ended for months as round-the-clock darkness descended on the continent. If the Americans don’t leave soon, they will have to spend the next six months at an Antarctic base because plunging temperatures make it too risky to fly. The temperature was likely to be down to 22 degrees below zero on the ice.

3 December, 2002

We’re delayed again today from our field deployment, not by weather, but by a medical emergency. Someone coming out of the Dry Valleys experienced an aneurysm and had to be evacuated to New Zealand. This tied up the C-130s and has delayed us until tomorrow.

"What brain, you ask if I’m here, the point could be made it disappeared a long time ago"

There could be much worse places to be stranded than McMurdo. In fact, this has given each of us a chance to see other types of research taking place here and a chance to explore a little.

Some of the most interesting work being done here is the study of the marine biology just below the sea ice. Divers go into this sub-freezing water to study the ecosystems that exist below. One might be inclined to think that little exists below the ice, but actually life is thriving. Some of the animals are represented in the McMurdo aquarium, a room full of holding tanks where these animals are being studied. I was most impressed by the Antarctic cod that were over 3 feet long.

They also had one of the largest sea stars I’ve ever seen. The tanks were full of several other invertebrates, including urchins, chitins, and other mollusks.

After visiting the aquarium, Alan offered to show us the desalination plant. This is an amazing marvel of chemistry and engineering. Prior to 1996, a distillation process produced all of McMurdo’s fresh water. The seawater was heated, and the steam was then condensed and recaptured. This caused water rationing due to its inefficiency. In 1996, they installed a reverse-osmosis filtration system that pumps seawater through a series of filters until fresh water is produced. Alan opened a valve right on the filter to let us taste the water. It was delicious.

The water’s acidity (pH) is adjusted and chlorine is added before the water is sent to the buildings. It is not an inexpensive solution. Each filter costs $250,000. Earlier this year, tetrapods (small marine invertebrates similar to jellyfish) were getting caught in the filters. A screen had to be set up where the water is drawn from the sea to catch the tetrapods before they got into the filters. They seem to have the problem solved and there is plenty of fresh water at McMurdo.

4 December, 2002

Well, our chances of getting out to the field site looked good this morning. We heard the pilots were resting and we would be going soon after. Then the weather took a turn, and our flights were cancelled again. I woke up not feeling my best this morning, and several members of the team have complained of the same sore throat and runny nose. I didn’t think much of it until Jamie and Lynn mentioned I didn’t sound too good at lunch. I decided to check out the McMurdo clinic.

"When their bodies were found the following year, their shipmates collapsed the tent over them and left them in the snow, to be slowly borne to the sea by the motion of the Ross Ice Shelf. "

Jerry Seinfeld says that you’re required to wait when you go to the doctor; that’s why it’s called a "waiting room." But this doctor saw me right away. He said he’s seen many people with the same symptoms. He took one look at my throat and gave me some amazing New Zealand lozenges that not only soothe my throat, but also put my tongue to sleep. When I got back to the dorm, several other members of the team wanted to try them for themselves.

Dr. Dean Eppler shared with me his description of living in the tents and what to expect in the field. The following is an excerpt of one of his e-mails:

"This is the 25th season the ANSMET folks have been in the field down here, and for John Schutt, the mountaineer who’s going to be accompanying my group, it’s the 22nd season. In that time, they’ve come up with a pretty good system for living working in the field that revolves around Scott tents, good sleeping bags, and small backpacking stoves. Scott tents are named after Robert Falcon Scott, who froze to death in one after returning from his first trip to the Pole in the early 1900s. They are large, four-poled tents that are very easily and quickly set up, even in a high wind, and provide a floor space about 10 feet on a side.

We sleep two to a tent (Johnny and I will occupy one and Cady Coleman, an astronaut, and Diane DiMassa, a Mechanical Engineering Professor from University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, will occupy the other). The floor is a rubberized canvas on which we put double closed cell foam. On top of that we set up an additional foam pad and, finally, our sleeping bags. Between the two occupants is an area about 4′ by 10′ on which we set up food boxes, two stoves and all the other accoutrements we drag around in field (extra clothes, extra clothes for the extra clothes, and even extra mittens, gloves and hats). When you get two people in the tent and start a couple of stoves, it’s pretty warm and toasty. All jesting aside, it is certainly the nicest living accommodations I’ve had in many years of climbing, backpacking and camping in the back of my truck.

Since it is light 24 hours a day, the inside of the tent has a nice sunny shade all the time. Sleeping can be a problem, but frankly, if Snowcraft School is any indication, I’m going to be so whipped every day, the bigger problem will be to stay awake long enough to get food and water down my gullet. We store most of our food outside, as well as tools, rock boxes, and anything else not integral to our personal comfort and maintenance.

"The food we eat is a pretty good mix of normal stuff you would buy in any grocery store in the States. We carry a LOT of food …When you’re drinking that much, it goes out not only through the lungs…"

The food we eat is a pretty good mix of normal stuff you would buy in any grocery store in the States. We carry a LOT of food – Johnny and I will be shipping in 300 pounds of food, most of it high in calories, carbs, and fat. To stay warm, we need to ingest, on average, 5,000 to 7,500 calories A DAY. Even at that rate, we will probably not lose weight. In most cases, for me, losing weight would be a good thing, but in this environment, if you-re not getting enough to eat, the body starts to digest itself rather indiscriminately, not only taking it off the fat on my gut, but from muscle tissue in places like the heart and in other places like the nervous system and brain (what brain, you ask if I’m here, the point could be made it disappeared a long time ago ). So we spend a lot of time every day eating.

The other critical thing is to melt enough snow and ice to stay hydrated. With every breath, we dump several quarts of hydrated, heated air out of our lungs. That water goes into the environment, and freezes out on things like face masks, moustaches, and beards, but it’s lost to the body. Blood volume drops, and blood is the body’s primary heat transfer medium. So if you’re not getting enough water you start to have heating problems, with toes and fingers freezing. Johnny tells me we will have to be drinking, on average, four to six liters per day. That means we have to have ice brought in, melted, and stored in bottles almost constantly, as well as drinking things like New Zealand "Kool-Aid" (called Raro), cocoa, tea, etc. Well, when you’re drinking that much, it goes out not only through the lungs but urine as well, so (and I’m sorry if this is gross to some of you) but we keep a "P" bottle in the tent for late night calls of nature.

I’m lucky to tent with Johnny, a mountaineer who has an incredible reputation on several continents this guy is a living legend. He knows how to do this stuff in his sleep, so I will be in good hands as long as I follow what he says — something I’m definitely planning to do. Given the experience of the guy our tents are named after, I’m infinitely luckier. Scott and his three companions died of scurvy and hypothermia less than 30 miles from where I’m now sitting. When their bodies were found the following year, their shipmates collapsed the tent over them and left them in the snow, to be slowly borne to the sea by the motion of the Ross Ice Shelf.

A glaciologist did an estimate of the rate of movement of the ice sheet, and calculated that Scott and his mates were finally carried into the Antarctic Ocean sometime in the last 10 years. Somehow that seems fitting, and it eases my mind after reading about Scott and his expedition. They were, after all, British naval officers, and burial at sea would have been their custom."

Thanks, Dean, for submitting this.

6 December, 2002

The Search Team went in to the field yesterday, and is scheduled to spend all of today on a long snowmobile traverse to their first field camp. They are aiming for Goodwin Nunataks. When the Search team gets camp set up and communication established, they should start sending reports directly from the field.

The four of us still at McMurdo have spent these days completing final packing and checking out communications and weather. Diane has been testing an experimental wind generator that will be taken to the field next week. We have also had time for a bit of sightseeing, photography, and a full-body salute to ANSMET the Antarctic Search for Meteorites.
Give me an A!!
Give me an N!!
Give me an S!!
Give me an M!!
Give me an E!!

Expedition chronicler, Andrew Caldwell.

Since 1976, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET), funded by the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation, has recovered more than 10,000 specimens from meteorite stranding surfaces along the Transantarctic Mountains. Dr. Ralph Harvey and John Schutt are members of each field party, serving as ANSMET continues to be one of the few Antarctic research projects that invites graduate students and senior researchers from other institutions to participate in our field work on a volunteer basis–including the Teacher Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) program. As a multi-agency collaboration, the NSF supports field operations, NASA supports storage curation, distribution and notification of recovered samples, and the Smithsonian provides long term curation facilities for the collection and assist in sample characterization.

In this multi-part Ice Diary series, all commentary are attributed to Andy Caldwell unless otherwise noted, and reprinted by permission as part of his participation in the TEA program.

Related Web Pages

Ice Diary I: Shooting Stars on Ice
Ice Diary 2: Great Scott, A Ghost
Ice Diary 3: Cheer for Team Meteorite
Ice Diary 4: The Hunt Begins
Ice Diary 5: MacAlpine Hills or Bust
Ice Diary 6: Contacting The Mother Pod
Ice Diary 7: Summer Christmas
Ice Diary 8: Where No One Has Gone Before
Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET)
Planetary Materials Curation (NASA/JSC)
Mars Meteorite Compendium (NASA/JSC)
AMLAMP: Antarctic Meteorite Location and Mapping Program (database of where meteorites have been found)
National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs
McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project
Ice Cube of Exotic Microbes
Antarctic Microbes Colonize under Mars-like Conditions
Cryobot (JPL)
Meteorite Repository (JSC) Rock Descriptions
NIPR Meteorite Collection (Japan)