Science on Ice

One of the reasons we are here in Antarctica is because the environment is so extreme. It’s amazing to see how animals survive in these harsh conditions! In a place like this, we have to come up with some creative ideas when it comes to doing science. The equipment we use isn’t really made to work in the extreme cold, so we often have to think fast and come up with innovative ways – sometimes on the spot – to do what would otherwise be standard procedures.

Our fastest way to get around on the sea ice is on snowmobiles. They are my personal favorite if you want to have some fun on a nice day! However, because we are exposed to the wind, we need to wear all of our layers, and we especially need to check that everyone’s face is completely covered. One little area of exposed skin can quickly lead to frost nip (the precursor to frostbite), especially if the wind picks up. If the wind really picks up, riding the snowmobile turns into a rodeo as we try to keep it going some semblance of straight! We need to wear polarized sunglasses or goggles, but fog on them will quickly turn to ice and block our vision. Also, we always have to travel in a group. No one is allowed to travel alone on a snowmobile, even to a place within sight of town. Conditions change so quickly, and if something happens to a single rider there is no one to call on the radio for help. When we travel by snowmobile, we always bring our survival bags in a sled behind the lead vehicle. The trailing vehicles can watch to make sure nothing falls off the sled while we sail over the bumpy snow berms.

We have some specialized equipment to measure metabolic rate, which we can’t take on snowmobiles. It has a lot of really sensitive electronics, which could freeze and possibly stop working in the extreme cold. This is why we have our Pisten Bully! Driving in the Pisten Bully takes 2-3 times as long to get around, but the front and back cabs are heated (most of the time), and it is safe to drive even in Condition 2 weather (high winds and low visibility). So, on days that we perform our metabolic procedures, we bump and chug along in the Pisten Bully. The last day we worked with a 1-week-old pup, the weather turned to Condition 2 on the sea ice, and we had to drive flag-to-flag for a while to get back to station. This means that the visibility was so low that we could just see the next flag on the route, 50 meters (164 feet) away. Looking out the window, all we could see was pure white – a true Antarctic blizzard.

All of us have done field work before, but working in Antarctica has challenged us to come up with creative ways to do our usual science. Under normal field conditions, blood samples need to be placed into a cooler with ice packs to make sure the blood does not degrade. Here, we have to put the blood samples into a cooler with heat packs to make sure they don’t freeze before we get back to the lab! Fluids can instantly freeze in Antarctic conditions, so our veterinarian Sophie keeps the sedatives in their own cooler with heat packs. On some of our really cold days, the sedatives have frozen solid and Sophie has resorted to storing them in her neck warmer to thaw them out. We even had to craft a neoprene “cozy” with heat packs, which we place on top of the IV line to keep the blood from freezing in the needle hub. All of our vacutainers (vacuum-sealed vials for collecting blood) and sampling kits are kept inside the bib of someone’s wind pants, so they are kept warm; the cold air hardens the rubber stoppers and can break the vacuum. Not only are we walking around in our Big Red parkas, but we also have little baby bumps of supplies!

The wind is another force to be reckoned with. You cannot put anything down because the wind might sweep it away; everything has to be kept in a pocket or weighed down with something heavy. A glove will instantly blow away if set down outside, and the duffel bag we use for catching pups flies better than a kite if left unattended. We once had to chase our therm-a-rest (which we use to keep the pups off the ice during procedures) across the ice, and we grabbed it just before it flew into a giant crack with open water! We have to be quick when opening our coolers or tool boxes when getting the items we need, to keep the contents from blowing away. All of our data sheets are attached to clipboards with numerous binder clips, to prevent them from flapping around in the wind. It is especially difficult to work on windy days, and it makes us appreciate the calmer days when we have them. But of course we work through it, and sometimes we end the day covered in a soft layer of snow. The snow works its way into everything (including our hut), just like sand on a windy beach.

Working in these conditions has been challenging but amazingly rewarding. We have learned to be resourceful and inventive, and to “roll with the punches” when the circumstances are less than perfect. This is a useful set of skills we can use when we get home! It takes a certain kind of determination to do science here in Antarctica, and we are so lucky to have a team of determined and creative people on this project.

Written by: Heather Liwanag

Heather Liwanag