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Jon’s Antarctic Expedition
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by Jon Robinson | 2006

Our own Jon Robinson describes his work on a scientific venture in Antarctica.

Hello from Antarctica.  I arrived at McMurdo Station, Antarctica on October 31, to serve as the volunteer photographer for a seal study, funded by the National Science Foundation, and staffed by the Smithsonian.  It is springtime in Antarctica, but it is still cold.  In preparation for the flight from Christ Church, New Zealand to McMurdo Station, we had to wear our “extreme weather clothing” in case the plane, an Air Force C17, crashed, although the crew cheerily pointed out that the ocean was so cold, that, should we have to make a water landing, we wouldn’t need our underseat flotation devices for very long.  Most of the airplane was filled with cargo, with only one “pallet” of seats installed.  My eventual destination was a field camp at Hutton Cliffs, about 12 miles as the skua* flies from McMurdo Station.

However, before being allowed to go on the ice, I had to take two courses: Snow Craft I (a.k.a. Happy Camper School) and Ice Safety.  For Snow Craft I, we listened to a short lecture and then piled into a bus with large balloon wheels to our camp site.  There, we set up a camp that consisted of two Scott tents, three mountain tents, a quanzee (a pile of snow that is packed down and then hollowed out like an igloo), and several trenches about 3 feet deep with a 4 or 5 foot cold well at one end.  The warmth of the trenches is typically increased by cutting snow blocks and sliding them over the opening after you have laid your sleeping bag on the bottom. We were lucky that the temperature of -17 C (1.4 F) was much warmer than it had been earlier in the year.  I slept in one of the Scott tents, which is supposed to be warmer than the mountain tents and not as claustrophobic as the quanzee or the snow trench.  I was a little cold that night and, just about the time I had gotten warm, I had to make a visit to the ultra air-conditioned outhouse.  I never got warm again that night.  In the morning, the walls of the tent were lined with frost, and my water bottle, which had been outside my sleeping bag by my head, was frozen solid. 

The ice training was less stressful.  It involved going out in a Hagglund snow vehicle to cracks in the ice sheet, and drilling down to the water at various places along a transect that went from one ice sheet to the next, through the refrozen water that filled up the crack.  Finally, on Tuesday, November 7, I was able to take a snowmobile ride out to our camp. 

The first two days were quite warm by Antarctic standards, and, with no wind, were quite enjoyable.  I slept the first two nights in a Scott tent.  I had learned my lesson at Happy Camper School and layered up before crawling into my sleeping bag.  I was quite warm enough at night, but getting up and dressed in the morning would have been more pleasant if it had been a little warmer.  Since then I have moved into a heated bunk cabin made from an ice fishing hut, and sleeping and dressing in the morning have been much more comfortable.  The wind has picked up significantly, creating a situation where any exposed skin can be frostbitten in 3 minutes.  Also, exposed skin must be covered with heavy duty sun screen, since the ozone hole means there is no protection from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. 

Our camp is powered by a solar panel with a hut full of batteries, propane for cooking and heating in two of the huts (sleeping and cooking), diesel fuel for heating the lab hut, and two-cycle oil-gas mixture for the snowmobiles.  The camp had a small wind turbine before I arrived, but it was taken down  because it made a lot of noise. The noise disrupted people’s sleep, and it could be heard all the way to the seal colony.  Also, the turbine didn’t generate much electricity, as the winds are typically stronger than those for which it was designed.  This time of year, the solar cells and battery pack work well because the sun never sets.

I’ve taken many hundreds of photographs since arriving in Antarctica, some of which should be showing up on the Smithsonian’s website by the time you read this. The website also explains the science experiments being carried out.


* The skua is a large, seagull-type bird that needs to scavenge dead meat before the meat freezes, which means that frequently the skua’s food is not quite dead before the skua starts pecking away at it.  This behavior has not made the skua a popular animal with those who like to see nature as peaceful and idyllic.


Jon Robinson is Wildlife Chair for the Maryland Chapter.

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