About

Posing with Adelies

I’m Alex Mass, an Environmental Engineering graduate student at the University of Colorado. I’m currently living in the Transantarctic Mountains of Antarctica for my fourth research season on the Ice. (During my first season I worked on an Antarctic Icebreaker, I spent my second season living on the ice sheet of the high Antarctic Plateau, and my third season in a different McMurdo Dry Valleys Transantarctic fieldcamp.) In addition to my research, I do STEM educational outreach both locally and internationally, talking to kids about fieldwork in Antarctica, and this blog was created in order to explain a bit about what life is like on the Ice. I wrote this blog to apply to a broad, general audience, but have provided ‘hoverlinks’ that define the vocabulary terms for kids.

SCIENCE/ RESEARCH FAQ:

What is your research about?
I study the chemical degradation pathways of certain halocarbons and volatile compounds in the ice and snow– I study snow, water, and air chemistry in Antarctic environments. Antarctica has a series of unique ecosystems farther away from anthropogenic sources, so I can study contamination that has traveled to a ‘clean’ environment from other areas of the world. Sunlight, gas exchange, the Antarctic ozone hole, and chemical cycling processes within the ice sheet also all affect volatile chemicals in different ways in this climate. This topic is important in order to get a better understanding of how pollutants travel, change, break down, and affect climate change and air/water quality world-wide.

What did you study in school that helped you work in Antarctica?
I think fieldwork opportunities rely on a mix of 2 things; relevant science education and a good fieldwork background. I did a triple major in Biology, Anthropology, and Environmental Sciences at my university. During that time I did a number of field projects, and in my honors thesis studying riparian ecology I found myself most interested by pollution I found entering the streams from nearby agriculture. I realized I was most interested in harmful compounds in unexpected aquatic environments, which led me to get a masters degree studying environmental toxicology and marine sciences. However, during this time I also worked as a backpacking guide and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), which gave me great hands-on field experience that is beneficial to prepare people for jobs in fieldwork. (Personally I think medical training is a HUGE benefit when applying for any outdoor/ field jobs.)

I never actually thought I’d work in Antarctica. During my Masters degree I wrote a grant to do fieldwork off the coast of Florida, and the research committee spotted my field medicine experience and thought I’d be a good fit for their Antarctic project instead. My first Antarctic project measured chemical degradation in the sea ice surrounding Antarctica in the Southern Ocean (season 1 of this blog, living on an Antarctic Icebreaker). After that first year I fell in love with the continent, applied to labs specializing in my research interest, and my PhD work in environmental engineering includes the same concepts of toxicology, measuring harmful chemicals in the environment, how they got there and how they break down over time. My degrees and research experience all have a strong emphasis in environmental chemistry that I think has helped me in my opportunities so far. Season 2 of this blog chronicles my work studying snowpack-air gas exchanges on the Antarctic High Plateau at Concordia Station, an extremely remote area and one of the coldest places on Earth. Season 3 of this blog follows my work in the Transantarctic mountains and McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica; a relatively snow-free area of the continent with glaciers and seasonal lakes and streams that form during the short snowmelt season. Work in the Dry Valleys is ‘fieldcamp’ based, and I’ll be living out of a tent for three months November 2014- late January 2015¬†for my fourth season as well.

How can I get a job in Antarctica?
I get this question a lot, and because my work is very specifically tailored to my individual PhD, I can’t personally help you get a job here. However, my general advice is that if you want to do scientific research in Antarctica, you should search for university labs that do polar work and apply there- there a large variety of labs so it would be best to find one tailored to your specific interest, which is what I did for my PhD. Most labs use graduate students (MS/PhD students) for fieldwork, but some do hire lab techs with a Bachelor degree; you need to search for these on an individual basis. The Antarctic stations are run by Lockheed Martin, a government subcontractor run out of Littleton, CO. If you’re not a scientist and are looking for support positions you can search their website for job openings for logistical positions (most of which require previous training) like flight operations, etc. Jobs like line cooks and janitors are hired by companies subcontracted by Lockheed, but they’ve changed a few times over the past few years so rather than looking to me for advice it would be better to use Google for the most updated results. Due to the large number of emails I get asking about jobs, my lack of ability to actually hire anyone, and my very limited email access in Antarctica, I’m sorry but I will not reply to emails/ messages asking about jobs in Antarctica. Please understand that I get an overwhelming number of jobs questions and cannot answer everyone on an individual basis. Google is a far better search tool for jobs than I could ever be.

So, to summarize, I can’t tell you how you’ll get a job here. For me, a very strong fieldwork/ independent research experience in college, field medical training, and a research interest relevant to the labs I applied to are how I think I’ve ended up where I am today.

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ANTARCTIC FAQ:

Why is there 24 hours of daylight in Antarctic summer/ why is there no sun in Antarctic winter?
Since I’ve been asked this question a lot, I made a video to explain Antarctic seasons here.

Are there native or ‘regular people’ live in Antarctica? Are there children or schools there?
No. Antarctica has been preserved by the Antarctic Treaty to only support scientific research, and so while there are a number of different countries with research stations on the continent, there are no native people on the continent and no people who live there ‘normally’. Everything in Antarctica is designed for the support of scientific research only.

Are there polar bears in Antarctica?
No. Polar bears only live in the Arctic, and penguins in the Antarctic. (Although there are some penguins as far North as the Galapagos Islands, but not as far North as the Arctic.) In fact, the name “arctic” comes from the greek work arktos, which means bear. It referred to the fact that sailors could see the Ursus Major and Ursus minor (bear) constellations best from above the Arctic Circle, long before most Europeans had ever spotted an actual polar bear there. Because Antarctica is on the opposite side of the planet from the Arctic, it was named Antarctica as in “Anti-Arctic” or the opposite of the Arctic. So the name Antarctica is fitting, because there bears in the Arctic and no bears in Antarctica, although it’s really a coincidence because polar bears hadn’t yet been discovered by most Europeans when these names were determined.

Why is the Arctic called THE Arctic, but Antarctica is not THE Antarctic?
This comes from an old Latin/Greek tradition to give oceans neutral or masculine endings, but give land feminine endings. For instance, America is land and the Atlantic is an ocean. Likewise, the Arctic is an ocean but Antarctica is a continent. Canada, Greenland, Siberia etc. are all areas of land that border the Arctic ocean, and the unifying characteristic of those areas is the ocean they all share. The North Pole is over sea ice in the Arctic ocean. Comparatively, the South Pole is over land and Antarctica was given a feminine name. The ocean surrounding Antarctica where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian ocean all meet and swirl together below the Antarctic Circle (the 66.33’44″ degree S latitude) is called the Southern Ocean.

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  1. Alex, thank you for sharing your fascinating experiences, I came across this by way of your posting on Reddit. You are, it seems, essentially visiting another world, or should that be, forgive the pun, part of our world ‘frozen’ in time. As somebody with an interest in such research, but no scientific background, and with growing concerns for our seemingly ever more fragile foothold on this exotic mass of dust and rock, I find such research both compelling and awesome. Excellent images all round – that close-up photo of the sled track looking at the Concordia Station (season2) grabbed my attention – the fractal-like way the nearest crumbling fissures in the smooth track resemble the wider antarctic landscape makes it a striking image (imho). What gets me is that while human endeavors into space get all the headlines and attention folk like you are busy working away in generally hostile conditions doing such vitally important work and seldom get noticed – may your blog flourish. All the best Ryan.

  2. The Arctic and Antarctic regions of our planet are truly fascinating; thanks for sharing your experiences!

  3. Hi Alex,
    my name is Steffi, currently living in NY and part of a theater project which takes place at McMurdo, Antarctica. We are searching for someone from there, who would be interested in talking about their life and work there (via skype). could you imagine to skype with us and tell us from your experiences? all the best Steffi

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