Season 1- My First Summer on Ice
How to read this blog- this story is written for a wide audience. I didn’t want to clog the content with definitions, so I’ve added a glossary that explains Antarctic details along the way. Hover over any vocabulary links in my posts to read the definition without having to actually look through the Glossary page.
Oct. 15, 2008 (*There’s a timestamp bug in this blog. Ignore the dates in the top corner of each entry; I’ll type them correctly here.)
I never imagined I would end up in Antarctica. It seems so out of reach; what sort of people actually get to go there? What do you DO there, how do you live? To me, Antarctica was never really a consideration in my life until it landed on my doorstop, and then I had to decide whether to jump at the opportunity. And I did.
I was 22 years old and working on my master’s degree when I applied for a grant to do fieldwork off the coast of Florida. I love working outside and I wanted to measure the distribution and degradation of a certain class of chemicals called halocarbons in the ocean near the Florida coast. I wrote a large proposal and explained why I wanted to do this research, and listed all of my outdoor skills (former backpacking guide, current Emergency Medical Technician/EMT, etc.) to this paper, explaining why I could handle the work. My proposal was denied, and I thought that was the end of it. A few weeks later I was contacted by the funding committee, who told me they liked my proposal, were very happy with my outdoor experience, and were looking for someone like me to join a research group that would be working on a ship, traveling across the Southern Ocean, and taking samples of sea ice off the coast of Antarctica. They asked me if I would be willing to re-word my proposal to apply to study halocarbons in Antarctica instead of Florida. I said sure, I changed my proposal, and they called me shortly after and told me I’d gotten the job and would be heading to Antarctica in a few months.
That was three months ago, and now I have just a week left before I leave. What have I been doing in the mean time? Planning, packing and cleaning. Lots and lots of cleaning. My research will involve taking over 800 samples of ice and seawater, and the bottles need to be *extremely* clean, so I’ve been hanging out in my lab and cleaning bottles in a multi-hour process that involves cleaning them, rinsing them, cleaning them with acid, rinsing them, and then cleaning them again. It takes 36 hours to clean a bottle (each one has to sit in a rinse tank for 6-12 hours per step) but luckily I can do them in batches of up to 48 bottles at a time, depending on their size, so I’ve been playing loud music in my lab and having a private dance party as I clean hundreds and hundreds of collection bottles.
This is the strange life of a grad student.
One of the main issues with planning a research cruise (a scientific boat trip) is anticipating every problem, every possibility, and, well, anything, in advance. There’s no way to get any extra supplies once we leave, and I don’t even know what it is that I’m going to find when I get there, so I’ve been trying to predict different types of experiments, and any range of supplies needed for them, to have on hand. I can’t exactly hop off the ship and go to the Antarctic Wal-Mart if there’s anything I forgot to pack, so I have to pack extras of anything important that I possibly can. This mainly involves bringing lots of duct tape in case anything breaks, in the hopes that I can fix it with simple supplies. We’ll see how that works, shall we?
The other problem with working in Antarctica is that I haven’t met anyone else who’s been there before, so I have no idea what to pack for myself. There’s not exactly a pamphlet they hand out on ‘So You’re Going to Antarctica…’ and so a lot of my clothing packing has been a bit of guesswork. We are limited to 50lbs of gear per person, so all of my clothes, supplies (shampoo, towel, heavy-duty boots, etc.) and personal lab gear (my laptop) has to fit within that limit. (Our instruments and my 400 bottles don’t count; ‘research gear’ is counted separately.) This really limits the number of personal items you’re able to bring with you, but I have managed to fit my camera, the ‘Planet Earth’ box dvd set, a few books, and a jar of peanut butter in as my few extra items. This was recommended to me by things I’ve read online; past people have said that eating peanut butter helps you feel full when you’re working in extreme cold conditions, and DVD sets help pass the time when you’re not working, since we have no internet, TV, radio, or other forms of entertainment. Oh, and I’ve also packed 100 packets of iced tea powder. I love iced tea.
So what’s going to happen next? In a week I’ll fly to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay in South America. Then I’ll board the icebreaker Oden, where I’ll spend the next two months traveling around the coast of Antarctica and collecting sea ice samples before we land at McMurdo base on the continent to fly home at the end of the summer season. I have no idea what to expect, but I guess I’ll find out very soon…