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12 January, 2003

Q & A

I have been receiving e-mails with some really good questions, and I thought that some of you may also have the same ones. Today's journal will be dedicated to answering them for everyone.

Q: What is the range of temperatures during day?

A: We have been very lucky. Our weather has been quite mild. We haven't really been taking official readings, but I would say that the temperatures have averaged about 25 to 35F for most of my stay. Wind chill brings those numbers down and occasionally we think it approached 40!

Q: What life forms exist in the Dry Valleys?

A: The streams have algae, moss, and bacteria and the sediments near the streams have nematodes (microscopic worm-like creatures) and diatoms. The lakes also have algae, phytoplankton, diatoms, and protozoas. Occasionally a skua flies into the valleys to scrounge for food.

Q: What are the food supplies for the life forms?

A: Algae carries out photosynthesis. Some of the phytoplankton in the lakes are "mixotrophic". In other words they carry out photosynthesis, but also have the ability to consume bacteria. The nematodes consume any food they find in the soils including bacteria and DOC (dissolved organic carbon).

Q: If life can exist in such an inhospitable place, could it exist elsewhere?

A: No one knows the answer to that question, but NASA is involved in several studies here partly for that reason. They are also using logistical data from the science teams here as they plan space expeditions, because there is no resupply in Antarctica either.

Q: What are you doing with the algae?

A: We are here to get samples of whatever algae and moss are growing in the streams. Just a few years ago it was believed that nothing grows here, but the water in the streams brings lots of life. We are surveying where the algae and moss are growing, and then that data is being analyzed in relation to where it was growing before. (in past surveys) We have found black and orange algae this year, but no green. In the past, there was a lot of green. We think that the exceptionally high stream flow last year may have caused a scouring affect that removed the green algae and somehow the orange and black held on. We are guessing that there will be more green algae found in the lakes this year, washed in with the stream water.

Q: Why do you do pebble counts?

A: The pebble count gives a pretty accurate estimate of the size of the rocks in the streambed. Analysis of all the data shows that certain algae tend to grow in specific streambeds. Some streambeds have flat beds and some have very rocky bottoms. Algae seems to like the flatter streambeds the best. Orange algae seems to grow down the center of the beds and black along the edges and even in the wetted zones on the banks.

Q: What do you eat?

A: My journals have described some amazing meals that we have been eating, but here is an average day's menu. Everyone shifts for themselves for breakfast. We have a variety of boxed cereals and hot ones like oatmeal and grits. Milk is a problem. We have dried, evaporated milk that we mix with water, or we have canned evaporated milk. Neither is as good as the milk at home! It's not bad for cooking or in coffee, but I'm not big on it over cereal. We also have bagels and bread for toast which we toast on the stovetop with a camp toaster. If you've never seen one of them, it looks like a flat, round pan that fits over the burner with metal legs that hold the toast upright over the flames of the gas stove. We even have eggs, but we don't usually eat them except on the weekends. All of us drink coffee, but it really takes a long time to make. We heat water in a coffee pot on the stove, but then each cup has to be individually filtered. We have an electric coffee pot, but it uses so much electricity that it's a terrible drain on the solar panels, so we only did it once when the "distinguished visitors" came to camp. Mornings are usually very hectic as two separate teams are packing gear for a day in the field, or for a helo ride to a remote field site. Lunch is something quick and easy that can be packed into a backpack. I usually take gorp, (a high calorie mixture of nuts, raisins, M M's, etc.) beef jerky or beef sticks, energy bars, and chocolate bars, and of course a big Nalgene (plastic) water bottle. Sometimes I take crackers and cheese, or a bagel with peanut butter and jelly. Dinner is a meal that one or more of us usually cook together. We have had steaks, chicken, shrimp, pork roasts, and fish with side dishes like potatoes, green beans, spinach, and corn. We also had a Mexican night with beef burritos and huevos rancheros and an Italian night with lasagna. We've even had brownies, gingerbread and chocolate cake! As you can see, food is not lacking in the Dry Valleys!

Q: What have been my biggest challenges so far?

A: Every day I meet new challenges--a lot of them are physical ones. I have to hike long distances, often up mountainsides, carrying a fifty pound backpack. I'm glad I was walking and working out before coming, but I wish I was in better shape than I am! (maybe younger too: ) It's also a challenge to live without conveniences like running water, showers, flushing toilets, etc. I am also being challenged intellectually--everyday I am learning something new: I learned to start a generator, change a spark plug, run a surveying machine, pack a helicopter safely, walk across ice, recognize safe ice, how to start an ATV, and how to use solar power. I feel that I am testing my limits, but am happy to say that I haven't found my limits yet!

Q: Which is your favorite Antarctic penguin?

A: Right at the moment my favorite penguin is the chinstrap stuffed one that is in my tent! He makes a great pillow and also an eye mask when I can't sleep because it is so bright in my tent. In real life, I think the story of the Emperor penguins is the most interesting. I haven't seen any penguins yet, so I'm crossing my fingers that they will have arrived in McMurdo when I go back there at the end of January.

Q: What is your least favorite thing about Antarctica?

A: Without a doubt, my least favorite thing is the bathroom situation--you may have read in my journal that you have to separate liquid and solid human waste--that basically means you have to go to the bathroom in a "P" bottle with a funnel or in a can with a seat for the solids. It's stinky and icky! Plus it's our job to empty them into bigger containers when they get full to be flown out of the Dry Valleys--not a fun job!

Q: AND while we are back on the bathroom questions, here is another: What do you mean that the Rocket Toilets burn the waste? Does the whole latrine burn up?

A: The rocket toilet is an interesting invention--and one we all really like because we don't have to separate the liquids from the solids into two different buckets. The rocket toilet is like a latrine. When the bowl, which is a large cast iron pot with a toilet seat attached, is half full, the camp manager hangs a black flag on the door so you don't go in it. (There are two rocket toilets.) Then she ignites it using the propane tanks. The propane lights burners under the bowl (like a gas oven) and boils the liquid waste which also cooks the solids--eventually it reduces down to about a pint of white ash which is then scooped out with a large spoon and shipped back to McMurdo. It takes about four to six hours to burn its load and each tank can do fifteen four hour burns. Each rocket toilet has two propane tanks. So do the math: how many days can the two rocket toilets last? Usually one toilet is burned everyday, but if it is a really busy time, with lots of science teams in and out, it could be necessary to burn more often.

Q: Are there fire stations in Antarctica?

A: We don't have one in the Dry Valleys, but every remote station has fire extinguishers. Fire is a problem because everything is very dry and there is very little liquid water. South Pole Station is probably the most dangerous place for fires because the whole station is very flammable, and everything is VERY frozen there. They actually have an emergency station equipped in case the station should burn down while people are wintering over when planes can not get in to help them out. People could move into the emergency shelter and at least survive--but not very comfortably. At F6 where I am living, we also have a large emergency cache in a wooden crate set far away from the hut. It has food, sleeping bags, extra clothes and tents that we, too, could survive until a rescue team could get us out. Helicopters always carry emergency kits when letting us off in remote areas. The big red bags have tents, food, extra socks and hats, sleeping bags and even books to read. It's enough to survive for three days--hopefully until you could be rescued. In McMurdo, there is a fire station and fire engines, just like in Naperville. There are lots of firemen and women who volunteer to work here for the season.

Q: What has been the worst problem, or complications, your team has faced?

A: Our worst complication is that sometimes the markers where we do our surveying from are very hard to find. If we can't find them, we can't take the samples or do the work we need to do. Today we had to walk over four miles and spent about three hours hunting for them. They are little tiny bolts in a big rock--but there are literally millions of rocks that all look alike. It's like hunting for a needle in a haystack. Some are marked with a stack of rocks called a rock cairn. THOSE I like because I'm pretty good at spotting them--they are more like hunting for Easter eggs!

Our team hasn't had too many problems. Our biggest right now is that we have taken about 400 samples and almost all of them have to be filtered. The samples have so much sediment in them that each sample takes about forty-five minutes--do the math--we'll be here until NEXT year at that rate! That's a big problem, but Jen made amazing headway on them this weekend.

The lake coring team is having bigger problems. They dropped both of their coring instruments through the ice. It's been quite a story--check out the TEA website with Mary Ann DeMello's journals to hear that story.

Q: What's your biggest fear?

A: Without a doubt, I am most afraid of falling through the ice. So far (knock on wood!) I am the only one of my team who has not gone through, but just a few days ago a circle about twenty feet in circumference started to crack and bend under me--luckily I was able to hurry off of it and jump to shore. A couple of seasons ago, one scientist fell through and went in over his head. He pushed off the bottom and didn't come up through the hole that he broke through. He had to break a new one! THAT would freak me out. Don't worry though--I'm a chicken and stay far away from anything that looks suspicious!

Q: What is your favorite part of the trip?

A: My favorite thing about this trip is learning about the science that is going on here, meeting some great people, and seeing and experiencing one of the most beautiful places on earth. I also love being able to share the experience through my journals and hear from people like you! It's been an awesome adventure! Keep reading the journals and keep e-mailing me your questions.

1. A camp toaster with bagels for breakfast.

2. This is the backside of the shower house which

faces Anderson Stream at Lake Hoare. You can see the Canada Glacier beyond its front side.

3. A view inside the shower house. It is so much

like a sauna that as soon as I opened the door to take the picture, my camera fogged up. You can see the preway (stove) in the far right corner. The bag hanging from the ceiling on the right is the solar shower. The buckets on the left hold the clean water for washing your hair.

4. This picture has nothing to do with the journal,

but I think it is pretty interesting. It is a cryoconite hole. When dirt or stones fall onto the glacier their darker surfaces absorb more solar radiation than the ice surrounding them, causing a hole to melt. (Thanks, Pete, for the use of your picture.)

5. This is another view of the cryoconite hole with a close-up of algae growing in it! (Thanks, Jen, for the use of your picture.)

6. Another random picture - the shadow of our helo on

the valley floor.

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