Elana Blog #6
December 6, 2013

Saturday was yet another eventful day down here. I spent the morning finishing up writing a report on the environmental monitoring work I did in the Dry Valleys and doing some other paperwork. Ceisha and I then jumped in a jeep and drove over the hill to have lunch with the environmental team at McMurdo. The team were so hospitable, and it was great to get shown around their operations to see what they are doing to minimise McMurdo’s environmental impact.

The Americans have a special waste barn where all their waste comes into and gets sorted for recycling, before being shipped back to the United States. And like Scott Base, even toilet waste solids are sent back. Running a base and flying people to Antarctica obviously has its associate environmental impacts, such as waste generation and carbon emissions. I believe that it’s an inherent responsibilty for all operations down here to think about these impacts and work towards minimising them as much as possible. It is really encouraging to see the strong and collaborative relationship that the New Zealand and American operations have in working together to improve their respective management systems.

Saturday night the whole of Scott Base came together to celebrate Scottish Poet, Robbie Burns, by having a Robbie Burns Night. The dining room was decorated with Scottish motifs, several of the staff wore kilts, Bruce Stevenson the engineer extraordinaire played the bagpipes, and there were humorous speeches to toast to the ‘laddies’ and ‘lassies’. Dinner was traditional Scottish cuisine of cockoleaky soup and haggis. It was a fun night with lots of laughs, whiskey, music, and dancing. A bunch of us went over to McMurdo afterwards to continue the night to listen to some live music and hit the dance floor.

Sunday is normally a day off for people on base. It is a chance to have a wee bit of a sleep in and catch up about the past week’s happenings over brunch. There’s so much to do around here and since the sun never sets, it’s pretty easy to keep working an doing things into the early hours of the morning. Oh and Sunday brunches on Scott Base are pretty legendary; everyone looks forward to them all week. The food that chefs make here is so good that after a few days you really need to start thinking about your portion sizes, and whether you should be eating all the baking and yummies that comes out at every meal.

My Sunday was spent over at McMurdo Base checking out the Crary Laboratory. I am a bit of a science geek, so it was a great opportunity to get to have a look aroudn their research facilities and get an insight into the research being done down here. The Americans have hundreds of different science programmes that they support, many programmes are long term and have been in operation for years. Antarctica truly makes for a perfect research subject and living laboratory due to its unique environment. There are the obvious programmes such as seal and penguins studies, but also programmes looking at Dry Valleys to investigate life on Mars, using the polar winds that circle the continent to fly balloons and understand our atmosphere, and taking advantage of the white landscape to find black fragments of meteorites.

I thought I would pick out a few interesting facts that I learned during my time at Crary Lab to share:

  • The Antarctic Dry Valleys are one of the driest and coolest places on Earth, but amazingly life can actually survive in this inhospitable environment. Cryptoendolithic lichens (whoa, what a mouthful!) are a microbial community that live below the surface of rocks and use the rock’s nutrients to live. Neatto!
  • Waddel Seals are teh most common seals foudn in the Ross Sea region. They feed off the sea ice edge, but come back up onto the sea ice to rest, molt, and have their pups. Waddel Seals don’t die of old age, but they die because their teeth have worn away and they are no longer able to chew holes through the ice.
  • Because of the high salinity of the water around Antarctica, the water temperature is actually around -1.5 degrees Celsius. Surprisingly, people regularly scuba dive under the sea ice in the McMurdo Sound for their research (brrr!). The high oxygen content in seawater causes sea creatures to be abnormally large, a term called gigantisms, and something like an amphipod (sea louse) which is normally around 1cm in size, can be up to 20cm in size (around the size of a human hand).

I also saw the cutest seal lying down by the water’s edge at McMurdo – I love how seals have the most animated face! We also have lots of Minke whales turning up around the area at the moment due to melting sea ice. If you can’t be impressed by Antarctica, I don’t think anywhere will impress you.

~ Elana

Elana Hawke

Elana Hawke

BLAKE Antarctic Ambassador 2013