The University of UtahRedthread Home

Antarctica 2012: Bitter Cold


Our days trapped in the ice were well used. We performed data analysis, we discussed worksite efficiency, and Ken gave a very well received talk about the application of mathematics to sea ice. Similarities in nature often allow mathematical tools developed for one system to become effective tools when applied elsewhere. He discussed how several mathematical models developed in the contexts of composite materials and statistical physics can give insight into sea ice processes as well.

The engineers have repaired our exhaust manifold so our ship is again lurching its way through ice at more than an inch at a time. Unfortunately the ice deteriorated as we moved towards the potential station I mentioned in the last posting. The ice became thinner and thinner with a thicker and thicker layer of snow on top. This caused it to look deceptively thick from a distance, when in reality it was unable to carry our weight. We looked for the better part of a day before finding a floe worthy of mooring to.

Ice station number three was formed from a jumbled collection of floes, just as ice station two was. The thickness is again variable, sometimes within a small area. Our work site on this station had a previously unseen problem.

A few data sites contained gaps in the ice. These were encountered as we drilled through it for thickness measurements. Often we would believe we had reached the bottom of the ice only to find another layer 10 or 20 cm further down. Talk at dinner has suggested these “gap layers” are bad for all the scientists aboard, except perhaps for the krill larvae group.

Bitter cold causes condensation ice on portholes. photo by Christian Sampson

There has been another force of nature pitted against our successful collection of data. In addition to the gap layer, local weather patterns have caused unseasonably cold weather. The bulk of our time spent outside has been in -34 to -35 degree C wind corrected temperatures. This is as reported by our Data In Progress (DIP) display, glowing warmly in the wet lab. For a short while the temperature dropped to -40 degrees C, which if I remember correctly corresponds to about -40 degrees F.

Hands are difficult to keep warm, even with chemical warmers. Having given up hope of them being warm, I hope for my hands to ache and burn in the cold rather than go numb. Numbness is a dangerous state here, and requires prompt action. People are seen performing manual tasks as quickly as possible, hoping to maximize the amount of time hands stay in pockets, or balled up inside gloves. Ken has come down with a case of polar hands.

While not dangerous it appears quite painful. Fortunately the doctor has a good supply of medical grade superglue to correct this problem.

It is extremely difficult to work in the cold. Display screens tend to have problems below about -15 degree C temperatures, and the cold causes batteries to expire well before they otherwise would. I have found it requires awareness and persistence to maintain morale. At least two expeditioners have suffered mild frost nip, a condition that can develop with as little as 10 minutes of exposed skin. With faces now hidden we are slowly learning to identify people by their size, gait, and any unique clothing items they have. The scientific equipment people carry is another incredibly valuable clue to their identity.

We spent one evening working out on the ice. This was the coldest time spent outside thus far, probably affected in part by hunger and exhaustion.

Frost on eyebrows and lashes. Photo by Christian Sampson

At one point I lifted my tinted goggles for a few seconds to see something better in the dark. Upon lowering them I found myself looking at a fractured crystal world, no longer clear due to the ice sheet that had formed inside. I abandoned my goggles, and quickly developed ice in my eyebrows and eyelashes, crystalized from the moisture in my breath. The latter development was very irritating, as my eyelashes remained stuck to one another when I would blink. Removing the ice was a fruitless effort, as it returned almost immediately.

These downsides did have an offset. The sunset that evening was stunning.

Sunset on ice station 3. Photo by David Lubbers

We had the opportunity to see the ship at night. At night she is lit up, a glowing orange beacon to any cold voyagers still out wandering. Never have I seen her look so warm and comforting. When we finally went inside I was not disappointed at the tea, cookies, warm shower, and warm bed waiting within.

The mess hall is warm and inviting.

On the last day of our ice station we had an uninvited guest take a wander through our camp. A seal emerged somewhere from the ice and began wandering from group to group. This seal was not the lazy, nonreactive sunbathing seals I have seen outside of Scott Base. This seal was much more active, lumbering slowly, but at an alarming pace for something so large. It slid on its belly like a penguin when going downhill, and bustled like an inchworm when going uphill.

It seemed very curious at our presence, approaching within 25 feet of us, and about 15 feet of Christian. Its size was obviously intimidating, causing ranks to close and body language to change whenever it approached very close to a group of people. Once completing a circuit around the camp it wandered off. Moments after it left our campsite had returned to the industrious state the seal had found us in. One of the marine biologists aboard believed it was a Crab Eater seal, but this was based only on a description he had been given. I’ll have to show him a photo and have this corrected if his opinion changes.

An uninvited and curious guest wandered through camp.

Forecasts of inclement weather caused us to pull off the ice early in the evening. Shortly afterward we received an update indicating the inclement weather was delayed. With time it became apparent the inclement weather would miss us, and we would see only a small rise in winds. Our ship dropped a Conductance, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) probe out its port side to measure these variables with a change in depth, followed by a Fast Repetition Rate Fluorometer (F.R.R.F.) to study the phytoplankton health in our area.

With these tests completed we are now headed towards our fourth ice station, slowly making our way closer to the continent. Although in transit we are now always busy. We still have emergency musters and other safety briefings to attend. We have to prepare our equipment for the next volley of experiments and look at data we have already taken. People are now frequently seen programming or studying graphs and photos. The ongoing chess and table tennis tournaments have largely been forgotten. Most people have an abundance of data and little time before our next station.

Ken is very busy with the duties of a full professor of mathematics atop those of a field researcher. Email is a curse and a blessing. Christian and I have been spending a lot of time in the cold room. We have been assessing the ice crystal structure found at our past two stations. The crystal structure plays a key role in the electrical properties and fluid permeability of the ice, so it requires careful analysis. The cold room is kept at -25 degrees C, but is a welcome environment due to its lack of wind.

Condensation formation makes it difficult to move equipment into and out of this room. For this reason the photos of crystal structure are not immediately available to us, but I will try to upload one as soon as possible.* Although the photos are beautiful, they disappoint when compared to the vibrant sparkle seen in person.



The moon and stars are brilliant here. It is nice to gaze at them from the upper decks in nice weather, especially knowing warmth is only a few feet away. The moon makes it difficult to view the aurora, which supposedly is now only visible along our northern skyline. Fortunately our departure should coincide with a good time to view the aurora. I welcome the prospect of seeing and trying to photograph it again, even though the photos never really look like the aurora does. It really is a shame.

I do not have grandiose delusions of being the world’s best writer or orator, but I rarely have felt inept at communication. A handful of experiences here have left me in such a state, with a clear memory of an event but little hope of effectively communicating it, my thoughts, and my feelings about it to another. Perhaps with a lifetime of practice I will succeed in expressing the wonder and majesty this world offers, as well as the excitement and trepidation that accompany it. At the moment I suppose I should come to terms with it, just another subtle frustration Antarctica has provided me to offset the power and beauty I have been fortunate enough to see.

*Editor’s note: David sent the ice crystal photos on Fri. Oct. 12 and I have added them to the original post.