NAQ (Never Asked Questions) about research life in an Antarctic field camp

This post is about interesting tidbits unique to camp life in the Dry Valleys that I would never have thought to ask, and no one else has asked me either. I have now been back at the main research station, McMurdo, for a couple weeks, processing our samples and experiences. Here are a few thoughts.

 

I should mention that these are by no means universal to field camps even in Antarctica; I was at one particular camp that is supported throughout the season. Field camps can vary widely in their personnel and logistics.

 

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A view of camp walking in from my tent.

Also, as an update to an earlier post in which I said we had fresh vegetables (aka “freshies”): I started hearing rumors those would run out during December. Sure enough, the lettuce even back at the main station has gotten browner and browner for the last few days, to be replaced finally entirely by canned bean salads and steak strips coated in blue cheese.  Even back at the camp, I had started discovering the expiration dates on some of the food was in ancient history – mostly for things that are still good, if a little stale, though, like energy bars. But freshies were already precious enough by Thanksgiving that when apples got peeled to make a pie, we raced to eat the peels.

Mmmmmmm apple peels! This is the cook hut at Lake Hoare camp.
Mmmmmmm apple peels! This is the cook hut at Lake Hoare camp.

How many mummies have you seen so far?
Sometimes during the summer, when the sea ice retreats closer to the land, Weddell seals and Adelie penguins wander up into the dry valleys. Why? No one knows. Are they exhausted and lost? Losers looking for love in a far-off land? Brave adventurers like Sir Robert Scott? Old and looking for a beautiful place to go quietly without being a burden? Obviously I’m personifying them egregiously here. Probably just hungry and disoriented. Skuas, which are aggressive, foraging sea birds, can clean up the penguin carcasses down to their skeletons, but seem only to be able to get the eyes of the tough-skinned seals, so the valley is littered with seal mummies. I say “littered” because I am surprised there is more than one, but they are not really that common. I have seen at least six different seal mummies so far, though, across two different glaciers and their approaches.

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Terrible fisheye GoPro shot of one of the more beat-up seal mummies in the Taylor Valley.

Where do you go to the bathroom?
This is one of the weirdest for me: it feels all wrong to be camping and not allowed to pee on the ground, but this is a sensitive research area and them’s the rules. At camp, there are various forms of contained outhouses for human waste: from the low-tech urine barrels with a funnel at the top to the high-tech Rocket Toilets that burn off the contents. But on top of a glacier or if you don’t feel like hiking from your tent to the toilet, you have the Pee Bottle. For other women who have struggled with funnel systems, I recommend the cheapo version of cutting off the top of a drain cleaner bottle. It’s still a “pull down your pants and expose your rear end to the freezing Antarctic winds” sort of deal, but no spills.

Rocket toilets! In the snow! It may not seem like a big deal for it to snow in Antarctica, but it IS a big deal when it snows in one of the driest places on Earth: the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica, which is where we were camped.
Rocket toilets! In the snow! It may not seem like a big deal for it to snow in Antarctica, but it IS a big deal when it snows in one of the driest places on Earth: the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica, which is where we were camped.

Don’t you suffer from misophonia? Is living in a small camp in the cold hard in that respect?
Yep. My specific triggers are mostly chewing, slurping, dishes or wrappers that mean chewing is about to happen, knuckle cracking, sniffing, and coughing: in other words, everything that happens in the warm cook hut that we spend most of our time in when we’re not in our cold tents or out on the glacier. Last summer, I saw an audiologist and bought some low-end hearing aids to play white noise through to mask trigger noises. I am still getting used to using the hearing aids consistently, but I am always surprised at how much they help.

This is an icicle. INSIDE my tent, not outside. Approx. 3 inches long. It's cold!
This is an icicle. INSIDE my tent, not outside. Approx. 3 inches long. It’s cold!

 

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