At the bottom of the world tonight, about 850 miles from the South Pole, a group of scientists used to the temperate Mediterranean climate of the Central Coast are hopefully staying warm.
As of press time, Team B-030, a collection of scientists with, according to their own description, “a passion for understanding how animals survive in the environments in which they live,” are about a month into their stay, depending on delays.
When the SLO City News reached Cal Poly Biology Professor Heather Liwanag, the team’s principal investigator, on Oct. 9 they were still assembling team members and getting ready to spend 10 weeks focusing their lives around a group of Weddell seal pups.
Liwanag took some of her down time for an e-mail postcard and Q&A from McMurdo Station, the primary U.S. run research base and largest population center on the continent, established in 1956.
“First, let me explain the makeup of our team,” she wrote. “Linnea Pearson, the postdoctoral researcher and co-PI, and I arrived in McMurdo 2.5 weeks ago. The remaining field team members for this year are: Lars Tomanek (professor), Emma Weitzner (graduate student), and Sophie Whoriskey (field veterinarian). They were scheduled to arrive yesterday (which was Monday here), but they have been delayed in Christchurch, New Zealand, because a series of storms here in Antarctica has postponed their flight. Melissa Voisinet (graduate student) is also a member of the team, and she has been supporting our social media efforts. She will join us as the graduate student in the field next year.”
Note: McMurdo is 20 hours ahead of San Luis Obispo on the calendar.
SLOCN: What was the arrival like at McMurdo, much different than expected or did you even have a good idea of what to expect?
Liwanag: This is Linnea [Pearson]’s seventh season at McMurdo, so she did a great job preparing the rest of us for what to expect. It is my first season, and I’m not sure you can anticipate everything; but I feel as if I was well prepared. What impressed me was the high level of logistical support provided by the staff here. In most field situations, the researcher needs to prepare everything herself.
Because this is such a harsh and remote location, providing logistical support on base is key. The support staff outnumber the scientists, and for good reasons! They also provide training with regard to safety on the sea ice and usage of vehicles. It’s quite the community here. That said, the dynamics will change once this next string of flights arrives. Currently, there are about 295 people at the station. After the next four “Mainbody” flights, there will be about 900 people here. So you might get a different perspective on what it’s like to arrive from our other team members.
SLOCN: Any interesting tidbits for readers about the preparation? For instance are travelers still required have appendectomies in advance of the trip?
Note: A seemingly odd question but, in 1961, Dr. Leonid Rogozov the only doctor at a brand new Soviet base there suffered acute appendicitis and was forced to operate on himself. Policies developed to address such issues.
Liwanag: No, travelers to Antarctica are no longer required to have appendectomies. We do go through an extensive medical screening (Physical Qualification, or PQ) process. You are typically not allowed to deploy to Antarctica if you have any untreated medical or dental issues, as medical care in Antarctica is limited. People who break bones here, for instance, have to be sent back to Christchurch, New Zealand, if they need surgery. Depending on recovery time, that can prevent someone from coming back that season.
SLOCN: How does one work in those temperature extremes? Would it be like suiting up for a space walk?
Liwanag: It is probably an exaggeration to say it is like suiting up for a space walk. But it is very similar to the level of effort parents go through to suit up their kids to play in the snow.
We wear several layers of clothing, often topped by our “Big Red” parka, which is government-issued. We are issued several pieces of Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear, including the “Big Red” parka, a set of wind-resistant overalls, snow goggles, a knit hat, a balaclava, a fleece gator neck, heavy gloves or mittens, and thermal boots. We are responsible for our base layers and mid-layers.
SLOCN: Any interesting personal stories so far? Has cabin fever taken hold? A much livelier place than folks back home imagine?
Liwanag: I think for us, the cabin fever comes from bad weather preventing us from going out in the field. This place is like a small town, and as I mentioned the living conditions will feel very different once the station is full of people. The population is about to triple in about a week’s time. So the interesting personal stories may come once the rest of our team has arrived.
SLOCN: As for the reason you’re there. How exactly are you studying the pups’ physiology?
Note: As the Cal Poly crew at home pitched the expedition, the team is there to answer a question that has vexed scientists for decades, “What does it take for a Weddell seal pup to survive and successfully make the transition between two extreme environments — above and below the Antarctic sea ice — in just weeks?”
Liwanag: We drive on the sea ice using a large snow vehicle called a Pisten Bully, which carries our temperature-sensitive equipment, and on snowmobiles. We commute to breeding colonies, where we work with the pups on site and return them to their mothers as soon as we are finished working with them. We have a map of our field sites, Turtle Rock and Hutton Cliffs, on the Education page of our website – icyseals.com/education/.
We essentially drive on the frozen ocean to where the seals live, and head back to town at the end of the day.
SLOCN: Are the seals fine with human visitors then?
Liwanag: This is probably the only species of seal that is not afraid of humans, because Weddell seals do not have land predators. So they are surprisingly tolerant of our presence. Mothers are not concerned when we work with the pups. Because we do not harm the seals, they have not developed a fear of people; and the seals in this population have been studied for nearly 50 years.
SLOCN: So, a different experience than with elephant seals on our stretch of coast?
Liwanag: It is very different from working with elephant seals!
Unlike elephant seals, Weddell seals do not keep harems, because their breeding activity occurs underwater; so we are not working in big groups of seals guarded by males. Instead, we are working with animals that are patchily distributed around breathing holes on a relatively flat surface of sea ice. In Antarctica, most of the dangers come from the environment rather than the animals; with elephant seals in California, it is the other way around.
The weather in Antarctica can change on a dime, so you have to be much more aware of the weather as you work, to avoid being caught in a storm. Working in snow and on ice presents a different set of challenges than working on a sandy beach. When working with elephant seals, the concern is sand getting onto and into your equipment. Here, snow gets on everything. It’s easier to get snow off of things (because it melts!), but the extreme cold makes batteries run out very quickly, and introduces other logistical problems of trying to work and write while wearing many layers of clothing. Basic tasks take about four times longer in the cold, because it’s harder to do anything, especially things that require fine motor skills.
In addition to her regards to the folks back home, Liwanag’s email signature includes her Cal Poly office number, but we’re guessing she left an extended out of office message.
Along with the listed educational website however, Melissa Voisinet, a SLO High School graduate and Cal Poly graduate student team member who’s been cutting her teeth with the local elephant seals, will be facilitating Skype calls from McMurdo to participating schools.
-By Camas Frank