Educator program A
Antarctica: a Primer for Teachers

Introduction to the Continent
     McMurdo Station
     Palmer Station
     Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
Getting Around
Safety on the Ice
Science on the Ice

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, iciest continent on Earth. It's a huge landmass surrounding Earth's South Pole and covered by ice sometimes nearly three miles thick, which makes it, on average, Earth's highest continent.

It's bigger than the United States and Mexico combined, but each year, only a few thousand people visit the continent, and no one lives here permanently. Though almost entirely covered by ice, it's drier than the Sahara desert. There are active volcanoes; it's thought that subsurface heat drives gigantic streams of ice down to the sea.

It's one of the best places on Earth to collect meteorites from other worlds, this 1996 expedition includes some of those who found the famous Mars-rock that may perhaps contain evidence of past life from long ago from the Red Planet.

And Antarctica is a place where research on ozone may help us understand how global climate may change in the coming decades.

America maintains three permanent bases in Antarctica.

McMurdo, 5-6 hours by jet south of New Zealand, a bustling communications center, sometimes populated by as many as 1,200 scientists and support staff.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is smaller, some 120 people at most, but it's remoteness makes it one of the best places on Earth to study the atmosphere, and low humidity and months of permanent night makes Earth's exact geographic South Pole the perfect place to study the heavens.

Then there's Palmer Station, site of this series of electronic field trips, still smaller than South Pole with a little over 40 summer visitor. It's the jewel of the U.S. Antarctic program, one of the best places on Earth to study marine animals, and the effects of global climate change on plants and living creatures. Though the interior of the continent is barren, lacking almost all life, the shores and oceans are amazingly fertile. There are penguins of many different species. There are giant elephant seals; these males are mouthing off over territory and mates. Researchers use inflatable Zodiacs to observe mighty humpbacks, giant tail flukes signaling their majestic presence. And from time to time, nearby glaciers calve off ice avalanches into the ocean and create mini-tidal waves.


Traveling to Antarctica doesn't exactly offer luxury accommodations. The flight from Christchurch to McMurdo... Three flights a week in the summer, schedule dependent on weather...

Official NSF Video

Flight time: 5... 7... 8 hours depending on type of airplane...

Reading your personnel manual, you'll note that NSF's advertising campaign is a little different from the commercial airlines you're used to...

(different voice of pamphlet)

"These are cargo and troop planes not designed for passenger comfort. Toilets can be awkward for some persons."

No frequent flyer credits either. But these planes have the two things you'll want on a flight like this: safety and reliability.

(NSF official)

"We are really the only nation that has the capability of getting anywhere on the continent, essentially anywhere. And that resides in these aircraft, not so much the "Herc's" themselves as of course the ski, and the skill of the people who pilot them. And without these, we could not operate the way we do."

If your work at McMurdo requires helicopter support, it's scheduled by the helicopter coordinator.

The coordinator develops the daily flight schedule, makes daily communications all field groups needing this support, and as your point of contact for all helicopter re-supply items.

Similar scheduling for fixed-wing aircraft is handled by an operations coordinator; this person helps you plan cargo loads for "put-in" flights, handles daily schedules, communicates with field parties, and coordinates re-supply for field groups supported by fixed-wing aircraft.

Transportation in Antarctica ranges from foot, to skis, to a variety of tracked vehicles, depending on where you're going and what you need to carry. Ground transportation and mechanical equipment is available in a variety of forms through McMurdo's Mechanical Equipment Center.

Snowmobiles, pick-up trucks, and tracked vehicles are available for work use, once you've been trained to use them.

The familiar Hercules LC-130 is the key transportation link with the outside world. From November to January, there are frequent flights between McMurdo and the Pole, moving supplies and personnel in both directions. The rest of the year, the South Pole station is isolated.

(female narrator)

Punto Arenas, Chile: the southern-most big city in the world. Once a bustling trading port for the Clipper ships bound for America's west coast, now the point of embarkation for our voyage to Palmer Station.

Our video producer, Deane Rink, has been this way before. He knows the hardships ahead. Legend has it that touching this bronze foot on the statue of Portuguese navigator, Ferdinand Magellan, will bring luck to those crossing the tempestuous Drake passage, named for the English seaman.

Waiting dockside is the RV, research vessel, Polar Duke. This is slated to be its last season sailing these waters. The researchers and their support teams need special clothing to live and work effectively in the Antarctica, and it's issued here in PA.

Down at Palmer, it's wet as much as cold that's the enemy, so there are waterproof tops and trousers to issue. Marine Projects's Coordinator Al Hickey briefs the Duke's the new passengers. It's clear this will be no luxury cruise.

(Al Hickey addresses the passengers)

"A lot of you have probably been to sea before, and some of you haven't. It's an incredibly rewarding experience; it can be a heck of a lot of fun, and it can also be a very dangerous environment, and people can get hurt.

One of the big things that can happen here is possibly somebody going overboard when we're working by an open rail. If you go overboard, that's probably it, okay, we'll probably get you back, but I doubt you'll be alive; it'll take 5 or 6 minutes to get you back.

If you fall overboard, you start yelling, and if you see that person, you yell 'man overboard.' We will do our best to go back, we will not leave the area, we will carry on for a day, we will search, and we will search, and we will search."

Departure is delayed by winds of over 75 knots, and heavy seas. Even on shore, it's hard to move around. Perhaps our travelers should have rubbed that statue's foot a little harder. But then, a break in the storm, and we're off.

Before the Duke hits the Drake Passage Proper, everyone has to go through a lifeboat drill. These reinforced, all enclosed tubes are more like spacecraft than traditional lifeboats. There's food and water onboard, and a radio, and the seats convert into toilets. Once you've taken to the boat, you may be safe, but be there for quite a while.

Then there are the survival suits known as "Gumbies" for pretty obvious reason. Designed to give you a chance in frigid waters, they're built for survival, not for fashion.

The Drake Passage, shrouded in fog and legend, it's where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans converge. Most of the passengers spend their first two days flat on their backs with seasickness. Not many show up for the three hearty meals a day served in the galley.

There are calmer waters as the Duke crosses the Antarctic circle. A leopard seal lounges on an ice-flow. One gray day, the Duke encounters brash ice and bergy-bits; the next day, it's clearer. The weak polar sun illuminates a magnificent iceberg arch.

Christmas Day, 1996, the Duke prepares its Zodiac to visit a rocky outcrop nicknamed "Santa Claus Island" where there's an automated weather station to service.

Gale force winds during the southern winter have bent the heavy metal struts.

Santa Claus Island is home to two species of penguin: the robust orange-peaked Gentoos seem to occupy the higher ground. Down below are the skinnier, curious Chinstraps, whose nesting sites are near the water. See the black line slanting down around the neck which gives them their name? The sounds and smells of penguins are everywhere.

Then on a gray and rainy day, we arrive at Palmer station. There's fresh supplies, new mail, and old friends getting back together. After a few days, the Duke will sail on, taking its scientific instruments further south, but for now, it's safe at Palmer. The first part of our journey is done.

An Official NSF Briefing

"Great God, this is an awful place!"

You may recognize Robert Scott's comment after reaching the South Pole. You can't fault him for being negative under the circumstances, but your stay on "the Ice" can be a lot more pleasant than his was. But much of your safety and comfort here still depends on you.

(ice crunches and collapses)

Safety is a matter of understanding and respecting the environment, and that environment includes the natural environment posed by the Antarctic landscape and climate, and the cultural environment of your living and working within a human community.

(wind howls)

These environments are affected by one common element: the weather. So be ready.

In broad terms, there are three weather conditions in the Antarctic that will affect your behavior and activity.

Condition Three at McMurdo is considered normal: good visibility, no high winds, moderate temperatures. The normal precautions described in the rest of this video relate to Condition Three.

Should you have any doubt, they're not shy about advertising the current condition. When wind and low temperatures grow more extreme, the weather is designated Condition Two. In this case, you'll be required to stay in the main work areas: that is McMurdo, Williams Field, or the ice runway, or to travel by vehicle only between these work sites. Before you leave one area, you must check out by radio, then check back in when you arrive at your destination, and you should always travel in pairs within these areas.

The most severe weather is classified as Condition One: poor to no visibility, strong winds, severe wind chill factor. Condition One means that you stay indoors and call your supervisor to report your location.

"Hi, this is Amy Cooper..."

Even the mildest Condition Three weather can still cause frostbite, hypothermia, dehydration, and snow blindness. Here's what you watch out for.

(camera shutter clicks)

Frostbite, it isn't much fun. Even in its mildest forms, it'll begin with your nose, cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes. The minute you feel cold or pain, do something, because numbness and loss of sensation or a full-blown frostbite is not far behind.

If that's not bad enough, the cold can harm you in other ways. One is hypothermia. That's the result of losing more body heat than you're able to produce. This sends your normal temperature down to dangerous levels.

If you feel cold, and you start shivering, you have early warning signs of hypothermia. As the body temperature drops, the shivering stops, and your body will eventually become rigid. Impaired coordination and decreased consciousness will follow. This isn't a progression you even want to start. Prevention of both frostbite and hypothermia is better than any cure. And it begins with wearing clothes that keep you warm.

One of the experts here told me that there are three weather elements that cause you to lose body heat: moisture, temperature, and wind. And, logically, there are three basic layers of clothing to protect against these elements, but let Steve Dunbar tell you about it.

Steve Dunbar:
"Well the first layer of clothing that we usually use is a synthetic layer of long underwear. And the reason we use it is because it ends up wicking moisture away as well as providing some insulation. And the next thing that happens though, is if the wind starts blowing, no matter how thick this layer of insulation is, it'll just cut right through it, so we end up using a wind layer."

The outermost layer is a protective shell that will stop the wind from chilling you to the bone, and yet allow body moisture to escape. These people know what they're talking about, they've had to rescue too many people who haven't followed their advice. They also say that there's truth in the old adage "if your feet get cold, put on a hat."

Steve Dunbar:
Your head ends up conducting a tremendous amount of heat from it; there's a lot of blood that goes through just to keep your brain warm. The unfortunate thing about your head is there's not much fat on there and bone is fairly conductive, so you lose a lot of heat through that. So what we're trying to do is save all the heat that comes in this blood, and all those nice big veins on your neck, you can go ahead and keep them warm.

I'm putting a nice neck gater on. And then there are a whole variety of hats that I usually where when I'm out on the field. This is one of the issue ones, you can go ahead and close that one up and that'll keep your ears good and warm. Well my personal favorite, and you go ahead and wear that..."

Take your cold weather clothing with you whenever you leave the immediate confines of the station, whether on foot, or in a vehicle.

Weather changes can be sudden and unpredictable. You won't want to be stranded anywhere, even in a vehicle, without extreme cold weather gear. You can add layers as needed and replace any wet clothing.

If you start to get cold, cover any exposed skin and keep in mind that tight fitting clothes, belts, or jewelry can decrease the blood flow. It's better not to wear these items in the first place. If your face becomes cold, cup your hands in front of your face and blow into them.

(Music on soundtrack)

And get moving; wiggle those toes, flex the ankles, clap your hands, swing those arms, anything to increase blood circulation and warm your body. Looking silly is preferable to freezing.

Drinking something warm is equally effective, and by 'drink,' they don't mean alcohol. It speeds up heat loss. Caffeine isn't recommended either, and smoking hinders blood circulation, so it's also discouraged.

As important as your own well being is, don't forget, you're part of a team.

Travel doesn't need to be a problem if you follow the rules: you're not allowed to leave McMurdo on foot until you've attended the outdoor recreation briefing. The only exceptions to this are the road to Scott Base, and the flagged roads to Williams' Field and the Sea-Ice Runway.

Kim Reynolds, trainer:
"The reason you guys are all here is you want to go outside of McMurdo and take some walks and have a good time and see some beautiful countryside, and I really encourage you to get out and do it.

This place is very, very deceiving, as far as crevasses go, and so there's a real reason that we mark the route. There are crevasses just off the flagged routes, and you need to be aware of those."

One reason for these precautions is to avoid getting lost and laying yourself open to hypothermia and other dangers. Dangers like the sea ice and crevasses, both are just outside McMurdo.

(crevasse falls through)

Falling through can cause serious injury or death.

Weather safety, travel safety, fire safety; all things you need to think about while your on the Ice, and one last important point: Antarctica's environmental protection and preservation are your business and your responsibility. The Antarctic Conservation act of 1978 is a United States law that applies to YOU in Antarctica. This act protects the continent by making it a federal crime to harm or interfere with the plants and animals. It also preserves the Antarctic environment through strict rules and regulations governing the handling and disposal of chemicals and waste that are generated by working and living in Antarctica.

As a visitor, you have a commitment to protect and preserve both the wildlife and the environment of this beautiful continent.


Dianne Stoecker is a microbiologist whose specialty is ice-algae.

Dianne Stoecker:
"Well, one, it's just such a physically beautiful, intriguing environment. It may be cold, and the wind may be blowing, but I love it. And also the processes you study down here really are different and we're working with organisms that aren't even described, so that's sort of exciting.

I love it, I love the ice! The first time I came to Antarctica, I had no idea what to expect, and then I started working down here and I became an ice freak. I love the sea ice, I think it's fascinating, I find it physically beautiful. I just like working in Antarctica, besides the scientific aspect of it."

Gerry Kooyman is a twenty-year veteran of McMurdo Sound, a leading researcher on the physiology of penguins. This time, his two sons, Carsten and Tory, accompany him.

Gerry Kooyman:
"Anywhere you go in the world, you have equivalents; you go to the Mediterranean and you say 'oh yeah, it's sort of like Southern California or whatever.' You go to the Antarctic and there's no equivalent for it. So it's the closest thing to going to another planet in my view, and that's a great attraction. I've always maintained that there are two kinds of people that come down here: 90% of them catch polar fever and the other 10% don't get the message."

(he laughs)

About ten miles away from the penguin ranch is a seal rookery near Big Razorback Island. Mike Castellini and his doctoral student, Jennifer Moss, lead a team of marine biologists studying the lifestyle of the Weddell seals.

Jennifer Moss:
"This is probably the only species you can do it on. And so, it's just the perfect place for me to do the work that I want to do. It's a wonderful environment to work in, but it is really the science that I'm down here for."

Underneath this sea ice are the waters of McMurdo Sound. James Stewart has trained many of the American divers.

Jim Stewart:
"I've been diving for some fifty years of my life, and I've done a lot of things that people will never be able to do again for the first time, and I've made a lot of mistakes, and being able to tell people what to expect and how to handle a different environment gives me great satisfaction. I've taught diving to scientists all my life, and it's really been a great reward to me, to have those people go out into the environment, into the ocean, into a lake, and be able to take care of themselves, conduct their studies, and come back safely, and that's what it's all about.

I think that we stand, from an underwater discovery standpoint down, here probably about where Lewis and Clark stood when they jumped across the Mississippi and started West. That's about the description I can give you of that; we're just starting to learn, we're starting to know the right questions to ask."

Jim Stewart's protégé is Dale Anderson. Dale Anderson works for NASA, as an aquanaut.

Dale Andersen:
"Well anybody that's interested in seeing a totally different world, and experiencing a totally different environment, I would be a strong advocate of learning how to dive. You have to be in good physical condition; in other words you should be able to pick up some of the gear that you have to be able to haul around, you have to be able to swim, swim quite well, and you have to be very comfortable in the water, that's very, very important."

He dives in the ice-covered lakes of the Dry Valleys.

"Well, diving in the Antarctic presents you with very unique problems. One of which is obviously the cold water, which can be anywhere from zero degrees Celsius, that's thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, or in the case of the ocean, it might be a negative two degree C., or about 28 degrees Fahrenheit. That in itself is a very difficult problem to overcome, because you have to worry about becoming very cold and hypothermic while you're swimming in the water.

Some of the equipment that you use, like the regulators and the masks, really have to be specially designed for cold water use, otherwise they may not function properly. And you have to learn how to take care of this equipment; keep it clean and keep it very dry before you use it. Your hands are the least protected parts of your body, and because you're trying to work with them, you need to protect them. But it's something that's really a difficult thing to do right now. The gloves are fairly adequate, but after a period of about 45 minutes, your hands can become very, very cold.

It's a very remote and hostile environment. You have thick ice covers on top of these lakes, and the dive holes that you have are the only entrance, and the only exit, so you have to make sure that you get back to these spots, otherwise you would be trapped under the ice and you would not be able to get out."

Lake diving is more claustrophobic, and requires special precautions.

"Diving out here in the Antarctic lakes, we have to dive on a tether; in other words, we have a rope that's connected to a harness, and then we also have a communications line that's attached to the inside of that rope. So we have four wires coming down through the rope, and that's actually connected to a mask that we wear on our face. And this allows us an extra avenue of safety: we can talk with the people on the surface so they can monitor our breathing, and they can talk to us and see how we sound, if we're excited or if we're frightened, they can actually make judgments just by listening to our voice.

Voice over radio link from underwater:
"...can't see anything at all... have to turn my lights on."

The Dry Valley Lakes yield great insights into early life on Earth.

"Life on this planet was dominated by microbes for the first several billion years. It was not until about 600 million years ago that higher forms of life actually evolved. Prior to that, it was all microbial, and in the fossil record, we see very, very good evidence of vast fields of microbial mats, and this record is very important to understanding what life looked like many, many years ago. The communities that we see here in these lakes are very similar in structure to what we see in the past. So this is sort of like a window, for example, this dive hole here could be considered to be a tunnel back into time; back 600 million years to a billion years ago. And it allows us to understand what these communities look like, and how they functioned. So it's a very, very different world here, and it helps us understand what our world looked like billions of years ago.

A few hundred miles away, about fifty people live in an encampment called Central West Antarctica. Led by Sridhar Anandakrishnan, they are the only inhabitants on the permanent Ross Ice Shelf, an ice sheet the size of Texas.

"I was an electrical engineer and I saw a job advertised that said, 'Travel to Antarctica,' and before you could blink I was in the door, I was demanding the job, I would have done anything, I wanted to come to Antarctica all my life, and this was just a way to come in.

Then once I came here I was an engineer, I was building electronic equipment and making sure it worked in the field. Then I got interested in the ice itself, and the snow, and why the ice is here, and what it's doing, why it's moving the way it does, and all that, and so I changed fields and became a glaciologist.

It helps if you have quite a strong science background: physics, chemistry, you have to be very good at mathematics, it's a highly mathematical field, but more than anything, you have to have an incredible love of being outdoors all the time because... there's no lab work involved when you're in the field, you're running around all day long and you have to not mind getting cold sometimes.

Today is a beautiful day, it's sunny and it's warm, and I'm sitting here without very many clothes on, but there are other days when the wind is blowing and you have to go ahead and do your work in that as well."

Beneath the Ross Ice-shelf there may be a string of volcanoes not directly accessible to study. A close relative that is accessible is Mt. Erebus, which has pushed its cone 14,000 feet above sea level. Nelia Dunbar is a volcanologist who frequently visits the lip of Erebus' crater.

"Erebus is a fascinating place to me. It's dynamic, every time I come up here there's something different, the crater's changing, you stand here and you watch eruptions happen, it's just a fascinating place. Ice caves are another really interesting part of it. It's continually changing, it's just fascinating and riveting."

Sixty miles away where the continental glaciers meet the McMurdo Sound sea ice, glacial geologist Ross Powell knows there is a spiritual payoff in addition to the science.

"It's absolutely spectacular, there's no other words for it. With the scenery you have here, and the peace and quiet, and just the environment is just so exhilarating, and being able to get the scientific results that we are, that's really the icing on the cake."