Sunday, 30 October 2016

Four weeks to go!

It’s just over four weeks now until I head down to Antarctica. I’ve had all the blood tests and a medical check, and it looks like I’m good to go!

Other years, I’ve not paid much attention to news items about the first flights to Antarctica after the winter. This year, I’m way more interested! The first flight for the 2016/17 summer season left Christchurch at 9.04am on 3 October, and touched down on the Pegasus Runway at 2pm after a five hour flight (on a US C-17 Globemaster, if you want to know). You can see a video of their arrival here. (It looks pretty windy when they get off the plane!)

Scott Base Crew 2016/17, arrival of first flight. Photo by Anthony Powell.
©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection, 2016/17

Many people are fascinated by the idea of going to Antarctica. These are the most common questions I've had so far:

How long does it take to get there?
It’s 3832km from Christchurch to Scott Base, and it takes from 4 ½ to 10 hours to fly there, depending on what kind of plane and what the weather’s like. (By comparison, Christchurch to Sydney is 2137km and takes about 3 hours. Or Auckland to Rarotonga is 3006km and takes about 4 hours.)

How cold will it be?
I’ve just had a look at the Scott Base webcam and today’s weather info online. Then I wished I hadn’t. It’s minus 19.5 degrees!!
However – look on the bright side. This is what the weather table records for rainfall:
·         Rainfall (last hour): 0.0 mm
·         Maximum rainfall per hour (last six hours): 0.0 mm
·         Yesterday’s rainfall: 0.0 mm
·         Rainfall (this month): 0.0 mm
·         Rainfall (to date this year): 0.0 mm
So at the moment, it’s cold – but dry. In four weeks’ time, I’m hoping it might be a little bit warmer.

What sort of clothes will you have to take?
Luckily, I’m pretty much sorted for clothing, thanks to Antarctica NZ. All I have to pack is indoor clothing for Scott Base, much like what you’d wear at home. The day before I leave, I’ll be trying on masses of gear to make sure it all fits - and after that, the main problem will be trying to figure out what order to put everything on.

Here are some of the more unusual questions I’ve been asked:
·         How long can you stay outside before you freeze?
·         Why does the sun not melt the ice?
·         Could you snow board there?
           Is Antarctica a country?

You can find answers to most of these questions here on my Antarctica blog (and if the answers aren’t there yet, they will be soon). 

I’d love to get more questions, so let me know anything you’d like to know about Antarctica, and I’ll try to find out the answers.  

Teachers and librarians – click Follow on the blog to follow my trip, or contact me (or email me at books[at] if you’d like a copy of my Schools Pack, with everything you need to run a Thinking about Antarctica Day, and templates for Ask Me About Antarctica and Winter Letters to next year’s wintering over staff at Scott Base. 

Your questions: Keeping safe

What happens if a big snow storm comes, where would you go? 
Keeping safe in Antarctica is very important. You have to be constantly checking that you are eating enough food (for energy), drinking enough liquid (so you don't get dehydrated) and wearing enough warm clothes. You also need to plan carefully so you don't take risks that would put you in danger.  
One of the first things that new arrivals to Scott Base do is field training, where you learn how to cope in sudden emergencies. If you were caught outside in a storm, away from a tent or hut, you could build a snow cave. You pile all your gear in a mound, cover it with snow and pack the snow down. Then you dig a tunnel to pull out your gear and make space for you to sleep in. 
Here's a very cool video of some people actually building a snow cave

Digging out a snow cave. Photo by Jim Barker
©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection [1970]
How do you know where the ground is that will not collapse through?
Something else you start to learn on the field training course. Around Scott Base, there are flags to show where the safe walking routes are. If you go further away, there are rules to follow about how to keep safe. But it can still be dangerous. A Canadian pilot died in January 2016 after falling into a crevasse at an Australian base. Part of the danger is hypothermia, because you might get so cold before you could be rescued. 

If you are walking on ice and there is a crevasse underneath and you fall, will you fall in water or more ice?
If you are on sea ice, there would be water underneath. But if you are on the land, the crevasse could be like a slice taken out of a glacier, with ice going a long way down.  

Survival training; practising going down a crevasse on a rope;
Antarctica NZ Pictorial Collection [1974-75], CC licence
What do you do with dangerous animals?
Well, there aren't any dangerous land animals, so that's a good start. (There aren't many land animals at all, apart from tiny ones like mites and ticks.) And there are no polar bears, either. They only live in the Arctic. 
Antarctica NZ has an environmental code of conduct which says you have to stay 10m away from any animal (unless it comes up to you), but you might want to keep a lot further away from some of them, like killer whales (orca) or leopard seals. There are some very scary stories from the early explorers about encounters with those animals. 
Leopard seal with Adelie penguin. Photo by G Court,
@Antarctica NZ Pictorial Collection, CC licence

Friday, 28 October 2016

Your questions: What it's like living there

What’s the population? Do people live there permanently?
The overall population would be bigger in summer than in winter, because most people go down there in the summer. About 37,000 tourists visit Antarctica each year, but they don't all go ashore. 
But nobody lives permanently in Antarctica (and it has never had an indigenous population). There are about 66 bases owned by different countries. Some of them are quite big (like the American base at McMurdo) and others very small. One estimate is about 4000 people living on all the bases in the summer and about 1000 in the winter. On Scott Base, there are up to 85 people at any one time in the summer (but a lot of people coming and going), and about 10 during the winter. 
Most people go to Antarctica to work on scientific projects. They might stay for a few weeks, or a year, and they might come back another time to keep working on their project, but they wouldn't stay there forever. Other people are there to help keep the bases operating - they might be engineers, cleaners, cooks, mechanics or drivers.   

How many layers of clothes do you have to wear?
It depends on the weather and the season and what you are doing. Inside Scott Base, you can wear what you might wear at home. But whenever you go outside, even for a short time, you have to think carefully about what to wear and how to put the layers on in the right order. 
Have a look at this video (you have to scroll down the page) on What to wear in Antarctica. See if you can count and identify how many items of clothing she puts on.  

Could you snow board there?
At Scott Base, you can go cross-country and downhill skiing and mountain biking. I wasn't sure about snowboarding, but then I found this photo. So maybe you can!

Santa snowboarding at Scott Base, Photo by Yvonne Martin
©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection [Image No] [1991-1992]
Is it hard to live there because of the cold?
Well, it is cold. 

Do people live in igloos? 
Most people live in the buildings on bases, or if they're out in the field, they might live in tents or even converted containers. 

Do you eat disgusting food? 
No! The food at Scott Base is apparently pretty amazing!

Becky Goodsell was Winter Base Leader at Scott Base in 2013, and she did an online interview about "What I Do" that you can read here. She said,  "The chef is the most important person on base for many reasons! Yes, the food is very good. In winter it pretty much all comes from the freezer or our dry goods store, but thankfully our chef makes it exciting. My favourites: Thai Green Curry, Sweet n sour pork, Roasts, the cakes & biscuits, and sometimes the traditional kiwi fish n chips nights served in newspaper."

If you can find a copy of School Journal  Part 4 Number 1 (2006), you can read my article Frozen food, about one of the Scott Base chefs, Donna Wightman. 

Why do people want to live down there?
Here's Becky Goodsell again: "I think it started out being the place, which is definitely the best place on earth, but these days it's mainly about the people. The environment is stunning but it's also a great bunch of people to work with." (That's an interesting quote. Where do you think is the best place on earth?)

Do they have shops?
There is a gift shop at Scott Base. Just one! You can buy souvenirs, toiletries, phone cards, stamps and snacks. 
Shop at Scott Base, Photo by Chris Rudge
©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection [1987-1988]
Do you get wi fi there?
Good news and bad news. You can get news from home via letters, phone calls and emails. There is enough Internet for you to use gmail and Facebook, but not enough to use applications like Skype and You tube. But wi fi - I'm guessing not...

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Your questions: Snow and ice

Is the snow everywhere? 
Good question! and I can answer it with statistics, if you like numbers! (Even if you don't, the numbers aren't very hard to follow.) 
More than 98% of Antarctica is covered with ice. Only a very small area - less than half a percent - is bare rock. Part of that is a fascinating place called the Dry Valleys, and it's not too far (a helicopter ride) from Scott Base, so New Zealand scientists get to work there.  

Wright Valley in the Dry Valleys; photo by Brian McKerrow;
©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection [1969-1970]
How does the ice taste? 
I don't know how it tastes yet, but I do know you can drink melted sea ice, if it's not too new, because as ice gets older, its saltiness is pushed out into the surrounding seawater. The early explorers used to heave up hunks of floating ice from the sea, to use on board.  
You can find out more fascinating stuff about sea ice here

How old is the ice? 
One of the interesting things about snow in Antarctica is that it builds up in layers, year after year. Scientists can drill ice cores in the ice to find out how old it is, and what the climate used to be like (a bit like dating a tree by the rings in the trunk). The ice cores can go back hundreds of thousands of years. 

I want to know how thick different pieces of ice are and how much weight they can hold. 
Some of the ice is thick enough to hold a plane! 
Thanks for this great question because it's made me find out a lot more about runways. (I guess it's important to trust them when you are flying to Antarctica!) 
There are several different sorts. Ice runways are made early in the summer season and can be used until the sea ice (which is about 2 metres thick) starts to melt and go slushy. 
But there are also snow runways that can take smaller planes (like ski aircraft) and then there are blue ice runways. These are on areas of ice that have no snow on top, and even if snow falls, the wind and evaporation take it all away. The blue ice is strong enough to support wheeled planes carrying heavy loads.  
Travelling from New Zealand, you land on the Pegasus Ice Shelf Runway or the Williams Field Runway. You can read about them here
Here's an article about the ice runway at McMurdo Sound, and you can see some more photos of it here

Approaching the McMurdo sea ice runway through the cockpit window; Photo by David Geddes 
@ Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection [1988]
If you squirted water out of a bottle, would it freeze? 
I can show you a very cool video clip about this. Imagine you are inside at Scott Base, and you go outside (just for a moment, with plenty of warm clothes on!) and toss some boiling hot water into the air. What would happen?
Here's Dr Ed Butler showing you what does happen
(Complete with scientific explanation as to why, in the comments below.) 

Why does the sun not melt the snow/ice?
Because there's such a lot of it, and it's so cold! 
If you think about the snow and ice here in New Zealand - e.g. on Mt Ruapehu - a lot of it will melt away over the summer. But the Antarctic ice sheet holds about 30 million cubic kilometres of ice. I can't even imagine how much that is - it's enough to cover the whole of  Australia in 4km of ice.  And not only is there heaps of ice, but the temperatures are incredibly cold, so it never gets warm enough to melt much, even when the sun is shining. 

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Your questions: Animals and birds

How tall are penguins, what are they like, do they bite, can you pat them? 
There are several different types of penguins. Emperor penguins are the tallest - an adult bird is about 115 cm tall (like the size of a six year old child). You can read more about them (and see some great photos) here
A young Emperor penguin came ashore on Peka Peka beach on the Kapiti coast, north of Wellington, in June 2011. Nicknamed Happy Feet, It was taken to the zoo to be cared for because it had eaten so much sand. In September it was released back into the wild in the southern ocean.  
You can read about Happy Feet here (and the zoo vet comments that yellow-eyed and little blue penguins both “bite a lot”, so that answers another part of the question.) 

Can you feed any sea animals?
You have to keep at least 10m away from any wildlife, so you can't go up and feed them. And you wouldn't want to get that close to many of them, anyway!
Also you want to respect wild animals and not treat them as pets or toys. Animals in the wild need to know how to get their own food, without people giving it to them. 

How much does an orca eat usually? Do killer whales swim under the ice?
Killer whales (or orca) often hunt in packs, and they eat fish, squid, penguins and seals. They sometimes go after their prey by pushing up to break the sea ice, or by rushing at an ice floe to flip a penguin into the sea. 
You can read more about these smart and powerful (but rather scary) creatures here

Captain Scott recorded an extraordinary story about orca in his diary entry for 5 January 1911, when they had only just reached Antarctica and were still unloading their gear. Herbert Ponting, the expedition's photographer, was standing on the sea ice near two dogs that were tied up near the ship, when some orca poked their snouts above the water. Scott shouted to Ponting in case he wanted to get a photo - "I had heard weird stories of these beasts, but had never associated serious danger with them," he wrote.

"The next moment the whole floe under him and the dogs heaved up and split into fragments. One could hear the 'booming' noise as the whales rose under the ice and struck it with their backs. Whale after whale rose under the ice, setting it rocking fiercely; luckily Ponting kept his feet and was able to fly to security. By an extraordinary chance also, the splits had been made around and between the dogs, so that neither of them fell into the water. Then it was clear that the whales shared our astonishment, for one after another their huge hideous heads shot vertically into the air through the cracks which they had made. As they reared them to a height of 6 or 8 feet it was possible to see their tawny head markings, their small glistening eyes, and their terrible array of teeth--by far the largest and most terrifying in the world. There cannot be a doubt that they looked up to see what had happened to Ponting and the dogs."

Another thing I've found out about orca - some of them swim 5000km from Antarctica to Northland - you can read about their amazing journey here.

Two orca at the ice edge; Photo by David Geddes;
©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection [1956-1958]

What kind of species are there that live under water?
Lots of unusual sea creatures - sea spiders, ice fish, krill, marine worms, deep sea fish that freeze instantly when brought to the surface - read about them here

What is the most common animal?
Penguins are the most common bird. There are lots of seals - according to the Australian Antarctic Division, the crabeater seal is "the most abundant seal species in the southern ocean, and the most numerous of all the world’s larger animals apart from humans".

But the most common animal is maybe one of the smallest - there are millions and millions of krill in the ocean. Here are some incredible facts about krill from the Cool Antarctica site: 
"The krill population of the world has been estimated at outweighing the human population, about half of this population is eaten each year by whales, penguins, seals, fish and pretty much every other Antarctic animal that is larger than them. They are then replaced by reproduction and growth."

Krill; Photo by Malcolm Macfarlane;
©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection [1989-1990]

Your questions: The difference between summer and winter

What are the hours of sunset and sunrise in summer and winter? 
In summer, from the end of October to the end of February, the sun circles around the horizon and never sets. You can see what it's like in this amazing 24-hour time lapse video of 24 hours of sunlight in Antarcticafilmed by Anthony Powell. 
In winter, at Scott Base, the sun sets in April and doesn't rise again until the end of August. Winter means 24 hours of darkness, freezing cold temperatures and blizzards that might keep you indoors for days. (Other times, you would be able to go out by moonlight or torch light.) Until recently, there would be no flights in or out during the months of darkness, but the Royal NZ Air Force can now fly there in winter.

Are seasons the same as here? 
There is really only summer and winter. Nobody talks much about spring or autumn. Maybe it's because there aren't any flowers to mark the spring, or any trees to turn colour in the autumn. Or maybe the difference between sunlight and dark is so overwhelming that it overshadows everything else. 

Last sunset, 2016; photo by Anthony Powell;
Antarctica NZ Pictorial Collection [2015-2016], CC licence
What is summer like?
Here's one article about the start of the 2016 summer season at Scott Base.

How long can you stay outside before you freeze?
Here's one answer from a newspaper chat session with Becky Goodsell, Winter Base Leader at Scott Base in 2013Becky said: "In the summer it is possible to run around outside wearing thermals & shorts/T-shirt for maybe an hour. In the winter, on a really cold day (-40), if you hold your breath... maybe 30 seconds!"

Moonlight at Cape Evans, Photo by Richard McBride;
©Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Your questions: The aurora

Where do the aurora lights come from?

You can see aurora at both poles. At the North Pole, it is the aurora borealis (or the Northern Lights). The one at the South Pole is the aurora australis (or the Southern Lights). Of course you can only see it in winter - not during summer, when it's daylight for 24 hours a day!

OK, so I have tried to come up with an easy explanation for how it works, but it's all about electricity which is not one of my strong points. So probably better to leave it to the experts. 
Try looking up the kids astronomy websiteIf you want to learn more, have a look here and here

This is one of my favourite quotations about the aurora. It was written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard who was the youngest member of Captain Scott's 1910 expedition to Antarctica. This part of his diary was written while they were still on the way there. See how many different colours he mentions:

"We have had a marvellous day. The morning watch was cloudy, but it gradually cleared until the sky was a brilliant blue, fading on the horizon into green and pink. The floes were pink, floating in a deep blue sea, and all the shadows were mauve.. Stayed on deck till midnight. The sun just dipped below the southern horizon. The scene was incomparable. The northern sky was gloriously rosy and reflected in the calm sea between the ice, which varied from burnished copper to salmon pink; bergs and pack to the north had a pale greenish hue with deep purple shadows, the sky shaded to saffron and pale green. We gazed long at these beautiful effects.”

I really like the way he describes colours, because when you talk about Antarctica, people automatically think it's all white. But obviously it isn't. He doesn't even mention white in that passage. 

And guess what; you can even see the aurora in New Zealand sometimes - usually in the far south, but occasionally further north, like here in Canterbury  or even in the Wairarapa

Here's a wonderful photo of the Scott Base signpost with the aurora at night. 
Photo by Martin Meldrum 
@ Antarctica NZ Pictorial Collection [2014-2015]