4 November, 1998

November 4, 1998

Good Morning! It's another beautiful day here at McMurdo although it feels a little colder than usual this morning. We haven't had any bad weather yet. Yesterday at times it was warm enough to be outside without my parka but then the wind picked up and I felt like I was in Antarctica.


Yesterday the snowmobile class was not held so I went to the lecture on taking care of waste. It was extremely interesting. In the past, US Antarctic activities had a very poor way of disposing of trash and other waste in Antarctica; it was simply buried or dumped in the ocean. One of the groups here at Crary lab is studying the effects of this pollution(both toxics and organic waste like sewage) on the organisms in the ocean just outside McMurdo base. There have been extreme effects on the organisms in the immediate area but very little effect outside the small harbor here (which is covered with ice at this time of year). Antarctic marine organisms are quite fragile. An oil spill from a ship that sank here a few years ago killed the krill, a shrimplike crustacean that forms the major part of the diet of many Antarctic fish, penguins, whales, and seals. This destruction of one important link in the food web can have catastrophic effects on the whole ecosystem. One documented result of this oil spill was that all the chicks in a nearby skua colony died.

Also in the past it was found that a chicken disease was spreading through a nearby penguin colony, killing over half of the penguins. How could a chicken disease get to Antarctica? In the past kitchen garbage was tossed into an open dump. This was frequented by the flying scavengers of the area, the skua. Some of the chicken remains that the skuas ate made them sick and as they visited the penguin colonies in search of penguin chicks to eat, they spread the disease to the penguins. All as a result of people's ignorance about the importance of proper waste processing.

Now most of the pollution caused by these earlier practices has been cleaned up and the process of dealing with trash, waste, and pollutants is now quite elaborate in order to minimize our impact on this pristine wilderness, the place with the best air quality and the least pollution in the world. The class I attended is required of all people staying in USA Antarctic bases to make sure that the trash is properly sorted for proper treatment. The first goal--reducing waste--is being met bit-by-bit, but there is still a lot of unneccessary waste. In 1993 the USA bases here produced 6.5 million pounds of waste per year; that number is now down to 4 million pounds per year. All of this must be processed by the small staff of 8 people. That's 1/2 million pounds of trash per worker! I'm glad I don't have that job! The trash and waste includes food waste, paper products, plastic bottles, aluminum and other metal cans, wrappers and other packaging materials, lab chemicals like radioactive elements, darkroom chemicals, acids, and toxic solvents; other lab supplies like glass and plastic pipettes; human waste (urine and feces); wastewater from showers, sinks, and washing machines; hospital wastes; exhaust fumes from vehicles like snowmobiles, sprytes, helicopters, planes and trucks; and even useful things like clothing and alarm clocks that are still good but that people don't want anymore. Sometimes fuel or other toxics are spilled on the snow or ice. There are over a thousand people living here at McMurdo and another several hundred at the other USA research bases in Antarctica. Despite all this trash and waste, the necessary by-product of our presence here, the Antarctic is now being kept quite clean.

QUESTION TO THINK ABOUT: If you were in charge of the waste treatment here in Antarctica how would you organize it? Think about how you would get all these people to sort their trash properly and reduce waste, how you would deal with all these different kinds of waste so they didn't end up harming the fragile Antarctic ecosystem, and how you would get rid of all the waste. I'll explain at a later date how these problems are dealt with in Antarctica now.


After the lecture on trash, Skip, Dr. Smith, and I drove down to our fish hut at Cape Evans, the same one we visited on Sunday. We went by snow-mobile. This was my first time driving a Skidoo, and some friends of mine had died in a snow-mobile accident, so at first I was quite nervous. But the road across the sea ice is quite smooth and there are no obstacles to crash into and I soon got the hang of how to manage it. In fact I liked driving it myself better than riding in back with someone else driving because I was the one in control and didn't have to rely on someones else's sense of judgement. I never got above about 50 kilometers per hour. (A km is .6 miles, so how fast was I going in miles per hour?) The only tricky places were on the large patches of ice where the snow had been blown away by the strong winds. Here there is a potential to lose grip with the ground and "do a 360", or even flip if the spinning snowmobile hits a patch of snow. In those places we slowed way down to about 30 kph and were careful not to make any sudden direction changes.

On the way we stopped at the end of a glacier tongue that came off Mt. Erebus. Here there was a Weddell Seal lounging around.

Another one came up through a hole in the ice. The hole looked too small for him to fit his huge blubbery body through, but somehow he managed. One of the seals had bloody scars on its chest, probably from fights with other males. Many of these seals are marked with numbered plastic tags on their hind flippers for the same reason that we band birds with numbered leg bands back at home: to study things like how long they live, what their home range is, and other things about their behavior and life cycle. There is an exhibit downstairs in the lab here showing the map and data gathered over 21 years for one parcticular female.

But the seals were not why we stopped here. We came for the two spectacular ice caves that you could get to through holes in the front of the glacier. What a dreamland! I felt like I was in another world. It was far more beautiful than Superman's ice retreat in the Arctic. The light was shining through the entrance illuminating blue columns and stalactites of ice and clear, sparkling, hexagonal ice crystals that are formed as water vapor condenses on the ice that is already there. In some places the whole ceiling was covered with a mass of these beautiful masterpieces of art. In other places sunlight from outside caused the thin cave walls to glow blue. I wished I could have spent an hour just sitting inside the cave and savoring its beauty but we had to move on to our fish hut to catch some more fish for our experiments. I hope I get a chance to visit again.

So on we went. The electrically-heated handlebar grips warmed up my cold hands and in just a few minutes of zooming by spectacular scenery we were at the fish hut. (This was quite different from a normal commute to work or school in the DC area.) The weather was crystal clear and calm, very different from the mostly cloudy day we had at the fish hut on Sunday. I took several digital photos of Skip and Dave (Dr. Smith) fishing with Mt Erebus shining white against a blue sky in the background. (I hope to learn today how to add photos to the website.) Mt. Erebus had only a little bit of smoke fuminig from its peak today. We pumped up the Coleman Stove and heated up some snow for hot cocoa, cup-of-soup, and freeze-dried chicken alfredo for lunch while we fished through the ice hole. While we were there, a friendly neighbor drove up in a spryte trailing along a fuel drum to pump fuel into the stove that keeps the hut warm. A solar-powered fan hanging on the ceiling blows warm air down through a plastic sleeve into the ice hole to keep it from freezing over while we are gone. We only caught two fish in over an hour so we went outside to the smaller holes we had dug with the "Jiffy-drill" on Sunday. They had frozen over to a depth of about 6 inches of ice that we had to chop through with a heavy metal chisel-ended bar. Here we were much more successful and caught several fish. Still, it wasn't enough, so Skip and Dave went back out after supper to catch some more. (They weren't back until after 10 when I went to bed.)


Meanwhile, while they were out fishing again, I calibrated the microscopes so I'd be able to measure cell sizes. Then Dr. Petzel helped me practice staining

cells with DASPEI, the stain that makes mitochondria-rich cells glow green in fluorescent light. When I looked at the gill filaments in the microscope I could see that the chloride cells are mostly located in the bottom half of the filaments However when we looked at a suspension of cells we saw that there were several kinds of cells that glowed green, though some glowed more brightly than others. One of my challenges will be to determine which of these glowing cells are the chloride cells since I have to count, measure, and photograph them. Well, it's 8:06 Wednesday morning here (2:06 Tuesday afternoon in northern Virgina) so I'd better get off to work. At 9:00 I'll have snow-mobile school... if all goes as planned.

I hope you have a good day and do something good for someone.

Fred Atwood



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