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Expedition Antarctica: Creepy Crawlers and Explorers

By Christine Dell’Amore

Christine Dell’Amore is participating in a National Science Foundation media trip to report on scientists conducting polar research near McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

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Antarctica has its share of superlatives–coldest, highest, windiest–and, I think it’s safe to add, the most unpredictable. Flights and plans are constantly canceled–a glaciologist I met at the McMurdo Coffee House a few nights ago had been waiting two weeks for a break in the weather to reach her research site. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when our helicopter trip to the Dry Valleys, an ecological research site northwest of McMurdo, was scrapped this morning due to high winds.

We headed instead for the Crary Lab, where polar scientists roll up their sleeves and crunch their data. Lab manager Cara Sucher gave us a tour of the 46,500-square-foot (4,320-square-meter) building, which she proudly told us could fit all of Palmer Station, the smallest U.S. Antarctic station.

We peeked into various offices and labs, meeting interesting people such as “wormherders,” who study microscopic Antarctic nematodes that
dehydrate themselves to survive.

 

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Me holding an isopod, a primitive crustacean

The highlight was the touch tank, a collection of ocean animals that divers bring back from the seafloor near McMurdo. Sucher yanked
out an isopod, an ancient crustacean that reminded me of a critter from the Alien movies. I was impressed by how strong it was, nearly escaping my grip.

Watch a video of Sucher with the touch tank

After our Crary tour we took a van to New Zealand’s nearby Scott Base, a green smattering of buildings perched near the ice shelf. Base supervisor David Washer
gave us a tour of the facilities, including the ski room (the Kiwis maintain a little ski slope). We were also invited to lunch, which everyone seemed excited about, mainly because the food is said to be much better than at McMurdo. It was indeed good–butternut squash soup and fresh-baked bread–but I got giddy
when I heard the familiar, high-pitched squeal of an espresso machine.

 

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A Hut was the first building on Scott Base

One polar latte later, we bundled up and headed for the TAE/IGY hut, built in 1957 and the first building constructed on the Kiwi base.
Sir Edmund Hillary, the leader of the base and Mount Everest conqueror, used the hut as an office and bunkroom. From the outside it looked pretty much like the
rest of the base, but the inside had some neat artifacts, including a bathtub and some of the now-primitive communication technology used by the men.

We got word at Scott Base that there was an opportunity to helicopter out and land on the Swedish icebreaker Oden, due to arrive at McMurdo Friday. We quickly
donned our cold-weather gear and reported to the helipad–only to be thwarted yet again by weather. Back to our dorms we went to strip off our bunny boots and pants for the 20-minute walk to another explorer’s hut, Discovery Hut at Hut Point.

 

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Discovery Hut is maintained by the Antarctic Heritage Trust

Famed explorers Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and their team built the hut in 1902 as they were seeking a route to the South Pole.

Oddly, the hut is an Australian kit home–think a Sears prefab–designed to keep in the cold. Not surprisingly then, the explorers found it a bit too chilly and ended
up sleeping on their ship, Discovery.

The structure then served as a storeroom, laboratory, and even theater stage for the expedition members. On his fatal 1912 expedition, Scott stopped here
again, although he didn’t stay the winter.

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Inside the hut

The dark, musty interior had a somewhat ominous feeling, made worse by an overpowering earthy smell and the grisly pieces of seal carcass
lying around. There was a brick “blubber stove” and all sorts of old food supplies such as baking powder and cocoa. My favorite part, though, was a piece
of wire poking out near a window–the end of a 13-mile (21-kilometer) communication line that stretched over the ice to another hut and allowed Scott to use Morse code.

 

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A dog-biscuit crate–although Scott relied less on dogs than other explorers

Back outside, we climbed a hill and looked out over the partially frozen McMurdo Sound. Tomorrow we may get to see the Dry Valleys. But as Scott Base supervisor Washer told me earlier today, you should always “plan for the worst, hope for the best–and expect nothing.”

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The walk back from Discovery Hut

Photos by Christine Dell’Amore

Christine Dell’Amore is the environment writer/editor for National Geographic News.