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Student Questions

While Dan Grossman was in Antarctica, he received a number of questions from students all over the United States. Below are some of the questions and the answers. Special thanks to the students in Susan Silberberg's and Peggy O'Grady's classrooms.

How long did it take to get to Antarctica?
It took more than 24 hours, including some long layovers, to get from Boston to the tip of Chile. I was in Chile for just over a day. We were supposed to get in with time to spare in case we had trouble with flights. Finally it took four whole days to sail 900 miles by boat to Palmer station at a speed of about 10 miles per hour.

What problems did you encounter during your journey?
Actually, the trip was extremely smooth. I did have some mild sea-sickness during the crossing of the Drake Passage and I had some problems with rechargeable batteries for my equipment. I had a portable minidisc recorder, microphones, a video camera, and a digital camera that all use AA batteries. Before I left, I got the maximum capacity rechargeable AA cells I could find and brought lots of spares just in case. I should have been able to run my minidisk recorder for 3 or more hours with a fully charged set but it always seemed to run out on me.

Extremely cold temperatures impair the performance of batteries because chemical reactions work slower at lower temperatures. Batteries make or store electricity using chemical reactions. Before my trip I anticipated that cold weather could give me battery trouble. I bought a battery pack for my camera that attaches to the camera with a cable so I could keep the batteries warm under my coat. But the temperatures I experienced were never below freezing, and were not cold enough to cause problems. The battery problems I did experience were probably caused by a few bad batteries. My minidisc recorder takes 8 AA batteries and if a single one of the them malfunctions, the machine won't work.

So I did occasionally run out before I wanted to, even with all my spares. One day I was on a long trip and I had to shuffle all the batteries several times, even removing cells from my microphones to get the last bit of juice out to take some pictures.

How long did it take to adjust to the climate there?
When it's winter in the northern hemisphere, it is summer in the southern hemisphere. I brought a down jacket but I never needed it. During my trip it was warmer at Palmer Station than it was at my home in Boston, so adjustment wasn't an issue. The average summer temperature at Palmer is 35 degrees Fahrenheit. It tends to be pretty cloudy and rainy in the summer. When I was there it was unseasonably warm and unusually sunny. It got up to the mid-40s during the day and I don't believe it ever got much below 32 degrees even at night.

We tend to think that everywhere in Antarctica is very cold. However Antarctica is a very big place so the climate varies dramatically over its area. During the austral (southern hemisphere) summer it is still pretty cold at the South Pole in part because it is two miles above sea level. Palmer Station is on the coast and it is about 1,700 miles north of the South Pole; that's like going from Boston to Florida.

Was it a shock to you when you first arrived, or was it easy to adjust?
Strangely, going to Palmer Station did not require much of an adjustment. It is very beautiful and it is very far away. It seems close because it is tied to the outside world by great communications including a good phone system, internet service and email. It also has great amenities, such as heat, hot and cold potable water, and good food. It is like a little tiny raft of civilization towed to the bottom of the world. Of course if the oil were to run out or if the ship broke down and could not resupply the station, all the benefits of civilization would quickly disappear and Palmer would be as inhospitable to its crew as Elephant Island was to Shackelton.

What time does the sun rise and set?
It depends on the time of year. The Navy has a website to find out when the sun rises and sets for any given day anywhere on Earth: http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.html You'll need Palmer Station's latitude and longitude, which is 64° 03' W and 64° 46' S. You'll also need to know what the time zone is for Palmer. For that, go to http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/world_tzones.html You need to use that map to count how many time zones east or west of Greenwich Mean Time the station is. On the chart it's called "Universal Time."

What is the actual temperature of the water in the ocean in Antarctica?
The temperature varies with depth. At the surface, the temperature is never far from 32 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be 32 degrees and not frozen, of course, because it is salty.

Have you ever been caught out in an Antarctic storm? If so what was it like?
We had only one storm. I didn't rain much but the wind blew fairly hard. Palmer station does get a fair amount of snow in the winter - about 13 feet.

Does the hut get cold and lonely at night?
I worked very hard at Palmer Station, so I didn't stay in the hut long enough to get lonely. I often went there after midnight and left as soon as I woke up, at 6:30 or so in the morning. With so much light, it is hard to sleep very long! The temperature at Palmer never went very far below freezing, so the hut was not terribly cold. Because it is so small, my body heat probably warmed it up a little. However I was a little chilly. My sleeping bag is supposed to keep me warm down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but I was a little cool nonetheless. But I wasn't cool enough to be deterred from staying there.

How does the hole in the ozone affect the wildlife and the climate in Antarctica?
I don't believe the ozone hole has any direct impact on the climate of Antarctica although there is an interaction between the loss of ozone and the greenhouse effect. There has been a lot of research on the impact of increased ultraviolet radiation on wildlife. I had the chance to talk to a dermatologist in Chile who is concerned about the effect of increased UV radiation on humans. He has shown that the number of serious sunburns has increased in Punta Arenas, where he has a clinic. He expects to see increases in skin cancer, though it is too early to prove that because skin cancer takes many years to appear after an exposure that causes it.

Where do the Giant Petrels go after the radios are attached?
The Petrels appear to be traveling south, looking for food. Often they go to the edge of the sea ice, where wildlife tends to congregate. They'll travel hundreds of miles to get a meal and then bring some of it home for their chick.

Are there any animals other than birds and sea creatures?
There are at least two insects that I'm aware of, a flightless midge and a tick. I was told that the midge, which is about the size of the head of a pin, is the largest animal in Antarctica that lives exclusively on land. There are no rodents or other mammals apart from marine mammals like seals.

Have you seen any Emperor or King penguins?
Unfortunately, I have to report that I didn't see either Emperor or King penguins. These large birds must surely be quite a sight. As you may know, the Emperor penguin is the largest species of all the penguins. It can be more than 3 feet tall. It lives in the most southerly regions occupied by penguins. Among its unusual characteristics is the ability to dive to depths of 1,500 or more, deeper than any other bird and the unusual habit of breeding in the winter (rather than the spring or summer). King penguins are only slightly smaller than Emperors. They live in more northerly areas. Although I didn't see either of these species, I did see Adelie, gentoo, chinstrap and rockhopper penguins.

How many penguin chicks does the typical mother raise successfully per year?
I don't know about other penguins, but Adelies have two eggs per couple. Of course some eggs don't hatch and some chicks die for various reasons (like being the prey of a skua). I believe that on average 1.2 chicks end up "fledging," becoming juveniles that can feed themselves.

Do any animals (such as skuas) act aggressively toward penguins when the penguins are guarding their nests?
Adult penguins in their colonies are pretty safe from predators such as skuas and petrels. However chicks are at risk. Chicks at the edges of colonies, where there is less adult protection, are in the greatest danger. I saw a few chicks attacked by skuas on Torgersen Island. The skuas often work in pairs, one to distract adults and the other to attack the chicks. In one instance I saw a chick that struggled intensely against a fierce skua attack for several minutes. (I didn't observe the attack until after it started so I don't know if the bird was in its nest or had wandered away from the colony when it was first struck). Eventually the chick escaped back into its colony. In the next several days we will be posting some video of a skua attacking an Adelie chick. It is difficult to watch such material. But as researcher Donna Patterson explains, it is completely normal for predators to eat prey. Adelie penguins kill animals too. They eat krill.

By the way, adult penguins are at risk of leopard seal attacks when they swim. I saw a video a crew-member shot of a leopard seal attacking an adult. Those leopard seals are powerful animals. Surprisingly, seals don't appear to attack penguins on ice floes. I occasionally saw seals and penguins on the same ice floe. Elephant seals, which can weigh more than two tons, can also be a danger to penguin chicks. If spooked while resting on land, they can bolt and plow through a colony. Adults can get out of the way in time, but chicks sometimes can't.

What was your favorite research topic?
I have been interested in the impact of climate change for many years. It was the research on the possible effects of climate warming on Adelie penguins that attracted me to Palmer station in the first place. Once I got there, I had the opportunity to learn about some other areas of research as well. But the Penguin research is probably my favorite.

I have a question that isn't answered here. What do I do?
First, because it is so easy, I would do some searches on the internet. I would use my favorite search engine, Google, and plug in some key words. The more specific the words, the more likely I will get something useful. So "Antarctic" and "fossil" might be good words to use to look up fossils from Antarctica. Sometimes I find exactly what I want this way. Other times I get a clue that requires more digging. There might be a list of publications, some of which address my questions. There could be the web site of a scientist who studies the issues I'm looking into. There could be a newspaper story quoting somebody who knows about the topic. I use these leads to probe further, such as calling or emailing a scientist or getting a book or an article out of the library. Some experts are too busy to talk to people. But often they are very interested in sharing their knowledge, as long as I have prepared good questions for them.

You can also email us at antarctica@wbur.bu.edu if there is something that you can't find. Now that the trip is over, it may take us a week or two to get back to you, so please be patient.