Editor's Note: Marine geophysicist Robin Bell is leading an expedition to Antarctica to explore a mysterious mountain range beneath the ice sheet. Following is the third of her updates on the effort as part of Scientific American.com's In-depth Report on "The Future of the Poles."

McMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA--The stereotype of a scientist is a solitary figure in a white lab coat manipulating chemicals alone late in the night.  Supporting this lone crusader for science are legions of others who work to make the laboratory function. Usually these legions are invisible.  Antarctica is a continent populated by small towns, villages and hamlets all dedicated to science.  The tremendous teamwork and infrastructure support for each scientist and each scientific program is apparent.  Snow school reflects the breadth of the support necessary for any Antarctic expedition.

Snow school is a two-day exercise to  teach people working “on the ice”  basic skills in surviving extreme cold environments.  Frequently called “happy camper” class, the program requires an overnight camp-out on the 300-foot thick floating Ross Ice Shelf.  My class included  two  scientists and 17 people who work to make science happen.  The group included the two mountaineers who served as the instructors, a baker, several mechanics, heavy vehicle operators, meteorologists, a cargo specialist, a risk management expert and a shuttle driver.

Together, this diverse group learned how to recognize hypothermia and frostbite while cringing at photos of gangrene and mummification. Some hints seemed useful while others seemed less applicable.   Not eating all the emergency food on the first day seemed like a good idea.  Freezing your arms onto the surface of the sea ice to keep from slipping into the water when you become unconscious did not seem particularly useful.  The lakes we are working on are covered with two – mile-thick sheets  of ice. There is little chance anyone in our group will fall into the water this season. 

We practiced operating stoves that are stored in the survival bags taken on every journey away from camps.  It was quickly evident that if you put a scientist and two  mechanics together with the stove, they would  dismantle it to try to figure out how  it works, while the group headed by the baker  would have a flame going in no time.  Maybe it  would be better to be stranded with a baker.  After several hours of lecture, we grabbed our collection of extreme weather gear and headed out to our classroom on the ice shelf.  First we set up tents with lines tied to bamboo stick anchors buried in the snow to brace them from howling winds. Next the class became an efficient assembly line, slicing large blocks of snow from the ice shelf and stacking them into a 30-foot- high  wall to protect the tents from the chilling wind blowing off smoking Mt. Erebus. 

Shoveling snow and building snow shelters was creating a bond between this very disparate group of campers. For dinner, we were careful not to “burn” the snow we melted for water.   Burned water would not have improved the flavor of the packets of tasteless freeze-dried food. Lacking a bonfire and marshmallows, the evening entertainment was building snow trenches in a sort of praire dog enclave beyond the snow wall.  As the sun swung around to the west, distinct architectural styles emerged.  The car-racing mechanic from Georgia had a beautiful A-frame structure, while the risk management expert had a ranch and the ice scientist built an igloo.  Our sleeping bags just fit inside these snug trenches and we each slept in our sub-terrainean homes until morning when, just like prairie dogs, we poked our heads out of our tunnel.

After a day filled with scenarios of plane crashes and white outs, the class walked together back toward McMurdo, the small science town where we all live and work.  A sense of community has been forged from this group of campers wearing puffy down parkas and dark sunglasses.  No white lab coats and safety googles here. Scientists in Antarctica do not stand alone.

Dispatches from the Bottom of the Earth: An Antarctic Expedition in Search of Lost Mountains Encased in Ice


CREDIT:  Robin Bell