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Research / Discovery

First-timers meet the ice - and nematodes

June 23, 2009

How many layers of clothing does it take to stay warm in Antarctica? Colorado State University graduate student Karen Seaver found out four layers was adequate for conducting field research in the oldest, coldest, and driest soils on earth - Antarctica's ice-free McMurdo Dry Valleys.

Basic layers include long underwear, fleece shirt and pants, and wind-resistant snow pants and jacket. “A typical Antarctica field research outfit is topped off with a hat, balaclava, gloves, and goggles,” says Seaver, who made her first trip to the bottom of the world this year. “‘Bunny boots’ protect us from cold toes.”

Antarctica ecosystem revealing

Seaver is one of a team of eight scientists who traveled in mid-December to Antarctica under the direction of Diana Wall, Colorado State biology professor and director of CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability, for the two-month field research project. The group included:

  • Professor Diana Wall
  • two CSU graduate students, Karen Seaver and Tracy Smith
  • two CSU postdoctoral researchers, Breana Simmons and Uffe Nielsen
  • two Brigham Young University researchers
  • a graduate student from New Zealand

Climate change and underground species

Wall and her Soil Ecology Lab at Colorado State focus primarily on ecosystem processes that are mediated by soil organisms called nematodes. Such studies can reveal clues about soil quality and the effects of climate change on underground species.

“For as long as I’ve been traveling to the ice, I’m still amazed by the beauty and isolation,” says Wall, who marked her 19th trip to the frozen continent since 1989. “Having a super team there to measure in real time the warming effects on the Antarctic ecosystem was a great contribution to our long-term research.”

General survival skills learned at 'Happy Camper School'

A requirement for first-timers in Antarctica is a safety training program, better known as Happy Camper School. “The two-day, overnight course teaches general survival skills such as building snow shelters, snow camping, and cooking and living outdoors,” Seaver says.

“One of our first challenges was working together to build a snow cave, which is constructed by forming a deep pile of snow, letting it set in the sun for a few hours, then hollowing out the inside. As helpful as it is to get training before going, I don’t think you can ever be fully prepared for what it’s like to live in Antarctica until you’ve experienced it first-hand.”

“The whole experience of being down there was pretty surreal – everything from getting to see the vast and incredible landscape of the Dry Valleys to living at McMurdo Station to the various field experiences we had with our team,” says Smith, another first-timer.

(Photo at right: Taylor Valley glacier)

24 hours of sunlight inspired Nemablog

Due to the unique nature of traveling to the bottom of the world, Simmons created a blog chronicling the team’s stay in the 24 hours of sunlight. “Nemablog: The World of Nematodes,” online was a vehicle to give schoolchildren glimpses into the life of field researchers in Antarctica.

“Creating a blog seemed like a really fun and easy way for educators and students to get involved in our science and interact with us while we’re in Antarctica,” Simmons says. “When I started it three years ago, there were only a couple of schools interested, but now I’m responding to requests from teachers of all grade levels who want to add Antarctic science to their curricula.”

by Kimberly Sorensen

Originally published in Colorado State Magazine, Spring 2009.