Antarctic research, Amy Moran
Q & A with the Zellerbach Zebras Zebra picture
Answers to questions sent to us by Ms. Grabenkort's elementary school classes in Camas, Washington.

Hello Zebras, and thanks for all of your great questions! Answers to the first set are at the bottom of the page.

(1) Since we’re studying volcanoes, we wonder: Have you and your team thought about what you might do if Mt. Erebus erupted? Looks like you’re pretty close to it.

Mt. Erebus is very close to McMurdo Station and it is a large, active volcano; it is constantly smoking, which is really amazing to see. Fortunately the constant low-level circulation of magma through the lava lake keeps the pressure from building up inside the volcano, and the vulcanologists tell me this has kept the volcano from erupting violently for a very long time and it is very safe to be near (safe as houses). That said, Ross Island, which is the island McMurdo Station is on, was pretty much built by lava flows from Erebus and other, older volcanos that aren't active any more, so it is something that crosses our minds every once in a while! There are many geophysicists here studying Mt. Erebus, so we are sure we'd have lots of warning if something were to change.

(2) Also, we wonder if you’ve seen evidence of the most popular kind of volcano- underwater volcanoes, when you’re on your dives?

Not really. Some of our dive sites are in the Dellbridge Islands near McMurdo Sound, which are part of an ancient underwater caldera. However there is no geothermal activity underwater that we have seen.

(3) How do you get hot water? Do you use a water heater with a tank or the on-demand systems we read about when we were reading about helping the environment?

All the power at McMurdo, including the energy for heating water, is produced by large generators or by solar power. For the people who live here it feels just like being at home; turn the tap and out comes hot water. The water itself is seawater that has been desalinated on site. Sometimes the water runs low and we have to be very careful to conserve.

(4) We have lots of questions about the sea spiders: are they poisonous? do they bite? how do they eat? what do they eat? how do they breathe?

Those are great questions. The sea spiders are not poisonous as far as we know, but some of them are bright orange which might be warning coloration to tell predators that they taste bad. We haven't tried to eat them ourselves, so we don't know for sure. They don't bite people (no teeth), but they do eat other animals; they feed by sticking their proboscis into a see anemone or other animal and sucking out the internal fluids. It's pretty gross. They don't usually kill the animal they are feeding on, so they are sort of the vampires of the underwater world down here. So far they have shown no interest in eating people.

We have no idea how they breathe; they have no gills or lungs, so they must get oxygen across their skin (which is hard like a crab's). This is one of the questions we are studying - how does an animal like that get enough oxygen inside its body to survive?

(5) Do you have lots of free time? If so, what do you do? Do you ever hang out with the other scientists we saw in the video? Do you ever sled with them or have snowball fights?

We work pretty hard but we do take time off to relax. I'm not sure what video you saw but we hang out with many of the other scientists here, often at the Coffee House or at meals in the Galley, and there are get-togethers almost every weekend. There is also a bowling alley, a library, two gyms, a Crafts Shack, movies, and lots of other things going on. Our work is really fun, though, so we don't mind spending most of our time in the lab or field.

We haven't gone sledding yet this year but we've had quite a few snowball fights...

(6) We thought we saw you wearing interesting shoes in the photos. Do you have to wear something on your feet to walk across all of that ice?

In the field, we all wear our "bunny boots" (government issue extreme-cold-weather white boots) that are very heavy and clumsy, but great at keeping your feet warm. The sea ice can be very slippery and it is a good idea to wear boot spikes if it is really windy, but otherwise, around town we just wear regular shoes. It's warming up quite a bit now that it is mid-November so I have even seen the occasional person wearing sandals around town, with socks of course.

(7) Aside from penguins, are there any land animals around?

At McMurdo we get only four bird species - Adelie penguins, Emperor penguins, Antarctic skuas, and snow petrels - and three seal species, Weddell seals, which are common, and rarely crabeater seals or leopard seals. Other than that, there aren't any large land animals. There are some microscopic animals like rotifers and nematodes in the soils but you can't see them unless you look very closely.

(8) Is there any plant life at all of Antarctica?

There are grasses and some other plants on the Antarctic peninsula, but where we are at McMurdo there are only a few very slow-growing, very small lichens. I have only seen one once. There are also very slow-growing microscopic algae growing in the ice and sometimes in the rocks, but that's it. Looking around, all you see is rocks, snow, and ice.

(9) We wondered if you garden at all.

There is a greenhouse here that grows some vegetables and sometimes those show up in the galley for dinner, but other than that, no garden plants could survive here!

(10) Do you have to keep the aquarium room freezing cold so the animals are comfortable?

The aquarium room is pretty cold, but the water flows pretty rapidly so it keeps the animals very cold in the tanks.

(11) Have you seen any ice caverns? We read that there are some on the continent.

Not around here. I was just talking to a vulcanologist at breakfast and he told me that there are some amazing ice caverns on Erebus that are melted out by steam vents on the sides of the volcano. I will try to see if I can get a picture to post.

1.  We know you're studying the nudibranchs.  Is that picture of the yellow one on the web site actual size, or a microscope picture?  And are they all yellow?  And, do they live anywhere else in the world??

The nudibranchs are a large group of marine animals that are found in oceans all over the world (in fact we have done a lot of work on nudibranchs in Puget Sound, WA), and they are basically snails that have lost their shells in evolutionary time. To make up for the loss of a protective shell, many have developed poisons or bad-tasting compounds so that predators won't eat them. These are often brightly colored - yellow, like the one in our picture, or red, orange, white - many of them are spectacularly beautiful - to advertise to predators that they taste bad. Many other species, instead of being poisonous, are very well camouflaged to hide from predators. The one shown on our web page was about 2 centimeters long. Some species are almost microscopic, and others can be a foot long or more. You can see many more pictures of Antarctic nudibranchs and other animals from our trip to McMurdo last year, and we'll have more coming later this season. You can also look at pictures of last year's SCUBA diving.

2.  We read that you were trained on what to do with your waste, and we'd like to know- what DO you do with it?

Nothing that we use down here can stay on the Antarctic continent, because of an international agreement to keep Antarctica as untouched and clean as possible, so EVERYTHING is waste. You can't just throw something in a trash basket; instead, each person has to sort everything into one of 10 categories for recycling, incinerating, or composting. All paper, metal, and most plastics are shipped back to the US for recycling. Nonrecyclables are shipped back to the US for incineration, composting, or other disposal. The *other* kinds of waste are treated at a treatment plant on station (yes, we have normal toilets); in the field it's another story, because we can leave *nothing* behind. It all has to be stored in buckets and drums, brought back to McMurdo, and transported back to the US for treatment. Quite an amazing process.

3.  Do you use the scientific method?  If so, could you post pictures of your science notebooks so we can compare them with ours?

We use the scientific method all the time. Here's a picture of my lab notebook; I hope you all keep a neater lab book than I do! I have one separate notebook for each project I am working on. I have learned that the most important thing is to write EVERYTHING down, because even you are sure you will remember something later, you will probably forget it.

4.  When you're scuba diving, how do you find the hole to come back up through?  And, how long can you stay under water?

We can stay underwater for about an hour, maximum - usually we start to get pretty cold after about 45 minutes, so most dives are around 30-45 minutes long. The hole is very easy to see from underwater since the water is so clear, and the hole is very bright and the ice around it is dark. We also put in a "down line" at the hole that reaches from the surface to the bottom and the down line has strobe lights, a large black-and-white flag, and an emergency air bottle; we *never* want to lose sight of the hole, since it is our only way out!

5.  Are you afraid of any large sea animals when you're diving, and have you been trained for what to do if you see something scary while underwater?

The only large animals here right now are the Weddell seals. We see them quite often and they really like the dive holes because they can use them to breathe. Weddell seals are big, but they are extremely calm and friendly so nobody worries about them hurting us - we are more worried about disturbing them! There are other species of seals that might be aggressive towards divers, but they do not come in this close to McMurdo this time of year.

6.  What does your science lab look like?

Our lab here is very modern. We have one dry lab where we do experiments with oxygen consumption and also a lot of microscope work; we also have space in the Crary Lab aquarium room where we keep our animals and do some experiments too.

7.  What other animals are you studying?  Do you have pictures of them to post? 

We are also studying sea spiders (a.k.a. pycnogonids), bizarre animals that can reach gigantic sizes here in the Antarctic. We will post some pictures from these in the field (the one shown in the picture is in the lab, with a large white nudibranch on the upper left).

8.  Does everybody like their job down there? :)

I can only speak for the scientists - but we all love it!! It is a fantastic place to work and the science is all new and exciting.











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