The Altered Nature of Things

One of the weirdest things about the extreme cold is the way familiar substances begin to betray your expectations. Plastics stiffen and become brittle after just a few seconds’ exposure to the outside air. Metal burns to the touch. Moving parts freeze together or shrink apart. Batteries dwindle to a fraction of their former capacity and LCDs update sluggishly. The various vital fluids of vehicles freeze and coagulate. I can’t even imagine how much more bizarre and difficult it is at the South Pole, where ambient temperatures regularly dip below -100F.

We had a lot of this out in the field today. My issues with spectacles persist (frosting over completely, attempting to freeze to my face, what have you) and the goggles do nothing don’t help very much. (The little fan died their first day out, as I sort of expected it to do.) Our ice corer nearly got stuck in the ice. And our electronic thermometer, which we use to take the temperature of ice cores, refuses to function properly when it gets too cold. This meant I spent quite a while with it stuck down the front of my pants, nestled against my belly, trying to get it warm enough to give a reading–like an emperor penguin incubating an egg, as my advisor put it.

Speaking of penguins, I saw my first sign of the local wildlife today. Small clouds of steam, puffing up from a crack in the sea ice once a second or so: a Weddell seal at a breathing hole. We didn’t see the actual seal, of course. Weddell seals are fascinating creatures. They live under the sea ice, so they have to breathe through any cracks or holes in the ice they can find. They keep them open by chewing away at the ice as the holes freeze over. Any hole in the ice is likely to attract a Weddell seal; Antarctic divers often find themselves suddenly sharing their diving hole with a half-ton of blubbery, snorting Weddell, and our Kiwi friends say that their little hut on the sea ice has been visited (and splattered with seal snot) more than once.



A Weddell seal breathing hole in a sea ice crack.

It seems like a precarious lifestyle, being dependent upon the ever-shifting sea ice just to be able to breathe. Antarctic animals are a resilient and determined lot.

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3 Responses to “The Altered Nature of Things”

  1. Marla Says:

    Always amazed that life persists in extreme conditions. Kind of reassuring for the human species….freezing goggles and all….

  2. Tammy Says:

    I’m coming late to this game … but isn’t the thermometer story, er, antithetical? You have to warm it up to get it to read how cold it is in the ice?

    • psychroteuthis Says:

      It is rather contrary, isn’t it? The bloody thing just isn’t designed for cold temperatures. Turns out most things aren’t.

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