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Questions and Answers About Antarctica

These answers were developed in response to an email from a teacher who teaches in a school for children with learning disabilities. The students in her social studies class were studying Antarctica and had many questions about it. Here is the response to the students' questions.

Dear Susan and The Janus School Students:

Please allow me to pass on some information that I gathered by talking to a scientist at NOAA who has "wintered over" at the South Pole. Also, you might enjoy reading my story about a couple of other scientists I interviewed who also spent a year at the South Pole Station. Here it is: http://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/magazine/dark_stormy_night/welcome.html

Q Since it is so cold there, how fast do you have to get your clothes on?

A If you are a researcher at the South Pole, you get dressed inside, so you have as much time as you need. But the many layers of heavy clothing take quite awhile to get on, and then they weigh you down and make you slow when you try to walk in all that heavy clothing and boots. The "Dark and Stormy Night" article has more about that.

Q What type of clothing do you wear?

A Layers and layers of articles of clothing, from special under garments (some made of silk) to layers of Polartec shirts and vests, to heavy down (feathers) parkas, to several pairs of gloves, to socks and heavy boots. Here is a photo:
Examples of clothing worn in Antarctica

Q What type of foods do you eat?

A There is a full service cafeteria now, and also a hydroponic greenhouse to grow a few fresh greens, but almost everything is cooked from frozen (!) foods that are all brought down when the last supply plane makes its last delivery in the late Southern Hemisphere autumn – in late February. So there is no fresh fruit or many things that we take for granted in the U.S. where our grocery stores are so well supplied.

Q How cold does it get?

A Temperatures at the South Pole can reach 140 degrees below 0. The average temperature is 40 degrees below 0. One day when it was “only” zero degrees, scientists and support staff went outside to play softball.

Q How much daylight do you get?

A In the Antarctic winter (March-September), it is nearly dark or completely dark all the time. But your eyes can get adjusted to the darkness, and actually, the light from the stars and sometimes from the Southern Lights can illuminate the outside in a very beautiful way. Inside, it is light whenever you turn the lights on! In the Antarctic summer (October-Feburary), it is light or nearly light 24 hours a day! If you look at NOAA’s South Pole cam today -- http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/obop/spo/livecamera.html -- you will find that there is very little you can see. Why? It is winter in Antarctica!

Q What types of weapons do you carry to protect yourself against animals?

A Don’t get confused between the Arctic (North Pole) and the Antarctic (South Pole). At the South Pole Station, which is inland on the continent, there are no animals at all, except humans. And we all undergo a psychiatric evaluation, so that we aren’t apt to harm our fellow people. Along the coasts you might see penguins or sea animals, like seals. In the Arctic, however, our station at Point Barrow, Alaska, researchers are taught how to use a rifle, and always take one with them out on the ice. This is in case they encounter a polar bear who is hungry and doesn’t run away; most bears in the Arctic and elsewhere are not looking for a fight with a human and they will run away.

Q What are you researching?

A NOAA is mainly conducting research on our atmosphere and what types of gases and particles are in the atmosphere, even far from sources of pollution, in very “clean” places like the South Pole and the Antarctic continent. NOAA also launches ozone balloons all through the year and particularly in the Antarctic spring (late September) to measure the loss of ozone high in the upper atmosphere over the cold continent, know as the “ozone hole.” Here is a story about out discoveries in that area: http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2006/s2686.htm.

The National Science Foundation also supports research in other areas, such as astronomy and ice-core studies. http://www.usap.gov/

Q How many people are at your research center?

A NOAA employs two full-time staffers at the South Pole each year to “winter over.” In the Antarctic summer, there can be 10 or more NOAA researchers who come down for a few weeks at a time to conduct specific research. There are a couple of dozen researchers who winter over for various other science institutions and nations.

Q Are there other research centers there?

A The National Science Foundation supports the South Pole station and stations along the coast, as well as the U.S. research that is conducted there in some form or another. Please see this web site: http://www.nsf.gov/div/index.jsp?div=ANT

Q Are you allowed to have pets?

A No pets are allowed at the South Pole Station.

Q Other than researchers, are there people that live in Antarctica?

A Unlike the Arctic Region, which has had native people living along the shores of the Arctic Ocean for thousands of years, no people or population has ever made the Antarctic their homeland. Now the continent is governed by a treaty of 28 countries that “reserves the region for peace, promotes scientific investigations and international cooperation, requires an annual exchange of information about activities, and encourages environmental stewardship.”

Q What type of transportation do you use to get around?

A To get to the South Pole Station, you have to take an airplane. (People have reached the South Pole by dog sleds, but it is slow and dangerous. There are no roads there.)

At the South Pole Station, there is snow moving equipment, Caterpillars and forklifts, as well as personnel carriers and “motor toboggans,” which are like snowmobiles. Most of these vehicles resemble tanks, with moving tracks rather than wheels and tires. Vehicles have to be left running when outside during winter, because you could not get them started again if you shut them off! Here is a list of the vehicles at the South Pole Station: http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/antarct/treaty/html/plans0001/transpt.htm

Q What is the time difference?

A The time difference in Antarctica depends on which part of the continent you are referring to as well as the time zone in which you live in the U.S. Actually, Antarctica has no official time zones. Individual research stations use whatever time zone is convenient, usually whichever is closest in South America or Australia. For example, McMurdo Station uses the same time zone as Christchurch, New Zealand. Dates and times are almost always expressed in GMT, Greenwich Mean Time, as used by scientists all over the world to avoid any possible ambiguity.

Below are all the animal questions:

Q What types of dangerous animals are there?

Q What is the most dangerous animal?

Q Do you check on the animals in the wild?

Q If you have to catch animals, what do you use to catch them? Do you help wild animals if they are hurt?

A I suggest the students do some online research of their own on animals in Antarctica. Here is a Web site from NOAA’s photo library that talks about animals that live along the coasts of Antarctica. http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/corps/antarctic.html Also, NOAA’s Fisheries Service does work in the Antarctic, and here is a story and more information about that: http://www.magazine.noaa.gov/stories/mag196.htm