Project Extremes Antarctica

Scientists and teachers team up to conduct research in the most extreme environment on earth


About this blog and its authors

Project EXTREMES (EXcellence in Teaching and Research for Elementary and Middle School Engagement in Science) is an NSF GK-12 sponsored collaboration between the University of Colorado (CU) and the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD). It partners graduate students in the sciences with K-12 teachers to enhance the communication of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) disciplines through a focus on the ecology of extreme environments.

As an extension of our ongoing work in classrooms, three Project EXTREMES graduate students and one teacher will travel to Antarctica during Dec-Jan 2009/10 as part of a long-term ecological research team.  There we will work with an international team of scientists focused on understanding the ecology of one of the most extreme environments on earth, the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Continue reading



Antarctica’s most famous penguin

A small group of emperor penguins molting; White Island in the background

Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) are the most well-known penguins living in Antarctica– they star in March of the Penguins and are one of the continent’s best examples of adaptation to its extreme environment.  They are the largest species of penguin, reaching up to 122 cm (48 inches) tall and weighing from 22-45 kg (49-99 lb), although they weigh only 11 ounces at birth.  During the rearing of their young, males and females lose weight because they are incubating eggs and caring for their offspring instead of feeding themselves– in fact, males lose an average of 15 kg (33 lb)– almost 40% of their body weight!  Males will fast for 4 months while the females are out foraging for food (Williams 1995); when females return to take over caring for the newly hatched chick, males travel up to 100 km across the ice before they reach water, where they can finally find their food.  There are many risks to a young penguin, and fewer than 20% survive their first year (Williams 1995).

When penguins molt, their new feathers coming in are not initially waterproof, so the penguins cannot swim until the feathers have gained their waterproof coating.  During this time, since they are unable to hunt for food, they must conserve energy, and they become quiescent for weeks on end.  They do not move even when people are nearby.  During our stay at McMurdo, four emperor penguins found their way to the road near Pegasus, the landing strip, and stationed themselves there during their molt.   Because they were just off the road, we could see them closely when driving by.  Of course, we are still not allowed to approach them, and must maintain a distance great enough that they hardly notice us.  Fortunately, I have a nice zoom lens!

Emperors molting (you can see white feathers coming out of their bodies as they are replaced by new ones)

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Did someone say penguins?

“Go sit down on that rock,” Jean tells Kallin, “and let them approach you.  You can’t approach them, but they are very curious, so they will come check you out.”  We are adjacent to a penguin rookery at Cape Royds, an area of scientific interest (people can enter only with a permit to do research on the penguins).  Kallin willingly obliges, and moments later, a pair of Adelie penguins waddles within 10 feet.  They stop and cock their heads, pivoting to look at Kallin from different angles.   She returns their curious stares, tilting her head in unison with the pair.

Kallin sitting patiently on the rocks as the curious Adelie penguins waddle nearby

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Soils 101

One of the main areas of scientific research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys focuses on soils.  Many people are surprised to find out that there are actually soils in Antarctica, since we generally think of the entire continent as being covered by ice.  And that is true for about 98% of the continent.  However the dry valleys are Continue reading


The way science really works

We are sitting in the F6 hut eating grilled cheese sandwiches at 5:30 in the morning.  We are exhausted, not thinking sharply, and moving slowly.  The room is quiet, we speak slowly and our usual joking interactions have mellowed.  We have just finished a 23 hour day of field work, completing the sampling we have been planning for ages.  We feel satisfied, but too tired to think.  This is the fourth day in a row we have been working past midnight. Continue reading


Streams 101

We have spent the last couple of days helping out the “stream team”, a group of scientists working on stream ecology in Taylor Valley, Antarctica.  The stream team is headed by Dr. Diane McKnight, a limnologist at the University of Colorado, who has been working in Antarctica for over 20 years.  Stream ecology is an important topic here.  Streams flow only during the summer, when glaciers melt in the 24-hour sun and feed the lakes that are dispersed throughout the valleys.  As streams flow, they transport reactive chemical elements away from the glaciers, providing Continue reading


Holed up in the Dry Valleys

This place is stunning.  It’s hard to describe the beauty, the enormity of the landscape.  Now I can understand why so many people failed to reach the South Pole, why this continent is so harsh.  Antarctica is not a flat sheet of ice; it is the highest continent on earth.  The Asgard mountains tower over the Taylor Valley, and they are but one of many mountain ranges, any of which would be treacherous to cross…treacherous, but they are beautiful indeed.

Huge glacier surrounded by mountains, adjacent to Taylor Valley

The huge Ferrar glacier surrounded by mountains, adjacent to Taylor Valley

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