Project Extremes Antarctica

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

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.

Susan recording data

Susan recording data

I love it here.  I love it, and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen… but we are working our tails off.  In a place that doesn’t get dark, there is no external environmental reason to stop working.  It’s cold, it’s very windy, but it’s light enough to work around the clock.  And so we do.  With the fickle weather, you know you have to get as much done as you can while it’s still clear.  If it snows tomorrow, our experiment will be shot, so we must finish today.

Susan laying out transect lines to determine points for soil collection

Susan laying out transect lines to determine points for soil collection

Knowing it would take us many hours to sample soil and take measurements, we got up at 6:30 to practice using the equipment: we knew we had to measure soil respiration (a proxy for microbial activity) as quickly as possible so that our measurements across the sampling plots would be consistent.  We took our first practice measurements at 9, and ran into our first logistical trouble at 9:04.  Under the snow patches, thick ice had formed above the soil, preventing us from digging into the soil with the plastic scoops we had been given to complete the task.  Not only this, but we could not get a good seal between the respiration meter and the frozen soil, because we could not push the meter into the soil.  This meant that our measurements would have more error than the range of respiration values we could see in these soils:  none of our data could be trusted with this method.

Ian laying out measuring tape for two lines at a time: where the lines cross will be our center point.

Ian laying out measuring tape for two lines at a time: where the lines cross will be our center point.

Back to the drawing board, we returned to the hut for a new strategy.  Bigger digging implements?  We found a few we could try.  The trick was to find something that would help us dig without disturbing the soil and biotic/abiotic processes.  And what about a seal between the frozen ground and our respiration machine?  This couldn’t be just anything– we needed a material that would form an airtight seal (i.e. not let CO2 in or out), but also not react with CO2 to skew our measurements.  After much searching, we decided to use foam from a sleeping pad to place in between soil and meter.  Donning our coats, we were greeted by the rest of our team, who had just arrived by helicopter from McMurdo and, staying only for the day, needed to use the respiration meter for just four hours.

Kallin maneuvering around the weather station to place string for locating our sampling points

Kallin maneuvering around the weather station to place string for locating our sampling points

At 4:30 pm, we took our first sample.  It was supposed to snow the next day, so we had to finish before then– soil moisture is, as one can imagine, heavily influenced by snowfall and subsequent melting.  We worked as fast as possible, with one person taking respiration measurements, one person recording data, and two people digging holes to sample soil.  Although respiration can be estimated within 2 minutes, the machine is required to be at a certain operating temperature, so in the chilly weather, we waited for it to warm up between every sample point.  We put it inside a down jacket, with 6 hand warmers, and carried it around delicately, babying it with the hope of convincing it to cooperate with us.  At one point, I waited twenty minutes for it to warm up, to no avail.  I returned to the hut for more handwarmers.

Yay, we're done!  ...setting up, that is.

Yay, we’re done! …setting up, that is.

The going was slow, and got slower when we reached the portion of our plot that was under >2 feet of snow.  The snow had a thick layer of ice on top, beneath, and throughout.  This required a new tool, which we finally found after much trial and error.  It was heavy and a bit unwieldy, but broke through the ice (mostly).  And under several patches of ice lay huge rocks around which digging was impossible, at least within our carefully chosen sample points.  Reluctantly (because we spent 1/2 hour digging some of these holes), we abandoned these points and chose new ones to replace them.

Twenty two and a half hours after getting up, we finished sampling and, exhausted, returned to the hut for a quick bite before bed.  Now we move slowly to our tents, leaving clean-up and lab work for the next day.  As my head hits the pillow, I feel satisfied at having accomplished what we have been planning for so long.  Although I have moments of uncertainty, I know all the hard work is worth it in the end.

The beautiful morning sun is one advantage to working through the night!  The wind is also much calmer in the early morning.

The beautiful morning sun is one advantage to working through the night! The wind is also much calmer in the early morning.


16 thoughts on “The way science really works

  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to post these comments. It’s SO interesting.

  2. Excellent- nothing better than ingenuity in the field, and an all-day all-night effort! Hope you get some needed rest. It will be great to see the outcome of your intensive work.

  3. Wow, that is such a good lesson in how important it is to be persistent and not give up, keep trying new things! I really admire you all for keeping at it! It will be so exciting to find out what you learn!

    • It sure is! And things usually don’t go the way you plan, so you just have to figure out a different way to do them and not let it thwart you, but to see it as a challenge. Part of the fun of science is definitely figuring out how to do things the best way (or next best)!

  4. It looks like there are a lot of rounded rocks that look like rocks that have been in a stream. Were they in a river? Are they still volcanic rocks? How did you keep from just looking at the gorgeous mountains??!!!

    • The rocks in the Dry Valleys are weathered by glaciers (which have similar effects as a stream) and the wind. Some are volcanic; many are not. Ventifacts are the beautiful wind-sculpted rocks with smooth surfaces (and stepping outside, it is easy to see how wind can sculpt rocks– it is so strong!), and yes, it is nearly impossible to focus in a place like this without getting distracted by the vistas. Every time I walk outside, my breath is taken away!

  5. Wow- sounds like the field work is so interesting and what long hours you all are putting in!! I guess you can rest on the airplane ride home! Thanks for the photos of you all in action and the amazing scenery – my understanding and awareness of the vastness and magnitude of Antarctica has increased due to your adventures. Great job with the blog!


  6. Thanks for the detailed account of your somewhat frustrating sampling. It’s important for people to understand that science isn’t always go to the lab for the day and get results. These types of struggles is what makes science so intellectually stimulating and fun! I hope you get good data from all your efforts.

  7. Really cool, amazing work Loren! I would love to hear more about it when you get back!

  8. Reminds me of some of the field work I did with NCAR up your way although your location is a little more secluded. Thanks for sharing your stories. Kind of makes me miss the work.

  9. Awesome stick-with-it-ness. Its staggering what we’ll do for a little data. See you when you return.

  10. Wow! The photos are awesome! Can’t wait to see your presentation!

  11. Loren –
    love the title of the blog – we spent class time today doing a “redo” of a lab with bad data… though our working conditions were slightly warmer, and shorter, and all around WAY easier… but a small look at “how science really works”. We are looking forward to hearing many more stories in person.

    • Hi Sandy,

      I am always surprised by how constrained by logistics science– and particularly field work– is. You always get something out of it, it just may not be what you anticipate! I can’t wait to share all my stories and bring what I’ve learned into the classroom.

  12. It is really appreciable great effort and I think it is the responsibility of every individual to contribute something towards the protecting the earth..

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