Project Extremes Antarctica

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


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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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


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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Survival Training

After being thoroughly debriefed for two days on survival skills in emergencies, I can’t decide if I feel more prepared for adverse situations, or more hesitant about the extreme environment I will voluntarily venture into tomorrow.  On the one hand, I have all the tools I need to stay warm and hydrated, and to get help if I need it.  On the other, I am hyper-aware of a myriad of things that could go wrong on my journey (or my stay in field camp). Continue reading


Getting to know McMurdo

The area around McMurdo station is composed entirely of volcanic rock; the ground made up of pebbles, boulders and mountains of volcanic debris.  The terrain is steep and mountainous, rising from sea level to 12,448 feet at the summit of nearby Mt. Erebus.  On a short hike around the station, we can stumble across remnants of early visits to the continent (such as the Discovery Hut), beautiful weathered rocks, and wildlife that spends part of its time in the McMurdo Sound.

During an open house in which 8 people at a time were allowed to enter the Discovery Hut, we explored remains from Captain Scott’s winter stay in a hut constructed in 1902 when the expedition’s ship became frozen and immobilized in sea ice.  They took all the valuables with them when they left, but many empty food items and tools remained.  There was even a frying pan with food in it!  Since it’s so dry and cold here, food doesn’t rot, it just mummifies because all the water is lost.

Shelves of goods used by the Scott party in 1902-1904

Shelves of goods used by the Scott party in 1902-1904

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Everyday life at McMurdo

People told me it was difficult to sleep here in the summer, when it’s always light out.  I didn’t believe them; I thought– I can sleep anywhere, anytime!  I need my sleep!  …I was wrong.  It is easy to get tired when I’m inside and it gets late, but if we’re hanging out outside talking, walking around, taking pictures– I don’t feel tired.  I feel like it’s midday.  I feel energized by the immensity of the landscape and the angle of the sun in the sky.  I can’t make myself feel tired.

Susan and Loren wearing sunglasses in the bright midnight sun

Susan and Loren wearing sunglasses in the bright midnight sun

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