Antarctic Megadunes: Life on the Ice

For the first field season, the megadunes team lived at the camp established by the TransAntarctic Mountains Seismic Experiment, known as the TAM camp. Using the camp's Twin Otter airplane, they commuted 60 miles to the megadunes research site. Weather conditions at TAM camp and McMurdo made it difficult to ship the research cargo, so the team was able to spend only three days instead of two weeks at the research site. Even in that short time, they learned much about the dunes and snow.

The team's stay at megadunes camp the second field season was approxiamtely three weeks. They worked and lived there the entire time, so were able to conduct much more research than in the previous year.

The living and working areas for the megadunes team consisted of double-walled Endurance tents with insulated floors. Sleeping quarters were "Scott tents," named for the design invented by the famous Antarctic explorer. These tents are sturdy but unheated; inside the tents it was 8°F. The team slept in multiple layers of clothing inside their down-filled sleeping bags. During the day the team could warm up in the larger, heated PolarHaven tents nearby at the main TAM camp, and then concentrate on the work they came to do.

Endurance and Scott tentsThe striped Endurance tent measures 2.4 meters x 6.7 meters (8 feet x 21 feet), and is over 2 meters (6 feet) high. The smaller, yellow Scott tent sleeps two people. Images courtesy of Ted Scambos.

The team members worked together to set up the testing equipment, then focused on their areas of expertise. The team accomplished the following:

  • Excavated snow pits, logged their findings, and took samples and photographs
  • Drilled two firn cores for later analysis
  • Set up an Automated Weather Station (AWS) with a logging system to record data over the Antarctic winter
  • Traversed a large area to record GPR and GPS profiles
  • Took extensive photographs from the ground and the air

See Research Plan for more details on the team's work.

Working at -50° F

Digging snow pitsMary Albert and Chris Shuman digging snow pits. Image courtesy of Ted Scambos.

Dr. Ted Scambos of NSIDC explains that the most important thing in survival when working in this weather is getting warm between outings in the field.

He says, "We worked outdoors as long as we could stand it, a few hours at the most. One of our biggest problems besides the cold was seeing. Goggles frosted hard with ice by your breath. If you wore just sunglasses, you risked frostbite on your cheeks. It was easier to work without them, but then you risked getting snow blindness and your eyelashes would freeze together."

For more on Ted Scambos and other team members, see Research Team.