My 20 Favorite Antarctic Words (and Phrases)

Ok, so, I lied. About a couple things.

I promised two days ago that the next list would be heavy on the photos. Well, this isn’t. I’m still going through thousands of photos to put together a few of the upcoming lists and just haven’t finished.

I also vowed to do one list per day for my last 20 days here on Ice Planet Hoth, but then I skipped yesterday. It was a perfect storm of events: another horrible mass shooting, this one in a place I know well, a thrilling engineering feat by NASA getting Curiosity on the ground on Mars, and a bad case of dry eye that made any kind of online work painful.

My eye is still bugging me, so I’m posting one of the shorter lists. No photos, but lots o’ learnin’ kinds of stuff.

The following words are not necessarily unique to Antarctica, but I learned them here and, in my mind, they will be forever linked to the Ice.

20. NavChaps. When #19 occurs, a whole pile of strapping young military sorts get flown in to spend a couple weeks doing the heavy lifting, literally. In years past, the New Zealand navy allegedly sent its most troublesome rabble here for the job as punishment. The rogues then–and the somewhat better-behaved youngsters now–go by the name NavChaps.

19. Vessel Evolution. Every February, as the summer season is winding down, an icebreaker churns and crunches its way through Ross Sea and McMurdo Sound, clearing the way for a fuel tanker and supply ship to deliver the next year’s worth of stuff–fuel, canned goods, new mattresses, and so on. The supply ship also hauls off all our waste and recycling, taking it to California where, I assume, McMansions are eventually built on it. The whole complex process of offloading the ship, finding places to put the new stuff and getting the waste aboard is a huge undertaking called “vessel evolution.” I just like that phrase, which sounds vaguely sinister, like the title of a Clive Cussler thriller or something.

18. Chilblains. One of my very first days in Antarctica, I paused to read informational signage (I love informational signage) about all the ways you could die/become extremely unhappy here. It was a long list, mostly obvious stuff like hypothermia or getting stuck in a crevasse, but “chilblains” caught my eye, partly because it is apparently “related to trench foot.” Also, it sounds so old-timey, no? Anyway, it’s a kind of ulceration of extremities caused by a combination of poor circulation and exposure to cold.

17. Glacial lag. No, it’s not the pace at which I run. It’s what geologists who went through Snowcraft survival training with me had come to Antarctica to collect. It’s a kind of conglomerate rock left behind when a glacier recedes, full of smaller particles that the scientists study to determine how the rocks that the glacier eroded had initially formed.

16. Benthic. The bottom layer of an ocean or other body of water. It’s a cool sounding word but it also gets thrown around a lot among scientists who come here to study the benthic bio mats of lakes under permanent ice cover and the benthic sea life of McMurdo Sound.

15. Toast. Me. Right now. Toast, also toasty, is the most common descriptor for that winter-over state of not being able to concentrate, feeling unmotivated, sleepy, weary…what? what as I saying? Huh? Who are you? Where am I and what happened to my sweater?

14. Troposphere. The lower 80% of the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a word I don’t know that I ever knew before and haven’t thought much about until listening to scientists and our weatherfolk discuss how activity in the troposphere differs from activity in the stratosphere, by which I can only assume they mean the hotel in Las Vegas (joke).

13. Glissade. I just learned this one and wow, it is so me. It is the controlled descent of a steep, typically snow or scree-covered slope using the sled Nature gave you. It just sounds so much more graceful than butt-slide. I sure do glissade a lot when I’m hiking.

12. Katabatic. The word itself describes winds that blow downhill, more or less, bringing cold, dry air with them. There’s a lot more science to them,  but mostly I like the word because it reminds me of the excellent German word for hangover, katzenjammer (literally, “the screeching of cats”), and also because I love saying it.

11. Exobiology. Lookin’ for the aliens. I went to a science lecture during my summer season here about the benthic bio mats in those ice-covered lakes. The scientist who gave the talk, when giving her credentials, casually noted she was part of SETI’s exobiology department. Intriguing. Turns out exobiologists suspect life on Mars and other planets is most likely to resemble the goo at the bottom of Antarctica’s permanently frozen-over lakes, so they study what they can here to figure out how to deal with what may be out there.

10. CDW (Circumpolar Deep Water). Another science lecture takeaway. In the Antarctic region, the warmer water is actually below the colder surface layer. The plankton-rich warmer water flows in a current around the continent called, yes, the CDW.

9. Bag drag. The day before a flight off the Ice, you have to get all your stuff up to Building 140 (it’s up a small hill, which is really nothing until you’re lugging 150 pounds of stuff and there’s a near-katabatic wind howling down into your face). There, it’s weighed, your passport is checked to make sure you still have it, your ECW (extreme cold weather gear) is checked (you must wear it on flights in or out) and then, indignity of all indignities, you have to step onto a scale in all your gear and get weighed. The whole process is known as bag drag, a logistical butt pain but also a key step towards leaving the Ice.

8. T-trenching. Also called “deadmanning,” it’s a way of securing a tent in the snow or ice in windy conditions, when simply staking it won’t do. Basically, wrap the guide line around a stake , dig a trench parallel to the tent, lay the stake into the trench, pile snow on top and then step on it to compress it. I just like knowing that. It makes me feel all intrepid and stuff.

7.Bathymetry. I love the mouthfeel of this word (yes, I just typed “mouthfeel”). It’s basically the topography of the benthic layer of a body of water. The bathymetry of the Antarctic region was notoriously spotty for decades: much of the water is beneath sea ice much of the year, and it’s hugely expensive to devote resources towards charting even the open water due to remoteness and weather. Researchers studying seals, however, realized that seals have predictable dive patterns in relation to how close to the bottom they dive, so they outfitted them with depth gauges (reportedly a painless and temporary process. Hmm.) and now use them to chart the bottom of the Great Southern Sea. That’s pretty darn cool.

6. Fata Morgana. I love the name and the sight of these optical illusions that occur on the horizon. Cliffs appear where before there was just ice, islands float in the air and things that look like Imperial Star Cruisers and mushroom clouds come and go.

Fata Morgana on what is really a flat horizon. The cliffs and mushroom cloud do not exist. Bend the spoon, Neo. There is no spoon.

5. The 1976 Global Oceanic Regime Shift. The thermocline represents a point in the water column where the difference in temperatures between the water above and the water below is greatest. And in 1976, for reasons no one yet knows, the thermocline deepened. While it may turn out to have cataclysmic consequences, I love that stuff like this can happen and catch us puny humans completely by surprise (I imagine the entire oceanic science community tilting its collective head and making a Scooby Doo noise like “Rot-roh!”

4. Noctilucent. I thought nacreous clouds were cool but just earlier this week I learned about noctilucent clouds. First of all… noctilucent clouds are only visible when the sun is below the horizon, and are a recent discovery. They are the highest clouds in the Earth, way, way, way higher even than the stratospheric nacreous clouds, and occur in the mesosphere, about 50 miles above the surface of the earth. That they’re that high and that they’re a recent discovery are two alarming facts about them, because it is apparently exceedingly rare for that part of the atmosphere to have enough humidity to form a cloud. The fact that they are being spotted with increasing frequency is theorized to be a sign of climate change. One of our weatherfolk thinks she saw some of them in July and also earlier this week. She calls them “death clouds” because they’re an indicator that something crazy is going on way high above us. Maybe the Mayans were right.

3. Nunatak. Sometimes, when great sheets of ice cover mountain ranges, a little bit of mountaintop sticks up, all alone like a remote island in an ocean. It’s called a nunatak, another fun word to say. A lot.

2. Inherent Vice. This was very nearly #1, but I decided the top word really did deserve the spot. When conservators talk about the “inherent vice” of an object, they’re referring to an aspect of its composition that causes its deterioration. And, like many of the words on this list, it is an excellent band name.

1. Skua. I’ve mentioned the big brown sea birds known for their aggressive behavior, but in this case I’m using the word “skua” as a verb. For whatever reason–heading off the Ice, getting bored–people leave the most bizarre things in “skua,” the name of bins in every dorm, larger dumpster-like boxes outside most buildings and also a small building (“Skua Central”). The act of leaving an item in one of these places, as well as taking it for your use, is skua’ing. I have skua’ed Christmas lights, shampoo and numerous other items, then re-skua’ed what I didn’t use. It is a distinctly Antarctic term and, like the items and practice, one that is ever so useful.


7 thoughts on “My 20 Favorite Antarctic Words (and Phrases)

  1. As a “wordie” (kinda like a foodie?) I enjoyed this post particularly! So then I Googled “wordie” to see if it might actually already be a word, and one of the first things that came up was James Wordie, the Scottish geologist and scientist after whom the Wordie Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula was named. Coincidence?

  2. #8.) have to make the comment – It’s not “guide line” it’s “guy line”. A guy line is a tether that holds something (generally a tent or canopy) in place, and a guideline is just a rule worth breaking. Miss you!

  3. Wow, there are some new words in there for me. Maybe I need to Winterover to catch up with the lingo. And by the way, I just unpacked some boxes and discovered some really unnecessary skua’d items. Torn up pants that are like 3 sizes too big for me? Really?

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