For Room 302

Hello from Antarctica to Ms. Armstrong and her third grade class at Jefferson School in West Allis. Thank you for asking such great questions! I am glad that you are interested in my home. It is a very special place. I have lots and lots to tell you about it!

Antarctica has all different kinds of ice. This kind of ice sculpture happens when two different kinds of ice forming on the water meet and bump against each other.

This is my second trip to Antarctica. The first time I stayed here for 14 months. This time I will be here for eight months. People cannot live in Antarctica all the time because it is not an easy place to live. We cannot stay here for more than 14 months at a time. Then our boss makes us leave and go somewhere with trees and flowers and grass for at least two months. Then we can come back to “the Ice.” Those of us who live and work here call Antarctica “the Ice” when we talk about it.

McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica

I came to Antarctica for several reasons. I have wanted to see it since I was a little girl. When I was in school, we didn’t study the continents the way you are studying them–you are lucky to have such a great teacher who wants you to learn all your continents! It’s very important. But I didn’t know Antarctica even existed until I saw a movie about it. I thought it was a very beautiful, strange place and I wanted to see it.

The moon over the Royal Society Mountains, one of several mountain ranges that cross Antarctica.

Once I grew up, I traveled a lot. Before I came to Antarctica, I traveled through all the other continents: North America, South America, Asia, Europe, Africa and Australasia. I even lived in Europe and in Australasia for a while. I knew I had to see the seventh continent, Antarctica, to make my “collection” complete.

Sunset over the Royal Society Mountains

It is very difficult to get here if you are a tourist because it is so far away from everywhere else. So I decided to get a job here. I am a cook at McMurdo Station, which is on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf.

I do not live at the South Pole. The South Pole is several hundred miles from here. Some people live and work there, but I live near the Great Southern Ocean on Ross Island.

Map modified from Nations Online Project

Ross Island is a really cool place because it is volcanic. There were three volcanoes on the island: Erebus, Terror and Terra Nova. But Mount Terror (isn’t that a great name?) and Mount Terra Nova are now dormant volcanoes, which means they are sleeping and probably will never erupt again.

Mount Erebus, however, is an active volcano. It is the southernmost active volcano in the world and we can see puffs of smoke coming out of it every day. Because it has small eruptions every day, we don’t have to worry about it having a big, dangerous eruption–that’s a good thing because we live very close to it!

Mount Erebus

Antarctica has a few ice shelves. Because it is so cold here, ice builds up in certain places and gets very, very thick and never melts. In some places the ice is a couple miles thick! It is very strong, too. When we fly in and out of Antarctica on special planes designed to work in cold weather, we land on the Ross Ice Shelf instead of land!

We fly to and from Antarctica on a military plane called a C17. It lands on the Ross Ice Shelf because there is no actual land near us, just rock and ice!

Antarctica is the coldest and driest continent on the planet. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was in Antarctica–it was minus126 degrees Fahrenheit! It does not get that cold at McMurdo, where I live. In winter it is usually around minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. In summer sometimes it gets as warm as 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and then everyone walks around in shorts! Really!

The cold here is very different than the cold in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, the air is much more humid. This means the air has more water in it, even when it’s not raining. But in Antarctica, the air is very, very dry. In fact, Antarctica is considered to be a desert because it is so dry! The air is drier here than in the Sahara!

Because the air is so cold and dry here, sometimes special clouds form called “nacreous” or “polar stratospheric” clouds. They look like someone has been fingerpainting in the sky!

Because the air is so dry, it does not feel as cold as you would think. Sometimes when it is minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit I can walk between buildings in my pajamas and not feel cold!

Antarctica is a special place in a lot of ways. It is the only place on earth that does not belong to any country. About sixty years ago, several countries, including the United States, got together and agreed that Antarctica should be protected, because it was so special. They also agreed that Antarctica should belong to the whole world, and not just one or two countries. They signed an agreement called the International Antarctic Treaty, which says no one owns Antarctica and no one can harm it or use it for anything other than science.

In this photo, I am standing on sea ice in front of an iceberg that got grounded. The current pushed it into the rocky shore so now it’s stuck there!

Because of that treaty, we have lots of rules about what we can and can’t do here on the Ice. When the first human explorers came 100 years ago, they ate penguins and seals and fish, but we can’t, because they are protected. (I don’t think I would want to eat them anyway… the penguins and seals are very cute but very, very stinky! They smell like rotten fish!) Because of the treaty, we are required to bring all our food and other supplies on planes and on a huge ship that comes once a year, in February, when the sea ice is thin enough that it can reach us.

A supply ship comes once a year, when the sea ice is thinnest. It delivers food and fuel and other supplies, and then takes all our garbage and recycling back to the US!

(By the way, Antarctica has lots of different kinds of ice. Some ice is in the form of glaciers, which are like huge slow-moving rivers of ice that empty onto the ice shelves or into the sea. Some ice forms very, very thick layers, like the ice shelves that never melt. And some of the ice is sea ice. It forms in winter, covering the water for many miles all around Antarctica. It can be from a couple inches to several feet thick. But in summer it thins and breaks up and floats away.)

We get some of our food from the United States and some of our food from New Zealand, which is the country that is nearest to McMurdo Station. In summer, every week, we get a flight of fruits and vegetables and even ice cream from New Zealand. In winter, though, it’s different. We have no flights to or from Antarctica for six months because there are a lot of storms and it is too dangerous to fly. During winter, most of our food is canned or powdered, like pancake mix, or frozen. We have a small greenhouse, though, so some days we are lucky and have a treat like fresh tomatoes or salad.

When the flights begin again, the first flight always brings us lots of fruits and vegetables. It’s a big celebration and everyone gets excited to be able to eat bananas and other things we haven’t seen for six months!

Winter in Antarctica, by the way, starts in March and ends in October. It is winter right now here, even though it is spring, almost summer, in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is in the northern half of the Earth, the half called the Northern Hemisphere. Antarctica is at the very bottom of the southern half of the Earth, or the Southern Hemisphere. The seasons here are the opposite of those in Wisconsin. So when it is summer in West Allis, it’s winter here!

Another thing that is very different in Antarctica is how the sun travels across the sky. In West Allis, like in most of the world, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west every day. But because Antarctica is so far south, the sun makes a strange spiral that is difficult to describe.

From late October until late February, the sun is visible all the time. It makes a slow spiral up until it arrives at the center of the sky in late December, and then it makes a slow spiral down. But during this time we have daylight 24 hours a day.

The opposite happens in our winter. We never see the sun, and from May until July it is dark all the time. There are a couple months, in March and April and then again in August and September, when the sun comes up for a little while and then goes away again.

This is what McMurdo looks like from May until July, 24 hours a day!

Here is a video of what the Ross Ice Shelf looked like the day before the final sunset of the year last April. The big mountain at the start and end of the video is Mount Erebus, the active volcano.

If you want to live in Antarctica, you need very warm clothes. Our boss gives us these before we arrive. You also need to be adventurous. And you need to be resourceful–this means you must be able to figure out a way to do what you need to do with what you have.

For example, at work I wear special shoes that don’t slip on wet floors. Last month one of my shoes broke. I couldn’t run out to the store and get a new pair because there are no stores here! So I used duct tape and glue to fix it. That is being resourceful.

Thank you for asking about my birthday. When you are as old as most of us here, you stop thinking about your birthday because it just reminds you how old you are! Usually people just wish the birthday person “happy birthday” and sometimes our baker will make a small cake.

My birthday is interesting because it happens at about the same time as MidWinter. That is the day in June that marks the middle of winter. For everyone spending winter on the Ice, it is the biggest celebration of the year, because it means we are halfway through the dark months.

Different stations run by different countries email each other MidWinter greetings every year to mark the biggest celebration of our winter season.

There are a couple dozen stations around the continent. McMurdo Station, where I live, is the biggest and is run by the United States. Scott Base is run by New Zealand and is about two miles away from us, but the other stations, run by countries such as Russia, South Korea and the United Kingdom, are very far away. But for MidWinter we all email each other greetings, and everyone has a big party.

At Scott Base, the New Zealand station nearby, they have a special MidWinter tradition called the Polar Plunge. They make a hole in the sea ice and people can jump into the water. It is very dark and very cold and a little scary, but that was how I celebrated my birthday last year.

The ice was more than three feet thick but the New Zealanders cut a hole with chainsaws so we could jump into the cold, black water of McMurdo Sound.

It was very cold.

When I came up out of the water I was even colder, and the water on my skin and hair froze instantly! It was hard climbing out of the water up the ladder. Then I had to run on the ice back to a little hut to get warm again!

The weather in Antarctica can be very dangerous. Here at McMurdo we have a warning system about weather conditions so that everyone can stay safe. Condition Three means the weather is safe and we can walk around outside and drive out to places if we need to. Condition Two means the weather is not so good and we shouldn’t go out unless we need to.

Condition One is the most dangerous weather. Usually it means there is a lot of wind, like a hurricane, and that it is difficult to see anything. It is like a really bad blizzard. When it is Condition One we have to stay inside. If we must go outside, we have to travel with other people, not alone, and tie ourselves to ropes between the buildings so that the wind can’t blow us away!

Here is a short video I shot last winter of a Condition One storm. I stayed inside the building where it was safe, but you can see how the wind blew snow inside and onto the heavy doors even though they were shut! It was like a hurricane!

I think some of the Condition One storms we have had here, usually only in winter, are scary but also interesting. I also thought seeing the leopard seal was scary, because I am very sure he wanted to eat me. But I do not find many things scary here. I think it is a beautiful place and I have been able to do a lot of interesting things.

One of my favorite things I did was take a special survival skills course where I learned what to do if something bad happened. Part of the course was learning how to make a hole in the ice to use as a shelter and get out of the wind. After I made my little ice cave I got to sleep in it!

My emergency ice cave that I dug for practice in case I was ever stuck out on the ice and needed shelter.

You had a lot of questions about wildlife, so let me try to answer them all.

There are 16 different kinds of penguin around Antarctica, but where I live there are only two kinds: Emperor and Adelie (pronounced like “uh-DEL-ee”).

Emperor penguins are the world’s largest living penguin. You may have seen them in the movies “March of the Penguins” and “Happy Feet.” But I think they are very boring. They just stand there and do nothing.

Emperor penguins standing around being boring. The big hill in the background is called Observation Hill, and McMurdo Station is on the other side of it.

I love Adelie penguins, though. They are half the size of an Emperor penguin but they are very cute. They walk around and sometimes slide on their tummies the way you and I sled down a hill in winter.

Adelie Penguins near McMurdo Station

Here is a video I shot last year of some Adelie penguins. In this video, they are molting. Penguins have very special feathers that grow so close together they become like a waterproof suit and keep the penguins warm when they swim in the cold water. But, once a year, they need to get a new “suit.” They shed, or “molt” their old feathers so new ones can grow in. During this time, however, their feathers are not waterproof and they would freeze if they jumped in the water. So they stay on land while they are molting. In the days before they molt, they eat lots and lots of fish and get very fat. Then they stay on land for a while until their new feather suit grows in. While they are on land, they can’t hunt for fish, so they eat snow and rest a lot and live off their stored fat. That’s why the penguins in this video are so fat and seem kind of lazy, especially the one who has his head buried in the snow!

The other animal we see on land is the Skua. Skua are like big gray seagulls. They are very smart but they are also bullies. They like to steal our food. I have seen them take sandwiches right out of people’s hands!

A skua investigating whether I have a sandwich to steal! The mountain in the background is another volcano called Mount Discovery.

The penguins and skua stay here only in summer. In winter they head north where there is still open water so that they kind find fish to eat. (In winter at McMurdo, the sea ice covers the water.)

A Weddell Seal peeking up from the water. Sometimes, where the sea ice meets the ice shelf, there are big cracks and folds in the ice and the seals spend time playing in and out of the water.

We have seals here year-round, though. There are many kinds of seals around Antarctica, but we usually see only Weddell seals. On sunny days they lay on the ice. They make holes in the sea ice with special teeth. Our teeth are straight up and down, but the Weddell seals have teeth that stick out so they can bite holes in the sea ice. They use these holes to breathe between dives and also to climb out of the water and sit on the ice to rest.

A mommy Weddell Seal and her baby resting on the ice.

Weddell Seals are much more common than Leopard Seals in this area. Leopard seals usually stay more to the north, because they like to hunt in open water and do not have the special teeth Weddell Seals have for making holes in ice. I was very lucky to see a Leopard Seal that day!

Seals can live in the cold water and on the ice because their blubber keeps them warm. We cannot pet the seals or penguins, though, because they are protected by the International Antarctic Treaty. We cannot even get too close to them, though sometimes they surprise us and come up to us!

This is about as close as we can get to the penguins. We are not allowed to do anything that upsets them.

Many different kinds of whales visit Antarctica in summer because the waters are rich with krill, which they like to eat. I saw Orcas in February out in the water near McMurdo, but they were too far away to get a good picture.

In late February and March, the sea ice starts to form and the whales, penguins, skua and leopard seals all head north. Only the Weddell Seals stay year-round.

I have seen krill, though. Sometimes in summer the scientists stick a pipe down into the sea ice and let us climb down it, one at a time, and look out special windows that are built into the pipe. This lets us see what life is like under the sea ice. I saw a lot of krill and other small sea animals, and even a jellyfish, when I climbed down into the pipe.

In this photo I am getting ready to climb down the Underwater Observation Tube.

It was a little scary to climb down the tube because it was very dark and there wasn’t much space.

This is what it looks like looking up from the bottom of the observatory tube!

When I got to the bottom, though, I was able to look out through the thick glass and see what it would be like to be a fish or seal swimming under the ice!

The water underneath the ice is dark but full of life such as jellyfish, sea sponges and krill.

Well, I think I have answered all your questions. I hope you have enjoyed the photos and videos. I also hope all of you get to visit Antarctica one day, because it is a really wonderful and interesting place.

Please thank Ms. Armstrong for being such a great teacher and asking me to answer your questions. Good-bye from Antarctica!


5 thoughts on “For Room 302

  1. Pingback: Antarctica in a Very Cold Nutshell | Stories That Are True

  2. Dear Gemma,

    Thank you thank you THANK YOU for this awesome blog entry! We absolutely loved reading the answers to our questions. It was so cool that you added photos and videos for us, too! Our favorite parts were the video of Adelie penguins and reading about the “polar plunge” you did to celebrate Mid-Winter. Your blog got us really interested in Antarctica! Many of us think that we’d like to live in Antarctica someday, just like you. Thank you again, Gemma!

    Your 3rd grade friends from Room 302

    • Thank you for giving me the chance to share my home with you! I hope all of you visit one day 🙂

  3. Are you still at McMurdo as of 20 Aug 2012? I will be flying there on the 21st and staying a couple nights. Wanted to know if you wanted me to bring some freshies down for you from CHCH? Let me know if you get this and want me to do so

    • Wow, thanks for the offer! But I am scheduled to leave first flight (the 20th). Though my guess is neither of us are going anywhere…I just talked to our weather observer who kind of cringed when I asked what the chances of the flight were for tomorrow. Enjoy CHC while you can…I’ll be there soon enough 🙂 And thanks again!

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