Science and Technology News

Monday, January 24, 2011

Making the Grade: Osan American Elementary School [Dispatches from Antarctica]

The series features Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan’s first-hand experiences on OPERATION: DEEP FREEZE, the Defense Department’s support of National Science Foundation research in Antarctica.

In our continuing effort to engage students and teachers, we asked students from Osan American Elementary School, a Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) school at Osan Air Base, South Korea, to submit their top questions about life in Antarctica. The thoughtful questions really helped me reflect on my experiences on the ice.

Stayed tuned for one final question and answer post with DODEA elementary students.

Patrick: What do you like best about living in Antarctica?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Hi Patrick. I like the unusual setting. Living in Antarctica makes me feel like I’m living on another planet. The mountains and glaciers are very beautiful. The sunlight and clouds often make brilliant colorful patterns in the sky. There are no trees or plants visible and some areas just flat and white for as far as the eye can see.

To know exactly what I mean, check out the picture of the aurora australis over McMurdo Station.  The photo was taken by Ken Klassy, National Science Foundation.

Kaden: What is the climate like in Antarctica?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Dear Kaden, Antarctica is very cold and the air is dry. The sun is very bright on days without clouds. With all the snow and ice around, it’s hard to imagine that this is really like a huge desert, because there is so little rain or snow fall. But over thousands of years, that little bit of snow and ice has built up. So even though the air is dry and there is little rain or snow, Antarctica contains the single largest concentration of fresh water in the world… only it’s all frozen.

It’s also extremely windy here. In fact, there are wind turbines near Scott Base, Antarctica, that generate power for research stations. We can actually see the turbine blades from McMurdo Station.

Juliet: Are there any icebergs in Antarctica?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Yes Juliet, there are many icebergs here. In fact, icebergs are made here and in the north polar regions. Icebergs are actually made of frozen fresh water. Large chunks break off of glaciers into the sea in a process called calving. The large chunks become icebergs and can float around for months or years. Sometimes the icebergs get caught and frozen into sea ice.

Katie: What types of animals live in Antarctica?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Katie, most of the animals in Antarctica are in the sea. The few animals we see on the ice or on the land are normally penguins, seals, and birds called Skuas.

In the below video, Adelie Penguins move across the ice near one of the National Science Foundation contracted science helicopters. Notice the different ways they move as they walk upright or toboggan on their bellies. Thanks to Jean Pennycook, National Science Foundation, for this great footage.

Payton: How cold is the ocean water around Antarctica?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: That’s a great question Payton. Antarctic sea water varies between about +2°C and -2°C (approx. the freezing point of sea water) over the course of a year. In areas where it remains slightly above freezing long enough, it will melt for while. Deeper water can remain in liquid form at lower temperatures due to pressure changes. National Science Foundation scientists use satellites, balloons, divers, remote devices, and other methods to monitor temperature variations in the ice and the ocean.

The water certainly isn’t too cold for these penguins, who found time to swim in a crack in the sea ice.

Samuel: What is the lowest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Samuel, The Russian Antarctic research station called Vostok holds both the official and unofficial coldest temperatures on Earth. Officially, in 1983, Vostok recorded a temperature of -89 °C (about -129°F). In the winter of 1997, Vostok unofficially claimed to have reached -91°C (or -131°F). Vostok sits very high on the Antarctic ice plateau and is subject to fierce winds. Incidentally, the word vostok means “East” in Russian, as it is located in a region commonly known as East Antarctica.

Drew: Where in Antarctica are you living?
Lt. Col. Vaughan: Hi Drew. Our military detachment is located at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. McMurdo Station is situated on Ross Island in the Ross Sea. If you drew a line between Christchurch, New Zealand,and the geographic South Pole, that line would pass close to Ross Island.

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