Fragile Oasis

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Living in a Freezer

One unique aspect about Antarctica is living submerged in constant cold. While these temperatures seem extreme from the perspective of your living room back home, with the proper clothing, they become quite acceptable. Humans are remarkably adaptable and soon take to these temperatures as if they were the norm.

I decided to measure the temperatures around camp and came prepared with a number of thermometers. I had four mechanical dial thermometers with six inch stems. They had a temperature range optimized for the cold: -40 to +70°C (-40 to 157°F) in one degree C increments. Calibration was done by rotating the dial bezel and then locking it in place while in a freezer back home by comparing it with a laboratory grade thermometer sensitive to 0.1 degree near -25°C. I also had a number of liquid crystal based thermometer strips depicting temperatures in five degree increments from -30 to +30°C. The segment at your temperature would be green while all the others would be dark. These strips had adhesive backing so they were great to measure the surface temperature of an object. Our team also had an electronic hand held weather instrument, a Kestrel 4000, that we recorded metrological data of temperature, barometric pressure, relative humidity, wind speed, and wind chill.

Bathed in perpetual daylight, the outside air temperatures varied little throughout any 24 hour period. Out of habit, we would still refer to things as day and night even though it was daylight all the time. Habits honed by a lifetime of living are not easily broken. The air temperatures hovered at or near -20 Centigrade (-5 Fahrenheit). The glacier ice temperature, that which we had our tent set up on, remained at a constant -28°C (-19°F). This was measure at several depths down to 45 centimeters by chipping a pit in the ice.

I instrumented our tent with four thermometers so that various temperatures could be simultaneously recorded depending on the sorts of activities taking place. There would be two main activities;
the stove lit and the stove unlit. If we were not in the tent or if we were sleeping, the stove was not lit (for fuel conservation and fire safety). If we were in the tent and awake, the stove was lit.

Day and night and independent of the stove, the floor level of our tent stayed at a constant -20 degrees Centigrade (-5 Fahrenheit). Anything set on the floor would soon be at this temperature. We have two foam mats and an air mattress rolled out over the floor that we sit and sleep on that gives us relief from thermal conduction. Your body would quickly make a small warm zone on your air mattress. At chest height, the air temperatures varied depending on whether the stove is lit. Without the stove, the air temperature hangs around -10°C (13°F), when the stove is lit, the air temperature is right near 0°C (32°F). In the chimney area of our tent without the stove lit, the air temperature is also at -10°C, however with the stove lit, it can reach a balmy +20°C (67°F). This is where we hang our damp clothes and sweaty boots to dry.

Sitting on our mats while wearing two to three pairs of high-tech long johns made our tent seem nice and cozy, especially after having worked outside collecting meteorites in -40°C wind chill for the previous 6 to 8 hours.

Even though the air feels very dry, the tent relative humidity stays near 85%. We experience this level of humidity all the time back home in Houston, however, the temperature being 33°C (90°F) versus -10°C makes a world of difference. I might say that I prefer -10°C and 85% to 33°C and 85%. I guess being here in Antarctica is the right place for me.

When one lives in a virtual freezer, a number of silly little trials arise when going about your normal daily business of living. You wake up in the morning and everything is of course frozen. You know that your kettle of water will house a miniature glacier, which the day before was an actual glacier. But there are many little niceties of life that one does not expect to be complicated. You want to brush your teeth, only to find rock hard toothpaste, and like some worm creature that does not want to come out in the cold, it will not inch onto your waiting bristles. You run your toothbrush across a bar of soap and brush away. Toothpaste, after all, is nothing but fancy soap. What you eventually learn to do is thaw your toothpaste the night before, perhaps tucking it in the nook of a folded leg while playing Scrabble with your tentmate. Then in its semi-compliant state, you load up your toothbrush with a big worm and put it away for morning. Now you are ready to brush anytime of day. What we found was one loading of toothpaste will get you through the whole day. I will not mention what I do with my toothpaste after finishing up brushing.

Most any sort of goop in a tube ends up freezing and being of little use. Sunscreen, hand lotion, and antibiotic creams are not good items to bring along. Instead, bring sunscreen stick, a jar of petroleum jelly or lanolin based hand ointment such as "Bag Balm". Antibiotic ointment, with sufficient pressure, can be coaxed out of its tube.

On to cooking breakfast, one finds all the liquid condiments performing their glacier imitation. Ketchup, mustard (Grey Poupon), Tabasco, and your favorite jar of salsa, are all rock hard. They can be used of course, but only after warming. We found these could be placed near the stove, like a ring of Boy Scouts sitting around the campfire, and after a couple of hours, would be warm enough to use. For quick response, we would warm these in a pan of hot water. Warming water takes a fair amount of work to make from glacier ice. You do not really want to toss out the water used to warm jars. You ignore the swimming labels and other unidentified floaters that spall off and press ahead making tea or coffee. With a heaping spoon of freeze-dried, you will not even notice the hint of label glue.

Block cheese freezes rock hard at these temperatures. We found that manageable chunks could be split off with our ice axe. We had a couple bags of pre-grated cheese. Grated cheese is the way to go in the cold. For cooking or for eating straight from the bag, next time I would go with all pre-grated. We had hamburger patties pre-packed in quantities to feed 18 people. In the field, this presented itself as one frozen lump. A brief experimental period with our snow shovel proved that this monolith could be fractured into serving sizes suitable for two hungry explorers (about 3 to 4 patties each).

Tuna fish packed in a pouch is great;
it is canned fish without the can. If you insist on the packed in water kind, it freezes rock hard. There are two approaches here. One is to be healthy, stay with the packed in water version and simply peel back the pouch and eat it like a tuna flavored Popsicle. The other approach is to insist on the packed in oil version and enjoy tuna at any temperature. We could of course thaw the tuna by setting it in the stove-circle of condiments, if we had sufficient foresight to do this before we wanted to chow down.

Butter is manageable at -10°C. It cuts sort of like cheese when at normal room temperature. If it becomes too much colder though, it become a bit more difficult to deal with but can be sufficiently warmed if set near the stove. Our jar of virgin olive oil as if caught by a glimpse from Medusa, turned into white stone.

Do not bother to bring mayonnaise. It freezes rock hard and when thawed, turns into something like a slime-creature from a B-grade sci-fi movie.

Canned sweetened condensed milk remains a spoonable paste at these temperatures and works great for adding to coffee or tea. We found a version that comes in a tube and this could always be squeezed out on demand. We started to carry a tube with us in the field and would squirt some in our mouths for a quick pick-me-up.

For snacks, all of the "energy bars" turn into un-edible rocks. One could easily break a tooth trying to masticate one of these. This is most unfortunate since their composition with a balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates is perfect for some one burning calories by the bushel when surrounded by pseudo-cryogenic temperatures. They are much better for you than eating any of the standard candy bars (which also turn rock hard). We did make an interesting observation. Candy/energy bars turns rock hard and as such can not be readily eaten. However, solid chocolate bars are typically made in pre-scored sections which can be easily broken off, yielding bite-sized morsels that once popped in your mouth are thus warmed and eaten. It occurred to me that if the "energy bars" were formed in pre-scored sections like chocolate bars, one could eat them with all their food value benefit in these cold conditions.

Other snacks that work well are fig bars, any of the dried fruits or fruit leather, and nuts. Dried whole dates, which I refer to as beetle bodies, are one of my favorites. The key here is to have something that comes in a bite-sized chunk and can thus be popped into your month in one piece.

What we found that works well at these temperatures is peanut butter. There is nothing like attacking a jar of superchunk with a spoon. When the jar is half empty, you warm up a honey bear and mix in a good dose. This concoction will remain pliable and ready to eat down to about -15°C. Below that it turns into a glacier and moves out of the jar at about the same speed. We invented a new energy snack that works well in the cold and gives us the needed energy pick-up. We took about half a pound of butter and mixed in an equal volume of brown sugar. It makes a tasty treat that reminds any little kid of licking the mix-master beaters left in the aftermath of making cookie dough.

Flour tortillas are a great form of breadstuff. Stored at tent-temperatures, they never sprout those nasty pock-marks of penicillin. Once split from the package, they warm up rather quickly and can be used as a vehicle for transporting gobs of peanut butter from the jar into your stomach. We routinely make these for lunch on the glacier when taking a necessary nourishment break from the gathering of meteorites.

One time, my tentmate had his peanut butter and raspberry jelly burrito frozen too hard to eat (well below -15°C) and needed to warm it up. The most likely place to accomplish this task in the field is to slide it down your bib-overalls right near the ever steamy belly button. We started finding meteorites and in the excitement, he forgot about the burrito and where it happened to be until we returned to camp at the end of the day. During our dress down into sleeping long johns, he rediscovered the superchunk peanut butter and raspberry jelly burrito. His abdomen looked like it had been ripped apart in sticky blood and gore. One should carefully consider what sort of food items you warm within the inner sanctions of your bib-overalls.

My tentmate was not to be outdone in making a big mess. Some weeks later I was in a hurry to thaw out a can of chicken. Packed in water in something that resembled a jumbo tuna can, I placed it close to the blue flames of our stove. I watched it closely, rotating the can every few minutes. The thawing progress was going way too slow so I placed just the tiniest part of a can-edge in the blue flame. I knew this could lead to catastrophe, but I was too smart to let anything happen. If you know the rules, you can break the rules.

Just about that time I started to find micrometeorites in our pot of glacier melt water. I had been searching for these tiny cosmic grains for several weeks with no success and was now in the middle of a real eureka. I was peering through our portable microscope at this lovely cosmic spherule, a small extra-terrestrial speck, when I heard a muffled "woomfp". Without looking up I immediately knew my mistake. I could feel warm stands of something hanging on my cheeks. Had my face been cut to shreds from flying pieces of can? No, it was chunks of chicken. There was chicken everywhere;
on my face, down my neck (and now working its way inside of my long johns), on my glasses (which I was not even wearing at the time), on the tent wall, and in my sleeping bag. Even my lab notebook was sprinkled with chicken. My first response to this explosion was very predictable. I reached for my pencil and wrote in my lab notebook, carefully scribbling around the blobs of chicken sticking to the page, "found our first cosmic spherule, about 50 micrometers diameter, Wow!;
and don’t put a can of frozen chicken on the stove". I spent the next two hours cleaning up the mess.

The cold clime in the Antarctic interior challenges one's temperate climate intuition in many delightful ways, and drives you into making new discoveries about your surroundings and yourself.