Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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Old lava flows near the Fang Glacier.

A Coal in the Icebox

by Noel Wanner

December 10, 2001

Paul and I just got back from six days up on Mt. Erebus, the volcano that looms over everything down here. We drove a snowmobile to the rim of the crater through a fantastic landscape of snow, ice fumaroles, and lava towers. At 12,500 feet, with the wind howling, we looked down from the ice-encrusted rim into the bubbling, steaming lake of red lava below—a furious island of heat in the midst of the ice.

Emperor Penguins sunbathe.

On this continent, every living creature has its own pocket of heat it needs to survive. Every bit of warmth is precious for life. Some organisms have evolved to tolerate low temperatures that would kill other organisms—tiny Notothenoid fish with "antifreeze" proteins in their blood—while others like Emperor penguins and Wedell seals have thick insulating layers of fat and feathers or fur to help them retain their body heat. Penguins allow the temperature of their feet to fall close to freezing, thereby lessening the temperature gradient between their feet and the ice beneath them. This smaller gradient slows the rate of heat loss, allowing the penguins to expend less energy keeping warm.



Paul stays warm on the rim of Erebus.


We humans are not so well adapted to cold, so we have to compensate with the clothes we've invented. The problem is that our internal heat production varies widely with our level of activity. As a result, we spend our time on the ice in a constant flurry of clothing adjustment, trying to keep our internal temperatures relatively constant. I keep thinking that we must look as comical to the penguins as they look to us-- frantic naked apes festooned with colorful cloth, shivering and jumping about, while the Emperors calmly stand and preen their feathers.

No berries for dinner tonight.

On Erebus, Paul and I were staying with a group of geophysicists at a semi-permanent camp about two miles below the summit. There were two huts with kerosene stoves providing heat where we could eat and work when the weather turned bad, which it did for about two days— minus 30 C and 40 knot winds, resulting in a wind chill of about -60 C, plus a blizzard of blowing snow and sulfurous vapour from the volcano. However, each night we all slept in our tents, dug into the snow pack outside—by far the coldest nights I've ever experienced. To stay warm, we cocooned ourselves in thick sleeping bags. In the morning, the collected moisture from my breath would be condensed on the inside of the tent in a thick layer of frost, which would then rain down on me like a miniature indoor snowstorm. This, as you might imagine, does not improve your mood in the morning. But we get up and put on our layers of clothing. Outside, the wind howls. We go out to do our work, alongside the scientists—another day of nursing our warmth, struggling to preserve the coal in the icebox.

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