Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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Two Antarctic cod in their saltwater tank. Click to enlarge.  

Antarctic Odors

Nosing Around the Southernmost Continent
by Paul Doherty

December 14, 2001

Someone e-mailed me the other day, asking what Antarctica smells like. Oddly enough, there are very few smells in Antarctica. Ice and snow have no smell, and in the cold temperatures, everyday objects hold onto their aromatic chemicals. So that when you stumble into an aroma, it stands out like a black volcanic rock on a snowfield.

Smell 1: I walked in to the Crary Science Laboratory on the way to my office and was immediately transported by the smells to a fish market in San Francisco's Chinatown. I stood still and savored the tangy smell of the saltwater aquariums combined with the aromas produced by the many fish and algae inhabitanting the tanks. I'm glad the researchers couldn't see that my mouth was watering in anticipation of a fine fish dinner.

Smell 2: Stacey in the MEC (Mechanical Equipment Center) also runs public art programs at McMurdo. She invited our team to see her office and talk about art. When I stepped into the MEC, which is a repair facility for snowmobiles, chainsaws, and generators, I was assaulted by the smells of an airplane hangar. Hydrocarbons from oil, gas, and grease mingled with the metallic taste of hot steel in my mouth. Suddenly I was in a smell-powered time machine: I was seven years old again in a hangar, rebuilding a single-engine Aeronca Chief with my father. Smells are powerful memory triggers.

Jessie's "bionic nose" sniffs the plume of Mt. Erebus. Click to enlarge.

Smell 3: After 4 days of effort we reached the rim of the active crater of Mt. Erebus. We were enveloped by a plume of gas, smoke, and water-droplet belching forth from the active volcanic vents in the crater beneath my feet. The volcanic plume's sulfur smells, combined with the tingle of acid burning my throat and the freezing of the mucous in my nose by the 0°F air gave me a complete spectrum of olfactory experience. Geophysicist Jessie Crain accompanied me to the rim. She was using a "bionic nose," a pump-driven air filter, to "sniff" the volcanic plume and collect radioactive particles to find out about the origin of the lava in this volcano. I was glad there weren't enough radioactive particulates to be dangerous.

Smell 4: On our way to Snow School, a.k.a. Happy Camper School, to learn how to camp out in the Antarctic, we had to swing by the galley to pick up our bag lunches for two days. We walked into the kitchen just as the chocolate chip cookies were coming out of the oven. The sweet smell of hot sugar and melted chocolate brought a wide, somewhat predatory, smile to my lips. Forget being a carnivore or herbivore: I'm definitely a sweetivore.



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