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Sharing polar adventures

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 11/19/08 • Media Contact: Susan Knapp • (603) 646-3661

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Blog for schoolchildren describes life in Antarctica at http://polarsoils.blogspot.com/

“Where do you sleep?” is one child’s question that Becky Ball, a post-doctoral fellow in environmental studies at Dartmouth, answered on her blog last year about being a field researcher in Antarctica. (read Becky's answer)

“The interaction with the kids was fun,” says Ball, who will blog again during the field season in January and February 2009, which is summertime in Antarctica. Last year, she received comments from people, mostly schoolchildren, from all over the country, from Hawaii to Georgia to New Hampshire.

Elizabeth Traver, Becky Ball, and Ross Virginia
L-R: Graduate student Elizabeth Traver, Becky Ball, and Ross Virginia will conduct field research in Antarctica in January and February. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

According to Ball, the topic is particularly pertinent for Vermont second graders, who study cold regions during winter in New England. The students learn about the geography, wildlife, and climate of Antarctica during this time, and it coincides nicely with Ball’s annual trek to the bottom of the Earth.

Ball, with her Dartmouth colleagues and collaborators from Colorado State University, works with the McMurdo Long-Term Ecological Research project. They study dirt – or soil – hence the title of the blog: http://polarsoils.blogspot.com/.

“We are trying to understand how nutrients cycle through the soil, and getter a better picture of the ecology of the organisms and mosses that live and grow here,” she says. “Most people don’t realize that there are organisms in the soil in Antarctica, despite the harsh climate.”

The students in Regina Bradley’s second grade classroom in Thetford, Vt., followed Ball’s blog last winter. “Last year, the students frequently visited the blog,” says Bradley. “It’s a great opportunity to correspond with an actual scientist in Antarctica. We’re looking forward to hearing more of her adventures during this field season.”

Ball takes lots of photos to post on her blog, and explains in detail what she and her colleagues are doing. She welcomes lots of questions from readers of any age, and she encourages teachers to be in touch too, to ensure she covers relevant topics.

The researchers take soil samples and examine plant life in an effort to learn how changes in the planet’s climate affect the polar desert environment. Ball and her fellow researchers spend about half their time at McMurdo Station, the U.S. research center and the largest community on the continent, and half their time out in the field, more than 60 miles away, sleeping in a tent.

“I try to describe what it’s like to be a scientist,” says Ball. “I get a lot of questions about the animals I see, and kids are interested in what I eat, where I sleep, and what the weather is like. I think the kids were really surprised to learn that there is actually soil in Antarctica; it’s just underneath the ice that covers most of the continent. Where we work, the ice has mostly retreated, and the soil is exposed.”

Ball’s efforts to explain her work to young people helps spread the word that science is a worthwhile pursuit.

“Becky’s outreach to young people is exactly what our funder, the National Science Foundation, likes to see,” says Ross Virginia, who runs the lab where Ball works and is the Myers Family Professor of Environmental Science at Dartmouth. “She is teaching students that science is exciting, it might be a career for them, and that ‘cool people’ do science. Her blog is a terrific addition to our research program.”

Becky Ball answers a few frequently asked questions about being a researcher in Antarctica.

Becky Ball with students
Dartmouth researcher Becky Ball with students from Regina Bradley's second-grade class in March 2008. (photo courtesy Becky Ball)

Q. Where do you sleep?
A. Half the time we sleep in a dormitory at the research station, the other half of the time we sleep in tents.

Q. How do you find the soil?
A. It’s exposed where we work. There are no glaciers covering the dry valleys.

Q. Do you see penguins?
A. Yes. We see Adélie and Emperor penguins.

Q. Do you see polar bears?
A. No. Polar bears only live north of the equator, in the Arctic, not the Antarctic. But we do see Weddell seals, skuas (birds related to seagulls), and orcas (from far away).

Q. What’s it like to ride in a helicopter?
A. Very fun! The views are much better from a helicopter than from an airplane, because helicopters can hover and have more windows. But helicopters are also very loud. In the big helicopters, you can feel the percussion of the rotors pounding in your chest even before you get in!

Q. Where do you go shopping?
A. There are no cities or towns on Antarctica. The only people there are researchers. McMurdo is the largest research community, and it is maintained by U.S. federal research funds. Scott Research Base is nearby, run by New Zealand. Both McMurdo and Scott have a small store where you can buy souvenirs, books, snacks, and clothes. There’s even an ATM!

Q. Is it really cold there?
A. In the summer (January and February) the average temperature at McMurdo (which is coastal and at a lower elevation than much of the rest of the continent) is about 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter temperatures (June and July) average -10 degrees F. It’s MUCH colder at the South Pole, about 900 miles from McMurdo, where it averages -70 degrees F in the winter.

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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