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Why Science on Ice?

by Gordon A. McFeters and Diane Edwards


Background Paper

Among the Earth's continents, Antarctica is the coldest. The driest. The windiest. The highest (on average). The most remote. A place well described by superlatives -- and by the slightly twisted mundane. Where Elvis sings at supper, carpenters capture plastic spiders between outhouse windows, and cargo sleds hang from the coffeehouse-quonset ceiling. A faraway locale the "Frozen Chosen" who work there simply call "the ice" -- where our sense of place and purpose became both abstract and concrete, a common reaction to this human outpost within hostile Nature. Antarctica also is where unique science happens, and thus we went in October 1996 to study sewage effects in this near-pristine environment.  Diane Edwards at Ross Sea
Diane Edwards at Ross Sea
Moss Landing divers/scientists with snow cat preparing to dive in a blizzard
Moss Landing divers/scientists with
snow cat preparing to dive in a blizzard

After eight hours crammed in the belly of a C-130 Hercules, we and dozens of other scientists, military, and support personnel reached "the town," McMurdo Station. The largest of three permanent U.S. Antarctic research facilities, McMurdo sprawls on volcanic Ross Island, at the nearest-to-New Zealand edge of a continent as large as Canada and the U.S. combined. We'd left the lush-green spring behind in Christchurch, where we'd each collected piles of ECW (extreme cold weather) gear at the Antarctic program's logistics center. We arrived at a frontier-style settlement of more than 1,000 people living and working in a hodgepodge of quonsets, dormitories, and diesel shops.
Begun in 1955, McMurdo is a cold jumble of old and new buildings, above-ground heated sewer and power lines, carbo-loaded cafeteria fare, and a group of can-do humans girthed against a nasty environment. Here one is struck both by what is not here (no insects, no pets, no plants outside the greenhouse, no elderly or children), and what is here (two-minute showers, mandatory survival training, state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, a chapel next to karaoke bars, dance lessons and costume parties). But the reason we are here, nearly 24 hours in flight from Montana, is that McMurdo, despite an admirable recycling program that ships 1,000's of tons of waste by ship to Seattle each year, pumps chewed-but-not-treated human waste under the Ross Sea surface ice, into adjacent Winter Quarters Bay. Aerial view of McMurdo Station with active volcano Mt. Erebus in the background
Aerial view of McMurdo Station with
active volcano Mt. Erebus in the background
 Diver entering drill hole through the dive hut
Diver entering drill hole through the dive hut
As microbiologists, we were with the National Science Foundation-funded S-320 project, in part designed to assess the distribution and impact of the sewage outfall and to map the debris dumped in the Bay years earlier. Our seven teammates were invertebrate biologists and specially cer tified scuba divers from the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa and the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory in California, thus an international and decidedly multidisciplinary approach to environmental studies. Some on the team zigzagged a submersible ROV (remote operated vehicle) equipped with video cameras over the sea floor to film trash dumped before the NSF implemented a stringent clean-up and recycling campaign. Others dived through holes in eight-foot-thick ice to collect an amazing array of sea invertebrates, both for their own research and ours. As nondivers, we did assays on the animals and bottom-sediment samples they collected. With Antarctic drivers licenses in hand, we also crisscrossed the frozen sea in cat-track vehicles, gathering Weddell seal and penguin scat for related assays. We were looking for evidence of human fecal contamination, by testing for the presence of a bacterium called Clostridium perfringens, common in the human gut.
To help determine the extent of sewage-derived effects caused by McMurdo's inhabitants, our samples and sampling sites were diverse and widespread. Collected from October through mid-December, animals, manure, and sediment came from sites scattered around the bay nearest McMurdo, as well as from sites miles away near the Royal Society Mountains and the ice-open sea edge (the distant sites were negative controls). Representative benthic invertebrates studied included starfish (Odontaster validus), sea squirts or tunicates (Cnemidocarpa verrucosa), urchins (Sterechinus neumayeri), and nemertean worms (Parborlasia corrugatus). According to the divers, under the ice here is some of the best diving in the world, where colors and diversity of animal life astound and where mating seals can alarm. While the rest of the team gathered samples beneath the ice, in the laboratory we swabbed intestinal contents of invertebrates and on our field trips we scraped seal and penguin manure from the ice surface.  Dianne collecting seal scat
Diane collecting seal scat

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