Polar Attraction

By David J. Hoff — April 01, 2001 17 min read
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Kevin Lavigne can’t sit still. The teacher from Hanover, New Hampshire, will try any adventure. He’ll jump over moguls on his snowboard, paddle a kayak in shark-infested waters, body surf in the waves off Costa Rica. But 10,000 miles from home, he gets jittery just waiting for a ride.

On this January day, the muscular, balding 33-year- old is about to take his first helicopter trip. He says he’s not scared, just anxious. He wants to know what it’s going to be like. Once he feels the sensation of flight, he’ll be fine.

But first, the high school chemistry and biology teacher has to wait.

Something—he doesn’t know what—is delaying the release of his anxiety. It could be the clouds rolling over McMurdo Sound. It could be a broken helicopter. It could be that another research team is late for its pickup time, putting off Lavigne’s trip. It’s 45 minutes past flight time, and there’s no sign of the aircraft.

He turns down the thermostat because the furnace is overheating the trailer where he and two other passengers wait. Looking for something to do, he grabs a broom and sweeps the fine, silty volcanic ash that covers the floor. Someone pops a video into the VCR, hoping for entertainment. Instead, they get the safety orientation all the passengers in the terminal have already seen.

This is a typical day in Antarctica. Lavigne signed up for a five-week stint to contribute to one of hundreds of teams that are here during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer conducting cutting-edge research. He envisioned spending time with his colleagues, collecting soil samples in one of the continent’s remote areas, then returning to a lab to analyze them.

But since leaving his home on the Connecticut River nine days ago, he hasn’t practiced any science. He’s flown across the world on commercial airplanes and then to the bottom of it on a loud, uncomfortable military cargo plane. After arriving at McMurdo Research Station, he went through more training sessions than he can count: how to survive Antarctica’s elements, how to board a helicopter, how to follow the strict safety rules for leaving the town of McMurdo, how to sort trash in the continent’s aggressive recycling program. Now—just as he’s getting the chance to go somewhere and do some research—he has to wait. And he doesn’t know why.

The feeling is completely different from what Lavigne experiences in his classroom. There, he’s in control.

“I plan things out in detail,” he says of the lessons and laboratory experiments he prepares for his juniors and seniors. “I have my ducks in a row. To come here, I’m not in control anymore, and I have to sit back and wait. Maybe that’s the frustrating thing about being here.”

Lavigne steps outside, where the temperature is in the 20s, to cool off. He looks at Observation Hill, the mound of volcanic ash that casts a shadow over the research station, a collection of drab, military-style buildings. The view has none of the majestic beauty of the Transantarctic Mountains that he’ll see from the helicopter, or the Dry Valleys where he’ll land—if he ever boards a chopper.

“I just know I’m going to have to wait around here,” he says later. “That’s just part of the culture here. You push as hard as you can, but you have to wait around.”

Finally, 90 minutes after the scheduled flight time, one of the station’s employees rushes across the landing area to Lavigne and his companions.

“This is your ride,” he says as helicopter blades thump in the distance. “He’s going to shut down and refuel, and he’ll be ready for you.”

In 15 minutes, Lavigne and his party are in the air. The waiting is over for now. He feels great.

Lavigne is one of seven teachers the National Science Foundation has chosen this year to join in the research on Antarctica, which has been preserved since 1959 when 12 nations signed a treaty that protects the frozen continent for scientific investigations. Another 32 nations have subsequently joined the pact, and scientists flock here every year to probe questions that can’t be answered elsewhere. By drilling into ice that is up to 7,200 feet deep, for instance, they can record the continent’s temperature dating back 160,000 years. And by placing telescopes at the South Pole, they can observe the galaxy throughout the long winter without the interruption of light from the sun or civilization.

Since 1993, teachers have been joining these research teams so they can have the real-life experience of scientific exploration, then transfer it to their classrooms. Lavigne’s five-week visit is part of the NSF’s Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic program, which requires a three-year commitment. During his first year, spent preparing for this journey, Lavigne attended an orientation, underwent a thorough physical exam, and acquired the necessary equipment. Some of it—including a laptop computer, a pair of top-of-the-line hiking boots, and a snowboard—came from grants and sponsorships he sought on his own. He managed to bring all of it—in addition to 35 pounds of cold-weather gear issued by the NSF—to the continent and stay under the 75-pound limit he faced when boarding his flight in Christchurch, New Zealand.

While on the continent, Lavigne is a full-fledged member of a research team. He performs mundane tasks, such as rinsing two dozen beakers with filtered water five times each to remove all traces of acids, and more exhilarating ones, including flying to pristine sites in barren valleys where his team collects rare samples for analysis.

He also must keep in touch with home, which he does through a stream of e-mail. He answers questions from the rookie teacher substituting for him. He deals with pleas for leniency from a student who broke a piece of equipment in his classroom. And, as a divorced father, he keeps in touch with his 6-year-old son.

When Lavigne returns to Hanover, best known as the home of Dartmouth College, he’s expected to prepare lessons for publication that incorporate Antarctic research; he’ll also mentor three other Hanover High School teachers in how they can include the world’s southernmost place in their teaching.

Meanwhile, Lavigne has his hands full. Before he stepped off the Air National Guard LC-130 Hercules turboprop from Christchurch, he hadn’t fully realized that he’d be spending five weeks in a whole new world. Moments after arriving in Antarctica five days ago, he was sitting in a bus driving along a road next to the frozen Ross Sea. Outside his window was a host of natural elements—rocky ridges, snow-capped mountains, a seemingly endless sheet of ice—unlike anything he’d ever seen. By the time the bus parked at McMurdo, the mountains were off in the distance. In front of him were the unprepossessing buildings that make up the town.

During a briefing, Lavigne and his fellow passengers were greeted by folks whose language was peppered with slang. Here a helicopter is a “helo” (pronounced HEE-low), not a chopper; radio communication is simply “coms”; and the field-safety-training program is F- STOP. After telling the newcomers to pick up their baggage in Building 140, one woman said that the galley—not the cafeteria—was still open in Building 155, but she didn’t give directions. The map they’d been given wasn’t much help; the buildings weren’t placed in numerical order, and the numbers themselves were written in hard-to-read fine print.

Later, after he’d settled in, Lavigne compared these early encounters with those of a small Vermont town where he once taught. The townspeople didn’t make him feel welcome until he had stayed through a winter. “They have their own customs here, their own language,” he explained.

On top of that, new arrivals during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer have to get accustomed to 24 hours of daylight. In New England, it’s wintertime, and the sun sets at 5 p.m. Here, if Lavigne walks out of his lab or a coffeehouse at midnight, he’ll wear sunglasses to protect his eyes from some of the most intense rays on Earth.

“Not only are you in a new town, you’re in a new town that has no evening,” he says. “Your whole internal clock is messed up, too.”

And the Antarctic environment is rife with its own unique challenges. The NSF and the support contractors that run the science operations use every modern convenience available, but the obstacles to conquering the fierce, temperamental weather, even in summer, are huge. Just getting to the continent is difficult for many. Karina Leppik, a Connecticut physics teacher who worked at the South Pole in December, waited four days in Christchurch before arriving at the airfield outside McMurdo. A combination of weather and solar activity that interrupted radio coms kept her flights grounded.

Travel on the continent isn’t much easier. Diana Wall, the leader of Lavigne’s research team, remembers being stranded in cold weather for six hours waiting for a helicopter that couldn’t reach her and her colleagues. Blizzards forced Kolene Krysl, an Omaha, Nebraska, middle school teacher working in McMurdo Sound earlier this season, to huddle in her base camp for several days instead of conducting her work of attaching satellite sensors to the backs of seals. She also spent a day transporting an injured colleague from their field camp to McMurdo for medical treatment.

“Part of the journey,” travel writer Sara Wheeler wrote about her trips to Antarctica, “was learning to keep still.”

Those who can’t, at least for the first few days, are bound to be frustrated. That’s why, every so often, a visitor needs reminding that Antarctica was not inhabited at all until 100 years ago, when explorers raced to be the first to the South Pole. Even after Raould Amundsen, a Norwegian, and British Naval Capt. Robert Scott reached the Pole within weeks of each other in 1912, the continent remained basically untouched until scientists descended on it in 1958.

Lavigne, at the moment, is racing through clear skies. From his perch in the helicopter, the mountain ranges to the left look magnificent, and on the horizon, a little to the right, he can pick out where the sea ice ends and open water begins. The talk around McMurdo is that orca whales are migrating through the water. Anyone who can persuade a pilot to take a detour could be in for a treat.

Maybe next time. Right now, Lavigne is eager to reach his destination, where two colleagues await him. Thirty minutes after takeoff, he’s finally there.

Lake Fryxell doesn’t look like a lake at all. From above, it appears to be a patch of snow in the middle of a desert. Underneath, researchers are finding ice and water that help them understand the history of the global climate.

Fryxell is one of three lakes in Taylor Valley where the NSF operates summer research camps. The valley is one of several formed by Antarctica’s high mountains between its eastern shores and the plateau that leads to the South Pole. The high mountains block ice from sliding into the valleys, thus robbing them of the moisture the ice would bring. The high winds that whip through here whisk away what little snow does fall. The only moisture comes from the melting of glaciers that dot the valley. Because temperatures rarely rise above the freezing point, streams here trickle at most. Even then, they run for only a month or two at a time.

This is the world’s most extreme environment—and one reason why it’s the ideal place for understanding the food chain of soils. The research team that Lavigne is working with has discovered that microscopic worms called nematodes live here. The worms’ survival strategies are as extreme as the weather. Some enter a comatose state when water leaves their soil but perk back to life when moisture reappears. Others subsist by letting the winds move them from dry spots to moist ones.

For Lavigne’s first day in the field, he and two colleagues—Andy Parsons, one of Diane Wall’s assistants at Colorado State University, and John Barrett, a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth—set out to collect soil samples from Harinsh Creek, one of the dried-up streams that lead to Lake Fryxell. The slight indentation in the landscape is difficult to find, even for Parsons and Barrett, who have been here several times before. They eventually pull out a global-positioning device, a sophisticated compass that pinpoints the user’s position on the globe to help them find their way.

They locate the so-called stream after 45 minutes of walking. Only a small section of it has been moistened in recent history. The rest of the ninety-foot- wide bed has been arid for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Lavigne, Parsons, and Barrett cross the dry stream by hopping from rock to rock, as if there’s water below and they don’t want their feet to get wet. Actually, they don’t want to disturb the soil.

At a central point in the stream bed Lavigne digs up about 500 grams of soil and puts it into a plastic bag. He then puts a separate sample into a small vial. Barrett also takes a sample and mixes it with potassium chloride, a compound that helps isolate the nitrogen in the soil. They repeat the process every 25 feet or so.

In the lab at McMurdo, they will analyze the soil’s nutrients and compare them with those in Lake Fryxell. They’ll also search for nematodes, which are at the top of the food chain in these barren valleys. Understanding how the worms survive may help scientists theorize whether life exists on Mars—the only other place as dry as these valleys. Lavigne is in his element while collecting the soil samples. He carefully loads each bag and places it down gently. Any major disruption could kill the worms.

A science teacher for 10 years, Lavigne has been active in research projects for several summers. He used to travel to Colorado to volunteer on digs for dinosaur bones. More recently, he volunteered at the Woods Hole Laboratory on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. He earned his summer wages by teaching classes at a museum during the day so that he could spend his nights at the lab, which specializes in oceanic research. Back in New Hampshire, one of his favorite items in his classroom full of scientific equipment is a tank that he made to run his own experiment on squids’ eyesight.

But the first week in Antarctica has been more of a challenge than any of those other experiences. The same hurdles that have made getting settled here difficult make doing science here tough, too.

Even before Lavigne arrived, he knew things wouldn’t go as planned. Ross Virginia, the Dartmouth professor with whom he prepared for the trip, backed out at the last minute because of a lingering illness he had contracted while visiting Africa in November. That put Lavigne’s schedule in the hands of Wall, Virginia’s partner in the research. Lavigne had met the ecologist only briefly.

The two butted heads the day before Lavigne’s foray to Lake Fryxell. Wall had scheduled a trip for everyone on the research team, except Lavigne, to build a snow fence at the lake. Although the teacher had completed the training needed to go on the trip, he was left behind. Instead, Wall arranged for Lavigne to visit several research sites unrelated to her project. But he had other ideas.

“It felt like it was busywork,” he recalls. “Part of me said, ‘It would be nice to do.’ There was so much else going on in that first week. It was the wrong time, and I was feeling like the rest of the team was out in the field and I wasn’t.”

So, instead, he stayed in the lab and wrote journal entries that appeared on the Web site of the teaching program that sent him to Antarctica.

The miscommunication happened, Wall explains, because she was so intent on finishing her project. By using the fence to collect what little snow falls in the valleys, she’ll be able to analyze the effect that moisture has on the soil and what little life is in it. The fence had to be installed by the end of the week, she says, or her trip to Antarctica would have been wasted.

“Until we got that snow fence in, we were all panicky,” she adds. “We didn’t want him to stand around” while the team that has worked together for two seasons put the finishing touches on the project.

In Wall’s view, Lavigne learned a lesson that anyone who comes to Antarctica soon understands. “This place, your lives are out of control,” she says. “There’s so much logistics and planning. A lot of people don’t realize how high the intensity is.”

But Lavigne, who’s been here for a week, says he now understands. There were similar pressures at the Woods Hole lab, but there, at least, he could plan in advance. “I wasn’t depending on a helo schedule to get squid,” he explains. “There was a normal routine to life.”

And when weekends arrived at Woods Hole, Lavigne could get in his car and drive anywhere he wanted. In Antarctica, he has no car. Even if he did, there are few places he’s allowed to go outside McMurdo because life-threatening dangers lurk everywhere. Blizzards sometimes blow in with less than an hour’s warning. And fields of what appear to be innocuous snow cover ice canyons that are deadly to anyone who falls into them.

Many people struggle just to get a helicopter ride to Taylor Valley, where Lavigne and his colleagues are putting the lids on their last sets of soil samples for the day. It’s time to return to the field camp, where a helicopter is scheduled to pick them up.

Once they’ve made their way back, of course, the waiting begins anew. Barrett calls the helicopter control center and asks what time to expect the pilot. The answer is 8:15 p.m., and it’s only 7:15 at the moment.

So everyone heads to the shack, which is a combination kitchen, equipment- storage hut, computer lab, and social center. Barrett and Parsons use it as their base of operations during three-day, two-night stays in the region. They sleep in nearby tents but spend what few waking hours they’re in camp in the hut cooking meals, sending e-mails, or planning their days. Today, with an hour to kill, they join Lavigne in a typical Antarctic waiting ritual: They have a beer.

A t 8:30 p.m., the pilot finally announces that he’s just three minutes away, and soon the team is scurrying onto the helicopter. No longer a helo neophyte, Lavigne decides he’d like to see some scenery. So he asks the pilot—Cady Johnson, a friend from his survival-skills course—to take them to edge of the ice, where it meets the Ross Sea. He’s hoping to see orca whales.

Johnson is new here, but he thinks he knows where to look. As the pilot heads out to sea, Lavigne spots the first whales and shows Johnson where to go. The helicopter circles around, then lands on ice about 50 feet from where the whales are peeking their heads out of the water, searching for penguins and seals to eat. Lavigne keeps finding new pods of whales as they surface for air. “Those are awesome,” he says to no one in particular.

After a few minutes, Johnson says it’s time to go. He lifts off and returns the group to the helicopter pad at McMurdo. Lavigne and his fellow researchers grab their bags and head to their rooms. Half an hour later, the adrenaline is still pumping through Lavigne.

“I want to study whales. I want to study dinosaurs,” he says in rapid succession. “I want to study leatherneck turtles in Costa Rica when they lay their eggs.”

Lavigne’s emotional roller coaster ride during his first week in Antarctica is typical. The place is huge, mysterious, and dangerous, and first-timers want to take everything in instantly. But over the next few days, Lavigne settles into a groove. He accepts that he’s not in control and that patience, more than anything else, will see him through the trip. Eventually, he’ll even feel that he’s an integral part of the research team, not just a gofer who’s sent on errand runs while the real work is being done by others.

The McMurdo community segregates itself into specific roles, which are represented by nicknames; Wall’s team, for example, is referred to as “wormherders,” and the “galley slaves” run the cafeteria. But of the 900 people staying at McMurdo during Lavigne’s visit, he’s the only teacher. In fact, most teachers on assignment here have few comrades with whom to socialize. Still, Lavigne manages to fit in. One night, he attends an invitation-only dinner thrown by members of the board that oversees the National Science Foundation. A few days later, he wangles an invitation to ride his snowboard down a skiing hill maintained by the New Zealand research base two miles from McMurdo.

Five days after his first trip to Taylor Valley, he returns to the region with Wall’s entire team, which spends the day working at various research sites. At day’s end, as the rest of the team is wrapping up its work, Lavigne takes a seat on a rock and looks across a frozen lake at a huge mountain in the distance. Everywhere he’s gone in Antarctica, Lavigne has been introduced as “the teacher.” But as he contemplates the scene in front of him, he says he doesn’t know how he’s going to teach anybody what it’s really like here.

“It’ll be interesting to try to remember this place,” he says, lost in thought. “You go back to your normal life. . . . ” He pauses as a helicopter buzzes in front of the mountain on its way to a glacier. Set against the sheer slope, it looks to be the size of a gnat. “ . . . Going to classes, grading tests.”

Another pause. As the helicopter flies over the glacier, the sound of its thumping propeller fades. “You’ll sit down and think about this moment,” Lavigne continues. “It’s something you won’t be able to communicate to other people.”


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