Posts from Antarctica: Staying Safe in the Field Part 1 – Staying Warm

Before I dive into the current topic, a quick update on our logistics: Our advance team was supposed to fly out on Wednesday, November 27, but between bad weather at WAIS Divide and the holiday weekend, they are now officially delayed until Monday, December 2nd. Once they get out to the camp at WAIS Divide, they will run reconnaissance flights (“recce flights”) from there to scout the site and start putting in our first field camp on Thwaites Glacier. The rest of our team will follow to get in position at WAIS Divide, probably in stages. My guess is I’ll be listed on a flight that’s aiming to leave for WAIS Divide sometime in the middle of next week; it’s highly unlikely that we’d leave as early as Monday (the day all of us who aren’t on the advance team were originally hoping to fly), and we could get out as late as who-knows-when, depending on weather. That’s all to say: Expect several blog posts over the next few days, since I should still have relatively reliable internet as long as we’re in McMurdo. Things will get much spottier and less verbose (and with fewer pictures) once we move to the deep field!

Now on to the topic at hand: staying safe in the field…

Antarctica is not a forgiving continent. Staying safe in the field requires careful advance planning, a detailed understanding of the terrain, constant vigilance to catch changes in surface conditions, close attention to weather observations, and plans for every contingency. The mortality rate of Antarctica’s earliest visitors was harrowingly high, but modern scientific expeditions are very safe. However, that safety is only achieved by hard work before and during the field season.

Our time in McMurdo has two main purposes: prepare our science and cargo for the field, and prepare ourselves for the field. Preparing our science and cargo for the field would make for a pretty mundane blog post (it involves many hours of testing, labeling, spreadsheets, and packing), but I thought you might find it interesting to know how we prepare ourselves for the field. This is a big topic, so this will be the first in a series of posts on staying safe in the field (which may or may not be posted consecutively). I’ll talk here about staying warm, and in later posts I’ll cover how we train for the field and what sort of communications and emergency responses we have available.

One of the most important aspects of staying safe in the field is staying warm. Everyone who comes to Antarctica with the US Antarctic Program (USAP) is directed to bring our own base layers (the technical name for long underwear), which are typically wool, silk, or synthetic lightweight layers that are worn as the first layer beneath many. These layers are good at wicking moisture away from the skin, keeping us relatively dry and warm. We also have to bring our own socks. I like to wear a pair of silk liner socks under heavyweight wool socks.

After base layers, we move onto mid-layers. USAP provides some of these at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) in Christchurch, and typically people bring some of their own, as well. I usually wear a pair of fleece pants over my base layer, as well as one or two light-to-midweight fleece tops. Sometimes I’ll swap a fleece for a lightweight down jacket. Whenever possible I choose mid-layers that have hoods, as these can be pulled over or under hats while keeping drafts off my neck.

Wearing the USAP-issued parka, “Big Red.”

USAP supplies most of our outerwear. We’re provided with seriously warm boots, waterproof snow pants, and the iconic big, cozy parka known as “Big Red.” They also provide us with thin liner gloves, insulated leather work gloves, mittens, goggles, a hat, a balaclava, and a neck gaiter. I was pleased to note that most of the issued gear fits me fairly well; in the past, USAP gear was limited to men’s sizes, and women (especially small women) often found outfitting at the CDC to be challenging. My waterproof pants and fleece mid-layer are definitely a bit big but wearable, and the proportions of Big Red make working in the parka difficult for just about everyone, but especially for smaller individuals (if it’s not too terribly cold, I’ll switch to wearing a smaller down coat I brought myself; many people bring their own outerwear that’s a little easier to work in) . The biggest problem for me is that the smallest work glove size is too large for me, making working in those nearly impossible. Fortunately I brought a few pairs of my own gloves.

I like to wear silk liner gloves under relatively thin work gloves, and I keep mittens in my pockets to warm up my hands when I don’t need the dexterity of gloves. I wear a neck gaiter – just a wide, stretchy loop of fabric that goes around my neck, like a compact scarf – which I can pull up over my mouth and nose when the cold or wind are too much. I tend to wear one relatively lightweight hat and use my hoods for extra warmth. With 24-hour sunlight and a highly reflective snow surface, eye protection is very, very important; I have a pair of glacier glasses with adaptive polarized lenses that do a really excellent job toning down the brightness, and I also plan to always carry my USAP-issued tinted goggles that can cover more of the area around my eyes if it is too cold or windy.

All the clothing I’ll wear on a typical day in the field

Having the right clothing is vital to staying warm, but just wearing the gear is not enough. It’s really important to dress in layers and to proactively add and remove layers as needed. Just as getting too cold is a problem, getting too warm and sweaty makes your clothing damp, cooling things down quickly if you stop moving or if the temperature drops. It takes some practice to figure out which layers work best for you and for the weather conditions, and adjustments have to be made throughout the day as weather changes. Rather than adding more clothing to get warmer, sometimes it’s more important to start moving, or to eat or drink something calorie-dense; your body can’t produce enough heat without calories for energy, and typically it’s important to eat many more calories than normal to keep your body warm in a cold environment (i.e. we eat a LOT of chocolate). When needed, we also use external heat sources; in particular, we sometimes use instant hand and toe warmers in our gloves and boots, and will fill our thermoses and Nalgene water bottles with boiling water for hot drinks and for hot water bottles that act as a temporary heat source.

USAP also provides our camping equipment. We have several types of tents, which I hope to talk about in later posts. One of the most important aspects of staying warm at night is having insulation between the ground and your sleeping bag. Sleeping bags keep you warm primarily through the insulating effects of air trapped by the down or synthetic insulation. Underneath your body, the air is squished out of the sleeping bag, so that’s often where the most heat is lost. USAP provides both a foam sleeping mat and an inflatable sleeping mat, which are stacked on top of each other under the sleeping bag. The sleeping bags themselves are large and warm, and we typically use a fleece or synthetic sleeping bag liner or two to fill in some of the space inside the sleeping bag, or an extra bag over the top to make the whole system warmer. Depending on the temperature and the warmth of the sleeping bag and the temperature of the night, I might sleep in just my base layers, or I may add layers as necessary. I also often wear booties with down insulation in the tent and in in my sleeping bag to keep my feet warm (hot water bottles help with this, too!). We use “mummy bags,” which are sleeping bags that are narrower near the feet to keep them warmer, and have a hood that can be cinched in on cold nights so only your nose sticks out.

The result of all this is that, although it’s common to get cold from time to time throughout the day, there’s usually no excuse for staying cold. You add layers, use external heat sources, eat something, and start moving. It’s a lot of effort and requires a lot of practice and management, but we’re typically relatively warm and comfortable in the field.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you back in the US!

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2 Responses to Posts from Antarctica: Staying Safe in the Field Part 1 – Staying Warm

  1. Brent Link says:

    Very well explained!
    I have done a little winter camping in Michigan so I can slightly identify with what you are sharing.
    What temperature ranges are you expecting?

  2. kalley says:

    It actually should be quite warm (relatively speaking)! Temperatures this year on Thwaites haven’t been very cold – it’s likely not to get much below 20˚F while we’re out there, unless a really cold storm hits. The biggest problem will be wind chill, as storms can be really rough where we’re going. Another problem may be that it gets wet and slushy if it gets above freezing too many times!

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