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Polar Mail

December 18, 2007

Hi Mr. Powell! We are Mrs. Coffman's second grade class at Cherrington Elementary School in Westerville, OH. We are studying how animals live in the cold. We have some questions for you. First, we really want to know how do you take a shower there? Or do you even bathe? Also, why do people study penguins? You said that penguins can live to be 15 to 20 years old. How do you know? How can you tell how old a penguin is, or even if it is a boy or a girl penguin? What do you eat there? What size is a penguin's egg? Can you have dogs with you in Antarctica? We really like seeing the pictures and reading about what you are doing. We especially like that you tried to dance with the penguins.

Thank you!
Cherrington Elementary School
Westerville, OH

PS: We hope you can tell us something we did not know.
PPS: Your sister is our substitute teacher. Her name is Mrs. Christoff.

Hello from Antarctica to Mrs. Coffman's second graders!

Thanks for writing in with such detailed questions! It sounds like some of you are just about ready to become penguin scientists yourselves. We're going to Cape Crozier tomorrow, where I'll be able to pass on your questions to Grant Ballard and Viola Toniolo, the biologists who study penguins there all summer long. So I'll answer your questions about camp life today, and I'll post an update with the penguin answers later.

How do we shower in our field camps? We don't! There's no running water, so we don't even take baths. We do have soap, towels, and most importantly baby wipes in case we get too grimy - like when we were at Mount Morning and all the lava dust got stuck in our sunscreen. But as an early Antarctic explorer named Apsley Cherry-Garrard once said, "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised." What he meant was that in the cold clean ice there's very little to get you dirty, and on this big empty continent there are very few people to notice anyway!

We've been eating very well - a lot like the food your family might take along on a camping trip. We eat meals like pasta or beans and rice that are easy to cook on a small stove. The main thing we eat to keep our energy up is chocolate bars. Mmm, chocolate bars.

We can't have dogs with us in Antarctica. The early explorers did take dogs and ponies to help them pull their heavy gear. But now we have machines to do that - which is probably better for the dogs and ponies, because it means they can stay up in the warm northern world instead of coming down here and shivering! All the countries that work in Antarctica have agreed to do their best to keep Antarctica an unspoiled place, and to keep out animals and plants that might harm this delicate environment.

Thanks again for your great questions. I'll write again soon with answers to your penguin questions. Please say hi for me to Mrs. Christoff,

Hugh Powell

Hey Hugh!

I am particularly fascinated by the gear and pictures of life in camp, which leads me to my Very Scientific Question. Having spent a good part of my life in Army and Marine Corps tents (including two Arctic deployments), sooner or later there is always some sort of conflict between two or more unwashed, cold, bored team members who have to spend every waking moment squashed together in close proximity with each other. Do scientists get into fistfights, or at least heated debates peppered with a few heartfelt profanities? Granted, everyone on your team actually WANTS to be there; not always the case in the military, but what sort of things really get on each of your nerves there? Are there examples of Antarctic tent etiquette that absolutely must be observed to preserve the peace? Is there a rank system that comes into play to deal with conflict? Or are there particularly odious tasks that are doled out if someone violates the code of the camp? And what do the team members do to deal with boredom or the inevitable blues?

Anyway, keep the incredible updates coming, along with those wonderful photos! All my best, bro :)

Owen Powell
U.S. Army

Hi Owen,

Thanks for your very in depth sociology question. I've often wondered the same thing about the poor men of the early 1900s who spent two years inside a dark, smoky, cramped hut with 15 or 20 others. They prided themselves on making polite conservation at dinner, giving public lectures every week, cutting each others' hair, and holding church services each Sunday. Very civilized.

For our part, we haven't had any fistfights yet—but then like you said, we do actually want to be here, nobody is shooting at us, and even though it feels like years since we saw grass and trees, we've only been down here for a little over three weeks—not enough time to really annoy somebody!

We don't have to deal with boredom because we are seeing new things pretty much from the moment we wake up until the moment we file our dispatch and get back in our sleeping bags. The only hierarchy we have is the general sense that we can't interfere too much with the scientists' schedules, so we tend to adapt to what they're doing and help out whenever we can. As for tent etiquette, we're in fairly large Scott tents—the early explorers used the same tents but put three or four men in them. We have plenty of room for our own things on either side of the tent, and we have a dividing line down the middle where we store our pelican cases (for laptops and camera equipment). These serve as miniature desks/tables and keep us safely out of each others' hair.

We're also pretty united on our goal of getting interesting stories online so all you good people can read them. Chris is a great photographer and we're both quite democratic when it comes to deciding how to tell and illustrate a story, so we work well together. Thanks again for your question, and if any brawls break out before Christmas, I'll let you know!

Hugh Powell