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Polar Mail

December 9, 2007

Hi Hugh,

Looking forward to seeing how Cape Royds compares with the other colonies you are going to check out. How far away is it by penguin waddle or swim? What's the furthest the Adélies from Cape Royds have raveled?

Stay warm,

Christy Reed
Seattle, WA


Hi Christy,

Ah, you're getting ahead of us. You'll just have to wait until Wednesday, December 19 (weather permitting) to get a glimpse of Cape Crozier. (After how great Cape Royds was, we don't want to wait, either.) But we're looking forward to spending all next week at Mount Morning. We'll be 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by old lava flows. Hope you'll check in.

To answer your questions, Cape Crozier is about 50 miles away from Cape Royds by penguin waddle - although the penguin would have to climb Mt. Erebus, skirt the lava lake at the top, and then cross Mt. Terror before it got there. By penguin swim, it's about 90 miles, with the Cape Bird colony at about the halfway point.

Cape Crozier is going to be amazing. Cape Royds was a sleepy little penguin town compared with the full-on penguin city experience of some 500,000 penguins at Crozier. It's situated below 800-foot cliffs, with a full view of the Ross Ice Shelf, which periodically calves icebergs into the open water.

We'll fill in some more details about penguin life for you when we get to Cape Crozier, but that's a great question about how far they swim. The answer is a long way. When winter arrives, the penguins have to swim far enough north that they have some daylight to fish by. David Ainley has put tiny location sensors on penguins and found out that they swim nearly to the northern edge of the winter pack ice, or just south of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. That can be 600 miles or so. Ainley puts it in an amusing way: penguins are afraid of the dark.

Hope that answers your question, Christy, and please stay tuned! Best,

Hugh Powell



This is a graduate student of Geography of Texas A&M University. I'm interested in Polar exploration very much. During learning, I do learn a lot about your research in Polar Discovery project. I also have several short questions as followed:

(1) How do you deal with the trash made by the scientists? What's your viewpoint to the influence of that trash to the environment of Antarctic?

(2) How did you get the idea to combine penguins and lava flows together in one project? Besides climate change, do you get any other common subjects during your research?

Zhaohui Chi

Dear Zhaohui Chi,

Thanks for your questions. Trash was once a major blemish on Antarctica, from the early explorers up until quite recently. At Ernest Shackleton's hut just down the hill from our campsite at Cape Royds, garbage that's nearly a century old is still piled up outside in a neat rock-lined trash heap. When McMurdo Station was first built, in 1957, the occupants dumped their trash and sewage on land or into the ocean. It was only in recent decades that we undertook to remove everything we brought to the continent. Now, scientists do studies of old dump sites to determine the extent of their impact. The problem of trash is worse in Antarctica than in most places because the environment is so dry and there are no microbes to break down discarded material. When penguins or seals die on land, they don't decompose, they just dry out and become "mummified." Some biologists have found dead animals in Antarctica that were 40,000 years old, mummified by the environment.

As for why we're reporting on penguins and lava flows, we're just trying to showcase some of the research that's happening here during the International Polar Year. (We're not doing the research ourselves, we're just tagging along with three different research groups.) We also try to let you know when we come across people doing other interesting research, such as the divers we hitchhiked with on Day 11. I hope this answers your question. Good luck with your studies, and I hope you keep reading! Best,

Hugh Powell