Monday, December 15, 2008

Antarctic Geography

Most maps of the Earth make Antarctica look pretty small. But, actually, Antarctica is a big piece of land. It's just hard to visualize it on maps that split Antarctica in half, like this one:

But that's not what Antarctica actually looks like. If you look at the globe from the bottom, you'll see that Antarctica is shaped kind of like a porkchop.

Antarctica is the 5th largest continent on Earth, so it's not as big as North America. But, it's much larger than the United States:
Since the South Pole is in Antarctica, finding "north" is tricky. All points from the South Pole are to the north. It means that the map of Antarctica can be flipped any direction and it's always both right-side up and upside down! But, the map of Antarctica is usually viewed like this:So, the bottom half of the map is up-side down. McMurdo is on the bottom half of the map, but it's not to the south of the South Pole. It's to the north!

Antarctica is divided into two halves: East Antarctica and West Antarctica. The halves are divided by the Trans-Antarctic Mountain Range that run across the continent.

Antarctica is a continent, which means it's made out of land. There is soil all over Antarctica. But, most of Antarctica is covered in ice on top of the soil. Most of the land is covered in glaciers. That's all of the white on the map. However, there are small areas of the continent where the glaciers have retreated. That's what's brown on the map. Most of these areas are in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains on the coast of the Ross Sea. Those are the Dry Valleys where we work.

In addition to land covered in ice, some of the water around Antarctica is also permanently frozen. The grey-ish areas on the map in the Ross Sea and Weddell Sea are the permanent ice. It never melts, so is often treated like part of the continent, even though it's technically water.

McMurdo is on an island in the frozen Ross Sea called Ross Island. It lies at an area where the permanent ice meats the sea ice. During the colder months, the Ross Sea will be frozen far to the north of Ross Island. But, during the summer months (right now), the sea ice gradually melts back. Sometimes it even melts as far back as McMurdo, and the open ocean will be right on our doorstep. But, it never melts back farther than the permanent ice.

So, right now, where we sit in McMurdo on Ross Island, we are surrounded mostly by ice. There's permanent ice to the south and sea ice to the west. Across the sea ice we see the Trans-Antarctic Mountains in the distance. To the north, there is more sea ice and in the distance we can see the open ocean on the horizon. Once we get to the Dry Valleys (hopefully this weekend), our scenery will be very different!

Now that we've mostly finished getting the lab set up and our gear collected, we've been able to start on some science in the lab. We have to prepare the chemicals that we'll use to process soil samples. We also have to make up the solutions that we'll add to the soil in the field for our experiment. Here is Katie hard at work in the lab weighing chemicals:

Our third team member, Elizabeth, should be arriving in McMurdo today. Keep your fingers crossed that the weather stays good so that her plane can land!

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