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UND team preparing for trip to Antarctica

Tonight, when temperatures in much of the Red River valley dip into single digits and a walk outside means feeling the cold hand of winter on bare skin, give a thought to UND professor Jaakko Putkonen and his student assistants -- this is what it...

Tonight, when temperatures in much of the Red River valley dip into single digits and a walk outside means feeling the cold hand of winter on bare skin, give a thought to UND professor Jaakko Putkonen and his student assistants -- this is what it will be like for them almost all of the time for the next two months.

The geological survey team will be taking a long camping trip to the exotic interior of Antarctica, where they'll hike over miles of rough, boot-busting terrain, collecting rocks and taking climate measurements.

The goal, Putkonen said, is to better understand how the landscape erodes in the coldest and one of the driest places on Earth. "These sites have been visited less seldom than the moon. That gives you some idea that we truly know very little about what's going on there."

It's summer now at the bottom of the world and the best time of year for expeditions, especially ones involving extensive time in the outdoors. Temperatures where the team will be going should average a few degrees north or south of zero.

This is not the Antarctica of most nature documentaries.


Here, there are no penguins, no seals, just the dark rocks, the white ice and the blue sky. The Ong Valley and Moraine Canyon are far from the sea and accessible only after several hours' flight time, meaning a day trip is generally impractical. The nearest permanent science facilities are more than 300 miles away.

Putkonen's team includes a UND grad student, two undergrads and a post-grad from Vanderbilt University. The UND team members depart today from Grand Forks.

6,000 pounds

An Antarctic expedition is as much a tale of discovery as a tale of logistics, for this is a camping trip unlike any other.

Altogether, team members will travel something close to the circumference of the Earth with stops to pick up gear and survival training in Christchurch, New Zealand, and McMurdo Station, America's main scientific facility in Antarctica.

They'll use military jets, aircraft with skis for landing gears and helicopters, hauling about 6,000 pounds of gear into the field. That doesn't include survival packs, in case their gear is destroyed and help is delayed by poor weather.

The expedition itself is funded to the tune of $360,000 by the National Science Foundation, but Putkonen figures just getting there with all the gear costs probably two to three times that. "Everything we do there is so expensive. It's not just going there out into the field, but there's this whole logistical mountain behind me."

Almost everything needed to sustain human life has to be shipped in, including fuel. One scientist complained to the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2008 that aircraft fuel costs of $60 to $130 a gallon threatened her planned surveys of Antarctic mountains.


So, every pound of gear carries with it a much bigger cost than just about any other place in the world.

Even the addition of a 4-pound tent for the outhouse is something to ponder.

"This time, I don't know if I'm getting soft or I'm just too soft on you guys, but I'm thinking of having a toilet tent," Putkonen told his student assistants. "Usually, we don't have those kinds of luxuries because we run very lean camps. ...We usually just build a snow wall around the pooper."

The problem then is if there's a snowstorm, he said, you get snow in your underpants.

Cold adaptations

This scarcity of resources paired with the extreme environment and the needs of research creates a peculiar lifestyle out in the field, said Putkonen and his graduate research assistant Ted Bibby, both veterans of Antarctic expeditions.

There's no wood for campfires, and fuel is used only for cooking or to help with research, not to create heat. A lot of shivering is normal, at first, even under multiple layers of fleece and goose down, but the body eventually adapts to life in the cold. Blood circulation to the extremities becomes so good that when they return to indoor heating, their hands and feet feel like they're on fire for the first several days.

"It's OK when you have sun and no wind; it feels kind of balmy," Putkonen said, not unlike Grand Forks under the same conditions.


For several weeks, there will be no bathing, though this is not such a big deal because the cold deadens the sense of smell. When pilots return to pickup field teams, they sometimes have to open the windows to minimize the smell.

All you can eat

But living and working in the cold carries with it a caloric cost. Normally, an adult man who exercises vigorously requires about 2,800 to 3,000 calories a day. An adult man in Antarctica needs about 3,400 calories on average and 5,000 if he's out pulling a sledge.

"After a week hiking eight miles a day and sleeping in the cold and shivering all the time, you just burn so many calories that it's difficult to replace them," Putkonen said. "I tend to lose weight when I'm there."

For the explorers, it's a regular meat-and-potatoes diet, fortified by fat and sugar; cheese and candy are favored snacks, he said. "Toward the end of the field season, everybody starts getting so hungry, there's just not enough time to eat enough, you start grabbing cheese, like handfuls, and just chuck them in your mouth."

Nothing left behind

Then there's the matter of waste. The world's nations have agreed to keep Antarctica clean and pristine as a continent for research. Explorers must leave nothing behind. Even a little spilled fuel must be reported, and all the dirt that's absorbed that fuel must be carried out, as Putkonen found out on one expedition.

"Everything that comes with you, leaves with you," Bibby said.


Yes, that means explorers have to take their human waste with them when they go. When they're in camp, they have buckets that can be fitted with a toilet seat for this purpose. When they're in the field, they have bottles and bags.

This is critical because organic material doesn't break down here as quickly as in other places. Explorers have stumbled across dead seals, naturally mummified by the cold and dry climate, that may be thousands of years old.

Putkonen said he once stumbled onto something more prosaic: An old campsite from the 1950s, when explorers were much less environmentally conscious. He ended up camping in the area, kicking aside all the trash, including frozen human waste.

Rock of ages

Putkonen said he'd be happy to spend a year in Antarctica if he had the funding and the winters weren't so dark and brutal. The evolution of the landscape in the continent's interior is seldom studied, so what he's doing is pure exploration, like in the old days when explorers crossed new continents armed with only some rough maps, he said. Nobody knows what use this knowledge will have, though he figures it could have some application in another cold, dry place in the solar system, namely Mars.

In much of the world, landscapes erode because of a few basic factors. Moving water polishes and wears away their surfaces. Windborne dust and sand scours at them. The roots of plants and grass drill into them. Day-to-day temperature variations can cause different crystals inside of rocks to expand at different rates, creating tension that eventually breaks rocks apart.

In Ong Valley and Moraine Canyon, part of the Transantarctic Mountains that divide the continent, there seems to be only the wind. The team will spend three weeks in each campsite; the remaining time being spent prepping at McMurdo.

Putkonen and Bibby said they'll be gathering rock samples and, back at UND, analyzing their composition to discover how old they are. Like a suntan, the elements in the rocks change to different isotopes over millions of years under exposure to cosmic rays that bombard the Earth every day. Measuring the isotopes in the rocks, they can see the difference between the rocks' age and how weathered they are, if they weather slower or differently than comparable rocks in other parts of the world.


The team also would bring along instruments to measure local climate -- temperature, wind speed, humidity -- mounted on heavy-duty tripods and GPS receivers to measure the minute movements of the ground. Both would be picked up in a year.

In other words, Putkonen already is planning to come back. It's more than just the science; he seems to like it there.

"It's so peaceful," he said. "There is no noise, no people, no cars honking, no airplanes, nothing. It's just like some kind of a different world when you are there."

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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