7 Things That Could Ruin Your Day in Antarctica


There’s a reason trekking to Antarctica is thought be like landing on another planet: The environment has absolutely no patience for humans. With a bone-chilling climate fond of torturing visitors, you’d better have a good reason to be there. (Like science!) Oddly enough, frostbite may be the least of your concerns. If you’re considering a research journey, consider these other, lesser-known dangers lurking in the coldest place on Earth.

1. Death from Above


You will never see a singing, dancing skua in a Disney film. These birds are reputed to be absolute savages, dive-bombing unsuspecting prey (like scientists) with claws outstretched. Explorers have been pecked, scratched, and generally terrorized by these avian bullies. If you think a bird can’t do a lot of damage, think twice: A biologist was once knocked unconscious by one.   

2. A Melting Runway

Landing aircraft on the ice runways near key stations is delicate business. Unlike commercial landing strips, there’s no asphalt or concrete to touch down on. Instead, pilots aim for a stretch of prepared, smoothed blue ice that doesn’t accumulate large amounts of snow due to increased wind and evaporation. But in 2013, the unusually warm weather had created a surface too soft for planes to land on. That meant occupying staff had to do without key deliveries of goods like fruit, toiletries, or irony: construction of one runway in 2008 had workers taking breaks to de-ice their equipment.

3. Dental Improvisation


Despite the food there being sugar-rich to give researchers energy,visits from full-time dentists at the bottom of the world are sporadic at best. Physicians stationed in Antarctica receive some basic dental training, but if complications arise, you might wind up with a mouthful of elephant seal tusk. That’s what happened to one chef in the 1950s who lost a portion of his dentures. Without the standard materials available for a typical repair, his attending physician used the tusk to fashion a temporary fix that became permanent—the man didn’t have money for a proper replacement.

4. Crevasses


Glaciers in Antarctica are a given, and nature has turned some of them into a trap from an Indiana Jones movie. Huge fractures can go down dozens or hundreds of feet, covered with a veneer of snow: unsuspecting vehicles or boots can sink into one without having time to react. If you’re lucky, someone who’s already covered your path may have put out a red flag (or robot) to warn you of impending doom.

5. Seal Bites

The various species of seals in the Antarctic usually dine on penguins, but humans will do in a pinch. Sometimes weighing up to 990 pounds, the predators have even been known to turn on themselves. While deaths from attacks are rare (though one did occur in 2003), seal bites can be serious enough to require medical attention: their mouths are home to a variety of unpleasant bacteria and they’re capable of exerting more crushing power than a canine bite.  

6. Sunburn


The Antarctic sun can loom for 24 hours at a stretch some days, reflecting harshly off the snow and creating real opportunity for sunburn even in frigid temperatures. Expeditions often mandate sunscreen be worn on exposed skin; the real concern is with snow blindness, or sunburn of the eyes.  Without appropriate eyewear [PDF], the potent UV rays bouncing off the surface from a depleted ozone layer can burn your corneas. (Early explorers had a remedy that’s since gone out of style: they dripped cocaine in their eyes.)

7. Trench Foot

Getting around in miles of snow usually means getting your feet wet. Because visitors have trouble keeping their lower extremities dry, the cold, damp conditions can result in trench foot, an unwelcome bit of ick common in World War I. Untreated, trench foot can lead to gangrene and potentially amputation, which would make it substantially more difficult to run away from a flock of advancing skuas.

Big Questions
Why Do Canada Geese Fly at Night?

Why do Canadian geese fly at night?

Stefan Pociask:

There are actually very good reasons that these geese fly at night, and I will go over them with you. But first ... I must point out that any goose you see that is carrying a valid passport from the great country of Canada, may be called a Canadian Goose. All others should be referred to by their actual name, which is Canada Goose, or Branta canadensis, if you prefer.

I can’t count how many nights at 10 p.m., at midnight, at 3 a.m., and any and all other hours of the night, I have had that all too familiar “Honk! honk-honk-honk HONKhonk HONK HONKhonkhonkhonk HONK honk HOOOONK!” cacophony pass right outside my bedroom window, as the familiar flying-V formations of Canada geese fly over my home.

Those V formations are quite extraordinary. You can’t tell from the ground, but the lead goose is the lowest of the bunch. Each goose behind is slightly higher than the one in front of it, all the way to the last goose, which is flying the highest. They do this because of the aerodynamics of their wings. The only goose that is using all its wing power is the lead goose—point-man, so to speak. When that goose flaps its wings, it causes a certain turbulence of the air that’s following the wing. The next goose in line benefits from this swirling air, and doesn’t need to apply 100 percent of its wingpower. The next goose again benefits from that one, and so on down the line. Flying in formation this way adds 71 percent more distance that they can fly, than when flying alone.

So who gets chosen to be point-man? You’d think the one with the map! Or ... the leader? Or the new guy? No. None of these. They actually take turns. When one gets tired, he will drop back so he can rest a bit and benefit from another goose’s turbulence. When migrating ... in good weather ... with favorable winds, a strong tail wind ... these guys can make up to 1500 miles in a single day ... Hard to imagine, but it’s been done. They are migration masters.

So … the flying at night thing … I’ve already touched upon one of the reasons they prefer the night. It has to do with that turbulence I just mentioned.

You see ... many other large birds (and these are large birds) use thermals to gain altitude and to soar on. Raptors do this. Hawks, eagles, etc. During the day, the landscape is riddled with all kinds of thermals rising from the ground, all depending on what the surface looks like below; how much heat was absorbed and stored from the sun; if it’s dark or light … or even water. These thermals are great for raptors—lots of vertical air movement, all over. But geese don’t soar, and they don’t have need to fly in circles. They have somewhere to go. And all those daytime thermals are a pain in the butt; doesn’t make for smooth sailing. Plus, they interfere with the aforementioned wing turbulence that they use to keep from tiring. At night, several hours after sunset, the Earth cools and those pesky vertical thermals disperse.

So that’s one reason they like the night. Another reason for night flight is to prevent overheating (makes sense, right?). Nights are cooler, so birds that expend a lot of energy with constant flapping (as opposed to soaring) take advantage of the cool of the night.

A third reason is also something I’ve already mentioned. Hawks! And eagles! And falcons! All those guys are diurnal hunters, meaning they hunt during the day. Which goose in its right mind would want to share the not-so-friendly skies with something called a raptor? Now, if you’ve ever seen flocks of geese on the ground and tried to get amongst them or feed them or something … you may already know how mean and nasty they can get. People have used geese instead of watchdogs. They are tough! Especially on the ground. But falcons, hawks, and eagles, hitting them from the air often spells doom. In other words ... their goose is cooked. During the day, they often rest and feed and rejuvenate in the water, where they are safe from raptor attack. As long as they stay in the water.

So given the choice, they take the red-eye.

Otherwise, this can happen ... (WARNING: Extremely dramatic footage follows of a falcon/goose battle. Also extremely exciting! Who will win?!)

You’ll certainly see Canada geese fly during the day. But the smart goose prefers the night.

All migratory birds are split up into three classes, regarding migration habits. Nocturnal Migrants, are the first classification, [and they fly] at night. This would include most of the seed-eating songbirds, such as sparrows and thrushes. They will fly all night, then rest up, top off the tank with food, and try to stay out of sight of raptors during the day.

The second group is the Diurnal Migrants, who migrate during the day. These are often the insect-eaters; jays, swifts, swallows, larks, etc. They benefit greatly from the daytime thermals during their journey—not for reasons of soaring, like raptors use thermals, but rather because these warm updrafts send up clouds of insects from the fields, right into the paths of the migrating birds, like a food delivery service. Most insects are so light that a gust of wind or a thermal current can lift them high into the air—and unwittingly into the beak of a hungry swallow.

And the third class of [migratory birds] are those that have a preference, but actually migrate day and/or night, depending on the circumstances. Canada geese, and many waterfowl, fit into this last category.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University
Poop Visible From Space Helped Scientists Find a Remote 'Supercolony' of Penguins
Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University
Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University

Penguin poop visible from space just helped scientists discover a previously unknown, massive colony of Adélie penguins on a chain of remote Antarctic islands, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports.

In 2014, Stony Brook University's Heather Lynch and NASA's Mathew Schwaller identified guano stains in satellite images of the Danger Islands, a rocky archipelago off the Antarctic Peninsula. The visible guano marks signaled that a large population of penguins was living there. When the scientists launched an expedition to the islands to learn more, and counted birds by hand and with a camera-equipped drone, they discovered a "supercolony" of more than 1.5 million Adélies.

"Until recently, the Danger Islands weren't known to be an important penguin habitat," Lynch said in a press release. By this count, the islands are actually home to the largest population of the species on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Danger Islands were discovered by British explorer James Clark Ross in 1842, and got their name from the fact that they are often hidden under ice. Ross and his crew almost crashed their ships on them—"appearing among heavy fragments of ice, they were almost completely concealed until the ship was nearly upon them," as the USGS's Geographic Names Information System explains. They're still hard to access and dangerous to visit because of the thick ice that surrounds them. And that makes them perfect for penguins.

Aerial shot from a quadcopter of penguin populations on Heroina Island.
Thomas Sayre McChord, Hanumant Singh, Northeastern University, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Penguins depend on sea ice for survival, and in places where sea ice is disappearing, their populations are declining. The western Antarctic Peninsula has seen huge declines in Adélie penguin populations as the ice has melted—up to 80 percent in some colonies since 1981, by one estimate. But because of the geographic variation in how climate change has affected temperatures, the population decline hasn't been the same everywhere, and other colonies have even grown. This new discovery tracks with Lynch's previous research, which has found that the impact of climate change on Antarctic penguins will be highly variable depending on the location.

“Just because a huge colony was just found doesn't mean that colonies in areas where sea ice isn't great aren't declining," University of Minnesota ecologist Michelle LaRue wrote in an email to Mental Floss. “If the sea ice conditions at the Danger Islands colony all of a sudden saw similar trends in sea ice decline, I would still expect that colony to decline, too." LaRue has worked with Lynch to study penguin populations before, but wasn't involved with this latest study.

The paper also shows how useful the combination of satellite, ground observation, and drones can be in counting penguins in remote areas. The drone was able to capture images like the one above every second as it flew over the island, creating 2D and 3D views of the whole area. This made their overall population count more accurate, which will aid researchers in tracking changes in the colony as time goes on.


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