January 19, 2009
Sure, it’s zero degrees outside. But you can handle it. You’ve got the thermal underwear hiked up to your belly button, the earmuffs on top of your hat and one of those bank-robber ski masks. No “wind chill factor” can stop you.
While you’re out braving this mid-January freeze (whether you’re shoveling your driveway in Cleveland or joining us on the National Mall at tomorrow’s presidential inauguration), we at Surprising Science request that you set aside a brief moment of your unbearable time to pay a thought to the scientists working in Antarctica to dig up dinosaur bones, discover new microorganisms, and watch the ice sheets melt. For them, a heat wave is ten degrees Fahrenheit.
So, how does one keep warm 400 miles from the South Pole?
“The clothing is very multi-layered,” says William Hammer, a paleontologist at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, who conducts his research in Antarctica.
“The idea is just like what skiers would wear,” Hammer says. “You have your polypropylene underwear and wind proof pants with a fleece-like lining in it.” On top, he may layer a fleece, turtleneck and two types of jackets.
The most interesting part of the Antarctic uniform are the bear paws, huge gloves that extend up to the elbows that Hammer only uses during high-wind conditions or snowmobiling. The downside is you can’t move your fingers in them.
No amount of layering, however, can prepare scientists for winter at the South Pole, when it’s perpetually dark and temperatures reach minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why research there is mainly conducted during the summer months of mid-November to mid-January.
There are few other places in the world where scientists work with such extreme cold. One spot even more frigid than Antarctica is a physics lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology regularly bring elements to minus 440 degrees Fahrenheit to study how molecules behave close to absolute zero, the coldest conceivable temperature.
Although it may feel that cold outside, it’s really only Antarctica cold.
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