Wednesday, January 11, 2017

One Year Later: Reflections on my time in Antarctica

One Year Later:
Reflections on my time in Antarctica

Winter has finally arrived in Boston. People are bundled up in parkas, winter hats, thick gloves, heavy boots, and scarves, as if they were in Antarctica, not Massachusetts. They complain about Boston’s cold and windy winter months, and I can’t help but laugh.
It has now been over a year since I went on my research expedition to Antarctica. And, while I am definitely enjoying a relaxing, mundane winter break at home, the anniversary of my extraordinary trip and the onset of winter in Boston have brought to mind memories, good and bad, of my time at the bottom of the world. I have finally had a chance to reflect on those unique experiences— experiences that have changed my life in ways both subtle and profound.

There are some things about Antarctica that I don’t miss. Some experiences are so uncomfortable that, despite being part of such a remarkable adventure, they can’t be remembered with even the slightest fondness. First of all, I sacrificed most comforts that the developed world takes for granted: shower, fresh food, running water, telephone, internet, toilet, and much more. Without these amenities, my weeks in the Dry Valleys were among the harshest that I have ever experienced. (On our first day back, although I was sad to be leaving our campsite, the relief of having access to a hot shower, a hot meal, plumbing, and a mattress was ineffable.)
And of course the Antarctic temperature was brutally frigid. Our struggle to stay warm never really ended, with temperatures ranging from unbearable to just sufferable. Life in general, and geological field work in particular, is very hard when you can’t feel your face, feet, or hands. I actually got a very minor case of frostbite on my right hand. The cold wasn’t just uncomfortable, but it actually posed a health risk.
Along with the obvious physical struggle of living in Antarctica came the less expected psychological struggle. It was the first year of my life that I wasn’t home for winter break. I missed Christmas, New Year's Day, birthdays, and a wedding. Some days, a powerful feeling of homesickness set in. I missed my family, friends, and neighbors, most of whom I hadn't seen for a year. Away from cell phone towers and internet access, I couldn’t even contact them remotely. After an extremely stressful semester, it would have been great to at least hear their voices. Missing them was one of the biggest sacrifices I had to make. And now that I am home, I can appreciate just how valuable my time with loved ones really is.

Despite the cold, isolation, terrible food, lack of plumbing, difficult preparation, and all of the other tribulations of being an Antarctic researcher, if I had the chance to return I would definitely take it. My trip to Antarctica has been, without question, the most amazing experience of my life. I could hardly even imagine a better experience.

First of all, the scientific questions— including deducing ice-sheet stability and the potential for global sea level rise— are not only interesting, but are also incredibly important. Contributing to this work is among my proudest achievements.
Second, the Dry Valleys region is the most beautiful, austere, sublime, and alien place I have ever seen. It has permanently changed my relationship to nature and to civilization. Surrounded by that landscape, I experienced an almost religious sense of wonder. It is the kind of feeling that makes me want to continue studying nature. It makes the lives of Professor Marchant and his colleagues, who spend several months of each year in the world’s least hospitable environment, not just understandable, but even enviable.
Third, the bumps, bruises, frigid cold, and treacherous hiking— however stressful, or even frightening— gave the expedition a grand sense of adventure. I felt like an explorer, a pioneer, an astronaut. I felt like we were discovering an alien world, and in a very real way we were.
And now the experience continues! The samples we collected will be analyzed for their abundance of cosmogenic nuclides, with anticipated results proving “exposure ages.” These can then be used to determine a timeline of ice-sheet fluctuations and, with allied data, coeval climate change. As I continue to participate in the analysis of these samples with Professor Marchant and his wider Antarctic Research Group I have the opportunity— and now the confidence— to take more academic risks. I have developed an appreciation for the scientific method that I could not have achieved in any other way. I discovered just how fun, dangerous, and exciting science can be!
I love astrophysics and computer science, but this field expedition showed me that studying alien worlds could be a hands-on, physically grueling, and exhilarating experience. The risks I took on this expedition are among the greatest I have encountered in my life; I feel extremely privileged to have been given the opportunity to pursue this challenge. And I feel fortunate to have succeeded when it appeared that weather, communications, and equipment malfunctions were truly against us. Thanks to the trip, I am confident in my ability to overcome personal hardship and great risk—all for the sake of science.
In addition to the influence the trip had on my academic career, it has had a strong impact on my personal life in the past year. I have gained a newfound appreciation for time spent with my loved ones. I finally appreciate what a great luxury it is to have ready access to running water, electricity, and shelter. And I can’t overstate how great it is to have access to the healthy and delicious food that I do at BU and at home. In short, after the trip to Antarctica I have learned to not take the amenities in my life for granted. This has really changed how I see the world.

Antarctica gave me a lot to think about...

A year ago, I was in the coldest, windiest place on earth. Now I see people in Boston dressed as if they were planning to go there, too. I laugh, and I’m tempted to say that they can’t appreciate what “cold” really means. But even if they can, there are some things that
nobody could possibly appreciate without an experience like my trip to Antarctica. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to go to Antarctica and to have learned the transformative lessons that come with that kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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