Meet the ‘beakers’ of Crary Lab

Posted Oct. 30, 2008, at 8:27 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:53 a.m.

McMurdo Station — a busy hub on Ross Island — is known as “The Gateway to Antarctica.” In the summertime, 90 percent of U.S. Antarctic participants either pass through or reside here. Some, like myself, stop here en route to the South Pole or to field camps and remote stations. In the austral summer season, as many as 1,000 people live and work at McMurdo Station.

The early explorers had only tents, huts, or the boats that carried them here. Today, McMurdo Station is, essentially, a town. It has a medical clinic, a fire station — even a post office.

The largest of the three permanent U.S. Antarctic stations, McMurdo is the main logistics facility for resupplying inland stations and field camps. It’s the waste management center for much of the U.S. Antarctic program. And, perhaps most importantly, McMurdo is home to the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center, the primary laboratory and research facility for Antarctic scientists.

While I am here in McMurdo, friends and I go to Crary Lab to check it out. The “beakers,” as the scientists are (affectionately) called, enjoy having us support staff come by the lab and are usually happy to show us around. Today was no exception.

I hardly need my big parka for the walk to Crary Lab; temperatures are more moderate on the coast, at least in Antarctic terms. But although it is warmer, it is far stormier, and I check the visibility across the sea ice before I walk into the lab. If a Condition One storm blows in, the building you are in is right where you’ll stay until visibility improves. Today the sky is clear, and I’m not worried about whiteouts.

We hang up our parkas inside, and a woman pokes her head out of the office. “You here to be shown around?” she asks. “Awesome.” This lab, she tells me, is the pride and joy of the program. The state-of-the-art science facility is the central building at McMurdo Station with more than 4,320 square meters of working space. That’s bigger than the entirety of Palmer Station, a U.S. Antarctic Program base on the opposite coast. It’s equipped with everything needed to bring USAP science research capabilities up to modern research standards — no simple feat here in Antarctica.

“Crary is divided into three ‘phases,’ with five sections, each designed to facilitate research in a different area of the earth sciences and engineering,” she tells me. A quick walk-through shows me just how much is there. In addition to offices, a library and equipment storage, there are extensive laboratories and specialty areas for microscopes, environmental rooms, analytical chemistry labs, ice and rock sectioning rooms, an electronics workshop and more. “Three of the pods support research specific to biology-chemistry, geology and physics-engineering,” she tells me. “Another pod has an aquarium room, with wet labs, running seawater, and a variety of aquarium tanks to hold live animals and to test equipment before it is deployed to the field.”

Our tour guide ducks into one lab and returns with a distracted-looking woman — one of the scientists studying penguins. Though startled by a sudden trooping-in of support staff, she dives into a quick explanation of her work. It’s clear that she’s excited about her research. “Take a guess at how long a penguin can stay underwater,” she challenges us. “The longest recorded dive — and that’s just recorded — is 27 minutes. That’s extraordinary.” Penguins, she tells us, have access to nearly all of the oxygen in their body, letting them hold their breath for very long amounts of time. This season she and her colleagues will drill a hole into the sea ice, isolating penguin movement in and out of the water, and study their oxygen use.

In another room, a live-action video broadcasts from nearby volcanic Mount Erebus. Expeditions of scientists travel there by helicopter, studying the volatile giant in whose shadow we live. We pass around a few cooled “lava bombs” collected on a recent expedition to Lower Erebus Shelter. I’m surprised by how light they are — they feel almost like Styrofoam.

“There used to be an Upper Erebus Shelter, but the lava bombs were hitting way too close to it,” we are told. “Some of these lava bursts are as big as cars.” The man laughs at our expressions. “Yeah … the live-action video is close enough for me.”

I leave Crary Lab with a new appreciation for just how much research goes on here. As support staff, it’s easy for me to get caught up in the day-to-day running of the base and lose sight of why we’re here. From penguins to volcanoes, under-water exploration and glaciology, a lot goes on down here — and we’re exploring more every day.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures and to e-mail questions to her, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com

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