Any young person who sees a film or reads a book about the barren, ice-covered landscape of Antarctica would naturally wonder what it must be like to live there.
What does that kind of cold really feel like? Are there any animals around? Does anything grow there? And how do you go to the bathroom in a place like that?
On Tuesday, students in Marci Leuschen's science classes at Southwest Middle School got the rare chance to ask all those questions and more during a live video conference with a Kansas University researcher who is actually there.
That researcher is Leuschen's husband, Carl Leuschen, who is part of KU's Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, or CReSIS. He has been in Antarctica about three weeks, and was just getting ready to leave from the coastal base camp known as McMurdo Station for a month-long trek onto an ice sheet deeper in the interior of the continent.
"We're trying to look at how these ice sheets are changing since the climate's changing," Carl Leuschen told the large group of students who'd crowded into Mrs. Leuschen's classroom. "We see these ice sheets are changing pretty fast, and they start moving faster, and they're pushing more ice out into the ocean. ... When we talk about sea level rise, these ice sheets are a major contribution to that."
Antarctica might seem an unlikely place to find someone like Leuschen, who normally teaches electrical engineering at KU. But part of the work he is doing there involves working with geologists, using sophisticated radar systems, to look deep inside the glacial ice sheets to get precise measurements and study their movements.
But students wanted to know what kind of a tent does someone use to live on an ice sheet for a month. And does it have a heater inside?
"No, we don't have a heater," he said, causing some students to shiver at the thought. "For those of you who've gone out camping with your family, or something like that, that's kind of like the tent we're going to stay in. We each have our own tent, and a sleeping bag in the tent. So instead of putting the tent on the ground, we've got to put it on snow. We've got to put it on the ice sheet."
Does anything grow in Antarctica, another student asked.
"If I look outside, I do not see any green," he said. "There's nothing that grows. There might be some very, very small fungus, or something like that, but you don't see anything growing out here."
Another student asked about the most interesting wildlife he'd seen there.
"Penguins," he said. "Four years ago we saw some emperor penguins, which was pretty cool. They were just standing out by the road which goes up to the runway, just hanging out there."
"And you know what," he continued. "None of the animals are scared of you here because they don't know what humans are. So you can just walk right up to them. You're not supposed to, though. You're supposed to stay away from them. You're not supposed to influence them, but they just don't know what humans are, so they're not scared of you."
And how does a person go to the bathroom there, another asked.
"We have an outhouse which, essentially, is like when you go to a park or something," he said. "What they do is they take a big heater and heat a hole in the snow that they put the toilet over."
Educational and personal connection
Marci Leuschen said the Skype chat actually fit with lessons the students are learning in school, although she admitted, "Part of it is just the opportunity to do it."
In world history class, many of the same students are now learning about the Ice Age. And in English classes, they are reading stories and texts where ice and cold are major themes.
But it was also a chance to connect with her husband, who will be largely out of communication while his team is camping on an ice sheet.
"That was the last time I'll get to talk to him for about a month," she said. "I can contact him by email and it'll be kind of spotty. At Christmas, he might be able to get a satellite phone and call us."
She said the team is due to come back to Kansas in mid-January.