Ph.D. architecture student
continues study in Antarctica


Editor’s Note: Georgina Davis, a Ph.D. student in architecture at Texas A&M, has returned to McMurdo Station in Antarctica to continue her research on occupant comfort and energy efficient buildings in extremely cold climates.

"Studying facilities such as McMurdo Station is important because, as places devoted to long-term scientific studies in a variety of scientific fields, these research stations need to run efficiently and effectively under extreme conditions, while also accommodating the health and comfort of the scientists and support personnel," she said.

Davis, whose studies in Antarctica began last fall, wrote from Antarctica about her Ph.D. project and her involvement as a Weddell seal research field assistant. Her Ph.D. adviser is Jeff Haberl, professor of architecture.

Ph.D. architecture student

I am back in Antarctica for the 2010-2011 International Polar Year, once again working at the U.S. base McMurdo Station, located on Ross Island (77°50' S, 166°41 E). As with last year, I arrived during Winter Fly-in (WinFly), a transitional season between Winter and Main Body, which begins at the end of September.

We landed the evening of August 15, the second scheduled flight in from New Zealand. Since we were on one of the earliest Winfly flights, there were only a few hours of low-level daylight, so the pilots had to use night vision goggles to land the C-17 military cargo plane on the ice runway, known as the Pegasus Field, out on the Ross Ice Shelf. The air temperature was about -42oF, but it was a clear, calm evening: a beautiful welcome back to the island.

I have a dual role during my stay in McMurdo.

First, I am a field assistant for a Weddell seal research project, a collaboration between scientists from Texas A&M Galveston, the University of Texas at Port Aransas, and University of California Santa Cruz.

Second, I am conducting my own architectural research as a Ph.D. student in the TAMU College of Architecture on occupant comfort and energy-efficient buildings in extremely cold climates, specifically the Antarctic.

Studying facilities such as McMurdo Station is important because, as places devoted to long-term scientific studies in a variety of scientific fields, these research stations need to run efficiently and effectively under extreme conditions, while also accommodating the health and comfort of the scientists and support personnel. As the largest station on the continent -- serving the needs of its own population as well as those of other stations and remote camps as far away as the South Pole -- McMurdo offers a great opportunity for me to understand what is needed to operate a large logistical operation in a harsh climate like Antarctica.

Ideally, stations devoted to scientific research are places that have minimal impact on the environment the scientists wish to study; over the past 20 years, there has been a push to reduce the footprint and environmental impact created by this large station. Smaller stations built by other countries, e.g. Belgium, Great Britain, Australia, have already made great advances in increasing reliance on alternative energy (mostly wind power), reducing the area disturbed by the station, and creating more comfortable places for scientists and support personnel to work year round. In part because of its large size and long history (the station was originally built in 1959), these changes have come more slowly for McMurdo.

Life at the station reminds me a lot of that on a college campus. Everyone is here voluntarily, there are no children, and most of the civilian support personnel lead active, alternative life-styles. Nearly everyone has a roommate and lives in large dormitories with long hallways and shared restrooms. There are laundry rooms and lounges on each floor. There is a galley which provides all-you-can-eat buffet-style meals four times a day, as well as a special brunch on Sundays.

Because people are not allowed to leave the boundaries of the station unless their job or science project requires it, opportunities for people to relax and enjoy some time away from work are very important. Station employees work six days a week, but there are plenty of activities to keep everyone entertained, and these are listed on a bulletin board in the main building, Building 155. There is a variety of movies, sports and health activities, hiking trails, crafts, dancing, language classes, travelogues, science lectures, game nights, and more on any night of the week.

When I’m not working in the lab or out in the field, I’m usually at a place called the Coffee House, where I can focus on my own research, talk with people, or be alone for a while. It’s an old Quonset hut with a Jamesway addition –- the old Officers’ Club, and one of the original buildings from the 1950s- but its inviting interior, with wood-panel walls, music, soft lighting and comfortable seating make it one of the more popular places to relax and socialize at the station.

While I’m at McMurdo Station, I sometimes miss easy access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and real milk. Other than that, I relish every moment spent here and don’t think about the few missing comforts and conveniences; it’s all part of the experience.

In McMurdo, there are no sounds of animal life, just the wind and the crunch of gravel and snow beneath your bunny boots as you walk between buildings and around large bulldozers. There is no smell of grass or flowers, only the smells of the station: diesel, cooking, and food exhaust.

When I return to New Zealand, it is almost therapeutic to go to the Christchurch Botanical Gardens to soak in all the greenery and life after spending weeks with only ice and black volcanic soil beneath my feet, looking at an endless expanse of frozen ocean and ice-covered mountains in the distance. (For those who have been here six, eight, or even 14 months, the experience can be even more dramatic.) The unspoiled, inherent beauty of this wonderful but lifeless view makes some long for the rich biodiversity enjoyed on other continents.

As a field assistant for a science project, I am in the enviable position to travel off the island, out to the sea ice, beyond the boundaries of the station. Out on the frozen ocean it is possible to see one of the only animals visible this time of year: Weddell seals. Later in the season, when the sea ice breaks up and melts, whales, skuas, and other pinnipeds will arrive.

Weddell seals are fantastic animals to work with and amazing examples of biological adaptation in environments we consider extremely harsh. While we must dress with multiple layers of special protective clothing, increase our caloric intake, and retreat to heated shelters just to survive, the seals thrive in the freezing ocean, diving between breathing holes and catching fish.

My two seasons here have given me a better understanding of what it takes to build and maintain a large facility in the extreme cold of the Antarctic and simultaneously provide a comfortable, healthy work environment. Smaller stations have proved it is possible to do so, even while relying heavily on alternative sources of energy such as wind, but for a station the size of McMurdo, this balance becomes more difficult to achieve.

My time here as also given me a greater appreciation of the people who work here for months at a time, often for multiple seasons, maintaining the station and making it possible for scientists to carry out research.

In many ways, McMurdo is an example of what living off-planet will require for efficient and supportive working and living environments, and also the type of people who will pioneer research stations on remote, inhospitable planets. This is something that interests me greatly and is one reason I have come to this harsh but beautiful location.


- Posted: Sept. 28, 2010 -

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Contact:   Phillip Rollfing, or 979.458.0442.


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