Engineering student returns
from adventure in Antarctica © Feb. 18, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich engineering student Stephen Emmons...

photo courtesy of Dale AndersenNorwich engineering student Stephen Emmons helps a scientist prepare for a dive through a hole in the ice on a lake in Antarctica.

It took three hours for Stephen Emmons to climb up the slope of Pearse Valley, near Antarctica’s Lake Joyce, and reach a point of rock buffeted by near gale-force winds. Upon arrival, he was treated to a view few humans ever experience.

“I could see farther into the continent, the ice sheets, Taylor Glacier, and down into the Pearse Valley,” said Emmons, a Norwich University electrical and computer engineering major. “But I kept being knocked off balance by the wind. I wanted to stay up there, but it was painfully windy.”

Extreme conditions were very much a part of this personal journey of exploration. Emmons, ’12, joined a scientific team exploring the McMurdo Dry Valleys of the world’s fifth-largest and southernmost continent. Led by Dale Andersen, principal investigator at the SETI Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, the team investigated Lake Joyce and Lake Vanda, two ice-covered lakes in the Dry Valleys, from late October to December 2010.

I’m OK, but it’s cold.

Stephen Emmons’ lone
Facebook update from Antarctica

Emmons, of Holliston, Mass., worked as an intern at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., for two months before leaving for McMurdo Station, the main U.S. base in Antarctica. His primary responsibilities out on the ice were to collect data and operate and maintain the team’s equipment, ice drills and sensors.

Lake Joyce is of particular interest to scientists because of the microbial mats covering the lake bottom. Scientists think conditions in the Dry Valley lakes are analogous to those on earth 3.5 billion years ago, and to circumstances under which life might have existed on the planet Mars, or might exist on Europa, a moon of the planet Jupiter hypothesized to have a liquid ocean under its ice-covered surface.

Although Emmons tried winter camping as a Boy Scout, his experience in Norwich’s Corps of Cadets taught him to be able to “put up with just about anything,” a skill worth having in a place where sudden shifts in extreme weather can result in aircraft being grounded, leaving little to do but hunker down and wait out the storm.

“There was a day at Lake Joyce where we were running low on food. The wind picked up so there was not going to be any resupply by helicopter,” said Emmons. “Another time, four of us were at Lake Vanda setting up the new camp when it got windy. We had plenty of food but only one pot to cook with. There was nothing to do. We didn't have all our equipment so there was no way to start melting holes in the ice.”

Emmons got through the boredom with help from The Silmarillion, Call of the Wild, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other books loaded on his iPhone.

Personal hygiene was another matter. Emmons had a supply of wet wipes, and on one warmer day than usual on Lake Joyce [just above freezing], he managed a sponge bath. But the shower he took after returning to McMurdo Station after eight weeks on the ice was memorable.

“After I took my shower I went back to where my clothes were hanging and that’s when I realized just how much I stank,” he laughed.

The team had little contact with the outside world during its time on the ice. There was limited use of a satellite phone, which Emmons used to call his parents weekly. One day they even managed to access the Internet, allowing Emmons to update his Facebook page with the message, “I’m OK, but it’s cold.”

Andersen is pleased with the team’s performance and Emmons’ contribution.

“There are always ups and downs when you put a small group of people in an isolated place, but nothing that interfered with our work or our successful outcome,” said Andersen. “Stephen was a hard worker, a big help, and we were happy that he was able to go down there with us. I think he had a pretty good time and a great learning experience.”

Andersen is hopeful there will be a future Antarctic opportunity for another student from Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college.

“I think it would be great if we could keep students from Norwich involved, but ... competition for funding is hard!” he said. “But if we do have a slot available, I will try my best to include a good, hardworking student from Norwich, like Stephen.”

NASA’s Exobiology program and NSF’s Office of Polar Programs provided support for Andersen’s research.

Emmons returned to the U.S. on Christmas Eve and has had a smooth readjustment to college and normal life. The long hair and beard he grew have been disposed of, he said. His weight did not change, although he lost muscle mass and gained some fat during the experience.

Emmons, who will join the Air Force after graduation, hopes he hasn’t made his last trip to the bottom of the world.

“I definitely want to go back,” said Emmons. “It was a great experience.”