Surviving extreme conditions, 40 degrees below zero
The ability of living beings to survive at 40 degrees below zero or lower is one thing Hilary Dugan studies when she’s in Antarctica.
A doctoral student in earth and environmental sciences, Dugan has spent mid-October to Christmas in the McMurdo Dry Valleys for the last four years.
“This is definitely one of the most extreme environments on Earth that supports life,” she said.
By “extreme” she means subzero temperatures and four months of total darkness. The life she’s talking about is microbial — “nothing bigger than algae in the lakes, and nematodes in the soil.”
Dugan asks, “If life is flourishing in these awful environments, can it do so elsewhere?” — such as other planets. “Mars is tossed around a lot,” she said.
On her last visit, Dugan was on a team of four grad students led by Peter Doran, professor of earth and environmental sciences, who was making his 19th trip to Antarctica.
“A lot of the time we were implementing new projects, deploying instruments to look at what’s happening during the winter,” Dugan said. “It’s only recently that you can purchase instruments capable of monitoring year-round without human support.”
Instruments are used because “you can’t send people to Antarctica during the winter,” she said. It’s too cold and too dark.
Dugan headed the team that installed their autonomous instruments in the largest of the lakes they study, Lake Bonney. The researchers also take long-term measurements at Lake Fryxell, Lake Hoare and Lake Miers. All have a permanent ice cover. Measured are water temperature, light — important for photosynthesis — and salinity.
“The bottom of Lake Bonney is more salty than the ocean,” Dugan noted.
Her team takes great pains not to pollute anything. “We work in this pristine environment that is pretty heavily regulated,” she said. “We can’t dump gray [waste] water back into the system.” Instead, they fly it to the closest base, McMurdo Station, which has a waste water treatment plant. Sometimes water is shipped north via helicopter and ocean vessel for treatment.
What makes the work rewarding?
“This is really still one of the unknown ecosystems in the world,” Dugan said. “So for people to be able to get down there and experience that landscape — it’s neat to discover how species, even if they’re just microbes, can live.”
It requires a lot of preparation to make sure the team has the right supplies on hand. “You can’t run to Home Depot when you want something,” she said.
Living with the same people day in and day out, a strong bond is formed. “Instead of spending your night on Facebook, you’re talking to them,” Dugan said. “You make almost instant friends.”
When they visit McMurdo, the community expands to about 1,000 — enough to support a wide range of activities.
“Yoga, pickup basketball/soccer/volleyball, rock climbing, dodgeball,” she said. “There’s karaoke night, trivia night, book clubs, knitting. There are lots of rock bands and occasional concerts. There’s a craft room and a band room. There’s even a radio station you can deejay at, and a chapel with two different services. And I’m sure I’m missing lots.”
Dugan loves to hike in her spare time. “The landscape is especially beautiful,” she said. “I would spend all the time hiking if I could. But most of the time you’re out in the field.”
Dugan spent her childhood in Ontario — the only Canadian province bordering on all the Great Lakes except Lake Michigan, she pointed out. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. After receiving her doctorate in September, she’ll do postdoc studies at the Center for Limnology (the study of inland waters) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“I’ll take a short hiatus from polar work to go to temperate lakes — the kind you want to swim and fish in,” she said.
Dugan wants to end up in university research.
“I’m pretty open to where that would be,” she said. “I’m a native Canadian, so part of me wants to go back home. But I’m impressed with the research dynamic in the United States. So we’ll see what happens.”