Let's Talk with Carole Bennett about Studying Snow and Wind in Antarctica

Part of the Antarctica: The Farthest Place Close to Home Curriculum Collection.

Carole Bennett has been teaching high school chemistry for thirty-four years. She participated in the Teachers Experiencing the Arctic and Antarctic (TEA) program, which invites teachers to join Antarctic research projects so that they can share their discoveries with their students upon returning home. In November and December of 1996, she worked with an Antarctic research team to study the strong winds in the interior of Antarctica

AMNH: Why should kids know about Antarctica?

Carole: Kids are usually fascinated by something new, and Antarctica is something new. Fossils in Antarctica show that it was a different place before plate tectonics moved it to where it is now. There's a lot of concern about the ozone hole and global warming, and the place to study them is down there; we can find out about past climate by looking at ice cores.

AMNH: How can students everywhere be good stewards of our least known continent?

Carole: I tell student how they can take care of the Earth in general. I recycle. I make them aware of our part in creating the ozone hole, and urge them to cut down on the use of CFC's (most use of CFC's is being stopped in the U.S.). I now focus on students lowering amounts of CO2, NO1, and NO released into the air to reduce or slow global warming. I always show my students a picture of U.S. Antarctic Program staff putting bags of waste on a helicopter. You take it out there, you bring it back. Things don't decompose there because it's so cold and chemical reactions occur faster at higher temperatures. But waste is being generated everywhere–where does it go?

Field of Study Chemistry–in Antarctica, ice cores, wind, and snow patterns

Hometown Tampa, Florida until 7th grade, then Pennsylvania

Favorite Middle/High School Subjects English, then Math in High School

Least Favorite Middle/High School Subjects Science

Thoughts on Middle/High School "I was a tomboy. I spent hours in creeks, looking for things under rocks." 

Interests in Middle School Reading

Interests Today Reading, growing orchids, fernst hoyas

Life Lessons from the Field "You really have to be prepared. You have to come up with all kinds of alternatives too, because sometimes things don't come out the way you want. And you have to be really flexible. Not aimless–you need a goal–but flexible enough to change plans if it doesn't work one way."

Recommended Reading Endurance by Caroline Alexander, The Crystal Desert by David Campbell, and Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler
Major Influences:"At university, some of my professors were very inspiring. They were young people and it was obvious that they loved what they did.
Number of Trips to Antarctica: So Far One

AMNH: What's so important about your field of study in Antarctica?

Carole: For one thing, it's important in assessing global warming. We really do have global warming; it's not just a glitch in temperature patterns. I always ask my students where our Florida cities are so that we can realize that they're all on the coast. My house, the school, are probably ten feet above sea level. If there's any melting of the ice sheets in Antarctica, all these things are gone. Antarctica is going to affect our lives very drastically. We need to study it. If there is warming, we should see a lot of snow melting. Right now we don't know how much is melting and how much is really just blowing around. If we see a certain amount of snow one year and next year we don't, is that because the snow is melting or because strong winds blow it somewhere else? In the U.S., hundreds of thousands of stations measure prevailing winds. In Antarctica, there can't be more than 100. We don't yet know much about patterns.

AMNH: And how did your work help you answer these questions?

Carole: I was involved with two projects. I worked with a Principal Investigator who was measuring wind patterns in Antarctica, looking at how the winds transport snow. He placed instruments on Automatic Weather Stations in four different places on the continent. The instruments sprayed 120-micron-size glass beads of different colors into the air at different times of the year.

AMNH: What's a micron?

Carole: Oh, that measures size. It is one-millionth of a meter. One snow grain in Antarctica measures about 120 microns, but it's not the kind of snow you usually see in America. It's drier and much more granular than the fluffy kind. You can't make snow balls with it because it's so dry.

AMNH: And what did these glass beads tell you?

Carole: We used them in conjunction with the Automatic Weather Stations. We could take measurements from all four stations from base camp during the time that the beads were being sprayed. We took measurements every ten minutes, recording the temperature, pressure, wind speed, elevation of snow, relative humidity–all the conditions that were in effect during the spraying. The next step was traveling to one of the remote sites, 100 kilometers from McMurdo. We started at 100 meters from the propelling stations and worked our way out, collecting ice cores at different distances from the propelling stations until we had gone two kilometers from them. We collected more cores at distances closer to the stations. There was greater chance of finding beads at a shorter distance. Back at the lab, we sliced the cores into three-centimeter sections and recorded the different depths. Then we melted the ice, filtered the water, and looked through a microscope for glass beads. That way, we could figure out how far the glass beads–and therefore the snow–had traveled in a certain amount of time. If there is global warming then less snow might be falling in addition to the fact that more is melting. If scientists are measuring height of snow in a certain remote area they must know if it's from new snow or just from accumulation of snow blown in from another area.

AMNH: Did you spend your last two months collecting and analyzing the cores?

Carole: I also worked with a nineteen-year-old student named Jennifer, who was in the NSF Young Scholars Program. We measured ripples in the snow to find out how fast the snow and wind were moving.

AMNH: How does that work?

Carole: We measured the wavelength and shape of the ripples, and took a lot of pictures with a digital camera to see if we could discern a pattern to them. This method was applied years ago to study sand ripples, so we know what kinds of sand ripples are created at particular wind speeds. We wanted to see if we could extend the method to finding about snow ripples. We'd look for ripples of a particular shape and work backwards to find the velocity of snow and wind.

AMNH: And what did you find out?

Carole: Unfortunately we didn't get as much data as we hoped, because we encountered a rare summer blizzard and were stuck in our tent for three days. And when the blizzard was done, the snow patterns had completely changed.

AMNH: How frustrating!

Carole: In some ways. But that's part of the adventure of working in Antarctica. You really have to be prepared and you have to be flexible enough to change plans if it doesn't work one way. As a teacher, you don't survive if you're not flexible either; that's even more true in Antarctica. When Jennifer and I started our research there were nice smooth ripples, just like we wanted. Then, after the blizzard, we practically had sastrugis (big ridges in the snow). We just had to work with what data we had. That makes the final analysis less reliable but we had no other option.

AMNH: There are really strong winds in Antarctica- was the blizzard really scary?

Carole: During that blizzard the winds were pretty high–of course we had picked a windy place to conduct our research on winds! But those winds didn't compare to what some people experienced in the Dry Valleys that year. There's a lot of gravel there, and the wind propelled the gravel so fast their tent just shredded. But it was kind of scary in our blizzard. I remember wondering when it would stop. We were stuck in the tent and couldn't move around, so we got pretty cold. I realized we were really on our own. Even though you know you've been prepared for everything, if someone falls and breaks her leg, no one can fly out to get her. You're really isolated. That's why Robert Scott said this is an awful place; it can be.

AMNH: But you still liked being in Antarctica?

Carole: It was wonderful. I'd go again in a flash. If someone told me, "you're going next week," I'd be ready. There are so few places left that are not contaminated by man, and it was so awesome to be there. Antarctica is the last frontier. When Jennifer and I were out at our remote site, we realized we could be walking in a place no one else had ever been. One night I was up late–remember, it's twenty-four-hour daylight–and at about 1:00 am I took a photo that really looks like the surface of moon. When the wind dies down, there is absolute silence, not like camping back home, where you hear frogs or crickets. I had never really been in a place like that. It was like being inside a church–a religious experience, an awesome place. Anytime I do presentations with students, I show that picture and tell them about it. This is nature, and, in most of Antarctica, there is just nothing there.

AMNH: Did you feel prepared to go?

Carole: I was nervous beforehand, because I'm from Florida and don't have much experience with snow and cold weather. A friend who does research in cold climates told me, "Carole, trust your gear." The first day, I did not know to close the pockets of my parka and got snow in them. The gear they gave us was wonderful, and when we were out moving around, I was very warm. Antarctic Support Associates (ASA) did a lot to prepare us too. We went to the "Happy Campers school," or Snow Survival School. They helped us pack back-ups of everything. I wouldn't even realize it until something broke. Working inside a chemistry lab, I'd never seen the tremendous amount of planning that field studies require. I loved the time when we weren't camping, too. At McMurdo Station, there's such a sense of community. Breakfast is between 6:00 and 6:30, at round tables for eight to ten people. Sometimes I'd eat with volcanologists, sometimes geologists studying the Dry Valleys, sometimes biologists. It was great to talk to them, and better than reading the information in a book years later. The people studying Antarctica are just an incredible group.

AMNH: What's it like being home? Do you still keep up with the goings-on down there?

Carole: Oh yes. I get a lot of information over e-mail, I keep reading. Everyone knows I've been to Antarctica and that I loved it, so people often give me books on Antarctica or let me know about upcoming television programs. Students also get excited because they see me get so excited. Students bring me articles all the time. And next week I'll be talking to 300 students about my experience. I like to inspire them just like I was inspired by my professors.

AMNH: Did your professors make a big difference in your choice of career?

Carole: You know, it's interesting how things change. English was my favorite subject in middle school and then math was number one in high school. I didn't enjoy high school chemistry at all. That changed at university, where some of my professors were very inspiring. They were young people and it was obvious that they loved what they did. Of course, when I decided to go into teaching, my professors were appalled. They wanted me to go on to do graduate research in chemistry, but I realized that teaching what I really loved doing. I do wish someone else would grade the papers, but I still love that "wow" feeling when I see a student catch on after struggling with something."