English 43


Stepping out of the C-141 cargo plane, I felt like Dorothy entering Oz. What an awesome sight! It was nearly midnight, but the daylight was dazzling, still1 through my sunglasses. The sun reflected off the white ice, which stretched as far as I could see. The air was so cold it hurt to breathe. On the horizon were ice-encrusted mountains, including a volcano with steam drifting up2 from its peak. I was in an astonishing world of fire, and ice.3

I headed for McMurdo Station, the U.S. research facility that would be my home for the next nine months. I had been to Antarctica twice before. [4] Both visits were during the summer season, when daylight can last 24 hours. Temperatures were sometimes above freezing, and the population at McMurdo averaged around 1,000. This time I was one of 200 people who would keep the station going through the winter. As the earth’s bottom tilted away from the sun, temperatures would sink5 as low as -65°F.

The day I landed, I spotted a lone emperor penguin, near6 the runway. Just like me, the emperor penguins would have to work through the harshest winter on Earth. Every year the emperor penguins come back to Antarctica from the frigid ocean annually7 to prepare for a remarkable season of birth. Therefore, the females8 lay their eggs at the very start of the Antarctic winter; then they head out to sea to rest and eat and leaving9 the males the nine-week-long challenge of protecting the eggs during the coldest weather.

To keep an egg from freezing, the emperor dad balances it on top of his feet under a thick roll of feather-covered skin on his warm stomach. Males huddle together to keep warm as they incubate their eggs.10 The birds at the center of the huddle are nudged11 by those around them. This lets all the emperor dads take turns being in the warmer center of the group. The birds must conserve12 energy because they don’t eat while tending their eggs.

(1) After nine weeks, the females return to find their mates and feed the fuzzy new chicks. (2) That’s when the males head for the ocean to feast and rest up. (3) Emperor penguins have a thick layer of fat under skin covered by a dense layer of woolly down. (4) An outer layer of tiny feathers with a greasy waterproof coating grow13 over the down. (5) Molting is dangerous, however: old feathers can fall out too quickly and leave patches of bare skin exposed to the bitter cold. (6) Before the penguins leave, they spend a month molt-shedding their old feathers and growing new ones. [14]

I have a warm new coat too, and I’m ready for my own winter challenges. Come early springtime, near the end of my stay, I’ll watch for these penguin parents and the young15 they worked so hard to hatch – returning to the sea for a season of fish dinners.