Montana State University

First class of MSU undergraduates heads to Antarctic Peninsula

December 3, 2012 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Dave McWethy, instructor of an MSU class heading for Antarctica, saw this group of chinstrap penguins last time he worked on King George Island in Antarctica. (Photo courtesy of Dave McWethy).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN - Eight Montana State University students majoring in everything from English to earth sciences will soon head to Antarctica to learn more about the ecology, climate and geopolitics of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The ultimate field trip will be the first time MSU undergraduate students have been able to travel to Antarctica through an organized class, said trip leader David McWethy, assistant research professor in the Department of Earth Sciences. Students will leave Bozeman on Dec. 5 and start their return trip on Dec. 18.

"I am so super excited about this opportunity," said Molly Reed of Lame Deer, a junior majoring in both anthropology and English. "This is a chance that I knew I would never get again, so I couldn't say no."

Nick Haskell of Bozeman said, "I can't explain how excited I am. I'm so eager and anxious I'm having trouble focusing on the last week of school."

One freshman and seven upper-level students taking "Ecology, Geopolitics and Climate of the Antarctic Peninsula" will fly to Argentina, where they will board a ship at Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city. There they will join two groups of scientists who monitor penguin, seal and sea bird colonies in Antarctica.

The ship is expected to take one to two days to reach the Antarctic Peninsula, sailing through the Drake Passage. With no major land masses to stop the wind, the students might experience the "furious 50s and screaming 60s," McWethy said. He referred to the strong westerly winds that can occur around the 50th and 60th parallels south of the equator. The winds sometimes reach 90 mph and produce waves over 50 feet high.

Once they near the peninsula, the students will leave the ship at various points and take rigid inflatable boats called Zodiacs to the peninsula or nearby islands. They will visit two to three study sites a day, observing and assisting scientists working for the Antarctic Site Inventory as they visit colonies of penguins, seals and sea birds. The students won't be handling penguins, but they can help prepare penguin and seabird eggshells for diet analysis, McWethy said. They can also help census penguin, seal and seabird colonies, and participate in ongoing projects involving mapping the distribution of lichen species.

Onboard the ship, the students will record their findings, discuss scientific papers that were assigned reading for the course, and continue to interact with the Antarctic scientists.

The Antarctic Peninsula is a perfect setting for climate studies, because it is warming faster than other areas of the planet, McWethy said. Geopolitical issues are becoming increasingly significant because even though the polar resources are protected from development, companies and nations are positioning themselves for possible changes. The peninsula is ideal for ecological studies, because it is "one of the best places to better understand links between a warming climate, changes in sea ice extent and food resources that support animal populations," McWethy added.

The MSU students will camp one night on the peninsula and spend the other nights on the ship, McWethy said. Since this is the Antarctic summer, temperatures could reach as high as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but average between 34 and 36.

The students on the peninsula will be more than 2,000 miles from MSU scientists who are currently on the Antarctic continent to monitor Weddell seals, study life in the ice, and participate in a historic U.S. project to explore a massive lake beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, McWethy said.

McWethy, himself, has conducted research in Antarctica. During the winter of 2003/04, he helped former MSU researchers Wayne and Sue Trivelpiece study Adelie, chinstrap and Gentoo penguins on King George Island off the Antarctic Peninsula. He later became one of the first two students to earn doctoral degrees in MSU's Ecology and Environmental Sciences program.

"I'm very excited to get back there," McWethy said of Antarctica.

In addition to Reed and Haskell, other undergraduate students heading to Antarctica are Bree Arlt of Big Timber, Ericka Wendell of Forks, Wash., Mitch Boullt of Houston, Paul Bodalski from Milwaukee, and Andrew Cassidy and Alex Baer from Utah. Three of the students are majoring in earth sciences, three in fish and wildlife, one in sociology and one in English and anthropology. Haskell is a military veteran.

Boullt is the only freshman in the 400-level course offered through MSU's Office of International Programs and the Department of Earth Sciences in cooperation with Oceanites, a U.S. organization that collects data on penguin population dynamics on the Antarctic Peninsula, and One Ocean, a Canadian company that collaborates with Oceanites.

Traveling to Antarctica has always been a goal of hers, Reed said.

"I want to go to all of the continents and take every opportunity that comes my way," she said. "Going on this trip to Antarctica was just a great fit in fulfilling this goal. I hope to learn new things about ecology and the continent of Antarctica that I wouldn't learn in a classroom."

Haskell said he plans to attend graduate school for marine biology or oceanography.

"I feel this may be my one opportunity to visit a penguin colony and couldn't pass it up," he said.

McWethy said students paid their own way, with the cost of each trip being approximately $5,000 in addition to air fare.

Co-leading the group will be McWethy's wife, Sauny Sewell, a part-time Nurse Practitioner at MSU's Student Health Service. Their son, Aldo, will also join the trip. A kindergartener at Irving School in Bozeman, he will write a blog - with his parents' help -- about his experience and answer emailed questions from classmates.

For a related article, see "MSU grad students part of historic expedition in Antarctica."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or