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Alcoa manager recounts Antarctica experience for Jefferson students


MASSENA - If you think it’s cold in the dead of winter in Massena, Antarctica might not be the place for you.

But, for Alcoa Health and Safety Manager Matthew T. Barnes, Antarctica was his place of employment for various stints that totaled seven months.

And it was a bit chilly, Mr. Barnes told Jefferson Elementary School third-graders on Thursday, showing them a picture that was taken of him standing outside when the temperature was 52 degrees below zero.

“It’s quite cold around here, but not negative 52,” he said.

“The coldest temperature ever recorded on earth was at a Russian station there” - 128 degrees below zero at Vostok, he told the students as part of their study on Antarctica.

“And that is not the wind chill. That is the actual temperature,” according to Mr. Barnes, who worked for Raytheon Polar Services from 2008 to 2010. He was based out of Colorado and visited Antarctica three times, spending a total of seven months on the continent.

“I was there to help put programs together to make sure the scientists stayed safe while they were down there,” he said.

Sometimes staying safe was difficult. He showed pictures of people who had ice on their faces or ski masks after braving the outside temperatures.

“It happens all the time in Antarctica,” Mr. Barnes said.

He noted that a thermometer reading from under the ice showed a temperature of 65 degrees below zero.

“It stays that temperature all the time under the ice,” he explained.

Throw in the wind chill and the thermometer above the ice plunges even deeper. Antarctica is known as the windiest continent, with wind speeds that can reach up to 200 miles an hour, Mr. Barnes said.

Besides being the coldest and windiest continent on Earth, Antarctica is also known as the highest, driest and emptiest continent, he said.

“There’s actually a great big blanket of ice over all the mountains,” he said.

In terms of driest, he said the continent is considered a desert, even without the sand. And it’s also the emptiest because “nobody owns Antarctica. It’s just a territory that nobody owns.”

In fact, Mr. Barnes said, a treaty spells out that “no country is ever going to own Antarctica.”

“It’s used for scientific purposes only. Nobody actually lives there. We just go to visit,” he said.

Some scientists who visit the continent, which is about one-and-a-half times the size of the United States, study rocks and fossils. Others, the biologists, study penguins, Mr. Barnes said, showing pictures of different kinds of penguins that included macaroni penguins, chin strap penguins and emperor penguins.

“Usually you can’t see water there, but if there’s penguins there’s water nearby,” he said.

Other scientists, meanwhile, are conducting marine research.

The fastest way to get there is by plane, Mr. Barnes said, although a ship can also get visitors to Palmer Station, one of three U.S. stations on the continent. The others are McMurdo Station and South Pole.

“You can think of them as three small towns,” he said.

But be prepared to travel a long distance from station to station, he warned, noting the distance from McMurdo to South Pole was 1,000 miles, about the same distance between Massena and Chicago.

Also be prepared for a world that spends six months in sunlight and six months in darkness, according to the Alcoa manager.

“Can you imagine tonight it gets dark and tomorrow the sun doesn’t come up and the sun doesn’t come up for six months? The good news is, when it comes up it comes up one day and stays up for six months,” Mr. Barnes said.

“It seems pretty cool when you think about it, one big long day all summer long,” he said.

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