College dorms across the land have reawakened this weekend with the start of the new academic year. Student life is back. Textbooks bought. Tiny fridges restocked. A mighty, susurrant tidal wave of empty pizza boxes and Chinese takeout containers rolls from the University of Maine to Pepperdine.
Avery Palardy, a junior at the University of Rochester, already was back at school last week, fast-forwarding her studies and ensconced in her cozy campus housing not too far from the Genesee River. She’ll resume formal classes this week, return to workouts with the school’s swim team later in the month, then in early November trade in all her college comforts for an airplane ticket and tent space on the giant block of ice that is the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica.
“I’ve just always wanted to travel and go to neat, obscure places in the world,’’ noted Palardy, who grew up in Smithfield, R.I., and came to Rochester two years ago to study environmental science. “I’ve always been interested in the environment, wildlife, seeing things . . . and Antarctica, I guess maybe part of it is because most people don’t get to do it.’’
Palardy, 20, will be among eight scientists, four of them from the University of Rochester, charged with drilling into the glacier in order to study climate change. According to Vas Petrenko, a Rochester professor and the expedition’s paleoclimatologist leader, the ice samples harvested will date back tens of thousands of years, the trapped air inside yielding a preserved snapshot of where the earth’s climate stood at the time, and ultimately how it changed over millennia.
“The area we intend to drill in is unique,’’ explained the 38-year-old Petrenko, a 1997 University of New Hampshire graduate. “It’s essentially an Antarctic desert. So the ice we’ll be drilling, dating back 20,000 or 50,000 years, will be very close to the surface, maybe 30-60 feet down at most. Normally, it would mean drilling a half-mile or more for that kind of sample.’’
No one should feel too warm and fuzzy at the mention of a desert. Though it will be the start of summer in Antarctica, with 24 hours of daylight, temperatures will remain well below freezing.
“A very challenging environment,’’ said Petrenko, a veteran explorer of the region. “And very isolated.’’
Upon arrival, he said, temps will be zero to minus-10 Fahrenheit, with unremitting winds of up to 20 knots. By the end of the expedition in mid-January, it will peak at a balmy plus-20.
Palardy will return to Rochester at the start of December, having spent upward of four weeks on the glacial campsite, allowing her time to cram for final exams in social psychology, environmental science, and physics. Her work shifts on the glacier will be 12 hours a day, six days a week, with virtually no contact with the outside world other than the ability to radio McMurdo Station, the American command base of all things Antarctica.
No Facebook. No Twitter. No e-mail. No texting. OMG, how’s an American college kid to survive such a disconnect?
“Honestly, I think it will be a great break,’’ said Palardy. “I think it’s better to have it this way, with no connection, because otherwise I think I’d be sad about what I was missing at school. I’ll enjoy the moment I’m in and not worry about what everyone else is doing.’’
Palardy, who learned to swim at age 9 and competed at the high school level in Rhode Island, swims middle distances in college. She had her best season as a sophomore, earning a handful of top-five finishes in the Liberty League championships — including a win in the 500 freestyle and the 400 freestyle relay. None of which will be the least bit handy in Antarctica, where there is no lifeguard on duty, and if you’re caught in the pool, you fast become a moment frozen in time.
According to Palardy, being an athlete helped her convince Petrenko and the rest of the team that she was the right woman for the job. One of 6-8 applicants, according to Petrenko, Palardy was selected as the only undergraduate for the trip — all funded by a $1 million grant through the National Science Foundation.
“Because of swimming, I know how to push my body,’’ said the 5-foot-6-inch, 140-pound Palardy. “You need to be strong for this, because we’ll be doing manual labor for 12 hours a day. I can be a klutz sometimes, but I am physically strong — and I’ve been physically fit my entire life.’’
A quick check with Palardy’s swim coach, Peter Thompson, helped convince Petrenko that she was the right fit.
“When her coach said, ‘She may not be the most talented kid on the team, but she is the hardest-working’ . . . that’s what I wanted to hear,’’ said Petrenko. “All of us will be out of our comfort zone all the time. You’ve got to be ready to handle it.’’
The trip also will force Palardy to miss most of the college swim season. Upon her return, she’ll try to catch up on her studies and rejoin her pool pals if time and exam schedule permit. However, she’s also planning to spend the spring semester studying in South Africa, something she planned well ahead of the Antarctic trip, which means all her swimming this season may get scrubbed.
Like swimming, scrubbing won’t exist once in Antarctica. Absent running water, there’s little reason to bring soap.
“I guess you can heat up some ice and do a sponge-bath kind of thing,’’ mused Palardy. “But that seems like a lot of effort. At least, in my case, I’m there for 3-4 weeks, then I get to shower. Everyone else is there the full three months, you know, just stinkin’ away. But, hey, I always wanted to do something crazy in college.’’