Stef Bokhorst collecting gas flux measurements from moss vegetation on Signy Island
Photo: Courtesy of Stef Bokhorst
Extreme Field WorkExtreme Field WorkA series about how science gets done in Earth's weirdest, wildest environments, from the bottom of the ocean to erupting volcanoes.

Stef Bokhorst has spent a number of Christmases in the South Pole. He’s never come across Santa Claus, but he has spotted some orcas, penguins, and elephant seals over the years. And he’s seen a lot of poop.

In fact, the ecologist at the VU University Amsterdam has spent the last few years trying to understand the role poop from marine animals plays in amplifying biodiversity in the Antarctic. To do so, he spent Christmas 2015 with his wife, who was working alongside him as a field assistant. They wished each other a Merry Christmas, but they didn’t do much else. Instead, they prepared to arrive at their research site where they’d be sampling animal shit to discover the vital role its nutrients play in the desolate ecosystem of Antarctica. Happy holidays!

Stef Bokhorst exploring snow ridge towards mountain peak on Jenny Island
Photo: Courtesy of Stef Bokhorst

That’s life for Bokhorst, who’s now spent nine seasons conducting research in Antarctica, in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. He enjoys the work and doesn’t mind the summer days with a high of zero degrees Fahrenheit—outside of the cold fingers, which he finds unpleasant enough to mention.

Before the scientist embarks on his sometimes months-long trips, he’s sure to handle the basics: apply for the proper work permits, make plans with the teams he’ll be working with, and ship off his cargo before July ends.

A training and recreation area above Rothera Research Station
Photo: Courtesy of Stef Bokhorst

Even though Bokhorst doesn’t leave until the northern hemisphere’s wintertime, his equipment—mostly sample jars, weatherproof notepads, and pencils—needs to journey via ship months before. That way, it’s there ready for him when he arrives. The ecologist doesn’t rely much on any fancy machinery or gadgets. Batteries die. Devices get wet. If something you’ve grown dependent on breaks down, then that may be the end of your trip.

“You need to keep it simple in the Antarctic,” Bokhorst jokes.

His recent ventures to study penguin and elephant seal poop to learn about how these nutrient sources support the tiny animals that live Antarctica (like water bears and mites) required camping out on Signy Island to monitor penguin colonies for a few nights in a row. He’d start his days out there at 8 a.m. by calling a nearby research station to let the folks over there know he was still alive. He’d spend the day setting up research transects to quantify the different variables they were monitoring: ammonia, vegetation, and biodiversity of microscopic creatures. By 9 or 10 p.m., Bokhorst was usually in bed.

A campsite at Jenny Island
Photo: Courtesy of Stef Bokhorst

Although 24-hour daylight and constant freezing temperatures would probably scare many away, that’s the life when you’re studying Antarctic biodiversity. And it’s one Bokhorst finds incredibly rewarding.

“It’s cool to be alone in an isolated island surrounded by icebergs and whales and not have any human beings in your immediate surrounding,” he told Earther.

Next he’ll be taking a break from Antarctica and heading to northern Sweden in about a week. He can’t discriminate against the Arctic now, can he?

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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