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Arctic, Antarctic vets offer warm advice for surviving the polar vortex

Chicago Tribune

As she bikes or walks to work at the Field Museum on especially cold days, Akiko Shinya sometimes sniffs and feels the inside of her nostrils freeze, or blinks and feels her eyelashes briefly freeze together. That’s when she flashes back to fossil-hunting in Antarctica.

“I kind of like that sensation for an instant,” she said. “It takes a little tug to open your eyes.”

It was at the bottom of the world where Shinya, the museum’s chief fossil preparator, discovered a new species of dinosaur, similar to Tyrannosaurus rex and sharing the same short arms. It was also where her fingers went so numb from cold that she couldn’t open an insulated bottle.

Now, as the polar vortex bears down on Chicago, it reminds Shinya of those days of perpetual frost in the Antarctic. And as with others who have worked in colder realms, that extra bite to the air reminds her of a few special hacks to stay warm in extreme conditions.

When she is gearing up, Shinya focuses on minimizing exposed skin, and combining layers of silk and wool. She suggests wearing silk next to the skin, as stockings, pantyhose or long underwear. In Antarctica, she wore clothing issued by the U.S. Antarctic Program, including two lightweight wool undershirts, and a heavy wool sweater, bib overalls, a down jacket and a puffy red parka on top of that. She wore two pairs of socks and cut off sections of wool sock to cover her wrists between her coat sleeves and gloves, with hand warmers on her wrists and ankles.

She wore one tube of fabric over her neck that came up just below her nose and another over her head, leaving only a slit for her eyes, which she covered with sunglasses. Above all, while spending entire days outdoors, she tried to keep moving.

“Your instinct in the cold is to stand still, but you have to keep moving to get the blood flowing,” she said. “Shake your arms to drain the blood to your fingertips, do jumping jacks, whatever.”

Geologist Yarrow Axford learned her cold-weather skill growing up in rural Maine. Her home had only a wood-burning stove for heat, and when the electricity went out, her mother melted snow for water. Axford remembers waking up as a child and not wanting to touch her feet to the floor.

Now as an associate professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Axford goes on research expeditions studying climate change at the Greenland ice sheet. “There seems to be a theme in my life of ending up in cold places,” she said.

She’s worked in the Arctic 18 times, sometimes sleeping in tents with an electrified fence and an armed guard to keep the polar bears out.

Her coldest trip was years ago on Baffin Island in Canada, where in May there was still 7 feet of ice on the lakes, the sea bay was covered with sea ice and everything on land was frozen solid.

Axford travels to take core samples of soil beneath lakes as a measure of environmental change. On Baffin Island, her team took samples ranging from present day to 200,000 years ago. Despite the current cold, they found the past century marked one of the warmest spells on record, marked by the disappearance of a cold-loving insect that had lived there for the past 8,000 years.

Of course, 25,000 years ago, glacial ice covered the land from the Arctic to Illinois, so a short cold snap isn’t so bad from a broader perspective.

Despite her experience with extreme temperatures, Axford occasionally makes a rookie mistake. She once took off her mittens to take a picture, then reached to grab a metal door handle. She immediately felt a burning sensation before jerking her hand away.

“It’s all about the gloves for me,” she said. Riding a snowmobile to work in the field through occasional whiteout conditions, Axford wore double gloves under a pair of insulated mittens, with military-grade “bunny boots” to keep her feet warm. “And staying dry is so important.”

Last year, with a high around minus 30 on Baffin Island, similar to what Chicago’s facing now, Axford worried about operating planes in the cold, but she said locals are so used to it, “it’s business as usual.”

Ironically, the coldest she’s ever been for a sustained time was actually in Florence, Italy, during a cold snap, because there was no heat to speak of in most buildings, and she hadn’t packed warm clothes.

“I always feel a lot less prepared for the cold when I’m here,” she said. “I don’t have that bag of extreme cold weather gear. But it’s also kind of fun. I love extreme weather and landscapes, and this is some air coming from the Arctic, so it’s kind of exciting.”

rmccoppin@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RobertMcCoppin

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