Saturday, January 13, 2018

Ob Hill

There's a large hill right next to McMurdo Station called Observation Hill (though most people just say "Ob Hill"). I had the chance to hike it today during a break from the lab. The climb is actually pretty steep, but the views on top are worth it! Check out my photos below.

McMurdo Station, seen from Ob Hill
The icebreaker Polar Star arrived in McMurdo Sound yesterday
and is working to break a channel in the ice so supply ships can
get through and re-stock the station.
Mt. Erebus

Those green buildings below are Scott Base, New Zealand's
Antarctic research station, located just 3 km from McMurdo
This cross atop Ob Hill honors Robert Falcon Scott and his team,
all of whom perished after being the second team ever to reach the
South Pole (the first was lead by Roald Amundsen)

Holes: part 2

"After a while he thought he could make out the shape of the mountains through the haze. At first he wasn't sure if this was another kind of mirage, but the farther he walked, the clearer they came into view...He kept walking toward [the mountain], although he didn't know why. He knew he'd have to turn around before he got there. But every time he looked at it, it seemed to encourage him."
- Louis Sachar in Holes

Mt. Erebus
Friends, I am opening this post with a photo of Mt. Erebus, the world's southernmost active volcano. Erebus dominated my skyline yesterday, slowly releasing plumes of water vapor from its summit. The mountain breathed along with me, taking deep, clear breaths of the Antarctic air. Its majestic peak was unmistakable against the clear blue sky. Yesterday was an awesome day. 

A Pisten Bully
It started with a ride in a Pisten Bully, which is a rough-and-tumble vehicle designed for Antarctic travel. By now, I'm getting used to the loud engines and rough rides - that's just how vehicles are down here. Thankfully, we only took the Bully to the snowmobile staging area, which sits on the ice shelf just outside of town. We technically could have taken it all the way to our site, but Pisten Bullys have exactly two speeds - dead slow and stop. It was much to our advantage to continue the journey on snowmobiles. We unloaded all of our gear and secured it to a series of sleds, then daisy-chained the sleds to the snowmobiles and piled ourselves on top. It felt a bit like riding a horse, to be honest. I sat astride a dense red survival bag on top of one of the sleds and used my inner thighs and my abs to keep balance on the curves. Not something I ever expected find myself doing, but it was fun. 

Adelie penguins!
As we arrived at our study site for the day (a hole drilled in the ice for us by McMurdo staff), the last remaining clouds cleared, and we could see across the Sound in all directions. Mt. Erebus stretched over the skyline, and the sun shone down on us. It was marvelous. 

Luana and I had fun lowering the zooplankton net into the
hole. Yes, that is a bamboo flag pole and a spool of line serving
as our winch.
Just when I thought the working conditions couldn't get any better, somebody in the group gasped. "Penguins!" they called, and pointed to the north. Just about 100 feet away, a group of Adelie penguins emerged from another sea ice hole (the one we couldn't use because of the seals). The Adelies were curious and waddled straight towards our group. One of them kept stopping to sniff the air and look at us. He must have decided we were safe, because eventually all 5 of the penguins walked straight past us - within 10 feet of the closest person. I was impressed at how quickly they moved and how fluidly they switched between walking and sliding on their bellies. If a penguin tripped on a chunk of ice, it would just keep moving its feet at the same rate to push itself along, acting all the while like nothing happened. That said, the little birds tripped pretty often and actually reminded me of a group of toddlers. They waddled past us and were gone just as quickly as they came. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon collecting samples of water and plankton from the ice hole. The water will be used to estimate the densities of bacteria and phytoplankton in the water, and the plankton net samples will be used to see what species of phytoplankton and zooplankton are there. In case you don't know, "plankton" refers to all organisms too small to swim against the current. Phytoplankton are microscopic algae, and zooplankton are tiny animals, including copepods and larvae (my favorite). It was an amazing day on the ice, and I can't wait to see what we caught! 

Thursday, January 11, 2018


"There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There was once a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a flat, dry wasteland...This isn't a Girl Scout camp."
- Louis Sachar in Holes

Fishing in our hole. You'll notice the fishing rods are pretty
small. We don't need to be casting long distances, so we're
actually using children's fishing rods, and they come in all sorts
of cool patterns like Barbie and Spiderman. 
My leather-gloved hand slid into the space between the handle and the box. I straightened my back and remembered to lift with my legs. In front of me, Mark was doing the same. I had insisted I could carry the box with him, but now I was kind of regretting it. That thing was heavy.

Like a family of red-coated gypsies, we caravaned down the snowy footpath onto the sea ice, carrying boxes and dragging sleds and holding oversized drill bits in our hands. It was just a 10-minute walk out to the first of the holes, but the whipping, icy wind made it feel longer. By the time we reached the site, I was more than glad to lay down my end of the big gray box.

We spent most of the day today out on the sea ice in McMurdo Sound, at a site just off the station's jetty. It was our chance to get familiar with all our various sampling gear now that we had finished the mandatory safety training. The science support staff at McMurdo had drilled a large hole in the ice for us, about a meter across, and over the next few weeks, we'll be lowering everything from fishing line to cameras into it. One of my fellow trainees has caught three fish so far, and we also retrieved a ctenophore (comb jelly) out of the hole with a net. It was very exciting to have samples!

Another sampling tool we used today is an ice corer - the heavy thing in the big gray box. Ice corers also drills holes in the ice, but their purpose is not just to make holes - they retain the ice core within. It's a bit tricky to keep the core intact when you retrieve it, especially in the current warm, slushy conditions. You have to carefully take the top off the coring tube and slide your meter-long ice core out onto the snow without letting it break. I got one perfect core today, and I was very proud of myself! In the photo, you can see the snow on the top of the ice layer and the clear, columnar ice crystals below it. This core only represents the top meter of the ice sheet (the ice today was about 2 meters thick), and a core taken from the bottom meter would look much different. Ice cores can be melted to assess the composition of microbes and algae that live in them, and they can tell us a lot about life in frozen ocean environments!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Got safety? Part 2

The Hägglund on the sea ice
Friends, I told you there was a lot of required safety training in Antarctica, and I'm just going to go ahead and repeat it: there is a lot of required safety training in Antarctica. I had my last day of required training today, so I am officially qualified and ready for research!

Our session today was on the sea ice in McMurdo Sound. We translated all the theoretical information we had been given into practical skills. It was an awesome introduction to the sea ice!

Riding in the back of the Hägglund
We set out from McMurdo Station in a giant vehicle called a Hägglund. It's basically two metal boxes attached with a tow hitch, rolling on tracks like a tank. The Hägglunds were originally made for the Swedish army, and they do not stop for anything. Granted, the ride inside is significantly less than comfortable as a result of the bellowing engine and hard, non-ergonomic seats, but the Hägglund gets you from A to B across the sea ice like a champ.

Our instructor, Nick, demonstrates the ice drill
We piled our gear into the back of the vehicle and piled ourselves in after it. There wasn't enough room for all of us in the front, so we rotated who sat in front and who sat in back. As the Hägglund rolled along, we followed a premade route along the ice marked with flags on one side. A cluster of flags denoted a bridge over the fuel line and the start of the route. After about 30 minutes, we arrived at our target site: a hole in the ice that had been drilled for our scientific use.

A Weddell seal looks up through our ice hole
Because we were just training, we didn't get to take any samples, but that doesn't mean it was an unexciting trip! We got an orientation to the landmarks around McMurdo Sound and were shown the peaks that would disappear in order as a storm approached. Traveling across the ice may require us to measure the ice thickness occassionally, so we also practiced using the drill. It's a 1-meter metal shaft with a sharp bit on the end and a wide thread all the way up. The shaft attaches to a 2-stroke engine that spins it into the ice. Additional shafts can be added in a daisy chain if the ice is over 1 meter thick. Once you have a good hole, you can lower a measuring tape with a weight on the end and determine its thickness. For the record, the ice under our feet was 1.5 m thick.

A lone emperor penguin on the ice
Unfortunately, the big hole that had been drilled for our sampling was unusable for two reasons. First, the snow on top of the sea ice is so heavy that the top of the ice was below sea level, so seawater had seeped up through the hole and flooded the surrounding area. Second, like many holes in McMurdo Sound, it had been claimed by the seals. This is apparently a common problem - as soon as scientists drill a hole for their gear, the seals start using it to breathe, forcing the scientists out. It's a federal crime to interfere with Antarctic wildlife, so we have no choice but to abandon the hole and drill another one that the seals are hopefully less fond of.

The last exciting event of our trip was located about 200 m off in the distance. We couldn't tell what it was at first. It had its back to us and just looked like a black lump. As it turned around, though, we realized it was an emperor penguin. Yes, friends, I saw a penguin today. Apparently, penguins go far away from their colonies to molt, and this individual was in the middle of his lonesome trek.

It was a great first trip onto the ice. I can't wait to go back for samples!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Got safety?

“It looks like an old mining town, but it feels like a college campus.”
A group of artists at McMurdo drew this
summary of the field training class a few
years ago.

Ben smiled at his own cleverness as everyone in the room chuckled. The bearded, cheery-faced instructor had asked us to introduce ourselves by stating our name, home institution, and a weird observation about McMurdo Station. His observation was spot on.

We were seated in a classroom on the upper floor of the Science Support Center. On the white board in front of us, another instructor had scrawled the caption “Risk Management” and drawn a graph to accompany it. The space between the axes, labeled “Consequences” and “Probability,” was shaded with diagonal areas of green, yellow, orange, and red.

As you may imagine, working in Antarctica requires a lot of safety training. Three whole days of it – and that’s just for standard tasks. The training here is much more comprehensive than anything I’ve received in the Arctic (I only hadmandatory training on one trip, and it lasted less than a day), but then again, the risks here are also more comprehensive. We have learned how to determine if a heavyweight vehicle can safely cross over a crack in sea ice. We have practiced lighting outdoor stoves to melt snow for drinking water. We have been shown how to treat hypothermia, frostbite, and snowblindness. We have been taught how to identify distant oncoming storms and navigate home in low visibility.

Flags mark routes and hazards on the ice. This flag line
denotesa foot path out to a hole in the ice for sampling.
One major difference between Arctic and Antarctic trips for me is the methods for accessing marine environments. In the Arctic, I’ve always been on a ship. Easy. Down here, though, the sea ice is much more extensive, and it sticks around for more of the year. Rather than driving a ship through meters-thick ice in McMurdo Sound just to lower a sampler over the side, it’s easier and less destructive to go out on the ice ourselves. The vast majority of our risk-management training so far has actually pertained to working on the sea ice, and there are plenty of scientists doing it. There flagged routes on the ice showing where it’s safe to drive snowmobiles. There are established drill holes where everything from plankton nets to SCUBA divers can enter the water. There is an official protocol for landing a helicopter near the ice edge.

I have one more day of training tomorrow, and it involves practical application of skills in the field. It will be my first time out on the ice, and I cannot wait. Antarctica has given me a plethora of new experiences so far, but I am anxious to get out of the station and explore even more. Bring it on, Antarctica!

Sunday, January 7, 2018


After arriving in Antarctica on our "ice flight," my fellow trainees and I got settled in at McMurdo Station. The station is pretty big - actually the size of a small town - and I've been told there are about 700 people here right now. I wasn't quite sure what the station would look like, but in many ways, it reminds me of Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund, stations I have worked at before in Svalbard. In fact, McMurdo Station is at 77° S, an analagous latitude to Longyearbyen, which is at 78° N. I never thought in my life that I would be able to use the phrase "typical polar research station," but that's exactly what McMurdo looks like. Plain, multi-colored buildings surrounded by unnamed dirt roads, nestled on the side of a mountain surrounded by ice. That's a typical station.

Scientists and staff at McMurdo stay in dormitories, and everyone eats out of the same cafeteria in the middle of town. There's a chapel, two gyms, and three bars. The station sits right on the coast of McMurdo Sound, so you are greeted by breathtaking waterfront and mountain views every time you step outside.

Friends, this place is marvelous. Check out my photos below.

The first view that greeted me when I stepped out of the plane

McMurdo Station, seen from Discovery Point, just a short walk away

Chapel of the Snows, in McMurdo Station

The front door to the main lab belongs on an industrial refrigerator

The skua is an Antarctic scavenging bird

View across McMurdo Sound. The black lumps are seals.

Seals on the ice in McMurdo Sound

Seal on the ice in McMurdo Sound

I took this photo at 10 pm. It's currently summer here, so there is 24-hour daylight

To the ice

The C-130 that took us to the ice
I rolled a small cylinder of yellow foam between my thumb and forefinger, then tilted my head and slid the earplug into my ear. Across from me, I could see my fellow trainees doing the same. I leaned back into the cargo net that served as the back of my seat. I was on board a C-130 and would soon be airborne, bound for McMurdo Station.

In the plane with James and Ewa. Photo by Harriett Alexander.
When you go to Antarctica, they say you are "going to the ice." We had been warned that the flight would not be comfortable, being in a military aircraft and all. I have to admit the conditions were not what I was used to, but I was perfectly comfortable. We sat with our backs against the side walls of the aircraft and faced each other in two rows. At first I was worried I would be too hot because we had to fly in all of our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear, but I ended up just using my parka as extra padding for my back and it was fine. We were given earplugs and a packed lunch, and I was grateful for both because the flight was 8 hours and loud enough I couldn't hear anybody speak.

Sea ice seen out the window of the C-130
At one point, the Air Force crew allowed anyone who wanted to take a look inside the cockpit. I could feel the floor vibrating against my feet as I approached the front of the plane. The cockpit was up a narrow set of stairs, and the view out the domed windows was absolutely gorgeous. There were miles and miles of sea ice stretching in front of us, and the horizon was just a cloud of white. I had to blink and look away after a few seconds because it was so bright.

The shuttle bus that took us into town
We landed on an icy air strip just outside of McMurdo Station and filed out of the plane. Friends, I wish each of you get the chance to step out of a plane into the unbelievably gorgeous world of Antarctica, because there is nothing like it. The air was dry and cold, right around freezing. Everything was blindingly white, and the snow-covered ground sloped up to steep mountain peaks in the distance. I honestly cannot believe how beautiful it is here. We must have landed on another planet, because there's no way this place belongs on Earth.

A giant, hardcore-looking shuttle bus was waiting for us near the air strip. We climbed into it and headed into town, stopping at Scott Base (New Zealand's Antarctic station) to drop off a few Kiwis from our flight, then climbed over the hill to McMurdo.

Friends, I am in Antarctica. Somebody pinch me.