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 The Hägglunds were originally made for the Swedish army, and they do not stop for anything.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!

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