Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Back to Winter

A Farewell to Antarctica...

Crammed together, knee to knee, and bundled up in bright red parkas, our group endured the final flight of the season: McMurdo to Christchurch (an 8 hr journey north without a functioning heater). But even so, I sat with a smile, reliving my last month of plunging through lake ice, climbing atop ventifacts, winching up sulfer stinking water samples, hovering above mountaintops, wrapping and rewrapping a broken thumb with a cast too big to fit through my parka, standing across from the former president of Slovakia, witnessing the future of space exploration, and toasting to the new year with the sun beaming bright overhead...

Northbound, 30,000+ feet above the Transantarctic Mountains:

So its been a while since my last posting, and in the meantime, I've traveled over 10,000 miles, experienced over a 120 degreesF in temperature changes, sampled over a 100 liters of the most pristine, ancient lake water accessible on the planet, and have learned to appreciate any additional color to white! My experience in Antarctica could be described a unique, restless, phenomenal, cold, sunny, stressful, spectacular, daunting, thrilling, most unbelievable summer of my life. The continent seems to have crashed to the pole from another planet, along with a group of inhabits with the most bizarre and intriguing life stories one could imagine...

As temperatures warmed up, I devoted most my efforts to crossing melting moat ice along the lake's shores, but I did manage to snap some photos whenever possible. Here are some photos of my last month in Antarctica:

Down on the sea ice, the view once crawling out of an ice-cave:

Its windy atop the mountain:

Summertime at Blood Falls:

The furture of space exploration, NASA's ENDURANCE Robot rests in the "MonsterHaven," awaiting its next mission:

Don't Fall in the Lake! The Hole is 10ft in diameter:

Up the Wright Valley, a geologist's dream:

My last flight -- a front seat in the Kiwi chopper (thanks Rob):

Back in the Mac, cheers to the New Year...2008 will be a hard year to beat:

I'll leave it at this, with a farewell to 77 degrees south...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Drill Baby Drill!

We've scoured away steel bits, left a salvage yard of exhausted melting equipment, and successfully drilled our way through 100+ feet of lake ice! Governor Palin would be proud...

These last couple weeks have been pretty remarkable. While continuing our investigation of life in the "Valley of the Dead," I've encountered the "Zen-garden" of Antarctica (a Mars-like landscape of windblown rocks), witnessed the complete destruction of an aluminum climbing carabiner (eaten away by Lake Bonney's bacteria), and sat down to thanksgiving dinner with a team of NASA scientists...

Our crew has been working up and down the Taylor Valley, winching up water samples from all different depths! After successfully drilling through Fryxell, I thought the next three lakes would pose no problems. However, nothing proves to be "easy" in the Dry Valleys - just rinsing the dishes can be quite the operation. But even with the routine mechanical breakdown, the "Limno Team" managed to stay on schedule and collect our samples.

Not only do we collect water samples from each lake, but we also measure ice thickness, light intensity, water temperature, salinity, and other physical attributes that may impact biological processes.

Bacteria from East Lake Bonney

Shown below is a sediment trap, which was at the base of Lake Bonney for three years. The trap catches minerals that have melted their way through the surface ice-eventually reaching the lake's floor and providing nourishment to hungry bacteria. This trap will help determine the rate and mass of sediment falling to the bottom depths.

It took plenty of resources to pull this trap out... Using our "Hotsy," hot glycol (160F) is pumped through a metal coil that slowly melts through the dense lake ice. After about two days of continuous heating, our hole grew from 4 inches in diameter to around 8 feet!

The Dry Valley lakes are quite the ecosystem. As our Principle Investigator, John Priscu, puts it, this is "Antarctica's Oasis." And its true! Out in the Dry Valley's, life is abundant under the ice. Each lake is unique from another - differentiating in both biological and physical properties. The bottom depths of Lake Fryxell may stink of sulfur, but out at the notoriously salty Lake Bonney, it smells like the beach (and its the closest I'll get to one until January)!

Off to McMurdo for the Week

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Life in the "Valley of the Dead?"

After a scenic helicopter flight across McMurdo Sound, and up the Taylor Valley, our crew landed at Lake Fryxell to set up camp. The lake is covered in about 12 feet of ice (which we drilled through 4 separate times) and is surrounded by mountain peaks, scouring glaciers, and an impressive desert landscape.

Ironically, Antarctica contains around 70% of the world's fresh water supply, and at the same time, it is the driest continent on the planet! With nearly all fresh water in a frozen state, parts of the continent have accumulated ice roughly 10,000 feet in thickness!

However, thanks to the Transantarctic Mountains, the Dry Valleys are shielded and isolated from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet - creating a relatively "ice-free" region of exposed rocks and soils. With its incomparable harsh winds and cold, dry climate (<10cm snowfall/year), the Dry Valleys are regarded as one of the most extreme environments on the planet!

Our research team will be investigating changes in microbial life throughout permanently frozen-over lakes in the Dry Valleys. As the weather warms, glaciers begin melting, streams begin flowing, and lakes are replenished with nutrients and minerals. Any slight climatic and/or physical changes within the Dry Valleys can result in magnified changes within the lakes. Unlike ecosystems in higher latitudes, minute climactic change can greatly effect these sensitive southerly environments. This cause and effect phenomenon is referred to as "Polar Amplification."

Once out on the lake, the ice varies in topography: along the shoreline, it is completely smooth and transparent, but, once venturing out further, the ice becomes jagged and morphed into a bizarre, transformed landscape (making travel on the ATV much more adventurous).

After a few days of drilling, melting, and mechanical breakdowns, our crew spent over 15 hours straight collecting and filtering our water samples. Here is a photo of the Lake Fryxell camp where lab analysis takes place:

Its not often you find yourself cruising down a frozen lake on a 6-wheeler to collect glacier ice (our fresh water supply) for a spaghetti dinner. Nor do you expect to be hiking across a windblown desert at midnight with the sun overhead - encountering an occasional mummified seal in your path. There is simply no other place on the planet with such a unique and unearthly environment!

If you have any questions regarding research, this blog, or Antarctica in general, feel free to ask! I'll soon be posting again.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Bordering the shores of a frozen-over ocean, tucked under the world's most southernly active volcano, and alien colony to the occasional lost Adelie penguin, lies McMurdo Station, aka: "MacTown."

MacTown is the thriving hub of Antarctica. With around 3,000 scientists, support workers, artists/filmmakers, and visitors each summer, it is the largest base on the continent. It takes plenty of resources to conduct research-let alone survive-in this harsh environment, and McMurdo plays a key role in the success of any scientific endeavors this far south! I'll be flying in and out of the base a few separate times (restocking food, repairing engines, analyzing data, working in the lab, and enjoying heated buildings and showers!), however, for the most of my stay, I'll be camping in the Dry Valleys. In the mean time, I thought I'd fill ya in on city life of the Antarctic...

While it looks like some sort of industrial-moon-base from the outside, MacTown is full of culture and life on the inside. It feels alot like a college campus, only a college campus that requires a helicopter ride to class... The people in town are lots of fun, everyone is excited to be here, and has a story to tell. And when the weather permits, the views are spectacular!

Here's a quick look around the base:

The outskirts of town

Troll under the bridge

Greenhouse (equipped with hammocks)

Aquarium inside of Crary Lab

The Fire Brigade

Grocery Shopping

The Berg Field Center

Scott's Hut

Some McMurdo Facts:

- There are 3 bars, a 1 lane bowling alley, and an ATM
- 60% of waste is recycled
- Winter population is around 200
- It is built on bare volcanic rock
- Around 8 million gallons of fuel is shipped to the station each summer
- The Antarctic Treaty, "the law of the land," is signed by over 45 nations and is the governing factor for USAP participants

Friday, October 31, 2008

BBC Filming!

So these last couple days have been pretty exciting! A Planet Earth film crew from the BBC is working literally right across the hall from our lab! Right now, they are diving and filming underwater lifeforms living in the extremely cold ocean environment. These guys are spectacular cinematographers, world renowned, and right next door! I've had a pretty lucky streak going lately...

Everyone on the crew is incredibly friendly, and pumped to hear that I'm a film/geography student (working as a biologist?!?)...So today, I was invited to be their dive tender while they set up a time lapse camera at the ocean floor! Quite the jump-start to any film career! I headed out to the scuba shed (IMAX camera in hand!) with underwater cameraman, Norbert Wu. Once out on the ice, I helped the guys suit and glove up before they plunged into the frosted over dive hole! The water is 28 degreesF and covered with 15-20ft of ice!

Being a dive tender was a pretty sweet gig. Hopefully, I'll soon be the one swimming in the water with a camera though. Like Norbert said today, "just that much closer." Anyways, were gonna check out the footage tomorrow, and I'll officially be a part of a BBC production! Crazy!
Here is one of Norb's famous photos:

Antarctica, a frozen over continent at the end of the world, has proven to present itself as much more than a mere chunk of rock and ice...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Happy Camper

The sun shined all night through my dorm room window, and I still had no trouble sleeping. And luckily so, as I needed some rest before my first day of Antarctic Survival School, aka: Happy Camper.

After a quick shower (water is a precious commodity in our community), I headed to the galley to grab some grub, and off to the chalet for training. Our group of 20 "happy campers" started out the day in the classroom, discussing hypothermia, frostbite, clothing, ect. Equipped with our ECW, "extreme cold weather" gear, we headed out past Scott Base (the New Zealand base) and out onto the Ross Ice Shelf, where we were all exposed to the frigid Antarctic air!

The trainings in the field were actually pretty informative. Taught by alpine climbing guides, Danny and Dylan, we covered a variety of topics. Starting with stoves, we learned how to start and ignite them in the unbearable temps (any use of bare fingers resulted in instant numbing!). I can now completely assemble, repair, clean, and dismantle our MSR Wisperlights piece by piece. So if something does fail, whether it be a fuel line freezing or an o-ring cracking, there is no need to worry (mom)...

Our training also covered radio communications. We set up an HF antenna (spanned about 30 feet), aimed it at a repeater on Black Island, and I contacted the South Pole Base-the temperature was -60degreesF! Next was Helo Safety, "condition 1 (whiteout)" search & rescue, and my most favorite, snow shelters!

There are two types of tents we will be using in the field (Scott and Mountain tents). The Scott tents have the same design Captain Scott used when first exploring the South Pole in the early 1900's! However, a few of us chose to dig and carve snow trenches for our overnight sleeping quarters. Corey (a fellow LTER member on the stream team) and I connected our shelters with a separate tunnel through the snow. Here's what it looked like: