Archive for the ‘Anarctica’ Category

Life in the Valleys

stream listen

From “Open House for Butterflies” by Ruth Kraus and Maurice Sendak

        Whether or not they intended to, perhaps the beloved Kraus and Sendak offered important scientific advice. Ground-time in the field, particularly when logistics involve helicopters transport and unpredictable weather, is truly precious. We fill pages of notebooks in anticipation of our field work– detailed schedules, lists of goals, back-up plans. Then we step off the helicopter and the proverbial timer starts. We have 1 week, or maybe 5 days, or often 4 hours to make all those plans happen. Whatever the case, it’s difficult to escape the urgent pressure to make every second count. But one of many gifts in working with a partner in the field is that we may remind each other to stop for a moment, and dedicate some time to quietly observing our incredible surroundings. In this spirit, Ruth and I designated our first task to becoming “acquainted” with the valley.


Ruth sits perched on a hilltop in the center of the expansive valley, taking it all in.


Vibrant mats appear along streams, even a shallow trickle such as this one.

As we walk around, one of the most prominent features is the myriad of twisting little streams. Some are audible if you are very quiet, though often the wind drowns that out. We stumbled across tiny ones, requiring me to squint inches away to even tell it was moving, and others that were wide enough we were unable to cross. From the helicopter they are hardly visible. Yet they create an extensive network of interconnecting waterways, like arteries, weaving in and out of ponds and feeding vital resources to a desert landscape. As we get close, colors and textures began to stand out. Along the stream edges, colorful mats, and sometimes even moss patches, grow in thick clumps.

It seems strange at first- finding red, green, and orange life forms in a desert like this. But as water penetrates the ground underneath the stream bed (called the ‘hyporheic zone’), a damp area is formed adjacent to the stream. This allows for things like algae, cyanobacteria, and microbes to be active in these wetted areas. In this way, water bodies can be extremely influential on where, when, and what types of organisms thrive in the valley.


Black and orange growth at the shoreline of a pond reveals underwater bubbles, a sure sign of physiological activity.


Many of these streams are currently monitored by researchers in the LTER project, where they examine flow rates, sediment discharge, water chemistry, and composition of the biological communities.


A patch of moss grows in a spot perhaps moistened by melted snow

While Ruth sampled soils throughout the valley, I’ve been focusing on the water. Water bodies here are unique for many reasons. One of which is that many of them are frozen most of the year. These harsh conditions limit the underwater community to just the hardiest species, and many cyanobacteria excel at just this. With abilities such as withstanding freeze-thaw cycles, these organisms are of particular interest to me. So while I’m here I am collecting water from lakes, ponds, and streams, and when I return to Dartmouth I will analyze these samples, including things like who’s living there, in what abundances, and their potential for toxic metabolite production.


Even under the ice, layers upon layers of leafy mats are able to scavenge enough light and thrive.


Under the water of a small pond on Hjorth Hill reveals a productive world of algal and microbial mats.

For a frozen desert landscape, it’s incredible how much life persists here. We are back in McMurdo now, but eagerly await our next adventure. Hopefully this week! Until then, thanks for your interest!

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Southern migration.

After four days of bouncing through airport terminals, Ruth, myself, and the members of the LTER soils team (http://www.mcmlter.org/) have come to our southernmost Antarctic destination at last!

Now, truly seasoned travelers (i.e., polar scientists…and Arctic terns) have come to find such a commute pretty standard fare. Yet for an Antarctic newbie like myself, this level of perpetual motion left me feeling as though we had traveled to the bottom of the earth. Fittingly, we’ve ended up just there. A mere 30+ hours in the air has landed us at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Route Boston to McMurdo

But let’s backup for a moment.

Up until leaving New Zealand, our travels had all been standard commercial airlines. But for NSF funded projects such as the McMurdo LTER in which we’re participating, travel to the field happens on Air National Guard LC-130 cargo planes. So in preparation for this we all spend a day in Christchurch, NZ at the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center), where we are briefed with orientation videos, our computers are security checked, and we are outfitted with our polar gear.


When we arrive at the CDC, we step into a large changing room where two orange duffle bags sit waiting for each person.

Gradually we pull out piece after piece of cold weather clothing. This ranges from giant puffy jackets and white rubber “bunny boots”, to silky long underwear and wool socks. The warehouse here is impressive and fully stocked.

gloves comp


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After all of our gear preparation is finished, Ruth and I take to the streets of Christchurch. Walking downtown it’s immediately evident that the city is still in recovery, even three years after their devastating earthquake. Piles of rubble are fenced off on city blocks, and large open spaces are left where hotels, restaurants, and apartment complexes used to stand.



We walk through the city’s new “shipping container-chic” shopping centers, where fallen buildings have bee replaced by funky colored shipping containers selling street food, clothing, books, and jewelry.

In the evening, we walked to nearby Hagley Park to bring in the New Year. Crowds of people sat in the grass swaying to the sounds of local cover-bands singing Jonny Cash in Kiwi accents. Finally, per New Zealand tradition, we were all enchanted by the Arch Wizard of Canterbury as he casts an explosive (fireworks were involved…) spell on the crowd for coming year.


The Arch Wizard is projected onto a giant screen as he casts his spell.


The next day, we go back to the CDC to don our polar gear, check our bags, and get briefed by the ANG on flight to the ice. It’s a toasty ride for those 8 hours to McMurdo, as we have to wear our big red jackets, snow pants, and bunny boots on the plane.20150101_112747



Soon enough, we feel the plane glide onto the ice and we step out into a blindingly white world. The team has officially arrived in Antarctica.

Photo credit: Ruth Heindel

Stay tuned for updates on the science we are now preparing to do!

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Last summer, several IGERT fellows had the serendipitous and rare opportunity to witness a warming climate’s effect on Greenland first-hand. Julia Bradley-Cook was stationed in Kangerlussuaq collecting data on carbon cycling in soil when the bridge over the Watson river collapsed from anomalously high flows of meltwater (see https://dartmouthigert.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/glacial-melt-threatens-town-water-supply and https://dartmouthigert.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/update-the-river-powers-on). Days later, the 3rd cohort of Dartmouth IGERT students flew up to Summit Camp, Greenland’s highest point, and observed features of the ice sheet-wide surface melt. Fellow Kaitlin Keegan, Thayer Professor Mary Albert, and their collaborators study the frequency of such melt events; their work at the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling (NEEM) sight has suggested that such an event last transpired in 1889 and, therefore, is unprecedented in the satellite record. (See https://dartmouthigert.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/new-summit-melt-layer).

A new Nature publication on Greenland climate authored by the NEEM community, which includes Albert and Keegan, prompted an entry on the scientific blog site RealClimate.org. RealClimate was started and is maintained by “working climate scientists” who “aim to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary.” Check out the discussion on Greenland’s 2012 summer conditions, how they compare to those 125,000 years ago, and what we can learn about past temperatures and sea level rise from an ice core! I was particularly excited about the conclusion of the entry since author Dr. Steig mentioned the significance of a new ice core from West Antarctica. I just returned from a field season on Roosevelt Island assisting with the drilling of this core, which will help scientists understand the sensitivity of the Ross Ice Shelf and, thus, of the West Antarctic ice sheet to changes in climate. http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/01/the-greenland-melt/

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The so-called “Human Dimension of Climate Change” is a central focus of the IGERT curriculum at Dartmouth. In the spring course and summer field seminar in Greenland, IGERT fellows learn about the difficulties and advantages associated with incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into our science. We receive an introduction to the Greenlandic language, Kalaallisut, and discuss the responsibilities associated with working in and around Indigenous communities. And we hear, first hand, the experiences and perspectives of Arctic government and NGO leaders who are facing rapid environmental change on a national scale.

The Arctic is, perhaps, a case study in several areas: from US foreign policy to the implications of rapid business development, indigenous traditions to language preservation, and colonial tensions to national identity. But what about the Antarctic? No humans are native to the continent, and it was set aside for “peaceful purposes” and “contributions to scientific knowledge” in the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. The first sighting of the continent occurred in 1820. The date when the first person set foot on the continent is a matter of debate but may have been the following year or decades later. And a woman didn’t make it down to the bottom of the world until 1935. Yet, I would argue, this place is rich with history. It’s a history that’s brief but speaks powerfully of humans’ ability to survive in the harshest of conditions, commitment to maintaining camaraderie, and desire to explore the unknown.

While delayed by weather for 6 days (and counting), I’ve had the rare opportunity to explore the interior of all three of the huts erected on Ross Island. Discovery Hut, mentioned in my previous post, is just walking distance from McMurdo and Scott. It was built for Robert Scott’s Discovery Mission of 1901-1904. It’s not particularly well insulated, and during that first expedition was used for storage while the men lived on their nearby ship. Shackleton later used the hut for storage and accommodations during the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-1909, when he made an attempt at the pole but famously turned back within 100 miles of the pole after realizing that his men would not survive the return journey with the food they had. The support party for the British Expedition of 1910-1913 (Scott’s pole expedition) used the hut, as well, but the expedition was primarily based out of Scott’s Hut 20 km north at Cape Evans. The final party to use the hut during the Heroic Age was the Ross Sea party, the support team for Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917). This team laid depots almost all the way to the pole, while Shackleton approached the continent from the opposite side, with the intention of being the first to cross Antarctica. Shackleton never reached his starting point in the Weddell Sea when the Endurance became trapped in the ice; he is best known for saving his men by making an open boat journey to Elephant Island. The men in the Ross Sea party, however, did not all survive. The ones who laid the last depot nearly perished on their return to Discovery Hut. The rest of their party was at Cape Evans in a warm and relatively well-stocked hut (surviving off of what Scott left behind), but the sea ice made the short passage impossible. The men were stranded at Discovery Hut for 3 months with frostbite, eking out an existence on seal meat. The following fall, six men were trapped again; 3 perished trying to reach Scott’s Hut, and three survived until the sea ice came in and they could make safe passage.

Me in Discovery Hut.

Food boxes in Discovery Hut (chocolate and oatmeal…some things haven’t changed).

Actual biscuits left by one of the expeditions.

The men in the British Antarctic Expedition (AKA Terra Nova Expedition) of 1910-1913 built Scott’s Hut on Cape Evans as a base for their expedition to the South Pole. Scott reached the South Pole only to find that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beat him there and then perished on his return. The Ross Sea party was the latest to use the hut, although the Antarctic Heritage Trust has restored it to its appearance during the original expedition.

A bunk in Scott’s Hut.

Supplies in Scott’s Hut. Everything in the huts is original; the Antarctic Heritage Trust hasn’t added anything.

A bench for science in Scott’s Hut.

Finally, we visited Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds, from which Shackleton staged his expedition of 1907-1909, when he nearly reached the pole but turned back to avoid certain death from starvation.

Shackleton’s Hut, less partitioned than Scott’s hut with much better light.

Inside Shackleton’s Hut: note the bed, the socks, and the picture of (I presume) the King and Queen.

Perhaps because the explorers were westerners and perhaps because I share their desire to explore, experience, and learn about this continent, I find myself able to identify with them more easily than with Arctic peoples. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually think I could have survived more than a day in the conditions they had to endure; after all, I go through hand warmers at an embarrassing rate, sleep with down booties, and need hot drinks at regular intervals to stay warm. But I like to think there’s something about their fascination with and commitment to this bizarre, cold, and remote place that I, too, can share and be a part of.

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Greetings from Ross Island, Antarctica! I, Ali Giese, am currently waiting for a good weather window to fly out to my research field site 800 km away. At Roosevelt Island on the eastern side of the Ross Ice Shelf, I am involved in an 8-nation project to reconstruct the climatic and glaciological history of the Ross Sea region since the last ice age. The eastern side of the embayment is the missing link in understanding how this critical region has responded to climate changes in the past, and a more detailed understanding of the climate changes and associated ice behavior will enhance our ability to inform projections of sea level rise into the coming centuries. Under the advising of Bob Hawley in Earth Sciences, I am officially involved in investigating the temperature of the ice as well as the structure and spacing of the ice layers. I am down at the bottom of the world before Bob, however, because I wanted to be involved in the ice core drilling process. Our New Zealand collaborators are drilling an ice core to bedrock (750 meters; roughly 30,000 year old ice), and the measurements I’ll be assisting Bob with will involve lowering instruments into the hole once the ice is removed.

Compared to Greenland, which is a 3 hour drive and 5 hour flight from Hanover, Antarctica is considerably more logistically complicated. The US Antarctic Program (USAP) is staged out of Christchurch, NZ, where scientists typically spend the two nights before their ice flight. I left New England on Thursday Nov. 24, went over the Int’l Date Line and never (or only briefly) lived on the 25th, and arrived early evening on the 26th after 3 layovers. (During one of these layovers I met up with fellow IGERT student Becca Williams, who will be on the volcano Mt. Erebus with Yeti, the autonomous crevasse-detecting robot).

Becca and I picking up our ECW (extreme cold weather gear).

Allocating a long layover in Christchurch is required for gear outfitting at the Clothing Distribution Center; we load up with everything from huge coats (affectionately and widely known as “big red”) to rubber, air insulated “bunny boots,” hats, insulated pants, long underwear, and everything else you can imagine.

The warehouse at the Clothing Distribution Center at the International Antarctic Centre.

Fortunately, trying on gear and watching orientation videos doesn’t take more than a few hours, and we had almost a full day to enjoy summer in Christchurch. I took the opportunity to visit the botanic gardens and to check out the rebuilding of the city. Because Christchurch was not thought to be in an earthquake zone, none or few of the buildings were built to withstand the magnitude 6.3 earthquake which originated from a very deep fault and shook the city in February 2011. Much of the city center is still in ruins and covered in scaffolding, but many of the businesses have relocated into a vibrant downtown area constructed from shipping containers. There are still tremors, and the residents are cautiously rebuilding with fierce commitment and palpable dedication to their city.

Container city.

On Monday, we reported to the Christchurch airport at 4:30 am for our C-17 flight to McMurdo. The flight itself, other than being delayed, was uneventful and surprisingly cushy! We were provided with lunch and a plethora of snacks, and we even had seats that folded down from the sides of the plane, a vast improvement over the cargo nets of the C-130s. Because the windows are few and small, I didn’t take in my first few of the frozen continent until we landed. I would not be exaggerating in stating that travel to Antarctica has been a life-long dream, but full realization of my location didn’t register until I was out on the ice shelf camping the following night. I really couldn’t believe where I was as I walked over the flat white expanse and was ushered into Ivan the TerraBus, which shuttles newcomers the one hour from Pegasus runway to base.


I am in a unique and, in my view, extremely fortunate position since I am working with Kiwis, and my arrival in Antarctica far precedes that of the other Americans on the project. As a result, I was assigned to stay at Scott Base, the New Zealand base, rather than at McMurdo Station. McMurdo is a city by Antarctic standards, by far the biggest base on the continent, and a large industrial operation. The Kiwis tell me there are 1200 people there right now, and McMurdo has a pier for ships, countless dorms for scientists, a taxi service, a hospital, a church, yoga classes, etc. Scott Base, in contrast, has fewer than 60 residents at present. The base is a number of connected buildings with a community so small that I knew most of the base staff within my first two days (admittedly, the fact that they know me probably has something to do with my distinguishing accent and US-issued red clothes). The Kiwis have been extraordinarily welcoming, right from the moment I was wandering around confused after the US bus dropped me off on its way to McMurdo, a few miles down the road.

New Zealand’s Scott Base.

An orientation and tour took up the remainder of Monday, and Tuesday I began a 2-day field training, the highlight of which was camping on the ice Tuesday night. We learned how to assemble tents designed after British explorer Robert Scott’s, we practiced using Primus stoves, and we built survival snow shelters with shovels and saws (the latter for cutting blocks and building walls).

Richie, our field trainer, reviewing the kitchen box and food waste protocol.

Our anomalously warm (-7C) and barely breezy weather prompted our guide to suggest a trip up towards Mt. Erebus, the volcano, to a location known as “room with a view.” We drove up there in a hagglund, a military vehicle from Desert Storm, I am told, which would have taken an hour had it not been for the multiple photo stops. From there, we saw many of the islands in the ice shelf, took in a breathtaking view of the Transantarctic mountain range, and could almost make out the early explorers’ huts.

The view from our evening excursion destination.

Luke, another Roosevelt Island student, and I with the Mt.Erebus volcano in the background.

On Wednesday night, Luke, the other student joining the Roosevelt team at this time, and I were informed that a Basler plane had become available and that we would try to fly out to our field site the next morning! This was a bit of a surprise since we weren’t originally scheduled until Monday, but we quickly packed and weighed our bags and spent the evening preparing for being in the field. Neither Thursday nor Friday had favorable weather conditions at Roosevelt Island, and after two early mornings waiting for weather reports, we’re still here and will try for a flight again on Monday. While I am anxious to get out to the field and start working, it’s hard to complain about having extra time in a warm base with fantastic people. I’ve had the opportunity to catch up with friends staying both here and at McMurdo (quite ironic and fun to meet up with friends I haven’t seen for years at the bottom of the world), and I’ve been able to see some of the local sites, including the pressure ridges that form where the sea ice meets the shoreline right below Scott Base, Observation Hill where Scott’s men waited and waited for their companions who perished on their return from the pole, and Discovery Hut built for Scott’s first expedition and used for accommodations on subsequent ones.

Pressure ridges adjacent to Scott Base, which is actually beachfront property! (And a seal.)
The view from the top of Observation Hill and the cross which commemorates Scott at its summit.
Inside Scott’s Discovery Hut.

My perception of Antarctica so far is that of a land of contrasts: social and isolating; breathtaking and dangerous; peaceful and windy; overwhelming and thought-provoking, all at the same time. The oil containers look out of place against the backdrop of an undisturbed white wilderness, and the distinction between the perfectly flat ice and the neighboring mountains appears somewhat unreal. The seal blubber frozen by the door in the Discovery Hut, as well as the uneaten biscuits and pants hanging to dry, serve as reminders of the hostility of the environment and the great sacrifices made to explore this last frontier. Reflecting upon the feats of the early explorers and learning about the myriad scientific projects on the continent have been humbling, to say the least. I feel extremely grateful to be here and am crossing my fingers for good weather on Monday.

Happy Antarctica Day,*
– Ali

*The anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty on December 1, 1959.

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It is hard to believe that in 5 days I will be on an LC-130 Hercules flying towards McMurdo Station. This season has been especially fun … a great combination of cool camp staff and fun science. This will be the last blog sent from camp. Our GOES satellite connection is coming down tomorrow. I’d like to thank Marcus for taking my short, text-based emails and turning them into blog material!

Some of you may wonder what its like to wander “the streets” of WAIS. Short of documenting all of the cargo lines and winter berms, I thought I’d capture a few angles from camp’s main street.

Welcome to WAIS sign standing in front of the galley RAC tent

Looking toward the generator module and the Arch, with power lines connecting camp to the “gen mod"

Most of main street: “camp” Jamesway, “KBA” Polarhaven, Medical RAC tent, Recreation RAC and wash module, and galley RAC tent

The outhouses closest to the galley, with part of the cargo lines in the background

One of the interesting moments of this week has to be the viewing of the bottom of borehole WDC06A. Parts for the borehole camera finally made it to camp, and the first mission for the drill sonde was to visually inspect the borehole. The “flakes” you see on the left of the screen are left-over chips from previous drill runs. Notice the right side of the screen (the “uphill side”) is devoid of chips. Watching the camera run was quite surreal.

Lead Driller Jay Johnson “driving” the camera down the borehole with Chuck Zander watching … bottom of borehole in sight

A close-up of the bottom of the borehole (photo from Logan Mitchell)

Finally, what IGERT blog would be complete without a unicorn sighting? Indeed, after weeks of waiting, a unicorn was spotted on the WAIS Divide ski-way marshalling an LC-130 during flight ops for January 25. It is rumored that the unicorn got a thumbs up from the pilots from “Skier 32”

Unicorn?! At WAIS! (photo from Logan Mitchell)

I hope you enjoyed this mini-adventure to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet!

Gifford Wong reporting from WAIS divide via Marcus Welker

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With the engineers and some drillers busying themselves with the replicate corer (“big drill”) and us corehandlers having finished with my array of shallow cores (“baby drill”), the science folks here at WAIS Divide have had the rare opportunity to dive into our list of side science projects that one usually runs out of time for at field sites.

One such project involved giving a couple drillers some experience with their Eclipse Ice Drill (“little drill”). If you believe the hype given the little drill at morning meetings, the little drill is dominating the big drill in terms of production. We now have a 120m borehole through the firn near camp. It’s cased and GPS’ed for future science endeavors.


Mike Jayred, Elizabeth Morton, and Logan Mitchell working the little drill


[Pic 2: The driver’s seat of the little drill … you keep an eagle eye on your amperage (lowest dial) and your left hand on the “wheel”]


The fleet of trusty of Alpine snowmachines that ferried us between camp and the little drill

Another project could be thought as I-477’s “thank you” to WAIS Divide camp. This year’s camp group is pretty phenomenal, and we pondered how we could express our appreciation for such an awesome collection of people. How about a 3-sided, backlit snowpit? What a wonderful idea … and an idea where we could also do some science! So John Fegyveresi, Logan Mitchell, and I dug 4 two-meter deep snowpits to create this mini-monster. A backlit pit, or “light-pit method” (R.M. Koerner, 1971) allows an observer to map the stratigraphy in great detail. Or, if you’re like me, the hidden blue beauty of snow simply awes you.


A shot from a wall in the backlit snowpit … notice the interesting bedding


A close-up of a few crusts and layers of differently-sized grains (my left pinky finger is for scale

Like Koerner suggested, we used the opportunity to map the stratigraphies along the back wall (parallel to dominant wind direction) and side walls. We also took density measurements.


Don Voigt taking density measurements in the backlit snowpit

And we also took some pictures … lots of pictures, to show the breadth by which one can appreciate and enjoy a backlit snowpit.


Logan and Gifford pointing to a humongous depth hoar layer


Gifford pacing the width of the snowpit

Logan and Gifford feeling “Matrixy"

Gifford stretching out

Finally, this being a Sunday … I just had to write about the Saturday night dance party that spontaneously occurred at WAIS Divide. What started out as a poorly-heated Polarhaven with a wool blanket covering the door’s window, a decade-old boombox, a PC with music and DJ software, and our cook-cum-DJ, magically transformed into a multi-hour dance-fest. As you might imagine, the “poorly-heated” became over-heated quite quickly, but the music boomed until there was no one left to boogie. Obviously, pictures from this festivity “do not exist” … but just imagine, in the best possible way, the synergy among a dance club, winter camping, and a midnight sun. For those out there who have danced in icy or polar climes … I can see your smiles!

-Gifford via Marcus

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