Back at Dartmouth, we have some fellow grad student friends who are currently Graduate Fellows in Dartmouth’s GK-12 Project. This is a great program which funds graduate students to partner with local middle school teachers in the region to gain teaching experience. Through this project, they get to spend time in the classroom, help develop curriculum, and brainstorm creative ways to introduce middle school students to the exciting world of science! So Ruth and I thought it would be fun to dedicate a few blogs to answering questions sent in by these middle school students on what it’s like to work in Antarctica.

 The following questions were sent in by middle school students in Windsor, VT:

  1. What is the distance to Antarctica from Windsor, VT?

It is 9,577 miles from Windsor, VT to McMurdo, Antarctica. This would be like traveling the length of Vermont 61 times! And because it’s such a remote place, it actually takes us multiple days to get from the US to Antarctica. We spend over 30 hours just in the air. And since the conditions are harsh and the environment is very sensitive, we first have to travel to New Zealand to get outfitted with special cold weather clothing and training before we can even step foot on the continent. Ruth and I left the airport in Boston on Dec 28 and arrived in McMurdo Jan 1st!

Here is our route from Boston, MA to McMurdo, Antarctica. Also notice that there’s an 18 hour time difference between here and back home…so we’re always one day ahead of Vermont.

  1. Do you have alarm clocks to keep track of time during the 24 hour daylight?

Definitely…we’d all be pretty lost without clocks or watches out here! It’s a lot harder to keep track of the time of day. But even though there’s constant light, the light does change in subtle ways, taking on different shades and hues and brightness throughout the day. So although we DO sometimes have to do wear our sunglasses at night, the light in the evening is usually a lot dimmer. Also, McMurdo operates 24 hours a day, so there are lots of people living here who work at night and sleep during the day. That’s when you definitely need an alarm clock.

  1. How do you sleep when it is so light?

Well, one thing you notice right away is that it’s easier to stay up late every night! It’s amazing how long your body takes to get tired without darkness. But eventually staying up late catches up with you, and everyone tends to find their own special method for dealing with sleep in the light. People who live here at McMurdo have bedrooms with thick shades that they pull down when they need to sleep. But when Ruth and I are out in the field it gets a little trickier…we usually sleep in orange tents that shine like glowing orbs when laying inside trying to sleep. Ruth likes to lay something over her eyes to help her sleep and I sometimes pull the hood of my sleeping bag over my head to block out the glow. But like anything, eventually your body just gets used to the light and it gets easier to sleep while it’s bright out. It also helps when we’re totally exhausted at the end of a busy day!


Here’s my orange tent in the evening out in the Dry Valleys. We camped right next to a lake called Lake Frixell, and in the background you can see the edge of the large Commonwealth Glacier.

  1. Do you ever need to get soil samples in the winter?


    Ruth collects soil samples with a scoop and places them into a plastic bag to bring back to the lab.

Great question! Getting soils in the winter would be way cool! Not much is known about what soils are like in this time of year, and it would be really interesting to study how the tiny organisms living in these soils are able to survive the harsh winter conditions. But since the soils down here are frozen in the winter, collecting samples during that time would be really tough.

  1. How much snow is there in Antarctica?

There is a lot of snow in Antarctica. Most of the continent is covered by a giant ice sheet that’s more than a mile thick, and this ice is covered with layers of snow. But actually, living in Vermont you get much more snow per winter than here in Antarctica. In fact, Antarctica is a desert and only gets only about 150 mm of precipitation every year, most of which comes down as snow. But unlike Vermont where the snow eventually melts, in Antarctica it’s cold enough that what snow does come down usually sticks around.

We actually do research in a pretty unique area of Antarctica called the Dry Valleys. In this area there’s very little snow on the ground except for the mountain tops. In fact, just last week we got stuck out here for a couple days because of some unusual weather…there was a “snow storm” and snow accumulated on the ground! Of course, it was really only a dusting and you could still see the soil through snow. So in Vermont you probably wouldn’t think twice about something like this, but out here in the Dry Valleys, this was considered a lot precipitation.


Here is the campsite during our “snow storm”!

  1. Do penguins distract you when you work?

Well…there are occasionally Adelie Penguins on the coast around McMurdo, but not nearly as many in other areas of Antarctica. The biggest Adelie Penguin colony is about 20 miles north of where we are. So we occasionally see them out on the ice, but not in large numbers. We do see a lot of seals. They like to haul themselves out of the water and lounge for hours out on the ice. But seal-watching isn’t exactly an action packed activity. Once they are out lounging, they don’t move very much at all. From a distance they sort of look like giant slugs scattered across the ice, occasionally rolling over or stretching, and then right back to lounging.

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Those little black dots out there on the ice are all seals.

But the animal we probably get most distracted by is the Skua. These brown seabirds are scavengers, eating whatever they can, whenever they can. They are powerful, crafty, and hungry. When given the chance, penguin eggs are a favorite delicacy of the Skua. But around McMurdo their favorite spot to hang out is outside the Galley building, where the cafeteria is located. From their perch, they quietly watch and wait for unsuspecting humans to exit the building. Then, they’ll choose their target and swoop down at someone’s head, frightening them into dropping any bags of goodies they’re carrying. And while the person is trying to figure out what just happened, they fly away with their lunch. In fact, when we first arrived at McMurdo, avoiding Skuas was actually part of our training! So although they’re not penguins, we definitely do get distracted by birds.

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This Skua was very curious and followed us for a while we took a hike. Probably hoping we’d drop a granola bar.

Thanks for all the really great questions! Keep ’em coming!

Jess and I have been in McMurdo for almost a week now, gazing longingly out the window in the direction of the Dry Valleys. We haven’t been in the field yet (Thursday can’t come soon enough!), but we’ve been busy in the lab. I’d say our activities could be broken up into three categories: preparing ourselves for the field, preparing the lab for incoming samples, and staying sane.

Prepping for the Field

In McMurdo, our trainings begin the second we step off the plane.

Our first briefing in McMurdo, immediately after landing on the ice. From that moment since, safety has been our primary concern.

Our first briefing in McMurdo, immediately after landing on the ice. From that moment since, safety has been our primary concern.

Over the past few days, we have attended vehicle training (drive slowly around McMurdo), fire training (don’t block fire escapes), waste management training (human hair goes into the container labeled ‘paper towels’), environmental training (report all spills!), Dry Valleys training (the Dry Valleys are an Antarctic Specially Managed Area), field safety training (both red and green flags mark safe paths), helicopter training (approach the helicopter from downhill), and various additional briefings (don’t believe all rumors you hear around town). We are incredibly well trained.

In field safety training, Jess and Ashley supervise stove lighting.

In field safety training, Jess and Ashley supervise stove lighting.

Training isn’t the only thing we need to be prepared for the field. First of all, we need a field calendar. Coordinating the field activities of ten people is quite the task.

Diana, one of our PIs, adds to the already-insane field calendar.

Diana, one of our PIs, adds to the already-insane field calendar.

We also need gear, food, and helicopter support. Gear comes from the BFC (Berg Field Center), where it’s been organized and RFI’d (Ready For Issue) for us. To get field food, we peruse the most incredible list of options (Eggnog? Apple Turnovers? Halibut steak?), and package up what we choose. For helicopter support, three days prior to our trip, we submit a Helo Request Form, outlining our itinerary (3 pax from McMurdo to F6) and our gear (outbound coolers empty, inbound coolers full of samples).

Prepping the Lab

All those samples that return from the field will end up in the lab. Some samples will be immediately frozen, shipped back to Dartmouth, and dealt with there. Others need to be analyzed here. Getting the lab ready for those soil extractions has occupied many hours. Soil extractions require clean glassware. Lots and lots of clean glassware.

Rinsing flasks and tubes has kept me busy these past few days.

Rinsing flasks and tubes has kept me busy these past few days.

Drawers and drawers of clean glassware, eagerly awaiting samples.

Drawers and drawers of clean glassware, eagerly awaiting samples.

Soil extractions also require solvents, liquids added to the soils to pull out various nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus. And soil extractions require an organized lab with working balances, pH and conductivity meters.

Jess battles the balance, trying to get it level.

Jess battles the balance, trying to get it level.

Staying Sane

Even though we haven’t been in the field, we are in Antarctica. It’s hard to stay inside all day, knowing that the most incredible landscape is just outside the door. In order to stay sane, Jess and I have been exploring all the walking paths around station. With views of the mountains, seals, and great expanses of ice, these walks have reminded us of just how lucky we are to be here.

The view of Mt. Erebus from Observation Hill is beyond belief.

The view of Mt. Erebus from Observation Hill is beyond belief.

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!

A stroll over a ridge and then several hours* walking over snow, shuffling over a slippery frozen lake, and clambering through loose rock and debris brought us to Changri Nup base camp, at 5358 m (17,580 ft).


Changri Nup base camp.  The two big mountains in the background are Everest (Chomolungma) and Nuptse on the left and right, respectively.

* The porters and Pyramid staff do it in 2.5 hours. From personal experience, I can report that with a blood oxygen level of <=57%, it takes more like 4.5 hours. It’s only a few kilometers, but the loose, rocky terrain makes it slow going. There are cairns marking the generally advised direction, but there is nothing resembling a trail for most of the way.

First I’m going to describe the science we did there and then mention some of the details about field logistics.


The field team was comprised of 10 project scientists and one Pyramid science tech; it was originally supposed to be 11, but ICIMOD glaciologist Dr. Joe Shea did not come due to a last-minute denial of a UAV permit. In addition to Mike, Josh, and me, the fieldteam was comprised of 2 Nepal-based researchers (ICIMOD and NAST), 2 France-based researchers, a French meteorological station specialist, a French PhD Student, and a Nepali MS student. Our collective aims included monitoring weather, tracking speed and lowering of the glacier, quantifying melt, and understanding the physical properties of the debris.

The last item is where my work fits in: I’m interested in using satellite imagery to discern debris thickness from temperature, making sure that the derived thickness is correct by comparing it to field measurements, and also modeling how the debris layer transfers heat to the ice surface. Towards these aims, my fieldwork on Changri Nup had three components.

1. Satellite: Last summer, I applied for a NASA-operated satellite to take pictures of Changri Nup while we were in the field. In order to make sure I apply the appropriate offset (if any) to temperature data from space, I needed to measure actual temperatures during the two satellite flyovers. I did this with 20 temperature sensors as well as images with a thermal camera.


A temperature sensor, with a pen for scale. We put half in direct sunlight and half shaded so that we could also determine whether the temperatures were affected by the sun heating up the sensors’ containers. The actual sensors are inside the black moisture-sealed capsule and look like this.  These are the sensors Josh and I programmed while at the Pyramid Research Station, two days before the first satellite flyover.

2. Debris properties: I work on calculating glacier melt from energy models, which require all of the energy inputs (and outputs) for the glacier system. Some, like energy from sunlight or precipitation, are easy and directly measurable. The hardest one to calculate accurately is the heat that is transferred through this debris layer by conduction.  Measuring how the temperature and humidity changes with depth and with time will help us understand how to model this well.


The temperature and humidity sensors on a bamboo stake before burial.  The cross bars are to keep the bamboo vertical (hopefully) for the next year.


Buried in 1 m of debris, after a day of digging, with a trekking pole for scale.

3. Finally, I wanted to measure debris thickness in the field so that we understand the satellite images better – and because I wanted to see if a relatively underutilized method (ground penetrating radar, GPR) could be useful for studying debris covered glaciers. Getting the amount of GPR data I had hoped for proved to be difficult; from distant aerial photographs, I was not prepared for the size of the debris, the roughness of the terrain, and the juxtaposition of fine debris, car-sized boulders, and deep glacial lakes.


MS student Sonam for scale, with debris cover where we placed the 1-meter profile of temperature and humidity sensors.


Debris cover in the center of the glacier, with Josh for scale.

The terrain was difficult to walk on—not to mention operating and dragging geophysical equipment over! Still, we did manage to find two flat spots: one close to the top of the debris-covered area (high on the glacier, at > 18,000 ft) and one closer to camp, on the side of the glacier. We performed comprehensive surveys on each:


Josh marking the length of a transect for GPR.

I’m excited to analyze this data to see if the method worked, even if we were unable to drag the sled (er, rather, baby baths) all the way across and down the glacier.


Since I’m often asked questions about field logistics, I figured I’d provide a few details here:

How did the gear arrive?

A lot of it was carried by these guys:


(I can’t remember the yaks’ names, sadly).

and the remaining parts were carried directly by porters, who strap loads together and carry the weight on their heads and backs. Seeing porters on the trail was a constant reminder that my 40-lb pack was NOT heavy. The Khumbu valley hosts a permanent population in several villages, as well as a booming tourist industry. But everything—from restaurant food to safe drinking water, building materials to outdoor shop gear—has to be carried by people or yaks.  Donkeys are used at lower elevations, too. On my way down, I met a man much shorter than myself carrying 4 doors on his back…and he was a 3-day walk from the start of the tail.

What did we eat?

In camp, we were supported by porters, including a cook. At 6:45 every morning, porters brought us black tea in our tents to wake us up (I have never experienced this in fieldwork before!) Breakfast was served at 7 am sharp; we had rice pudding, cinnabuns, pancakes, or chapatti bread, usually with 1 scrambled or hard-boiled egg per person. We would leave camp for the glacier (30 min walk) by 8 am at the latest, taking our packed lunches of fresh-baked Nepali bread, crackers, nak cheese, mango juice (really half-frozen slush), and Snickers or Twix.

How cold was it?

When the sun was shining, it was pretty warm, around freezing and, unless the wind was blowing, quite comfortable. But when the sun went down, it got cold. Nighttime was around -20C. This was the first time for me in 3.5 years that I’d seen the sun set during fieldwork or had to think about the fact that daytime and nighttime temperatures could differ dramatically. (Thankfully, I remembered to pack a headlamp!) I didn’t realize what a luxury it was to have 24 hour sunlight, both in terms of safety and in terms of science, in Greenland and Antarctica. Because the mountains are so steep and because we were working in winter to avoid the monsoon, we stopped receiving direct sunlight around 3 pm. At 4:30 it was really cold, and by 5:30 it was completely dark. Most of the team would return to camp around 5 and huddle in the kitchen tent over black tea and cookies until dinner at 6:30. Dinner was always prawn crackers and soup appetizers followed by something Nepali or Italian: the traditional dal bhat, pasta (usually with nak cheese), or pizza for the main with the occasional side of “salad” (peas or cauliflower in a cream sauce). Dinner on thanksgiving consisted of popcorn, onion soup, pasta, and cauliflower.  Dinner on the last night was particularly special; the porters hiked a 10-hour round trip to buy fresh yak meat and make us yak curry and dal bhat!

What makes up the base camp?

We slept two to a tent for warmth; camp was comprised of personal tents, a cooktent, a dining tent, and a toilet tent. I was quite grateful for the porters who had most of this set up when we arrived! Being equatorward of the Arctic/Antarctic circles meant shorter work days and cold nights…AND some of the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever seen. Every day we’d walk back to basecamp with a backdrop of the sun setting behind Mt. Everest and Mt. Nuptse. And, no, I’m not sure I was ever really able to comprehend the scale or beauty of these mountains, although I was constantly feeling fortunate for the opportunity to work in them on what I believe is going to prove to be exciting and important work.


Sunset with cook tent, Everest, and Nuptse.

Thanks for your interest; please feel free to send questions if you have any!



Trekking to Science

A special thanks to Julia Bradley-Cook for posting the pictures and short text I was able to send via iPhone WiFi while on the trek to Pyramid Research Station and the Changri Nup Glacier! Of course, while at our remote field site, I had no access to internet, so the science update on the blog is a bit delayed!

To pick up where I left off, after Pheriche I spent one afternoon and night at Pyramid Research Station. Pyramid is owned and operated by the Italian research project EV-K2-CNR.


The Pyramid Research Station viewed from the ridge above.

The research station is maintained year-round and hosts labs, several atmospheric/meteorological monitors, a seismic station, and other scientific facilities.  It also provides invaluable support for fieldwork on Changri Nup.  In addition to hosting our research group, the Pyramid staff monitor the instruments deployed on Changri Nup year round.  Additionally, one of the science techs accompanies our research group to the field.


Me outside the atmospheric research laboratory at Pyramid.  Note the elevation!  

Inside this building are several instruments, including some for analyzing black carbon, dust, and particulate matter.  Right outside this building is a meteorological station, and it’s also where the Pyramid Staff collects air samples.  (See the following three pictures, in order.)


Instruments for analyzing atmospheric particulate matter.


The met station at Pyramid.  I will likely be using some of the data collected here in my energy modeling for nearby Changri Nup glacier.


Sonam, a Pyramid science tech, taking an air sample.

Pyramid has lodging for ~20 scientists and, much to our delight after trekking for 5 days, solar-heated water for showers and a cook!


We certainly had our share of Italian food, with a Nepali twist: all of the cheese was nak cheese (a nak is a female yak). Here, Mike with his nak cheese pizza.

The Pyramid staff includes an Italian director as well as a rotating Nepali staff of about 7: the station manager, science techs, and support staff.  The afternoon at Pyramid was very busy.  We met up with our porters and saw our scientific instruments for the first time since Kathmandu.  Josh and I were busy programming the temperature sensors as well as charging batteries for the ToughBook computer and ground penetrating radar control unit.  We also had to acquire and prepare two bamboo stakes for holding 17 sensors which will record temperature and humidity at various depths in the debris over the next year.


Pema, the Pyramid manager, and Mike are inserting small wires into the holes that we drilled for attaching the temperature and humidity sensors.  We had to paint the bamboo white so that it will absorb as little additional heat as possible and not affect the data.

I actually got (had) to spend a little more time at Pyramid than some of the other group members. I went to Changri Nup Base Camp with the rest of the team, but my Hanover-accustomed blood couldn’t quite adjust in only 5 days to being at 16,500 ft. After the first day, when I did deploy my surface temperature sensors in time for the satellite data acquisition granted by NASA, I had to hike down with two porters and spend time at Pyramid getting oxygen and waiting for my blood oxygen levels to reach an acceptable level. But I ascended back to Changri Nup after only a few days and had a week of exciting fieldwork deploying more temperature and humidity sensors, measuring debris thickness with radar, and experiencing first hand what it’s like to walk around on a debris-covered glacier.

Check back in a few days for more details on the Changri Nup fieldwork!


A preview of fieldwork: Josh walking over the debris cover on Changri Nup.

Today we hiked from Pangboche to Periche, only a 2 hour hike.  Yesterday we hiked about 5 hours down to the valley floor, crossed the river, and then came back up, gaining only 200 m net elevation. From now on we’re going up so taking care to build in a little rest time. The plan is to acclimatize here in Pheriche (4240m) overnight then hike up to Pyramid (4970 m), the worlds highest meteorological station (I think). Well spend two nights there acclimatizing and then head to the Changri Nup base camp and start the data collection!

For reference, here’s the last part of our trek in. You can see Khumjung where we were 2 nights ago, Pangboche where we were last night, and Pheriche where I’m writing from. Pyramid Station is also labeled, near the ring finger in this pic.


Yesterday on the trail I saw one of my boxes of scientific gear go by! This box contains a 400 MHz ground penetrating radar as well as a few other instruments. Masters student Josh Maurer is on the left.


Pheriche in the distance

Pheriche in the distance

On the way to Pheriche this morning

On the way to Pheriche this morning

I’ve been enjoying the hike in (very different from taking a plane or helicopter to my field sites) and am looking forward to our day at Pyramid when we’ll be programming temperature sensors, etc. for the field.
Prof. Mike Dorais (BYU geology prof) has been teaching us about the geology along the way. The first night we all sat around a geologic map of Nepal and learned about how the Himalayas formed (and why there’s a yellow stripe of sedimentary rock at the top of Everest!). And he’s pointed out a few neat rocks along the trail.

I’ve enjoyed hiking and socializing with such accomplished scientists on the trek in and have been having very enlightening conversations about the importance of collaboration in science, why different people chose careers in glaciology, what the other grad students see as being next for them, etc.  Thanks for reading! Will update again when possible!

Alexandra is on her way to the remote field site in the Khumbu Region. She only has intermittent internet access and managed to email us some photos of her journey. Scroll down for a sight of Mt. Everest!

Morning in Khumjung

Morning in Khumjung

On the trail

On the trail

Another trail shot

Another trail shot

Me at our first view of Everest (on the left!)

Me at our first view of Everest (on the left!)