Posts from Antarctica: Logistics Update and Local History

Hello to you all from… still McMurdo. While we’re all frustrated to still be playing the waiting game, a ray of hope appeared last night – a plane flew from McMurdo to WAIS Divide, for the first time in over two weeks! Furthermore, three planes (a Basler and two Twin Otters, in case you’re interested in planes) are en route with cargo today from WAIS Divide, with destinations at Lower Thwaites Glacier (a staging site for gear headed to the science camps), Cavity Camp (our first destination) and Grounding Zone (the first camp for the MELT team). In fact, we just found out that the Basler successfully made the first landing at Cavity Camp, and has brought a whole bunch of our cargo – Ted and Erin literally both just did cartwheels in celebration.

Unfortunately, the delays, along with some aircraft maintenance issues, mean that we’re not going to achieve all of our original science goals, at least this season. But with the latest big gains, we should still be able to get a whole lot of good science done. It’s possible I could now be leaving for the deep field as early as Friday (fingers crossed!), so I wanted to make sure to slip in one more blog post for you all before I go.

Locations of historic huts on Ross Island, from https://www.coolantarctica.com/schools/Antarctica-maps-ross-island.php.

A few years ago I got into reading many of the great polar exploration stories of the early 1900s. If you’re interested in some great reading, start with Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance” about Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt to cross Antarctica between 1914 and 1917. Another brilliant classic, this time a first-person account, is Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “Worst Journey in the World” about Scott’s 1910-1913 Discovery Expedition to the South Pole. And if you want to come closer to understanding the true depths that a human being can suffer, Lennard Bickel’s “Mawson’s Will,” about an ill-fated expedition to map the Antarctic coastline south of Australia, will give you a new appreciation for what early polar explorers have endured.

 

A view of Hut Point from behind my dorm, with the Discovery Hut in the foreground and Vince’s Cross near the tip of the point behind the hut.

Since I have some knowledge of these epic exploration stories, and some personal experience with icy locales, one of the most exciting aspects of McMurdo for me is the nearby historical sites. Ross Island has played host to many historic expeditions, which left three huts that still stand along the shoreline. Scott’s Discovery Expedition built the first hut at Hut Point in 1902.The Nimrod Expedition, the first expedition Shackleton led to the Antarctica, left a hut at Cape Royds in 1908. And Scott’s 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition left a hut at Cape Evans. Unfortunately, with the thin sea ice this year, we won’t get to visit the huts at Cape Royds or Cape Evans, but Hut Point is visible from my dorm building and is just a few minutes’ walk down the road. You can’t go in on your own, but we arranged a tour for our whole team last week.

 

The Discovery Hut with McMurdo in the background.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition (1901-1904) was primarily focused on mapping and carrying out scientific research. It included many men who played key roles in later expeditions, such as Ernest Shackleton, and made many important discoveries, including finding the Dry Valleys (the only ice-free valleys in Antarctica).

Crates piled inside the Discovery Hut.

They also learned a thing or two about huts. The hut they put up at Hut Point was a pre-fabricated hut that was actually designed for the Australian Outback. As Australia is known for heat, not cold, the hut was designed to be shady, cool, and well-ventilated. As you might imagine, that’s not ideal for Antarctica. The men found the hut to be cold and uncomfortable, and chose to mostly live and work aboard their ship (the Discovery). The hut was used primarily for storage, as well as for some cooking and science.

 

A box from Scott’s 1910 Antarctic Expedition.

Despite its drafty interior, it was still a valuable shelter and equipment cache for later expeditions. Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition used the hut briefly in 1909, on their way back from an attempt to reach the pole. Scott’s 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition used the hut (which was farther south than their hut at Cape Evans, making it a good jumping-off point for south-going parties) fairly extensively. The last people to use the hut were the Ross Sea Party of Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic Expedition, who left in 1916. It then lay untouched (and full of snow and ice), until it was dug out in 1956, the year McMurdo was founded.

The kitchen area inside the Discovery Hut.

The hut remains well-preserved today. I walked over to see the hut on my own not long after I arrived. I was engrossed in reading the sign on the door (which just indicates rules for entry), and suddenly jumped when I realized I was standing right next to a dead, decaying seal dating from 1916. When we got to go inside the hut, we found a high-ceilinged, open interior that had been curtained off into a main storage/living area and a kitchen area. There’s also one separate room, which was used primarily for carrying out scientific experiments and analysis. Artifacts inside are very well-preserved (other than a slowly decaying pile of seal blubber), and have been arranged for better viewing. There are crates, bags, and shovels from the expeditions, old tin cans and tools, and even some pieces of the biscuit that was a staple of their diet (I wouldn’t try eating it now!). You can faintly see on the walls where many of the men wrote their names.

Tools and supplies inside the Discovery Hut.

Just up the hill from the hut, out on the end of the point, is a cross that was erected in 1902 in memory of a Discovery crewmember who drowned near that spot.

 

The cross the Discovery Expedition erected at the tip of Hut Point in memory of George Vince.

Although the Discovery Hut is perhaps the most interesting historical site in the immediate vicinity of McMurdo, Scott’s 1910-1913 Terra Nova Expedition is much more famous. After several expeditions had made attempts, Scott was determined that a British man would be the first to stand on the South Pole. They made extensive depot arrangements and used a variety of techniques to get there, including ponies, man-hauling, and some experimentation with the earliest motor sledges. Five men from Scott’s expedition reached the pole on January 17th, 1912, only to find that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them by just five weeks (incidentally, Amundsen is arguably also the first to reach the North Pole, as earlier claims are disputed, and he led the first expedition through the northwest passage). Still more tragically, Scott’s team never made it back; one of the men died on the march, one walked into a storm to sacrifice himself as he knew he was dying and was holding back the team, and the final three, Scott included, died in a blizzard in their tent, just 11 miles from a major supply depot.

The cross the Terra Nova Expedition erected at the top of Ob Hill in memory of the five men who lost their lives on the way home from the South Pole.

Before heading home, the remaining members of Scott’s expedition erected a cross at the top of Observation Hill to honor the lost pole party. They inscribed it with the names of the lost and a line from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” The inscriptions have all but worn away by now (you can still see faint impressions if you look closely), but the cross still overlooks McMurdo.

Biscuit left by one of the expeditions at the Discovery Hut.

Having spent a little time in the middle of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and being about to head out to West Antarctica, I can’t imagine the bravery and outright craziness it must have taken for early explorers and researchers to achieve what they did. I’ll be sleeping in a fluffy synthetic sleeping bag on two insulating pads; they had reindeer fur sleeping bags that sometimes began to rot partway into the expedition. We have high-calorie, high-protein, and mostly good-tasting meals and snacks, including a whole lot of chocolate; they survived on biscuit, pemmican (basically powdered meat mixed with fat and sometimes other ingredients), and often their dead sled-dogs. We’ll be back to the comforts of home in just a couple months, and in the meantime have several forms of communication with McMurdo and with home; they went away for several years with hardly any communication at all during that time. We may be facing a harsh environment in the field, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to face than it was 100 years ago!

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A course in nonsense

For many years I’ve offered a First-Year Seminar at Wooster entitled, “Nonsense! (And Why It’s So Popular)”. Today we finished the latest version of the course. The semester went so well I want to celebrate. The class of first-year students above (with our excellent Teaching Assistant Malik holding the book on the left) was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and creative. They all participated in the discussions and have the record of 100% of written assignments turned in on time. And they did all this work in a class that started at 8:00 am! The Nonsense course website has all the academic details.

Here is our course description and rationale: “A deep streak of irrationality runs through humanity, especially in these days of “post-truth” and “fake news”. Belief that the Earth is flat has increased dramatically among American young people, and a curious conspiracy theory centered on the mysterious “Q-Anon” alleges dramatic secret battles between the “Deep State” and a satanic cabal for control of the US government. Horrific mass shootings are dismissed as “false flags” employing “crisis actors” for obscure political gains. Anti-vaccination groups have triggered new outbreaks of diseases we thought were nearly extinct, and quack medical “cures” are as popular as ever. Why is such nonsense so common when information has never been easier to access? What are the dangers to society when irrationality is common? Do we have logical tools to sort bad ideas from good? In this seminar we will examine conspiracy theories, crank science, revisionist history, and other topics from the edges of reason. We will use original literature, websites, and films to explore the lure of these ideas and their social origins. Our primary textbook will be The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. Our course objective is to improve our own critical thinking, writing and speaking … and, in the words of the late Carl Sagan, to light a candle in a demon-haunted world.”

This book by the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe team was a superb resource throughout the semester. I highly recommend it to any readers.

Obviously there is plenty of nonsense these days to keep a class busy. Our academic goal was to develop critical thinking, writing and speaking skills by sharpening them against the waves of irrationality around us. We also found that learning the history of an idea was where to start understanding its attraction and tenacity. The students will tell you that our studies of the Flat Earth stream of nonsense were the most frustrating — and illuminating. Fake News was the most irritating was the most irritating, and Holocaust Denial the most upsetting. Of course, every week of this semester had plenty of news about conspiracy theories. Above is an image of the class on a typical day. Note the name placards for each student. We used these not just to learn names, but also to keep the seating arrangements fluid through the semester.

Each student wrote a research paper on a particular area of pseudoscience or conspiracy theory, and then gave a presentation to the class, as Blakely is doing above. Every assignment provided tools and skills for this capstone experience, including writing essays, constructing annotated bibliographies, and giving short oral reports. This class came through with the best research papers I’ve seen at this level.

Teaching this class was an academic dream because the students were so responsive and responsible. Malik was the ideal Teaching Assistant because of his incisive intellect (he’s a philosophy and psychology double major), communication skills, and passion for teaching. He was an excellent role model for these beginning students.

This was an exciting course to teach because of the new material and challenges ever week. We live in an age of unprecedented nonsense, but I like to think that small groups of rational citizens like these students are beginning to make a difference.

 

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Posts from Antarctica: The Ross Island Trail System

Another day, another cancelled flight – the advance team is now hoping to get out tomorrow, December 7th. Erin said she was once delayed 3.5 weeks in McMurdo due to weather; we’re crossing our fingers that our delay is much shorter than that!!

As long as we’re here, however, we’re doing our best to enjoy ourselves as well as to get some work done. One of the pleasant surprises for me when I got to McMurdo was finding out that there’s a trail system. You can find a map of the Ross Island Trail System here: ftp://ftp.data.pgc.umn.edu/maps/antarctica/pgc/11/pdf/Ross%20Island%20Trail%20System.pdf

Some of the trails, like the Castle Rock and Cape Armitage Loops, are really meant for ski travel (and I believe the Cape Armitage Route is closed this year, as the sea ice has been very thin). I’ve done a little bit of cross-country skiing in the past, although not much, and have elected not to try to properly learn at the moment out of an abundance of caution, as it’s typically not a good idea to risk a major injury before heading out to the deep field. However, I have been able to enjoy several of the hiking trails, which stay mostly on bare ground and offer some pretty fantastic views of the scenery.

Ob Hill, viewed from the Hut Point Ridge Loop

One of the most popular trails is up to the top of Observation Hill, usually referred to as “Ob Hill,” which is a small volcanic dome that looms over McMurdo. It’s about 750 feet high, and a short trail leads right out of town to the summit. At the top of the hill is a cross that was set up to honor Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the other men who lost their lives returning from the South Pole in 1912 (my next post will cover some of the history around here in more detail). The views are fantastic. There’s also a loop trail that circumnavigates Ob Hill, going all the way out to the tip of Cape Armitage, which is the southernmost point on Ross Island.

Bruce and Christian on the Hut Point Ridge Loop

Another great loop is the Hut Point Ridge Loop. Hut Point is the location where Scott’s first expedition built a hut in 1902, which still stands today. Bruce, Christian and I hiked the Hut Point Ridge Loop one stunningly beautiful evening, and thoroughly enjoyed the views out across the sea ice. In the distance we could see open water; the sea ice is likely to be mostly broken up by the time we return to McMurdo in late January (that’s also when penguins tend to show up; I’m crossing my fingers that we get to see some!).

A mother and baby Weddell seal on the sea ice near Scott Base

This post is really just an excuse, however, to show you some great pictures of seals. One hike that you can only do with a guide is a mile-long path through the pressure ridges near Scott Base (the nearby New Zealand research station). Pressure ridges form where winds and/or ocean circulation push sea ice against itself or against the shoreline. The sea ice buckles under the pressure, thrusting broken fins of ice into the sky. In the process, cracks and holes in the ice form, and Weddell seals use these access points to get to the surface. Many of the nearby Weddell seals have babies, which are a bit over a month old. Hope you enjoy the pictures!

A sea-ice pressure ridge with a surface melt pond

 

A sleepy mother seal with a playful baby seal

 

An alert baby seal

 

A very content seal

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Wooster’s First Paleoecology Course

This semester we introduced a new course into the Earth Sciences curriculum: Paleoecology (ESCI 215). It is the first new course I’ve developed in many years. It is designed to introduce students to ecological concepts and principles using the fossil record and the history of life. And to introduce students to the history of life and the fossil record using ecology! Our material was also continually informed by evolutionary theory, so much so that we could probably call the course Evolutionary Paleoecology. Our Paleoecology course website has all the details, including the syllabus, assignments, and weekly readings. The first Wooster paleoecology students are shown above at the start of the semester. I was fortunate to have a small class (nine students) and a superb Teaching Assistant (Alexis — in blue, closest to the camera).

This was a difficult course to plan because the students had such diverse course backgrounds. Some have had my Invertebrate Paleontology course. Some are veterans of History of Life. Some had both of these courses; some had neither. Ideally I would teach Paleoecology requiring the above two courses as prerequisites, but there is no way we could actually do that in our curriculum and course scheduling. (And it would be a small number of students who would take the thread that far.) So the Paleoecology course had to be challenging for the most experienced students and comprehensible for the rest. I think it worked. I certainly learned many new teaching techniques in the process. The following are snapshots of the students and some of our course activities.

You can’t have a paleo course of any kind in Ohio without using the extraordinary fossils found in the Upper Ordovician of the Cincinnati region. We had an extensive lab exercise with brachiopods collected from outcrops in SE Indiana. Above Will and Hannah are sorting and identifying specimens. Again, the Ordovician Atlas was a critical aid and inspiration.

We also benefited from the wonderful lab spaces in Scovel Hall, especially on the second floor. Paleoecologists need plenty of room to spread out!

Above our TA Alexis is advising Justine and Srushti on their brachiopod analyses.

The Biology Department occupied much of our lab space for two years as their new building was being constructed. When they moved out they generously left us several cabinets, tables and chairs that are now the basis of our new Imaging Lab on the second floor. Half of the lab is shown above. The students are “picking” foraminiferans from Eocene sediments for a paleoenvironmental exercise.

A highlight on a cold November day was our field trip to Brown’s Lake Bog, led by Greg Wiles and Nick Wiesenberg. We wanted students to see this extraordinary ecosystem and learn how Quaternary climates and environments can be tracked through the accumulated sediments. (Photo by Justine)

Will is here using a soil probe to measure the thickness of the soft bog sediments. (Photo by Justine)

This is our host Greg Wiles. It is such a good image I just have to post it!

Nick Wiesenberg extracted a peaty sediment core for us as a demonstration. We later examined a similar core in the lab. (Photo by Justine)

Andy kept us informed about the local reptiles and amphibians. He caught a frog and the snake above, returning them to the grass below after we admired them.

The capstone assignment for the paleoecology students was a GSA-style presentation on a paleoecological topic of their choosing. They each had remarkably clear, interesting and informative talks, from which I learned a great deal. I intentionally gave few guidelines for these student teaching episodes to encourage diversity of form and independence. Each student mastered the challenge — and enjoyed describing fascinating paleoecological case studies of their choice. Ciaran is shown above presenting her work on a group of Permian therapsids.

The paleoecology class on our last day, with a ghostly Anomalocaris lurking above. Alexis the wonderful TA is on the left. This was an excellent group of students with curiosity, intellect, and patience for my many teaching experiments. I’m looking forward to the next version of this course!

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Posts from Antarctica: Life at McMurdo Station

The latest update is that our advance team is delayed another day, and weather at WAIS Divide is looking iffy for another few days. That makes it fairly likely that the rest of our team could be pushed into next week before flying out, although we haven’t yet totally given up hope of getting out this week. Delays are an expectation when going through WAIS Divide, and we have enough wiggle room built into our schedule that we’re not yet concerned about having enough time to get our science done. But for our own peace of mind, we would like to get out soon!

Pretty soon I’ll run out of interesting things to tell you about at McMurdo, but I’ve got at least a couple more posts in mind. Since we’re spending lots of time in McMurdo, I can tell you a little bit about what life is like here and get you oriented to our current location. McMurdo is sited on the southernmost reliably ice-free land area in the world that also can be reached by ship. It’s dry and windy enough here that the snow tends to sublimate away before enough can build up on top to start making ice, so the ground stays mostly clear, making it a great place to build a research station.

Looking down on McMurdo Station from nearby Observation Hill

The map below shows McMurdo’s location on the tip of Ross Island. The solid red line on the map is known as the “grounding line” – it’s where ice goes from sitting on land to floating. Everything to the left of the solid red line is ice sitting on the mainland of Antarctica. Everything to the right of the solid red line is floating ice (or ice on islands). There’s also a dotted red line that intersects with Ross Island. That’s the approximate line between the permanent ice shelf (which is ice that has flowed from the ice sheet out onto the ocean but is still attached to the ice sheet) and sea ice (which is ice that froze out of ocean water, so it was never a part of the ice sheet).

The location of McMurdo on Ross Island, with nearby features labeled. The satellite imagery is from the MODIS Mosaic of Antarctica (MOA) 2009 image.

When you stand on the shoreline at McMurdo this time of year, it’s hard to remember there’s an ocean there, because McMurdo Sound is full of sea ice (and also seals; spoiler alert, my next post will contain pictures of baby seals!). It’s also difficult to tell where the sea ice ends and the McMurdo Ice Shelf begins. Most lines between sea ice and an ice shelves are very obvious because ice shelves tend to be much thicker than sea ice, but the McMurdo Ice Shelf is very thin, making the dividing line difficult to spot. It’s possible to drive vehicles and even land planes safely on the sea ice this time of year, and it’s safe to do that year-round on the McMurdo and Ross Ice Shelves.

Looking out over the sea ice on McMurdo sound on a beautifully lit evening.

Most of McMurdo life, however, takes place on solid ground on Ross Island. McMurdo Station was founded in 1956 and is the largest research station in Antarctica. In the summer it houses around 1,000 people, and can support up to ~1,250. In the winter the population dwindles to just a couple hundred. McMurdo was built for functionality, not for aesthetic; it has a very industrial feel. Buildings are fairly austere, although a few are cheerily colored, and they’re all numbered (although there’s no spatial logic whatsoever to which number is where!).  None of the roads are paved and heavy machinery is abundant, so you spend a lot of time walking in wheel ruts. Being new to McMurdo, I made the mistake of brining tennis shoes rather than hiking boots for daily wear. Fortunately, there’s a building where any item left behind by someone in the past is available to anyone else for free, and I happened to walk in 10 minutes after a pair of brand new hiking boots in my size were set out on the shelf. I am at a loss as to why someone abandoned them, but I’m feeling very lucky that I was able to snag them!

A typical scene around McMurdo.

Everyone lives in dorms at McMurdo and eats in the dining hall, which is known as the Galley. Ingredients – particularly fresh ingredients – are often very limited, but McMurdo’s cooking is excellent (particularly when it comes to desserts). There is a store on-site, as well, where you can buy necessities like shampoo and medicines, comfort items like chocolate bars and alcohol, and a range of souvenirs (I confess that it seems strange to me that the McMurdo souvenirs aren’t available to purchase in Christchurch – as it is, they fly everything down so we can fly it back home. On the other hand, it does mean that my family members will get shirts that have actually been to Antarctica!).

The Galley, where an artist-in-residence was giving a talk on Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition.

As McMurdo’s primary function is to support scientific research, many of the buildings are dedicated to science or to getting scientific equipment out into the field. Our team spends most of the time during the day squeezed into a couple offices in the Crary Laboratory building, which also houses equipment for chemical and physical experiments, and includes a set of aquariums on the lower level with bizarre Antarctic aquatic organisms. We also spend a lot of time at the Science Support Center (SSC) where we did our rope training, which has space to set up tents and stage gear inside, the Berg Field Center (BFC) where much of our issued field gear is housed, and Science Cargo where we sort and package all of our equipment on pallets and turn it over to the professionals to get it loaded onto the plane. Our team has approximately 37,000 pounds (yes, that’s the correct number of zeros) of equipment to carry out our science and live fairly comfortably in the deep field for a couple months, and getting it all labeled, weighed, organized, and entered into the cargo system is a huge task.

Our team members putting away an Arctic Oven Tent that we had set up inside the SSC. Getting all the air out is a team effort.

Although we have been working hard, McMurdo also has many opportunities for leisure time. There are several gyms on-site, as well as a great set of hiking trails (which I’ll talk about in my next post!). We have lectures twice a week from scientists and artists-in-residence, either in the dining hall or in the library at Crary Lab. There are three bars (one of them is also a coffee house) that are very popular in the evenings, which often host scheduled or unscheduled parties. And there are several other rooms that provide diversions, such as the craft room and the gear distribution center, which includes skis and mountain bikes as well as musical instruments for loan. We even have several TV channels that get sports or news feeds from the US, and a local channel that plays movies.

The gym that houses the cardio equipment, known as the Gerbil Gym.

We’re really anxious to get out of McMurdo so we can start our research, but it is pretty incredible what kind of support systems are available here. Just across the bay from my dorm is a hut built by Scott’s Discovery expedition in the early 1900s (I will also talk more about that in a later post). I don’t think that any of those men, who huddled in the drafty hut through long Antarctic winters, could have guessed what incredible amounts of infrastructure would be built on Ross Island in just a few short decades.

 

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Posts from Antarctica: Staying Safe in the Field Part 3: Communications

We’re crossing our fingers that weather holds well enough at WAIS Divide to get a plane out there this evening, but our advance team is currently delayed until tomorrow (December 3rd). The earliest the rest of us will get out is still pencilled in for Thursday, December 5th, but we’re playing it by ear.

Once we do get out of McMurdo, to get to our field sites we fly to the permanent camp at WAIS Divide, possibly from WAIS Divide to a fueling stopover/gear cache at Lower Thwaites Glacier, and then to “Cavity Camp” on the floating portion of Thwaites Glacier. Cavity Camp is very remote, and our site at Dotson will be even a bit more remote. We are bringing everything with us that we need and then some, but to get all the gear there, and in case of an emergency, it’s extremely important that we have good communications among the team members and between the team and operations staff at WAIS Divide and at McMurdo.

Our team leader is Erin Pettit from Oregon State University. She is extremely experienced in field research, and, fortunately for us, is also fantastic at creating a functional and positive team environment. Everyone on the team has assigned responsibilities. Some of those responsibilities are scientific. For example, Atsu is in charge of managing the seismic surveys, Erin runs the ground-penetrating radar, and Martin and Dale are in charge of the drilling. My primary role is to assist Atsu with the seismic measurements, as his setup takes two people to run, and I also have responsibilities for strategizing data collection for a few features of interest and integrating our plans with the big-picture context of Thwaites Glacier and the Amundsen Sea. In addition to science duties, everyone will pitch in to help around the camp. Some people will be on cooking and cleaning duties, for example, while another will keep an eye on the tie-downs and guy lines used to hold gear and tents in place in case a storm whips up. Giving everyone clear responsibilities means that no important task slips through the cracks.

Our camp under Mount Erebus during our overnight shakedown

To work out these team responsibilities and facilitate trust and open communication, as well as to test out all our gear, we had an overnight camp “shakedown” as part of our training. We went out on the McMurdo Ice Shelf to an absolutely stunning location under Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on Earth, which gently steamed under a crystal clear blue sky. Cece and Blair gave us some tips on setting up tents with strong snow anchors, cutting snow blocks, and building wind walls. Bruce and Christian decided to dig themselves a large trench with slots in the sides to sleep in, just for the fun of it (they did, in fact, sleep in their trench, but they failed to dig big enough slots to allow them to turn over, so they were stuck in one position all night). It was actually a really relaxing and enjoyable overnight. If we get that kind of weather in the deep field, it will be lovely trip; but it didn’t give us much experience testing our gear in harsh conditions, which we’re likely to face!

Bruce (left) and Christian (right) starting to dig their trench. They cut slots in the sides of the trench and slept in the slots on our shakedown.

While we were on our shakedown, we also tested out some of our communications equipment. Much of our communication with McMurdo will be via satellite transmissions. We have four satellite phones with us, as well as a satellite internet uplink that will let us send text emails back to McMurdo (and hopefully some blog posts back to the Wooster Geologists blog!). Eight of us on the team also own inReach devices, which are GPS units that also link to the Iridium satellite network, allowing us to text family from home and also to send text messages to each other in the field. For emergencies, we also have a high-frequency (HF) radio with a huge antenna that we can set up – we practiced using that on the shakedown, as well.

Team members setting up the HF radio

We will check in with McMurdo at a specific time every day. If we don’t check in by our specified time, McMurdo immediately initiates search-and-rescue operations, so we’re all responsible for remembering to make that check-in on-time. Since we will have multiple teams working away from camp to take radar and seismic measurements, we will also have set check-in times every few hours with each other. The daily check-ins with McMurdo will also include sharing weather observations and forecasts, which will be very important in planning our activities each day. Although every team that leaves camp carries survival bags, getting caught out in a storm is not something we intend to do!

 

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Posts from Antarctica: Staying Safe in the Field Part 2 – Safety and Crevasse Rescue Trainings

The United States Antarctic Program (USAP) primarily exists to support scientific research in Antarctica. In order to provide that support, one of their most important functions is to ensure the safety of all personnel involved in the research. Much of our time at McMurdo has been spent doing trainings to get us oriented to the station, our environment, and the equipment we’ll be using. I’ve had general trainings on operating NSF’s light vehicles, waste management, medical facilities, fire prevention and response, harassment, and environmental protection. I’ve also done field-oriented trainings on understanding the contents of our survival bags (we carry these with us at all times off station or out of camp; they include things like emergency tents and sleeping bags, a stove, fuel, and food), recognizing signs of hypothermia and frostbite, assessing and managing risk, and driving snowmobiles. We also do trainings that are specific to where we’re headed in the field. In our case, that includes crevasse rescue training.

Our team is headed (as soon as we can get out of McMurdo) for two camps in the deep field, both of which are on ice shelves. Ice shelves are the floating extensions of the ice sheet: they’re connected to and flowing with the ice on the continent, but they are also truly floating on the ocean, going up and down with the tides. Since the undersides of ice shelves are sitting in water, there is virtually no friction at their bases slowing them down, so ice tends to speed up when it flows into an ice shelf. Any time ice speeds up, goes around a bend, crosses a big change in elevation, or hits a bump in the bedrock, it tends to crack, forming crevasses. These crevasses can be hundreds of feet deep and are often hidden by a fragile layer of snow known as a “snow bridge,” which can be very difficult to spot. If you unknowingly cross a snow bridge, it may collapse under your weight, dropping you into the crevasse.

We plan to do our best to avoid crevasses in the first place. Our team includes two professional field guides, Cece and Blair, who will scout all our sites and travel routes before we use them for science. That has been done as much as possible already using high-resolution satellite imagery. Once our advance team gets to WAIS Divide, they will go out on one or two reconnaissance (“recce”) flights to inspect our sites from the air. If it’s safe, the pilot will land, and Cece, Blair, and our team member Martin will run radar to double-check that there aren’t bottom crevasses in our camp location that could disrupt the drilling operations. Once the team gets to the field, Cece and Blair will travel the routes we plan to take and use flags to mark areas that are safe and indicate hazards to avoid.

Proving routes in this way is incredibly valuable and raises our margin of safety greatly, but we will be in a rapidly changing environment, and new crevasses can open or be uncovered during our time in the field. We will ensure that our campsite is in a spot that is really, really safe, so there’s no problem walking around there without extra precautions. Anytime we move outside of camp, however, we will used roped travel, whether that’s on a snowmobile, on foot, or by ski. In this system, everyone wears climbing harnesses, and attaches their harnesses to knots in a long rope connecting the party. Each member of the team is spaced out a good ways – our foot/ski ropes will have a 15-meter spacing between people, and the snowmobile rope teams will have a longer spacing. The idea is that if someone breaks through a snow bridge, the other people on the team will be able to catch them on the rope. When we did our crevasse rescue training in the field last week, part of what we did was learn how to properly lay out ropes for travel, tie the right knots, and clip in securely.

Blair sets up knots in one of the ropes that we will use in the field for roped snowmobile travel

Once a person falls into a crevasse and is caught by the rope, there are lots of options for getting that person out. Assuming the person is conscious and can communicate, the team can start by just trying to walk away from the crevasse and haul them out. It’s really important to communicate, however, because sometimes crevasses have overhangs that the person can get crushed under as the team hauls them out. If the person can’t communicate (perhaps they’re just too far away to hear), or if the team isn’t strong enough or the footing not solid enough to haul the person out by walking, there are a bunch of options.

First, the person in the crevasse will be connected to the rope with two smaller looped cords, attached with a knot called a Prusik hitch. This hitch can slide up the rope easily when not under tension, but holds tight when weighted. One of those Prusiks is attached to the waist of the harness, and the other is attached beneath it and has another loop tied in it that goes around the foot. If the person in the crevasse is able, they will stand up on the foot Prusik and move the waist Prusik up the rope. Then they put their weight on the waist Prusik and move the foot Prusik up, continuing that way until they can wriggle up over the edge of the crevasse.

Me practicing using Prusik hitches to move up and down a rope during our indoor rope training, while field guide Blair watches and gives me instructions

If the person in the crevasse is unconscious or unable to move up the rope on their own, the team up above needs to set up a pulley system to get them to the top. The first thing that has to be done is to make it so the team isn’t having to use their weight to keep the person in the crevasse from falling. This involves digging a snow anchor, in which some sort of stable object, such as a shovel, ice axe, or a piece of metal that has been designed to be a strong snow anchor, is buried a foot or two deep in the snow and rigged so it can be attached to the climbing rope that the person in the crevasse is on. Once the snow anchor has the person’s weight, the rest of the rope team have more freedom to move around to build a pulley system, get another team member down into the crevasse to help the person if necessary, lower another rope to the person in the crevasse, etc. Exactly which technique is used depends strongly on the individual situation. Fortunately, either Cece or Blair will be with every team working outside of camp, so they will be there to make technical decisions and give directions if a crevasse rescue is necessary.

Blair (right) helps Atsu and Doug rig a pulley system that can be used to get a teammate out of a crevasse

These techniques were all brand new to me. We practiced much of the rope work indoors first (I arrived in McMurdo at 3:30 in the morning and indoor rope training started that day at 8 am. I was a bit late, but I did make it!). The day after our indoor training, we spent the whole day out on the ice shelf where a bulldozer had been used to dig a large simulated crevasse. It was really valuable to practice the same skills we learned indoors in an outdoor setting – everything gets harder when you’re wearing gloves and your rope is digging into the snow.

Cece (top) helps Ted with some advanced crevasse rescue techniques in the bulldozed “crevasse”

We don’t expect to need any of our crevasse rescue skills; we intend to avoid crevasses in the first place. But we also need to be prepared in case we need to act in an emergency situation!

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Posts from Antarctica: Staying Safe in the Field Part 1 – Staying Warm

Before I dive into the current topic, a quick update on our logistics: Our advance team was supposed to fly out on Wednesday, November 27, but between bad weather at WAIS Divide and the holiday weekend, they are now officially delayed until Monday, December 2nd. Once they get out to the camp at WAIS Divide, they will run reconnaissance flights (“recce flights”) from there to scout the site and start putting in our first field camp on Thwaites Glacier. The rest of our team will follow to get in position at WAIS Divide, probably in stages. My guess is I’ll be listed on a flight that’s aiming to leave for WAIS Divide sometime in the middle of next week; it’s highly unlikely that we’d leave as early as Monday (the day all of us who aren’t on the advance team were originally hoping to fly), and we could get out as late as who-knows-when, depending on weather. That’s all to say: Expect several blog posts over the next few days, since I should still have relatively reliable internet as long as we’re in McMurdo. Things will get much spottier and less verbose (and with fewer pictures) once we move to the deep field!

Now on to the topic at hand: staying safe in the field…

Antarctica is not a forgiving continent. Staying safe in the field requires careful advance planning, a detailed understanding of the terrain, constant vigilance to catch changes in surface conditions, close attention to weather observations, and plans for every contingency. The mortality rate of Antarctica’s earliest visitors was harrowingly high, but modern scientific expeditions are very safe. However, that safety is only achieved by hard work before and during the field season.

Our time in McMurdo has two main purposes: prepare our science and cargo for the field, and prepare ourselves for the field. Preparing our science and cargo for the field would make for a pretty mundane blog post (it involves many hours of testing, labeling, spreadsheets, and packing), but I thought you might find it interesting to know how we prepare ourselves for the field. This is a big topic, so this will be the first in a series of posts on staying safe in the field (which may or may not be posted consecutively). I’ll talk here about staying warm, and in later posts I’ll cover how we train for the field and what sort of communications and emergency responses we have available.

One of the most important aspects of staying safe in the field is staying warm. Everyone who comes to Antarctica with the US Antarctic Program (USAP) is directed to bring our own base layers (the technical name for long underwear), which are typically wool, silk, or synthetic lightweight layers that are worn as the first layer beneath many. These layers are good at wicking moisture away from the skin, keeping us relatively dry and warm. We also have to bring our own socks. I like to wear a pair of silk liner socks under heavyweight wool socks.

After base layers, we move onto mid-layers. USAP provides some of these at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) in Christchurch, and typically people bring some of their own, as well. I usually wear a pair of fleece pants over my base layer, as well as one or two light-to-midweight fleece tops. Sometimes I’ll swap a fleece for a lightweight down jacket. Whenever possible I choose mid-layers that have hoods, as these can be pulled over or under hats while keeping drafts off my neck.

Wearing the USAP-issued parka, “Big Red.”

USAP supplies most of our outerwear. We’re provided with seriously warm boots, waterproof snow pants, and the iconic big, cozy parka known as “Big Red.” They also provide us with thin liner gloves, insulated leather work gloves, mittens, goggles, a hat, a balaclava, and a neck gaiter. I was pleased to note that most of the issued gear fits me fairly well; in the past, USAP gear was limited to men’s sizes, and women (especially small women) often found outfitting at the CDC to be challenging. My waterproof pants and fleece mid-layer are definitely a bit big but wearable, and the proportions of Big Red make working in the parka difficult for just about everyone, but especially for smaller individuals (if it’s not too terribly cold, I’ll switch to wearing a smaller down coat I brought myself; many people bring their own outerwear that’s a little easier to work in) . The biggest problem for me is that the smallest work glove size is too large for me, making working in those nearly impossible. Fortunately I brought a few pairs of my own gloves.

I like to wear silk liner gloves under relatively thin work gloves, and I keep mittens in my pockets to warm up my hands when I don’t need the dexterity of gloves. I wear a neck gaiter – just a wide, stretchy loop of fabric that goes around my neck, like a compact scarf – which I can pull up over my mouth and nose when the cold or wind are too much. I tend to wear one relatively lightweight hat and use my hoods for extra warmth. With 24-hour sunlight and a highly reflective snow surface, eye protection is very, very important; I have a pair of glacier glasses with adaptive polarized lenses that do a really excellent job toning down the brightness, and I also plan to always carry my USAP-issued tinted goggles that can cover more of the area around my eyes if it is too cold or windy.

All the clothing I’ll wear on a typical day in the field

Having the right clothing is vital to staying warm, but just wearing the gear is not enough. It’s really important to dress in layers and to proactively add and remove layers as needed. Just as getting too cold is a problem, getting too warm and sweaty makes your clothing damp, cooling things down quickly if you stop moving or if the temperature drops. It takes some practice to figure out which layers work best for you and for the weather conditions, and adjustments have to be made throughout the day as weather changes. Rather than adding more clothing to get warmer, sometimes it’s more important to start moving, or to eat or drink something calorie-dense; your body can’t produce enough heat without calories for energy, and typically it’s important to eat many more calories than normal to keep your body warm in a cold environment (i.e. we eat a LOT of chocolate). When needed, we also use external heat sources; in particular, we sometimes use instant hand and toe warmers in our gloves and boots, and will fill our thermoses and Nalgene water bottles with boiling water for hot drinks and for hot water bottles that act as a temporary heat source.

USAP also provides our camping equipment. We have several types of tents, which I hope to talk about in later posts. One of the most important aspects of staying warm at night is having insulation between the ground and your sleeping bag. Sleeping bags keep you warm primarily through the insulating effects of air trapped by the down or synthetic insulation. Underneath your body, the air is squished out of the sleeping bag, so that’s often where the most heat is lost. USAP provides both a foam sleeping mat and an inflatable sleeping mat, which are stacked on top of each other under the sleeping bag. The sleeping bags themselves are large and warm, and we typically use a fleece or synthetic sleeping bag liner or two to fill in some of the space inside the sleeping bag, or an extra bag over the top to make the whole system warmer. Depending on the temperature and the warmth of the sleeping bag and the temperature of the night, I might sleep in just my base layers, or I may add layers as necessary. I also often wear booties with down insulation in the tent and in in my sleeping bag to keep my feet warm (hot water bottles help with this, too!). We use “mummy bags,” which are sleeping bags that are narrower near the feet to keep them warmer, and have a hood that can be cinched in on cold nights so only your nose sticks out.

The result of all this is that, although it’s common to get cold from time to time throughout the day, there’s usually no excuse for staying cold. You add layers, use external heat sources, eat something, and start moving. It’s a lot of effort and requires a lot of practice and management, but we’re typically relatively warm and comfortable in the field.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you back in the US!

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Posts from Antarctica: Antarctic transportation

Antarctica is arguably the world’s most remote landmass. There are no human native Antarcticans; by the time homo sapiens emerged, Antarctica had long-since drifted south, been isolated by the Southern Ocean, and grown an ice sheet. Captain James Cook came close to Antarctica in the late 1700s, but did not catch sight of the ice sheet; it wasn’t until the 1800s that explorers and sealers began to map the waters around Antarctica and first set foot on the continent.

Although our transportation technologies have developed significantly in the past two centuries, Antarctica remains a remote and difficult place to get to. It’s also difficult to travel within Antarctica. I thought I’d tell you a bit about my journey down here, and share a few pictures of some of the vehicles that are used at McMurdo and across Antarctica.

The LC-130 on skis that brought us to McMurdo

Most trips to Antarctica start in the familiar commercial airline system. I flew from Cleveland to Houston, and after a long layover, from Houston to Auckland on the North Island of New Zealand. In Auckland I retrieved my luggage and cleared customs before checking back in for one more short flight to Christchurch on the South Island. National Science Foundation (NSF) representatives met me and a dozen other Antarctic travelers at the airport, gave us hotel and scheduling information, and put us on a shuttle. After nearly 40 hours of travel, I was very grateful to have a day or two to adjust to the new time zone (Christchurch is 18 hours ahead of US eastern time; McMurdo, and all US field teams, keep Christchurch time while in Antarctica in the summer).

The next morning we were taken to the NSF Clothing Distribution Center (CDC), where we were issued our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. (I hope to talk more about clothing and staying warm in Antarctica in a future post.) We were told that both the C-17s, flown by the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York National Guard to move people and cargo to polar regions, were out of commission, so there was a 99% chance we wouldn’t be flying to the ice the next day. We all settled in to enjoy Christchurch for a couple days. I highly recommend the botanic gardens, if you ever have the chance to visit.

Inside the LC-130 on the way to McMurdo

At breakfast the next morning I was surprised with the news that a flight was going that evening, so I packed up my gear, checked out of the hotel, and enjoyed one more beautiful warm day in the city. That afternoon a shuttle took us back to the CDC, where we checked in all our gear and boarded one of the National Guard’s LC-130s. These are also used to move people and cargo to McMurdo, but are much slower, smaller, and louder than the C-17s, so they’re not the most desirable aircraft. There are only 10 LC-130s in the world, and each are equipped with huge retractable skis, so they can land on both conventional and snow runways. Our flight to McMurdo left around 7 pm and took 8 hours (it takes about 5 hours on a C-17). We were very tired when we landed in McMurdo around 3 in the morning. 24-hour sunlight this time of year means that we had no trouble finding our shuttles, which took us to McMurdo station and our dorm rooms for a few hours of sleep.

I’ll talk in more detail about the trainings we’ve had in a separate post, but along with the C-130s and C-17s, I wanted to mention a few more methods of transportation that are used in McMurdo and on the ice sheet.

A big-wheeled van common in McMurdo

To get around town (McMurdo has a population of approximately 1,000 in the summer, so it really is a town!), vans and trucks modified with very large wheels are used. McMurdo is full of volcanically-derived dust and mud that tend to make everything dirty and necessitate big wheels. Large-wheeled vehicles are also used to distribute pressure from the vehicles that drive out onto the seasonal sea ice and the permanent ice shelves in the area. Vehicles that carry a lot of gear often have tracks rather than wheels for extra traction.

The tracked Hägglund vehicle used to haul our gear

Two of the most unusual vehicles I’ve encountered are the Hägglund and the Delta. The Hägglund is a Swedish vehicle, first developed in the 70s, which has two compartments on tracks and can be used for hauling people and gear. If you ever visit the International Antarctic Center in Christchurch, you can take a ride in a Hägglund. We used them on our outdoor crevasse rescue training day and our overnight camp shakedown (more posts to come!) to carry gear out to our sites on the ice shelf.

The low-pressure Delta vehicle that brought us to and from our overnight camp on the McMurdo Ice Shelf

The Delta is a low-pressure vehicle originally designed for use in oil fields on the delicate Arctic tundra. Although these vehicles look anything but delicate, the huge wheels spread out their weight so that no single point beneath them is subjected to damaging pressures, making them actually very gentle on the surfaces they drive on. We rode in a Delta to and from our overnight shakedown out on the ice shelf a couple days ago.

A snowmobile similar to the ones that we will use at our field sites

Over the next week or two, our team will begin moving to the deep field. If the weather holds, our advance team (I’m on the later team) will fly tomorrow to a camp called WAIS Divide on an LC-130. From there they will move to smaller Twin Otter aircraft to begin setting up camp on the floating tongue of Thwaites Glacier. Setting up a large polar science camp, with heavy tents, generators, drilling equipment, safety gear, etc. takes many flights and many days of work. While on the ice sheet, we will move by snowmobile, ski, and on foot to manage logistics and carry out our research.

Reminders of the remoteness and harshness of this continent are constant in McMurdo. The unusual vehicles are one of those reminders. It’s worth remembering that the science we do here is only possible thanks to the hard work of hundreds of people – the Air National Guard, pilots, heavy equipment operators, fuel specialists, firemen, and many more that work very hard to deliver and manage the equipment we need.

Our team riding in the back of the Delta vehicle

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Posts from Antarctica: Intro to the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration and the TARSAN project


Greetings from McMurdo Station, Antarctica! For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Karen Alley and I’m a visiting assistant professor in the College of Wooster Department of Earth Sciences. I’m a glaciologist and a remote sensor, which means that I study ice sheets and glaciers mainly using satellite imagery. Most of my work has focused on the interactions between the floating parts of ice sheets, known as ice shelves, and the ocean beneath.

I’m in Antarctica as part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC; www.thwaitesglacier.org). Our team is TARSAN (Thwaites and Amundsen Regional Survey and Network). In a couple weeks we’ll be heading out first to the floating tongue of Thwaites Glacier and then to the Dotson Ice Shelf. I should be able to share a few blog posts while I’m at McMurdo, and I might even be able to get some text out from the deep field, if our satellite uplink works. I hope to share with you information about our research and about living and working in Antarctica. If I can’t get posts through from the deep field, I’ll at least be able to share some info when I return in February.

For now, I wanted to provide an introduction to the ITGC and our team’s role in that project.

Let’s start with the big picture. We study the world’s ice sheets and glaciers for many reasons, but one of the most globally important reasons is to understand rates of sea-level rise. Greenland holds about 23 feet of equivalent sea level. That means that if all of the ice in Greenland melted, every ocean in the world would rise 23 feet. I spend my life studying this stuff, and I still have a difficult time imagining those numbers. Just Greenland, a relatively small landmass, has enough ice piled on top to raise every single bit of ocean in the world 23 feet.

Antarctica, on the other hand, holds about 187 feet of equivalent sea level.

Now, that being said, we’re not in any danger of melting all the ice in Greenland and Antarctica, so we’re not worried about 200+ feet of sea-level rise coming anytime soon. However, those very large numbers mean that melting even a small percentage of Greenland and Antarctica has big consequences, since millions of people in the world live within just a few feet of sea level.

So, to understand sea-level rise, we have to understand what the ice sheets are going to do as the world warms. Since the ice sheets are huge, we focus on the parts of the ice sheets that are most likely to change and that hold enough ice to significantly impact global sea-level. Thwaites Glacier is at the top of the list.

Thwaites Glacier, which is the name of a fast-flowing, Florida-sized portion of West Antarctica that dumps a whole lot of ice into the ocean, is arguably the most important glacier in Antarctica. It is thinning, retreating, and increasing ice discharge rapidly, and it holds back much of the ice in West Antarctica. (Antarctica is often divided up into West Antarctica, East Antarctica, and the Antarctic Peninsula. West Antarctica is the piece of the ice sheet that sits deepest below sea level, which makes it most likely to respond to rising ocean temperatures.)

Recent work (e.g. this paper or this one) suggests that Thwaites Glacier isn’t stable. Over the next few hundred years, it is likely to melt back and break apart piece by piece, releasing west Antarctica’s ice and raising sea levels by 10 feet or so. As a scientific community, we need to find out whether it’s true that Thwaites is slowly collapsing, estimate how much and how fast sea-level rise will occur, and constrain the processes leading to this collapse in order to predict how similar patterns might progress in other parts of Antarctica and Greenland. The ITGC is an effort between the US and the UK to answer some of these pressing questions. Eight teams are examining ice flow patterns, sediment cores that tell us the history of the glacier, ocean characteristics, sub-ice-shelf bed topography, grounding-line (where the glacier goes from sitting on land to floating) dynamics, basal melt rates, surface accumulation patterns, computer models predicting the glacier’s future, and more.

Our team is split into two groups. One group is doing ship-based measurements of ocean conditions near Thwaites. The group I’m in will be on the floating part of Thwaites Glacier, and later on the nearby Dotson Ice Shelf. We intend to use seismic surveys to study the ocean and the bed beneath the floating ice shelves, radar to look at details of accumulation and change within the ice itself, and a hot-water drill to drill through the ice shelves and place instruments in the ocean underneath. We want to know more about the details of the interactions between the ice shelves and the ocean beneath, and to pinpoint the circulation patterns that are leading to melting at Thwaites. Much of the relatively warm water reaching the Thwaites grounding line may travel beneath Dotson, so our group and the ship-based group will provide a slightly larger context for understanding changes at Thwaites.

For now we’re completing safety trainings and equipment preparation at McMurdo, and crossing our fingers that weather and logistics hold to allow us to collect plenty of data. I’ll share some info about those trainings and preparations in a later post or two!

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