Monday, January 18, 2010

heading north

It is again time to depart the ice... Not an easy thing to do, but you look forward to it at the same time... I knew this day was coming soon when I turned in my P-bottle last week... You see, we cannot go to the bathroom wherever we want down here - any inch of ground could be important to someone else's studies. So, we have to carry a 1 liter plastic bottle in which we collect our urine if we have to "go" while we are working outside. Turning that bottle in (after you wash it very thoroughly) means that you are not heading back out to the field again.

I have not been able to upload any images in the past few days, so I will try to get another post with some images from Antarctica uploaded when I get to New Zealand. Preview: it will be about the colors of Antarctica - watch for it!

The flight we take to get back to New Zealand is on its way from Christchurch now and it looks to be pretty full. It includes several "DVs" (Distinguished Visitors) - two of which are Arden Bement (Director of the National Science Foundation) and Karl Erb (Director of the Office of Polar Programs of NSF) - very important folks to those of us seeking funds from NSF! Current DVs on station now include Sir David Attenborough, the famous naturalist and documentary narrator. He is often watched wherever he goes.

Northward!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

colors of Antarctica

As you have seen in the pictures I have posted previously, there is very little in the way of color (or 'colour') variety across the Antarctic landscape. We have lots of white..
Iceburg stuck in the seasonal ice, McMurdo Sound
lots of gray and brown...
Commonwealth Glacier, Lower Taylor Valley

and if it is a nice day, some blue above...
Lake Fryxell and Canada Glacier, Taylor Valley

However, what has caught our attention more and more is the changing of the 'light brown' soils to dark brown, where they are obviously becoming wet. We see this around lakes and streams all of the time:
Priscu Stream entering Lake Bonney, note the dark, wet soils around both water bodies.

But we are now seeing it in places that do not have obvious water sources (snow, lakes, streams, etc.). This is a strong indication of the melting of ground ice and permafrost in the McMurdo Dry Valleys:
South shore of Lake Hoare

These wetted spots across the landscape are indicative of a strong change in the Dry Valleys ecosystem that we look forward to studying for years to come.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

last few days in the field

This has been a tremendously successful field season. Despite the weather and some of the other challenges, we have really had a terrific season. All of our scientific goals have been achieved. Now we just need to wait for the snow to accumulate again this winter!

In the last few days of field work, we saw some interesting things... This halo in the sky is one.
We also see many interesting rocks. I am a terrible geologist, so I will not try to identify the minerals, but you can see some of the interesting ways in which rocks physically breakdown (i.e. "weather") here. Through many, many freeze-thaw cycles, rocks will often split into several pieces - they often look as if they had been sliced.
This is an artsy picture... We found this large boulder with two hollowed-out cavities in it and thought it looked a bit like a skull of some kind. So, we added to large white balls that we had with us for lidar work, and now it is art!This is the F-6 field camp. It has been improved significantly since I came here 11 years ago as a graduate student.
It is now a 2-room hut with skylights and nice windows. There is a lot of storage in the built-in bins and cabinets outside of the hut. I spent one night out here this past week and enjoyed reminiscing about my previous years in this spot...

Monday, January 11, 2010

boating season...

Well, it's now officially boating season in the McMurdo sound area. The ice breaker "Oden", a Swedish vessel, arrived at the edge of the seasonal ice pack on 08 January. It has successfully broken a channel through the ice all the way to McMurdo as of this morning. The US Coast Guard has two ice breakers - the Polar Sea and the Polar Star. At the moment, only one is functional and it is tasked with missions in the north this year (I believe). The National Science Foundation has therefore contracted with the owners of the Oden to provide access to McMurdo station.

The 'dock' that we use here is just a thick ice pad that has soil spread across it. Below you can see the Oden backing into the docking area.
The channel through the pack ice is used later this month by two more ships (ships that cannot break ice) - one is a cargo/resupply ship and the other is a ship carrying fuel resupply. The cargo ship will bring building materials and other cargo to McMurdo station, and it will also haul out with it all of our waste and many scientific samples that will be kept frozen on their way to Port Hueneme, California.

Below is a picture of my box of frozen water samples to come back to Penn State. It is in one of 8 environmental rooms in which the temperature is carefully controlled (from -20 degrees C, to -4 degrees C to +4 degrees C). These samples will get put on the vessel and travel to the US on the cargo ship then they will be driven to Penn State by a shipping company that has freezer trucks.
Our waste is separated very carefully. We have something like 10 different waste streams and we must put each item we 'throw away' into the proper bin. Some waste streams are recycled, some are burned, and some are handled very carefully - like food waste, which is carefully sealed so that when the cargo ship crosses the equator, no one gets sick from the rotting food! Much of our waste is returned to the US by the cargo ship for final disposal.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

time lapse from the Dry Valleys

Here is about a 3 week time lapse from one of our field plots. Pretty interesting to put the whole time series together...



Also available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNHx1jd6E60

Friday, January 8, 2010

how we get to work in the morning...

Once you fly in a helicopter to work, nothing else really compares! Dave and I flew from Lake Hoare camp to our field site in another lake basin today and had a long day working hard to install sensors in the soil.
video
We will monitor temperature and moisture around locations where we know that snowpacks were in place last month. We expect them there again and when they disappear, we will be able to monitor any melt that gets into the soil. Our dataloggers will record readings from the sensors every 30 minutes from here on out (through the harsh winter as well!).

The fate of snow important because we have such a dry environment that we see most snow disappear quickly from the ground when it snows in the summer (like the snow you saw in my last post). The snowpacks we are studying build up over the winter though and are deeper and more persistent. We expect that much of this snow sublimates (goes from solid ice to vapor) rather than melting. Our study will quantify this in a few ways for the first time in the Dry Valleys.

We are also setting out LARGE tarps (20 ft x 40 ft) to collect snow. Next year when the snow disappears, we will see how much melts and runs along the tarp into a rainfall measuring device, and how much is there to begin with. The difference is the amount that sublimates. Below is the one that Dave and I set out today. On the far boulder there, we had a timelapse camera set up for the past month or so. We will retrieve those images next week. In the mean time, I will be trying to upload our other timelapse movies from other sites onto YouTube. I will update the blog with links when I get them up.
We got picked up by 3-6-Hotel (the helicopter that dropped us off) around 3:30 pm and then made it back to McMurdo to catch up with Kevin and Adam. We are now all showered and well-fed. Great week for science despite the weather!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

good but cold days in the field

We awoke to more snow this morning... This is my tent. Around 5 AM I heard the characteristic shush.... shush... of snow sliding off of my tent. I knew what I would see outside.I know it sounds strange to complain about snow in Antarctica, but in the Dry Valleys, the amount of snow in we have had in the last two weeks or so is uncommon.

Yesterday was a good one, but we didn't get everything completed we had planned. We flew by helicopter from Lake Hoare camp to some field sites we are studying in the Wright Valley, about 20 minutes to the north. It was a cold, cloudy, and windy day. We sampled soils for later analysis of the chemistry of the soil and for the genetic material of the microbes in the soils. We had planned to visit more sites, but the weather became poor and we just barely got back to our field camp. The helicopter crew (Paul, the pilot and Ali the helo tech) were stuck here overnight as the weather was too poor for them to fly after dropping us off. We made the best of the next morning as Paul, Greg (both pilots) and I made a large breakfast for 15 folks! (30 eggs, 1 zucchini, 1 tomato, 1 onion, large handful of mushrooms, handful of fresh basil and some tater tots and hashbrowns). It was terrific!

More weather delays today kept 2 helicopters here through mid-afternoon today until the weather cleared some. Our group decided to walk across Lake Hoare to our field sites to install some monitoring equipment and conduct careful lidar scans of the locations of the snow patches that had been in place a few weeks ago (now gone). Our monitoring equipment will measure soil moisture (liquid water in the soil), soil temperature, and the pressure of water in the soils. Our lidar scans are special scans of the ground that give us a high resolution image of the soil surface. We did these a few weeks ago with the snow in place so that we can estimate the volume of the snow that was there.The day was chilly and we had snow on and off. As you can see below, the lake ice is quite uneven right now. It has lots of pockets and hollow spots that can crumble under your feet at any moment - some steps are solid, some sound hollow... We left came around 10 AM and got back around 8 PM - motivated by the promise of Indian food for dinner!
Here's to being one day closer to better weather!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

more snow, but we got out of 'town' anyway...

Yesterday we awoke to a windy snow storm in McMurdo. That was discouraging because we were supposed to fly to our field sites... We spent the day in McMurdo hoping for clearing weather that never came.

This morning we awoke to another snowy morning, but this time we had big fluffly flakes and little wind. We were discouraged again. The helicopter schedule was delayed and we had all resigned ourselves to another day in 'town'. Then, around 9 AM, the weather broke in the direction of the Dry Valleys and we were able to head out!

The Dry Valleys is a region of Antarctica that is mostly free of ice, though there are still glaciers that come down into the valley sides and floors. Also on the floors of these valleys are several ice-covered lakes. Some of the lakes are more than 60 feet deep with ice covers that are 10-15 feet thick.

Below is an image of Taylor Valley, where you can see glaciers with meltwater streams feeding Lake Bonney.
We fly on helicopters to go from McMurdo base to our field camps and field sites in the Dry Valleys.
Above is an A-Star helicopter, which has great range and limited payload. We were a group of 5 people and LOTS of gear, so we flew a 212 today (see below). This is a big helicopter that can carry lots of weight - we had it full of our field gear...
Today was great - we visited a very special place in the Dry Valleys call the Labyrinth. It is an area that has lots of steep narrow canyons that was formed by a large lake that was under a glacier many years ago. Now we see some little isolated ponds here and there (ice covered). We came to study our snow packs at this site and collect samples from the ponds. Because of the weather, we could only stay for 4 hours. We got plenty done though. This is a pretty cold part of the Dry Valleys, so we wear our 'big red' parkas when we work here.
Finally - if you get a chance, check out http://elise-on-ice.blogspot.com - a blog by a visiting artist. She has a terrific video posted of penguins on the ice edge: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-_9EWYAbbI.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Grounded by snow - oh the irony!

We came to Antarctica to study snow, but now it is snow that is keeping us from doing our research! We are grounded today because of a snowstorm that blew in overnight. If the helicopter pilots cannot see the ground, they cannot make a safe landing. So, no flying when visibility is low. You can see in this picture of the grounded helicopters that the snow does not fall and blanket the landscape. We generally get wind when snow falls here, so it collects behind rocks and ridges. This is the same thing we will be studying in the Dry Valleys, which is about 1 hr away by helicopter (when we can fly...).

Luckily there are plenty of things we can do to remain constructive and busy... Here's one (besides writing papers, lectures and homework assignments) - in the marine labs there is a touch pool where visitors can reach in and touch some of the animals from the local marine habitats (yes, under the ice!).
Here's to hoping for better weather tomorrow!