We have landed

Elizabeth fills us in on her travels and arrival in Antarctica.

The last several days have felt much longer than a week. A lot has happened. I packed my bags and then made the long haul to Christchurch, New Zealand. There I was issued my ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear at the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) before the final deployment by the US Antarctic Program. If you are heading to McMurdo from the U.S., then you traveled the same path as everyone else. Your flight agenda took you from Los Angeles, CA, to Auckland, New Zealand, to Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. We left the 16th from Santa Barbara and arrived to McMurdo on the 20th for an arrival briefing at the Chalet. We are officially here.

International Antarctic Center in Christchurch
International Antarctic Center in Christchurch
View over Northern Victoria Land
View over Northern Victoria Land
The edge of the Ross Icehself from the flight south to McMurdo Station
The edge of the Ross Icehself from the flight south to McMurdo Station

Antarctica is one of the coldest and most remote places, and it is incredible to be here. I snapped a few in-flight photos of my first views of this beautiful continent. Our flight path took us across northern Victoria Land, the region of my current research focused on the petrochronology and geochemistry of Ross Orogen magmatism. Right away you can see how challenging this environment is for field studies, with the majority of all surface area covered in snow and ice. We were lucky enough to make the four-hour flight via Boeing 757 operated by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Christchurch to McMurdo is approximately 4,000 kilometers. That is a similar distance to the entire length of the Transantarctic Mountains.


Stepping off the plane to my first view of Antarctica
Stepping off the plane to my first view of Antarctica


Elizabeth just after landing in Antarctica
Elizabeth just after landing in Antarctica

Since arriving, my days have been full of safety trainings, briefings for all field equipment and operations, and triple checking of our RSP (Research Support Plan). The RSP includes every aspect of logistics for our field season, from air support to scientific services to equipment and food allocations. It is incredible to know that there is an entire base at McMurdo to enable the research that will come from our sample collection. Each year NSF funds approximately 50 scientific projects on Antarctica. These highly collaborative projects are tasked to expand the fundamental knowledge of the region as well as undertake projects reliant on unique characteristics specific to the Antarctic continent. From my brief observations, this translates to an incredibly organized community of highly intelligent and motivated individuals ranging across both the staff and research grantees. This is truly an incredibly opportunity that I am fortunate to be a part of. ~ Elizabeth

The Antarctic Summer

A wire-frame art ode to the killer whale, the namesake for Killer Ridge (which John and Demian visited) and probably what the seals in the last picture were hiding from. We saw no live ones, sadly.
A wire-frame art ode to the killer whale, the namesake for Killer Ridge (which John and Demian visited) and probably what the seals in the last picture were hiding from. We saw no live ones, sadly.

McMurdo Base is a very different place from when we left for the field, the most noticeable thing being that it’s about as dry as the Dry Valleys now: the snow is all gone. Two different trips to Hut Point Peninsula, one taken before and one after our time in the Dry Valleys, did a nice job of demonstrating the difference klicka. The first time, I was bundled up in a wool hat and my ECW-issue parka, there was no sign of life, and it was so windy up near Vince’s Cross that my phone froze within seconds. This time, there was hardly any wind, I was able to pull out my phone (as a camera) with no trouble and had to shed down to a t-shirt at one point, and a large population of Weddell Seals had made it their new hang-out, giving me my first look at live members of the species whose mummified corpses had been an eerie fixture of our field season, as one of Rob’s posts will tell you.

It’s likely that I’ll leave Antarctica without ever seeing any penguins, though; the Emperor Penguin rookery filmed in March of the Penguins is in fact on the other side of Ross Island, not on the continent itself (as some people think), and there are a decent number of Adélie penguins on the island, too, but given the amount of ship traffic and the number of seals taking advantage of the pressure ridges and weakened sea ice around McMurdo, I’d imagine that they don’t especially like hanging around here. On the other hand, I’ve seen skuas aplenty; I came across one sitting in the trail as I was walking up it, completely unfazed and completely unafraid of my presence. There’s a reason that the disposal site for good but unwanted items at McMurdo (a handy system that gained me a new pair of pants once one of mine ripped) is called the “Skua Bin:” they steal from people largely because they have no fear of them, at this point. As I walked from Hut Point up towards the hills behind the base and eventually back down to it, I saw several more of them bathing themselves in the newly-melted ponds dotting the landscape.




Some of the Weddell seals enjoying a laze-about near Hut Point.
Some of the Weddell seals enjoying a laze-about near Hut Point.

The Dry Valleys themselves didn’t seem to change much over the course of the field season, feeling even more like a time capsule than I suggested in one of my earlier posts, although it did become noticeably balmier as time went along. The ice at the shore of Lake Buddha retreated from our camp along the shore, and Rob spotted several colonies of black, scraggly moss struggling to survive in semi-sheltered spots, the only plant or fungi besides the occasional crusty black lichen we ever saw. On our second-to-last day, I was hiking behind Rob on our return from the Altiplano, an elevated flatland similar to the South American region of the same name and laden with dikes, and passing a small lake located at a small mountain pass named “The Keyhole” for its shape and for the difficulty seeing it, except at a few angles , when I thought I saw him throwing his hat in the air. It turned out that there was a bird flying over his head, and that I was so used to the lack of animal life that I hadn’t immediately guessed what it was. It turned out to be a skua, wandering far afield, and when I later logged this into eBird (with my friend Carlos’ help) I learned that no skua had ever been logged this far south, some anecdotal accounts of their being seen at South Pole Station aside.


This wasn’t really an ornithology expedition, of course, and that was just a rather nice side product of a trip that’s otherwise had a pretty good yield, geology wise. Even as it got warmer, we had a streak of especially windy days during our last week, testing our resilience somewhat, yet for every bad, windy day, such as a trip to Renegar Glacier that yielded no samples whatsoever, we had days where the abundance of lamprophyres, the most we’d ever seen in one area, made up for what appeared to be the god Aeolus (of Odyssey fame) throwing a temper tantrum. Even as we approach the summer solstice, Antarctica is still Antarctica, and bad weather days will be ugly, but the scientific rewards make up for that.

~Nick for the Antarctica360 team

A very different and ice-free McMurdo base, taken from the Hut Point Trail.
A very different and ice-free McMurdo base, taken from the Hut Point Trail.
From Rucker Ridge, with Mt. Discovery visible in the background.
From Rucker Ridge, with Mt. Discovery visible in the background.

Ready to roll…

Demian, Nick and Robert have just arrived at McMurdo Station. They’ll update us soon on their travels. I leave tomorrow for Christchurch, so it is finally time to pack and organize all my gear. Here’s a photo of all the stuff I’m taking. The Antarctic program provides most of the clothing we need, especially the extreme cold weather gear, but it’s always nice to have your own boots that are worn in and thermal underwear that belongs just to you! — John

Here it is all laid out (click the picture for a larger version):


and… with some assistance I’m ready to go!IMG_1921




When in Christchurch: Lolly cake and male modeling

IMG_3557 After 31 hours of movies, drug-induced sleep, and caffeine-induced wakefulness we finally made it to Christchurch via Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and Sydney. The flights were surprisingly painless: only one 30-minute delay and no lost baggage. On top of that, my row wasn’t full on the 14-hour Los Angeles-to-Sydney flight so I got an extra pillow and plenty of space to spread out my things. The only hiccup occurred at NZ customs, where my juggling balls were confiscated (they were filled with millet)… Once through customs we were greeted by ASC staff and quickly sent to our hotel where we appreciated some hot showers (take ‘em while we still can!), before walking around in search of dinner and some beer. The following morning we went to a café down the street for some coffee and lolly cake, which was one of the few things John said I MUST have while in New Zealand. For those of you unfamiliar with lolly cake (lolly=candy), it is a dense chocolate-coconut cake packed with colorful, stale marshmallows. I suspect that it was created by a devious dentist who was starting to lose business, because I’m pretty sure I got a cavity just from looking at it.

20151022_074429After breakfast we headed over to the Antarctica Center to get outfitted in our extreme-cold-weather (ECW) gear and be briefed for our flight to McMurdo station tomorrow. Someone in Denver missed a stroke on the keyboard and my clothing form said that I was 5’1” instead of 5’10”. After getting the right sized gear and wanting to keep the tradition started by former Antarctica360 PhD students Graham and Forrest, we naturally had to do a photo shoot showing off how good we looked.

Thoughts On Antarctic Showers

IMG_3525I went shopping for my Antarctic shower today. I found the various types stacked in cardboard boxes next to the baby diapers in an aisle of Costco I had never been down. I weighed my options and decided on Kirkland Brand Moist Flushable Wipes, Enhanced Cleansing & Freshness—Ultra Soft. Most people probably don’t consider that five weeks of deep-field work in Antarctica won’t involve running water. The closest thing to a hot shower we’ll get will be a handful of moist towelettes that will never meet their “Flushable” purpose. Preparation for geologic fieldwork in Antarctica is a series of odd purchases and tedious logistics. Things must be printed out, correspondence must be sent, and files must be saved. We’ll be tromping around the Dry Valleys of Antarctica without internet for a long time. I’ve never been unplugged for that long and it’s the first time I’ve felt self-important enough to prepare an “out of the office” automated reply email. Needless to say, geology isn’t at the forefront of my mind the day before I ship out—though it will be, soon enough.

            Tomorrow Rob, Nick, and I will fly to Christchurch, New Zealand, where we’ll begin our journey. As far as I know, we’ll grab some gear and receive some initial training before we take another flight a couple days later to McMurdo, Antarctica. In McMurdo we’ll grab even more gear and receive even more training before we are deployed via helicopter to our field site in the Dry Valleys, where we’ll set up camp. I feel somewhat like the ragtag team from the movie Armageddon that’s unprepared for the extreme conditions we’re about to encounter. Unsurprisingly, our seasoned leader, Dr. John Cottle, appears mostly entertained with how green we are. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has only two weeks to get us ready to work in Antarctica, but I’m confident we’ll be prepared. Now that I think about, I still have to buy another water canteen and write a will… — Demian.


Meet the 2015 Expedition Team

2014-08-26 07.05.38_croppedRobert Holder is a PhD student at UCSB. He grew up in hiking, climbing, and skiing in Bishop, California; lived in Sweden for a short period during high school and again as an undergraduate; and completed his bachelor’s degree in both geology and “Scandinavian Studies” at Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota, in 2012. Before becoming a graduate student, he worked as a student ICP-MS lab technician at Gustavus and a field technician for the Air Pollution Control district of Inyo, Mono, and Alpine counties in California. He received his MS in geology at UCSB in 2014, for which he, coincidentally, did fieldwork in Scandinavia (Norway this time). His research involves a combination of fieldwork (Norway and Madagascar), geochronology (determining the ages of rocks), and modeling mineral growth/equilibrium to understand how the continents of Earth have grown and changed through time.


IMG_1647Demian Nelson is a PhD student at UCSB working with  John Cottle. Born in San Luis Obispo, CA, Demian has spent most of his life living on the coast of California. As a graduate of Cuesta Community College in San Luis Obispo he transferred to UC San Diego to study Earth Science. While at UCSD he became a McNair Pre-doctoral Scholar and completed an honors thesis as an undergraduate researcher in the Scripps Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory. After graduating summa cum laude and with high distinction he now pursues a PhD in Geological Sciences at UCSB as a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow. He has diverse research interests with a focus on Antarctic and Californian geology (see his website for more details). He also has diverse recreational interests including, but not limited to: surfing, cycling, swimming, volleyball, diving, climbing, and dancing.




Nicoletta Browne is a geochemistry M.S. student at UCSB who grew up first in Tucson, AZ and then in the San Francisco Bay Area; she’ll always argue that the latter area outdoes just about every other place, food-wise, though Tucson might have it beat with Mexican food. For her undergraduate degree, Nicoletta went to Pomona College in Claremont, where she studied geochemistry and completed a Senior Exercise with Distinction, studying the growth of sphene crystals during skarn formation. She also undertook a KECK Geology Consortium project in Iceland, studying lava flows. Having been surrounded by mountains all of her life, she’s happy to be in the Santa Barbara area, and she’s grateful for the improved air quality and reduced traffic after four years of being in the Los Angeles Basin. She has several interests in igneous and metamorphic petrology but primarily studies lamprophyres from the East Antarctic Craton with John Cottle, and she is currently a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow in the Department of Earth Science. Outside of geology, Nicoletta plays the cello and formerly hosted a radio show at KSPC, a non-commercial college radio station in Claremont; she’s probably more opinionated about music than just about anything else. She’s also an avid hiker and a devoted anime fan, and she writes for an anime review site when she has spare time.


John Cottle is an Associate Professor at UC Santa Barbara and is the principal investigator for this research project. Originally from New Zealand, John studied for his B.S. and M.S. at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. In 2004, he moved to Oxford University for his PhD, supervised by Dr. Mike Searle and Prof. Randy Parrish. His thesis focused on understanding the geology of the Everest Himalaya in southern Tibet. After completing his PhD he worked as a Postdoctoral scholar at the NERC Isotope Geoscience Laboratories in Nottingham, U.K., before joining the faculty of the Earth Science department at UCSB in 2009. Since completing his PhD, John has continued to work in the Himalaya and has expanded his research program to understanding the evolution of the Transantarctic Mountains. In addition to his tectonic research, John helps run a state-of-the-art mass spectrometry facility at UCSB dedicated to measuring a variety of isotopes and elements in geologic materials. Outside of geology John enjoys exploring the outdoors with his young family, skiing, climbing, surfing and growing fruit trees. This will be John’s 7th trip to Antarctica, having previously worked for the New Zealand Antarctic Research Program both as a scientist and guide. You can find more about John’s research on his faculty website. 

Sad day for Antarcticans

We are saddened to learn of the discovery of the wreckage of a Twin Otter that crashed en-route from the South Pole to Terra Nova station. It appears none of the crew survived the impact. When we first learned of the missing plane we hoped and prayed that all would end well, unfortunately it was not to be.

We send our sincere condolences to the family and friends of the crew, and all those involved in the rescue attempt. We are especially thinking of all our friends at McMurdo, on the Joint American and  New Zealand Search and Rescue (SAR) team and the pilots and crew of ‘our’ Twin Otter who all played a key role in the search. We can only imagine how tough this is.

We’ve spent many hours flying with the incredibly skilled and dedicated pilots and crew from Kenn Borek, and it’s easy to forget that they operate in the most extreme and unforgiving conditions on earth. These guys and girls are just some of the many, many people who work ‘behind-the-scenes’ and endure all manner of discomfort to make science happen in Antarctica. These people aren’t in it for fame and fortune, they are genuinely dedicated to making a difference. Without these dedicated individuals, what we do would simply not be possible. For their efforts, and this case their ultimate sacrifice, we as Antarctic scientists, are truly grateful.

 John and the G-064 team 

Farewell to the field…

 Tonight is a special night– our last in the field. We are to return to McMurdo tomorrow via Twin Otter. The occasion is joyous, but the mood is sombre– not out of sadness, but with deep reflection of last seven weeks. It is easy to overlook the specialness of an experience when you are living it, and the realization of the wonder often lags. We now look back at all of the wonderful events of the last seven weeks– the majesty of the landscape, the extreme weather, the physical challenges, and the serenity of a small camp in Antarctica, hundreds of miles from another human. We flew over the TransAntarctics in small aircraft, climbed mountains, ran on glaciers, and came back to our cosy camp to have meals of salmon alfredo, Thai curry, and roast cornish hens. We have seen and done amazing things during this field season, and we have much to be thankful for and much to rejoice. We all feel a sense of success, and we owe much appreciation to all of the support from the contractors in McMurdo, the National Science Foundations for funding, and of course, to John, who made all of this possible. We hope that this will not be our last trip to this beautiful continent.
I know that all sounds very sentimental, but I assure you, we are all anxiously anticipating our extraction! Perhaps I should save the sappy blog updates until we have actually departed. The weather is unpredictable, and we may be spending the weekend in our tents eating the dehydrated meals that are left over. By the time you read this we will hopefully be in MacTown, groomed and warm. Wish us luck!
-Sophie, Forrest, Graham

Graham’s Snowy Day in Antarctica Cinnamon Rolls

Hello all! Snowy, windy weather has us stuck in the tent on one our last few days in the field… Time to bake! We made some delightful cinnamon rolls and would like to share the recipe with you!

Graham’s Snowy Day in Antarctica Cinnamon Rolls
Dough Ingredients:                                               
2  1/4 cups white flour
3/4 tsp salt           
4 tsp sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup butter (softened)
1 cup powdered milk (or normal milk)           
Filling Ingredients:
1/2 stick butter (melted)
a bunch of brown sugar           
a bunch of granulated sugar
a bunch of cinnamon
bunch of chopped dates, golden raisins, almonds
Mix the dough ingredients in a dirty plastic bowl that hasn’t been washed in nearly two months. Soften butter on camp stove (or by any means) and cut into dry ingredients; when frustrated, mash the refrozen butter with your fork. Add enough cold water so that dough is slightly sticky (note: adding hot water from your “billy” will prematurely activate baking powder).
Preheat dutch oven (or any oven) to an unknown temperature. Clean off half of dirty, cold metal table with baby wipes and then wet paper towels. Sprinkle ample flower on the table. Roll out dough ball with purple Nalgene® bottle into a rectangle with a 2:1 x/z ratio that is ~3 mm (3×107 Å) thick. Pour melted butter over dough and slather with filling ingredients.  Roll up the fillings into the dough and cut into 3 cm tall pieces.

Use Crisco®, vegetable oil, or butter to grease pan. Place rolls in pan, adequately spaced to accommodate a bit of rising. Prior to “burny” smell, flip rolls to other side (note: this step is probably unnecessary in a normal oven). Remove once rolls are the color of titanite (or slightly darker than staurolite in plane-polarized light) on each side and enjoy while warm with lots of tea!

Note: the cinnamon rolls should be vegetarian if not cooked in an unwashed dutch oven with 8 weeks worth of meat residue. Note: Sorry if I ruined anyone’s appetite by mentioning “meat residue” in a cinnamon roll recipe.


By the way, I included a graph to help people visualize the stinky-sock lemma that Forrest introduced in the previous blog post.

A day in the field

So, what have we actually been doing in the field for the last 2 months? Each workday begins by starting up a snowmobile with a broken choke switch, which requires two pairs of hands, a set of pliers, and some love (i.e. Graham hauling violently on manual-ignition chord). Once parked near our destination ridge or cliffs, we dismount and set out for our farthest destination on foot and work back to the machines. “Empty” backpacks (i.e. without samples, but laden with sledge hammers, chisels, first aid kit, water, spare cloths, crampons, ice axe, etc.) are never lightweight, but the crampons are invariably necessary to climb off the glacier or up a hardened snow slope. 
When it comes to approaching fresh outcrops of rock, each geologist has there own style; Sophie, for example, crouches to look for minerals in her magnifying hand lens, whereas Graham takes measurements with his Brunton compass. I generally prefer the more direct approach of obliterating the nearest piece of rock with a six-pound sledgehammer. After heated debate of the geologic characteristics of the rocks—orthognessic? poikioblastic? porphyroblastic? pseudomorphic?—we scribble in yellow notebooks. The detail and thoroughness (and accuracy?) of my notes scale with temperature (1+ page at 25 F, 3+ lines at 5 F, and 1 line at -10 F), but I reason that writing with frozen fingers will yield illegible results anyway… Before stumbling to the next cliff, we chisel away and pack grapefruit-sized samples for extracting zircon, monazite, titanite, or garnet. Each of these lucky samples will have a scenic journey to sunny California onboard a freighter before being bombarded with electron beams and blasted with lasers.