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

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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. 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.

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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):

gear

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

IMG_1927

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

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Back at McMurdo

Hello everyone,

We arrived back in Mac Town on Friday right on schedule. We have spent the last few days returning all of our gear, which was quite a process. We have had some time to get cleaned up and kick back as well. We have been running and hiking around the base and Hut Point Peninsula.

There was marathon on the Ross ice shelf on Sunday. Bryan talked me (Graham) into doing the half-marathon, but w missed the registration deadline by a few hours when we arrived on Friday. Lucky for other runners – we would have won that marathon fur sure! Next year.

Well, this concludes our first Antarctic field season. Bryan and I are going to do some traveling in New Zealand for a couple of weeks, and Jo is getting married soon! Congratulations!

Feel free to contact us if you have any questions about the science or the journey. Thanks for following along with our adventure!

Here are some miscellaneous videos that were too big to upload to the blog while out in the field. Enjoy!

-John, Graham, Bryan, and Jo of “Geologists on Ice”

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A hint of sadness…

 There is a hint of sadness in the air in the mess tent this evening as we have just farewelled our fearless leader John on the helicopter – back to civilization, his wonderful wife, and the joys of office work. We’d been watching the cloud level all day and then, in the whirl of helicopter wings he was gone and in place we were left with some boxes of food and some empty rock boxes. The tent is now somewhat quieter but also noticeably more spacious. As we sit down to eat our spaghetti bolognaise John will be looking forward to dinner at MacTown before heading to NZ on Wednesday. It’s just started snowing again so despite the MacTown menu, he’ll be glad that he got out when he could. Speak soon John!

Since our last post we’ve only been able to spend one day out in the field because of the weather. We had a more relaxed day back over above the Roaring Valley which was memorable for the insipid stagnant cold. Low cloud blocked out all rays of sunlight and the temperature hung between -4o to -7o C without any wind. As we wandered back across the moraine at the end of the day, the cloud lowered and the snowflakes started, and by the time we had ridden back to camp the visibility was poor and our tents were white. Home just in time! With the anticipation of a 5 year old, Graham frequently checked outside the tent as dinner cooked, with the hope of a snow day the following day.

Snowy camp

Graham’s childlike excitement was rewarded as the snowflakes were still falling when we woke and we couldn’t see much past 50m around the camp. Back to sleep until mid-morning before a late breakfast and numerous cups of tea – John and Jo teaching Bryan and Graham the ancient mountaineering art of the ‘pit day’. Graham started reminiscing about ‘sticky buns’ of his childhood and after discovering we had most of the necessary ingredients embarked on his first ever baking mission. Mom – you’ll be proud – he did a great job, they were cooked to perfection and delicious (see photo). The rest of the day was spent reading geological papers (Bryan), fantasy novels (Graham), or mountaineering stories (Jo), calling family on the satellite phone, and undertaking domestic tasks (see photos of Jo being the good nanny that she is – sewing up Graham’s jacket and sweeping the floor). Dinner was pizza made in the frying pan and we weren’t long out of bed. Not much to do and despite little change in the weather we were aiming for an early start for John’s flight out.

Graham and his baking
Jo sewing Graham’s jacket

When we stuck our heads out of the tents this morning the clouds had a grey tinge (different from the white of yesterday) and we took this as a good sign. By midday the cloud still hadn’t lifted and the chances of John getting out were looking slim. More tea drinking and more reading (but no more baking for today). Mid afternoon the cloud base started to lift and after making a call to the Heli Ops crew at MacTown we were given 40mins to before the chopper was due. A final rush of sorting and packing of gear, rocks, and waste to be flown out, the chopper arrived on time and John was gone. In the quiet of the tent we excitedly sorted through our resupply of mostly snacks. Oh the excitement – we’ve only been away for 10 days, imagine what it will be like in a months’ time! We’ve decided to divvy up the Bumper Bar and chocolate bar supplies – for two reasons 1) to ensure we can each choose how we consume our supply over the next 6 weeks and 2) to introduce the potential for a novel bartering system when supplies run low – ‘I’ll swap you one Apricot Bumper Bar if you do the dishes for the next week’. The third reason is that it provides Jo ‘the Nanny’ with increased powers of coercion should the boys decide to misbehave in the weeks to come. We’ll keep you updated on how this plan actually works out. But for now, it’s time to melt some snow and get the dinner on…

Descending a lava flow

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First Post from the Field!

We arrived in the field!

This is our first post from the field using our satellite phone and laptop! If you’re reading this then our system is working well!

The four of us and all our gear left McMurdo at 13:15 via a Bell 212 helicopter, followed by a convoy of 4 separate flights. The weather on the Walcott Glacier was cloudy which meant we couldn’t get the helicopter into the area we wanted, so we had to land lower down the Walcott Glacier and pitch our camps near the junction of the Radian and Walcott Glaciers. Although the weather was cloudy there was no wind and we were able to pitch our camp with no problem. Our camp consists of two Scott polar tents (yellow pyramid shaped) and an Endurance tent (black red and white tunnel shape). We also setup our solar panels, radios, and skidoos.

Jo cooked us a delicious dinner in our new home – pasta, bacon and carbonara sauce – a nice change from McMurdo food. We also ate the first chocolate out of Jo’s advent calendar!

Tomorrow we’ll start work mapping and sampling the area around our camp.  So we’ll update everyone on what we find in the next couple of days.

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Darwin Glacier flight

Next season we will be working in the Darwin Glacier region, so to try and locate good camping spots and places that planes and/or helicopters can drop us off to do research, we took a reconnaissance Twin Otter ski plane flight today. We took off from the sea ice runway – the sea freezes solid during winter here and makes a great place to land planes (until it gets too thin – at the moment it is about 2m thick). We flew about an hour south then up the Darwin and Byrd Glaciers. We took a lot of photos and video – here is a sample from our adventure. There are a few more videos on our pictures/videos page, or you can find them directly on our youtube channel.

Twin Otter takeoff

Inside the Twin Otter

Flyover on the Darwin Neve
Twin Otter Landing at McMurdo sea-ice runway

A few photos:

Our Twin Otter for the day. Sitting on the sea ice runway

Twin Otter parking, sea ice runway

Ski-equipped twin otter

the boys, ready to go in the backseat

backseat

the business end…

view out the front window on the runway to two Hercules aircraft

Your safety is our first priority

In the air over the Darwin Glacier

Brown Hills area

The Darwin Glacier

South side of the Darwin Glacier

Landing on the Darwin Neve. The glacier here is hard blue ice and we needed crampons to walk around without slipping.

John taking photos

Mt Discovery (an old volcano)

Boys watching the scenery

Mulock Glacier

Roadend Nunatak

Melt pools in the Brown Hills

Side glacier on the north side of the Byrd Glacier

Texture on the surface of the Byrd Glacier

Mt Discovery and McMurdo on our landing approach

Mt Discovery again

Boys enjoying doing some science!

North side of the Byrd Glacier

Head of the Darwin Glacier

Bryan taking care of business

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