Monthly Archives: January 2010

Beaufort Island (& Penguin Banding) by Icebreaker

Yesterday was a very exciting day – one of the highlights of this entire trip, and a new experience altogether! It was our highly-anticipated trip to Beaufort Island, which could only be reached by the Swedish icebreaker Oden. For our team, it was a chance to sample some very old penguin colonies. In fact, the oldest penguin molt layer was discovered there by Dr. Emslie 5 years ago. He collected feather and bone from this exposed layer on the northern end of the island, which turned out to be too old for radio-carbon dating – meaning that the remains were over 44,000 years old!

Beaufort Island was visible during our stay at Cape Bird. However, NSF helicopters cannot reach it because there is an expanse of open water, which they are not allowed to fly over (because in the case of an emergency, it would mean certain death). In 2005, when USAP had Coast Guard helicopters at McMurdo, flying to Beaufort Island was not a problem. But the Coast Guard helicopters are no longer coming down to McMurdo (they were extracted because they were needed for Iraq). So the only way to reach it now is by icebreaker, which limits field time severely (we were given a maximum of 3-4 hours on the island). It really is too bad, because Beaufort Island is a treasure-trove of paleoecological data, and has been studied very little to date.

Beaufort Island as seen from Cape Bird

So, Friday morning I woke up at 5 am to make it to the lab before our pick-up time of 5:45 am. The van came on time and delivered us, as well as Dr. Ainley’s team, and a couple of artists (a husband and wife) to the dock. There were 12 of us – 10 scientists and 2 artists. I was surprised, because I thought that many more scientists would be going. But it was only a select group. In fact, I almost wasn’t allowed to go – they would only allow 4 people from each team, and of course, I would have gotten left out. It might have had to do with the fact that Beaufort Island is another ASPA (Antarctic Specially Protected Area) and you need a permit to visit it (although every field site we visit is an ASPA because of the colonies). But Dr. Emslie wrote to the captain, asking that they allow me on as well. They said I could come along for the ride, with the exception that I would not be able to go out to the island (although once I was on the ship, they did agree to let me go…after all, how could they resist the charm of a young, aspiring scientist?)…I just am so happy that in the end, I got to participate despite the obstacles.

The mighty icebreaker Oden!

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Marble Point

On Monday we flew to Marble Point, which is about 45 mins (by helo) west from McMurdo, so that Liu could collect some moresediment samples. There weren’t going to be any penguin colonies there because of the sea ice reaching right up to the shore – although, historically, when the area was ice free there were colonies. In fact, Larry and Dr. Emslie found a site from 10 years previously where they had sampled an abandoned colony. The square of disturbed pebbles was unchanged from ten years prior. Its amazing how little things will change in Antarctica. There was a big “road” (really just cleared space) left over from huge earth-moving vehicles from over 20 years ago, when NSF was considering moving the main USAP base to Marble Point. There was some trash strewn about – rusted cans, ropes, and pieces of wood. Treads were still visible in the soil. This stability of Antarctica attests to how much humans can indeed impact this fragile environment.

a view of Marble Point Bay

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Cape Bird: Field Work and the Kiwi Hut

We returned yesterday evening from four days and nights (Saturday – Wednesday) in the field, working out of the NZ Hut at Cape Bird:

Getting there was tricky – the helicopter pilots don’t really like flying there because of the strong winds that come down over the mountains and glaciers, and there was a high chance that we would not be able to get there (or be picked up) at our requested times. But the weather cooperated both ways so that we got in and out just as planned.

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Cape Royds: Adelie Penguins (& Shackleton’s Hut)

penguins from Cape Royds

We went to Cape Royds for a day trip to collect Adelie eggshells. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many around and we only collected about 20 samples. It was my first Adelie penguin colony and it was quite the sight. The penguins were, of course, lovely. They made all kinds of postures and noises to eachother, and it was very entertaining to watch them interact. They live in these large colonies (the largest one in the area is 170,000 individuals at Cape Crozier, which we will be going to soon) and are therefore highly social animals.

Penguins are really interesting animals for many different reasons. They are highly adapted to their harsh environment, a true seabird. They are superbly adapted to marine life. Having lost their flying ability, their wings evolved into stiff flippers which propel them through the water efficiently at high speeds. Their stiff tails and feet act as rudders which steer their sleek, streamlined bodies. Like other flightless birds, they are heavier than their flying cousins. Their bones are not pneumatic (hollow), their air sacs are reduced, and their feathers are short and stiff. But they have traded the sky for the sea, and as far as diving birds go, penguins are the best. Adelie’s are shallow divers and feed by pursuit diving, pecking out their food as they swerve from side to side underwater. They prefer to eat euphausiids (krill) but will also take fish, amphipods, and cephalopods. Colony-specific diets vary according to where they are in the Antarctic and what prey are abundant in the area.

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Field Camp Training/Antarctic Survival School

It’s been an educational 40 hours – I just returned from the Antarctic Survival/Field Camp Training – which is fondly referred to more simply as “Happy Camper”. Everyone that is is to leave McMurdo Station, whether it be the researchers or sometimes (the more lucky) Raytheon employees, must complete this two day+one night course. It takes place about 30 minutes outside of McMurdo on the frozen Ross Sea, and if the weather permits, in spectacular view of Mt. Erebus. On site there is an established “I-hut”, “Connex” tool shed, and latrines. Generations of Happy Campers are taken there, so there are the weathered remains of igloos and ice walls all around.

Delta - our interesting ride out to the Happy Camper site

Happy Camper started this morning at 8:30 am sharp. We spent about an hour and a half inside discussing risk management – what kinds of risks are met in this environment, how to minimize them, how to identify and react to them – as well as weather related injuries. This was important, because we were introduced to the main kinds of injuries given to us by the harsh Antarctic climate – sunburn, windburn, snow blindness, cold water immersion, and the most dangerous and prevalent two: hypothermia and frostbite, both of which occur progressively on a continuum.

All the cold weather injuries are scary, but hypothermia can be deadly. It is so important to recognize signs of hypothermia, either on yourself or on a teammate, and to know how to respond. Heat can be lost from the body by many ways – it can evaporate off our skin, it can be sucked out of us by a colder object like the ground (conduction), it can be swept away from us by the wind (convection), or heat waves can bounce off a surface entirely (radiation). Obviously, wearing proper clothing in layers can stop much of this heat loss from happening.

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McMurdo: Observation Hill and Crary Science Center

local map of McMurdo and surrounding coastal areas

I would like to introduce you to McMurdo Station in another short series of posts. This fascinating town of  pop. 1200 (summertime) deserves to be discussed on its own, as it is the hub for all American (and lots of foreign) Antarctic activity, and full of interesting history and people.

McMurdo Station (which is the largest base on Antarctica and belongs to the US) is located on Ross Island.

aerial view of McMurdo Station

The big white building in the middle of the picture is building 155 – the Galley – where I am staying (there are dorms). The Galley also houses the cafeteria, the convenience/souvenir shop, offices, and a computer room. It is quite comfortable and has everything you need so you never really have to leave that building. But of course, there are plenty of scientists (the base is run by NSF, after all) and so the scientists exclusively get a wonderful building – the Crary Science and Technology Center. A modern building filled with individual laboratories and all the support and supplies the scientists need. There is a large and very helpful scientific support staff that works for and in conjunction with the science teams as well. Crary is the large grayish building above and to the right of the Galley.

Here are some pictures I took today after climbing the historic Observation Hill (“Ob Hill” if you’re in the know)…

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Arrival in Antarctica

We made it! I have officially conquered my 4th continent – the most unreachable and unlikely destination on Earth – ANTARCTICA! The South Pole, the Last Place on Earth …. I really am here. It all seems so unreal. The moment I stepped out of that hulking C17 jet, my heart welled up with emotion. All around me was snow, ice, and off in the distance, cloud-capped mountains. The sun was shining bright, the weather a balmy +20F. It was so beautiful, too perfect a welcome from this otherworldly place!

The plane ride was actually much better than I was expecting. The jet was a C17 (not the smaller C130) – really roomy, humongous heavy duty military cargo jet. What an experience! I have never in my life flown in anything even similar to that. The closest thing it reminded me of was visiting a submarine, or one of those battleships – except that it flies. I think the term “airship” definitely applies here! There were no windows (except two small portholes near the door) and the seats were jumpseats all up and down the sides of the jet. This one was also equipped with 5 rows of commercial airplane seats. But I chose to sit in a jumpseat for more of an authentic experience. Luckily I had my new noise-cancelling headphones which did wonders, combined with loud music, for minimizing the engine noise. Otherwise I would have to wear earplugs. It was LOUD.

Antarctic Passenger Terminal

We arrived at the Antarctic Center (which is right by the Christchurch airport) Saturday morning at 6 am to gear up (we were required to have our ECW gear on us), check in, have our bags cleared, get briefed, and get a little food. There were about 60 of us that were flying down the The Ice that day, along with some US Airforce (who staffed the plane) and even an Army guy or two. After clearing through security (yes, we had to go through that, too), we waited in a lounge and watched a briefing video, then packed onto a bus which took us to our C-17 jet – a monstrous plane unlike anything I have ever seen before. It made quite an impression!

stepping out of line

The flight itself was 4 hours, 45 minutes long, flying to the Pegasus airfield. About 3 hours into the flight, I looked out the porthole and saw my first icebergs floating far, far below in the beautiful blue of the Southern Ocean. It was thrilling…then, about 3/4 of an hour later, looking out of the porthole again, the ocean was covered in swirls of pack ice. I went up to the flight deck twice (with permission from the Navigator) and got a wonderful view (and photos and video) from up there. After a couple of hours, most of the people started dozing off, but I was far too excited by the novelty of the plane, and the excitement of what was ahead of us to even feel tired.

View from the flight deck - sea ice! about an hour from Antarctica

looking awkward on the C-17 in my bunny boots

Landing on the ice was a bit scary – especially the thought of landing on a frozen sea – and it took a long time to break because of the slick ice and the massive weight of the plane. Then the doors opened, and the next thing I knew, I was looking out (through my dark polarized glasses) at the vast expanse of Antarctica! I couldn’t believe it. I was overcome with emotion at the thought of where I was. We all unloaded and made our way to Ivan the Terra-Bus (just like on the Herzog documentary!)

our ride into Antarctica - the C-17 cargo plane

first steps in Antarctica

our ride into McMurdo

The ride to McMurdo was about an hour from the Pegasus airfield. We got really luck because there to greet us were 4 emperor penguins on the side of the road on the way back to base! Really lucky – who knows if I will see emperors again. I wasn’t even hoping to see some because it’s rather rare for them to be around here. But there they were! I got a really good picture of them, considering the fact that I was on the left side of the bus (they were on the right side) and we couldn’t slow down or stop:

My welcoming commitee! Aren't they lovely?

We stopped at Scott Base (the New Zealand base on the other side of the hill) to drop off some Kiwis, and thats where I saw my first Weddell seal, chillin on the sea ice!

my first Weddell seal of the season - we will see lots of these guys

Upon arrival to McMurdo, we were dropped off at the Galley – a huge building housing the dining facilities, a computer portal, offices, dorm rooms, bathrooms, and the convenience store – once you’re in here, you really don’t need to leave. Once in the galley, we were given yet another briefing, on safety, medical (I had to get a flu shot) and things we needed to get done once we were here. Then they took the three science teams (our Adelie penguin group, a Weddell seal group, and a glaciologist) aside for special information regarding the Crary Science Center, our labs, and whatnot. We get special, unrestricted access to the state-of-the-art, relatively new (1992) science center, with its own library and our own lab. It’s quite nice.

After that, we got our housing keys, and were sent off to Barb’s Laundry to pick up sheets for our beds, and then our luggage from the flight. I was put in a room with two other ladies – one from Germany, who said she was studying “icecubes”, maybe she meant icebergs, at the Pole – and an American who I recognized from the flight (she came to work here over-wintering – that’s pretty hardcore!). By the time all that was done, it was time for dinner. My first Antarctic dinner consisted of (sorry, no picture!) tortellini, chicken, and canned veggies (its a special thing to get fresh fruits/veggies here!). No complaints from me because I was starving! I actually really enjoyed it.

After dinner I logged into one of the computers and caught up on emails and Facebook and all that. I even got to talk to Ethan, to whom I spewed my excitement and amazement at the place. I retired to my room late that night, about 10:30 pm, and the sun was still high and bright in the sky. It had started to snow. I was very happy.

Ross sea view from our lab in Crary Science Center

sea ice formations