Christmas

Christmas was different.

On the Tuesday prior we had a surprise visit by Santa’s Sleigh from McMurdo station. On that bright and early morning a large helicopter landed and unloaded 8 elves and a wonderfully sarcastic pilot carrying a 20 pound gift box for the camp. We ravenously tore into the box and to our shock and awe it was filled with fresh vegetables, fruits, and cheeses. It was the most excited I’ve ever been about a gift I could eat.

15 scientists from throughout the Dry Valleys converged at the Lake Hoare camp for the holiday weekend. It was like getting the whole family together. And it all started rather benign. Christmas Eve was dedicated solely to the creation of highly disfigured cookies and the most immaculately intricate gingerbread house ever made in a field camp (this statement has not been scientifically validated). Over the course of 6 hours we had made the dough from scratch, used stencils to carve out slots for windows, and crushed different colored cough drops into powder to form the stain glass windows. Once baked, our creation was lit up by candles from the inside.

Could have used a bit of landscaping

Christmas day was an adventure. After being forced under penalty of death to either paint or eat the remaining cookies we geared up for the first annual Dirty Little Hoare Regatta. After sterilizing the construction materials we built the world’s sorriest excuse for a Navy out of bottles and duct tape and prepared them for launch on the small pond next to Lake Hoare. In a testament to my time growing up on the water mine sank immediately. The dragon won.

The competitors.

The winner.

Christmas dinner was an extravagant affair by all standards. After everyone had showered and put on a fresh set of clothes we gathered around the table for an incredibly civilized meal. We put up thick black canvas curtains to block the light out for a candlelit (neon?) dinner. It was the first ‘dark’ I’ve seen in over two months. It was wonderful. After good conversation and even better food it was time to steal presents in the form of a White Elephant gift exchange. Then a round of Greenland coffees were served. That’s when things got weird.

Civility. What a welcome change.

Chairs were cleared out of the way and we all lined up around the table. What happened next was a feat of physical strength and dexterity I never thought possible: the Table Traverse. The goal of it is to climb around the table (under and over) without ever touching the ground. Beginners can traverse the width, experts traverse the length. Then we tried to traverse a folding chair. It didn’t work.

The events that followed can not be explained in full detail. Here is the edited synopsis:

There were wigs and tight pants.

There was a dance party.

I hadn’t thought too much of Christmas other than that it was a very enjoyable few days. It was only the next afternoon that I had time to reflect on what a strange experience it all was. I’m unable to fully articulate the oddity of it, so I leave you with my favorite quote from the afternoon:

“When I came to he was holding a wet towel to my head and my pants were at my knees. But at least the wound was bandaged.”

Merry Christmas!

Lake Bonney

This week we had a slight change of location as we decided to meet up with one of the other science teams. The Limnology group was spending a few nights at their Lake Bonney field camp which happens to be the locale of several of our streams, so we decided to make an evening of it. And with any slumber party, cookies are an absolute necessity.

The hike from Bonney. Taylor Glacier in background.

Inside of Bonney Camp's Hut

Lake Bonney is a strange body of water: half of it, the West Lobe, is located at the terminus of Taylor Glacier and is just barely connected by a 50 meter wide channel to the East Lobe. This narrow channel, in addition to the fact that the lake is under several meters of permanent ice, means that the two halves of the lake don’t mix – they have completely unique and different chemistries. The West Lobe is currently the location of NASA’s ENDURANCE robotics project and serves as a prime testing site because of several bizarre characteristics. Within the West Lobe there exists a strong halocline – a vertical division of water with a saltwater layer on bottom and freshwater on top. Every other year divers will enter the lake for research and reach the bottom at an impressive 40 meters (130 feet).

The entrance hole for ENDURANCE

West Lobe camp

One of the more eye-catching physical features of the area, Blood Falls, drains into West Bonney. Blood Falls is a gushing, bright red streak that flows out of the center of Taylor Glacier. When Scott (1911) and his men first discovered the falls they attributed the color to red algae. While correct in that organisms live in the falls, the color is actually an iron deposit from an ancient seabed that is leaking out of the glacier. Way back in history, the floor of the Valleys were covered by the ocean and iron deposits built up. As the seas retreated and the glaciers moved in this deposit remained trapped underneath. Amazingly, small microbes were trapped along with the iron. These secluded creatures, having no access to oxygen, evolved an incredible ability to use sulfur and iron for metabolic respiration (this is actually pretty cool). The microbes that are using the blood-red iron in the glacier are extremophiles found no where else and are a completely distinct set of organisms that may contain clues as to how life may have survived in Earth’s early history or even on other planets. I think it’s pretty.

Taylor Glacier with Blood Falls

Blood Falls

Since we were spending the evening at Lake Bonney as opposed to our usual 5 hours we had the time to explore several new streams. Two of my teammates took one ATV over to the West Lobe, and I took the other and explored the East Lobe. I absolutely love getting the chance to wander off on my own and do a few side trips in my spare time. On this particular night I wished I had brought someone along.

After finding two new stream sites on my map from the 1950′s, I started driving down the center of the lake towards the farthest end from base camp. The reason I drove down the center’s permanent ice is that the moat ice near the shore is incredibly weak this time of year, making it very easy to sink a vehicle. After an hour’s drive that was so rough it would make Cambodia’s roads look sophisticated, the ice under the front of my ATV collapsed. The two front wheels and the engine were sticking face down, propping the rest of the ATV up in a way that the back 4 tires were off the ground. ‘No problem’ I thought, as I shifted into all wheel drive. It was at that horrifying moment that I discovered that the front wheel drive was broken. The only two tires to be touching the ground weren’t moving. Alone and a two-hour walk from camp, I was stuck. Badly.

East Lobe. The site of my predicament.

I tried everything I could think of. I got out my beat up shovel and tried to dig out the center section of ice that was propping up the back-end of the ATV. I tried filling in the gaps between the back tires and the ground with large rocks. After two incredibly fatiguing hours of digging out the ATV with no improvement I started to think that I’d have to call a helicopter to help get the damn thing out. It would be hours until it could arrive. In one last-ditch effort, I stood in the hole in front of the ATV, threw the gear in reverse, and with one hand on the throttle and another under the engine I lifted it out of the hole. As it flew backwards and my face hit the ice I realized it was free. After two hours of stress and breaking part of myself from physical exertion I realized that there were more important things than work that night and headed back. I had cookies to eat.

Our most precious resource.

Slightly Terrified.

Antarctica conjures up images of rugged explorers in tattered clothes battling the elements in an attempt to save their lives after conquering a feat of epic proportion. Or, the continent evokes the thrill-seeking imagery of the “Man vs. Contrived-Scenario” television show. My lifestyle is about as far from that as you could imagine.

I live incredibly comfortably for the most part. I eat. I’m generally warm. I sleep (occasionally). In truth, other than wanting to share my sleeping bag with someone I have everything I’d ever need. And logically, we don’t unnecessarily brave the elements. When the strong katabatic winds come ripping down the valley our flights are cancelled, I unlace my hiking boots, and we stay sheltered in our field camp. Living remotely is about mitigating as many potential dangers as you can predict. Despite these efforts there are always inherent risks of being out here: I could break my leg hiking and bad weather could prevent search and rescue from reaching me, I could fall head deep in the frozen lake and get hypothermia, I could crash our ATV and have it crush me. While that list isn’t exhaustive and all are very much possible, I don’t wake up in fear every day – we’re as safe as possible and worrying consistently about ‘what-ifs’ isn’t productive. So in our relative comfort, I start my mornings generally confident that I won’t die. I feel safe, aside from the one encounter that unnerves me.

Lake ice. In Taylor Valley we have to commute to our stream sites by traveling along Lake Fryxell  – a rather large lake that is adjacent to Canada Glacier. Fryxell is covered by two types of ice: permanent ice and moat ice. Permanent ice is a layer in the middle of the lake that never fully melts and over the years takes on strange grooves and crevasses as some parts melt and some parts remain frozen. Moat ice is the stuff that connects the permanent ice to the shore. As the ‘summer’ heats up this moat ice will disappear completely and leave a gap of water between the shore and the permanent ice.

Lake Chad. This too shall melt.

Now that the weather is warming and things are starting to thaw we’re forced to travel by foot across large sections of permanent ice. And it is terrifying. Every step I take across it is a gamble as sections of the ice will collapse and nearly break my ankle, or worse yet: I fall through the ice into the frigid water below me. The funny thing about permanent ice is that it’s not just one layer. Several layers of the ice can exist on top of the lake so that when I break through the first layer I fall into water that may be just a foot deep on top of thicker ice, or water several feet deep, or through to the actual lake. I can’t predict how deep I’m going to go when I break through. My heart stops with every step that causes the ice to crack.

Canada Glacier and Lake Fryxell. The site of my terror.

Last month I had a bit of an experience. I had driven our ATV over the permanent ice to Canada Glacier to collect our weekly supply of ‘glacier berries’ (chunks of ice that have fallen off the glacier that we melt to make drinking water). I slowed to a crawl as I approached the edge of where the glacier meets the lake as it had been an unusually warm few days. I parked 30 feet away and with ice axe in hand I walked across the very frozen looking ice. I went to an area where the glacier had previously calved (broken and fallen) and started gathering my harvest of clear blue berries. As I walked back across the lake holding my 60 pound prize in my arms the ice underneath me bent uncomfortably and collapsed. I sank waist deep in the freezing water until my feet reached a thicker layer of ice. Instantly cold, I walked/swam over to the ATV and threw down my catch. Figuring I was already wet and couldn’t leave equipment behind I went back to retrieve my ice axe and one last piece of ice. As I picked up my axe I heard another cracking sound, this time from above. I looked up in time to see a piece of ice the size of an oven come crashing down 20 feet away. I was done. I sprinted over the water and jumped on my vehicle to get the hell out of there. Wet and headed into the wind for the next 30 minutes, I was the coldest I’ve experienced yet on the continent.

Canada Glacier. What a long fall

I made it back shivering but safe. It was the last time we collected our water from Canada Glacier. While the falling ice was a near miss, it still doesn’t make me jump like the cracking of the lake ice does. I’ve had to swim fully clothed in boots before and it’s a terrible experience. With the weight of the gear on my back, the sheer coldness of the water, and the unpredictable behavior of the ice I absolutely hate the thought of breaking through completely.

Fryxell is 60 feet deep.

That terrifies me.

Ventifacts

The Dry Valleys are used as a testing ground for many of NASA’s planned space projects. I had the pleasure of running into one such project named ENDURANCE (Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic ANtartic Explorer), earlier this month when I was out at one of our stream sites at Lake Bonney. One of the lead scientists explained to me that the permanently ice-covered lakes in the valleys were a prime test site for the robot’s upcoming future: ENDURANCE serves as a prototype of the device that will be sent to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons that is presumed to have vast oceans beneath an ice layer. Its goal is to search for life in areas that would otherwise be inaccessible to humans.

Could be Mars

The valleys are often stated to be Earth’s most analagous landscape to Mars. The last ice age on Mars lasted from roughly 2.1 million to 400,000 years ago and the glacial features of its landscape are similar to those found here. In particular, there are mounds that have formed in the valleys due to perennially frozen soils and a large amount of ice. They look just like ones found on Mars. When the explorers first arrived here they thought the area was completely devoid of life. It’s only years later that researchers have now found a rather abundant amount of it here – there are nematode worms in the soils, algae in the streams and lakes, and even bacteria living INSIDE porous rocks. The entire microbial ecosystem here revolves around the rather limited supply of water that is only occasionally available. The idea is that if the harsh geological features that sustain life in the valleys look similar to the ones on Mars we might not be alone in the universe.

All natural holes

Last weekend I went on a short jaunt up to an area called Andrew’s Ridge and ended up in a most otherworldly landscape. After a steep climb up a mountainside made completely of crumbling rock I reached the top, bleeding only slightly. The reason for this endeavor was that I heard that an area containing massive ventifacts was at the trail’s end. I was not to be disappointed.

Top of Andrew's Ridge

Ventifacts are rocks that have been carved by the wind. Over thousands of years, stones are shaped into bizarre forms by the sand and grit carried by the strong winds that blow through the valleys. After years of sandblasting the once solid rocks end up in strange shapes resembling anything that the imagination can conjure up. Ventifacts need not be large – they can be smooth flat stones that fit easily into the palm of your hand, they can look as if they’ve had holes drilled in them, or they can be the size of a small trailer.

I'm actually only 3 feet tall

At the end of Andrew’s Ridge I ended up in a gravel basin with a dozen massive ventifacts scattered within it. Standing there in the bright red soils amongst boulders that dwarfed me, it was easy to forget where I was and remember why the valleys are truly not of this world.

What a strange place.

Like a hand reaching out of the soil

Not like Earth

Slang

Rumor has it that our communications link might be going down tonight due to some sort of power issue related to black magic or someone sneezing heavily. I thought that in the event that I wasn’t able to process pictures in time I would write a brief entry about the ridiculousness of communication out here.

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked is how the hell I have internet in Antarctica. It doesn’t stop at simply having internet – I have wireless access from my tent. The official reason for this is that as scientists we need a solid line of communication in order to transmit our data back to the real world. Thus, an incredible amount of resources has gone into communication. While I was at McMurdo I asked one of the IT guys how the data transmission process works. This is what I vaguely recall: My laptop -> Local wireless router -> Radio transmitter -> Radio repeater -> McMurdo -> Space -> Queensland, Australia -> The internet. If you didn’t understand that’s ok. Neither did I. Details aside, our internet speed is around 730Kb/sec (equivalent to 27 carrier pigeons per hour), which is why I have such an excellent ability to update and communicate.

Other forms of communication abound. All field camps also carry Iridium satellite phones, HF radios left over from the Vietnam War capable of transmitting around the world, and handheld VHF radios. The reason for the redundancy is safety. If one line of communication goes down we have three others as backup. Every morning we are required to check in by 10:00am or else Search and Rescue (SAR) is activated immediately. In fact, at the McMurdo communications center a flashing alarm starts going off at 9:45am. If we haven’t checked in by 10:00 on the dot, the SAR team is activated and a chain of commands goes through the system to begin our rescue. Sleeping through your alarm clock is a huge mistake.

By far the most common method of communication is our personal VHF radios we carry with us everywhere. We use them to report back to base, arrange pickups with helicopters, and relay profanities that would otherwise take too much energy to shout. Military radio protocol is followed; when we speak we sound like terrible impersonations of melodramatic action movies. “3 1 Lima , 3 1 Lima, this is Bravo 4 2 1 on Taylor Valley, how copy?”

Did I hear a 'niner'?

When our small team is split up we occasionally need to get a hold of one another. That’s where our own personalized names come in when hailing each other. It’s a simple recipe to make your own: take your teammate’s first and last initial, add a bit of creativity, a heaping cup of insult; combine. My initials are MB. Let your imagination go wild.

If a lot of this seems convoluted that’s to be expected. To make matters worse Antarctica also has its own special language. Spawned from the terrible union of the military and scientific communities, acronyms abound and jargon is tossed carelessly about. As an outsider first arriving I found it nearly impossible to understand my first conversations with local residents. However, as time progressed I realized that this language existed out of necessity – it is essential that communication be understood clearly and that no time is wasted in relaying it.

To every useful phrase there exists an opposite but equally useless expression. And with that I leave you with my ten favorite Antarctic slang words:

10. Hollywood Shower: used to denote a shower in excess of 2 minutes. Only McMurdo residents get proper showers.

9. Boondoggle: a ‘working’ day-trip out to somewhere awesome like a penguin rookery or the Dry Valleys

8. Hero Shot: traditionally a picture of yourself naked at the geographical South Pole in -40F/C weather. Only boots allowed.

7. Antarctic 10: there’s not many women on base so standards change. Best used in context: “She’s a 10, but just a plane ride away from being ugly.”

6. Boomerang: to start a flight to/from Antarctica only to turn around due to bad weather. Think 10 hours of useless flight-time.

5. Crud: the strange malaise/sickness that circulates endlessly around McMurdo since it’s such a confined society.

4. Toasted: the burned-out appearance and demeanor of people who stay for the sunless winter. See my entry “Winter-over”.

3. Beaker: a nickname for scientists (occasionally derogatory)

2. The Ice: Antarctica

1. Freshies: fresh fruits and vegetables. Number one because we don’t get any in the field.

All I want is a salad. Please.

One Month

Last night our team went over to a different field camp for dinner and a change of conversation. As we sat at the table with our three person team on one side and the limnology research team on the other I noticed a drastic difference in our faces. The three of us were sunburnt, tired, and dirty. The three of them had even complexions, clean cloths, and appeared rested. They had just come back from town. It was only then that it occurred to me that we’ve been out here for a while.

It’s officially been a month since I’ve entered the field. I made the decision on day one that I wouldn’t shave or cut my hair until I return to McMurdo. Just for giggles.  I hadn’t showered in two weeks by the time the second photo was taken. Month three will be frightening.

Night 1: Shaven, clean, apprehensive.

Month 1: Dirty, dark, oily.

Cape Evans

Prior to leaving for the field I had the opportunity to visit a place on Ross Island called Cape Evans. It’s a small little cove that houses Scott’s Hut – of the same Robert F. Scott I had written about previously. Scott’s hut (built in 1911) differs greatly from the Discovery Hut I had described before. In a nutshell, it’s comparatively a mansion. During his Discovery expedition (1901-1904), Scott and his men had found the first hut to be quite cold and uncomfortable living quarters. For his next walk in the park, the Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913) of disastrous fame, Scott built a new hut on Cape Evans to serve as a warmer base of operation. Despite the improvements, a foreboding shadow hangs in the air as this hut was to be the last residence of Scott before he died on his attempt to reach the South Pole.

Doesn't look haunted at all.

There are several noteworthy additions to Scott’s Hut that make it more livable. Heating seems to have taken priority: double-planked walls, quilted seaweed insulation, and a supplementary stove to burn fuel. This isn’t a far cry from how we heat our own shack in the Valleys (sans seaweed). The new hut was also big enough to create different sections to address the specific goals of the expedition. There’s a darkroom for photography (a closet), an area for scientific research (someone’s desk), and private sleeping quarters. Having come from a military background, Scott would divide sleeping arrangements based on who was an officer and who wasn’t.

Stables. The British brought ponies to Antarctica...

Science!

Private Quarters

The bunks provide an insight into the private lives of these early explorers. A few trinkets litter the bedside along with shoddy clothing, repair materials, and leftover books that I presume were bad enough to warrant leaving behind. Above one bunk are two large boards consisting entirely of dog photos. Clearly an unmarried sailor. On one table is a newspaper and a stuffed emperor penguin. However, of all these interesting odds and ends there lies a haunting edition near the side of one bed. Scrawled in pencil a somber message reads “R W Richards August 14, 1916. Losses to Date: Heywood, Mack, Smyth, Shak (?).” These words were written not by Scott’s party, but by Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party that were forced to use the hut as an emergency shelter during a later expedition.

Check the date

Must have been a great read

Cozy. You can see the dog pictures above the bed.

A depressing tally

During Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) there were two ships: the Endurance (of epic survival fame) and the Aurora (an often overlooked story). Essentially, Shackleton’s party on Endurance were to land on one side of Antarctica while the Ross Sea Party on Aurora were to land on the other. The Ross Sea Party’s goal was to lay supply caches for the last leg of Shackleton’s attempt to cross the entire continent. In an incredible twist of fate, both ships encountered disastrous ends. Endurance was trapped and crushed in sea ice, never able to reach the continent, and is a tale of survival against the most brutal odds and conditions. This epic is made even more compelling by the fact that Shackleton brought all his men back alive. The Ross Sea Party was not so fortunate. While they were laying supplies Aurora broke free of its mooring and left the shore party stranded. These ten men were marooned on Ross Island indefinitely. They gathered the remaining stores from previous expeditions and made Scott’s Hut their new home. Only seven men were to be rescued three years later. The names written near the bed list the three deaths of the Ross Sea Party, and the unanswered fate of whether the other party’s leader Shackleton (Shak) had died. Spencer-Smith, Hayward, and Mackintosh all died during their expedition to lay depots for Shackleton’s crossing.

Scott's Hut and the cross on the hill

On January 10, 1917, the remaining 7 men of the Ross Sea Party were shocked to see Shackleton aboard the Aurora as it arrived to rescue them. When they saw his face they realized that he had never been able to attempt the crossing, and that their efforts and companions deaths had been in vain.

Skua

Last Sunday I finally had time off. After procrastinating from fun all day, I decided to go for a hike. At the crack of 9pm, and after dinner of course, I set off down the valley towards Explorer’s Cove. Explorer’s Cove is where Taylor Valley meets the Southern Ocean, and I had hoped that I might see some penguins if the sea ice had melted. It hadn’t, but my night was incredible nonetheless.

Hiking in the Valleys is an experience. There’s no trails, so you decide on your destination and set off in any direction you see fit. For me, it meant hiking east through the middle of the valley over rolling dunes. As I was walking, I couldn’t escape the idea that in all likelihood my foot was touching someplace no one else ever had. As true as this was for the most part, I would occasionally come across a lone footprint – a captivating encounter.

Footprints are a funny thing here. The ground is made up of sand, gravel, and rocks of varying sizes. The landscape heals incredibly slowly – there is no vegetation to grow over a footprint, there’s no rainfall to wash it away. Each step along the ground creates a small crater, generally no more than an inch deep. As you get accustomed to the look of the earth, you can easily notice slight disturbances like these from 100 feet away. This means that as I came across a lone footprint in the middle of the valley, it could be a year old, or decades old. It would look nearly the same.

To be environmentally friendly, this means that when I hike I try to step on big rocks and disturb the ground as little as possible. Each footprint I leave in the sand could last decades and affect the untouched aspect of this place. I have big feet.

During my jaunt, I noticed one of these slight disturbances – but it wasn’t human. I looked down to see small footprints and a set of trails along a small lake. It was bird feet. I looked around and saw small depressions in the sand in the shape of a bowl. To my amazement one of them had a single brown egg. My heart jumped a little. I’ve been in the field for a month and haven’t seen a single living thing, and here was this large egg. I looked around and in the corner of my eye I saw a small head poking out of a pile of rocks on a hill. It was a skua.

Best served with a side of bacon

Sharp and pointy

The South Polar Skua is quite similar to what a large brown seagull would look like, except it’s highly aggressive. They eat fish, but are also known to kill other birds, eat penguin eggs, (and as I mentioned in the last post) rip the eyes out of mummified seals. They breed in November and December usually having 1-2 eggs. They’re also known for dive-bombing the people who work at McMurdo station.

I watched the bird (from a distance), hop about the rocks and circle in the air for a bit, paying no attention to me. It’s incredible to think that this bird would come into this desolate valley simply to lay a single egg when there’s no food source around. This also means there’s no predators. As I realized this, it occurred to me why the small ‘burrow’ nest was over open ground – the skua had nothing to fear. There were perfectly accessible protected sites nearby where it could defend territory easier. But this bird lays its egg in the wide open simply because there’s been no predatory pressure to teach it otherwise. How cool is that?

After spending an inordinate amount of time observing the bird and egg from an incredible distance*, I walked back to my tent.

All in all, I was able to walk to the sea ice and back in around 4 hours, finishing at the early hour of 1am. 9pm to 1am, bright as day, alone in places where no one has walked, and in short sleeves. What a good night.

*To NSF or Raytheon employees who may read this: ALL photos were taken with a huge 300mm telephoto lens from a distance of over a hundred feet, abiding by environmental non-disturbance rules.