From the Negative 71st Parallel, (Near) End Transmission (via NYTimes)

10,000 words later, it’s time for the finale: http://nyti.ms/ZDyQei

My sincerest thanks to everyone who has been reading my work these last few years. Without you, the little blog would not have become so big, and this series would not have been possible. I look forward to what the future holds and what the next adventure will bring.

Stay tuned.
Michael

Antarctica, the sequel.

 

Hello everyone,

I’ve just returned from my second season in the Antarctic where a small team of us went down to go SCUBA diving in a permanently ice-covered lake. We didn’t have internet access during our time there, but now that I’m back I will be posting regular updates. (spoiler alert: I didn’t die this season)

But it’s with added enthusiasm that I mention that my first series of posts won’t appear here: for this season my writing has been picked up by the New York Time’s Scientist at Work blog. I’ll be writing about 6 posts for them, and will be sure to put those links here as they come out. Once that series has come to a close, check back for added material and extra videos as they come out later.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned,

Michael

Three Months

I’ve left the field. I’m back at McMurdo and in one more day I’ll be off the continent. I was in the Valleys for 3 months.

Month 3: Finished, complete, happy

The Dry Valleys are without a doubt the most incredible place I’ve been. What enamors me about this continent is how little of it is known and how much remains to be discovered. More than half of what I’ve learned about Antarctica has been from the people I’ve encountered. Most of the stories, the history, and even the scientific and geographic details of the continent are housed within the memories of seasoned residents. There is no Wikipedia page for many of the places I’ve been and the only source of information are facts passed from person to person. Indeed, many of the most interesting stories here aren’t written in any books, though it means I have no way of checking their validity. For instance, during World War II the Nazis apparently flew over the continent and dropped flags as a statement of military prowess. There’s also an old abandoned Soviet base covered by snow, where a statue of Lenin pokes out of the ice as the last remnant of past inhabitants.  Whole mountain ranges, lakes, and rivers are known to be trapped under the 2 kilometer thick ice of East Antarctica. In Beacon Valley, there are rock covered glaciers with the oldest ice in the world (8.1 million years) that are only now beginning to be analyzed. And no one really knows why Blood Falls is Blood Falls in Taylor Valley.

I’m only left to imagine what else lies outside of my brief glimpse of the continent. My experience here has been one of relative comfort in a polar desert, devoid of dramatic Antarctic wildlife. The Valleys are one of the driest places on Earth, an irony that has been hard for me to grasp given my daily work with rivers and streams.

This experience has been the realization of a dream I had for three years. I am not a winter person, so Antarctica seemed like a logical ambition. I pursued the idea of working in Antarctica harder than any plans I’ve created before, and the excitement of getting this position has only been matched by the enjoyment of living here. What I thought would be a singular pursuit has become something I plan to make a career out of. Just hours away from leaving, I’m consumed with thoughts of how to come back next year.

My last night in the Valleys I stayed up late to enjoy some peace and quiet as the others slept. It was a windless night as I sat out in the 3 am sun. The silence of that evening was unique to this part of the world. No humans were awake, no cars or planes or generators were running to disturb the night. The valley had no birds or insects to create a droning hum. It was in this stillness, the lack of everything, that you could hear the Earth move. Candle ice shifted on the lake with the faint sound of breaking glass. The glacier creaked and groaned as its weight shifted. Sand would slide softly down the hill. But as the temperature cooled, signifying the coming winter, the thick lake ice cracked like a gunshot and the boom echoed across the valley.

I’ll miss this place.

Transport

As the nomadic team of the Dry Valleys we had the most helo hours of any of the Long Term Ecological Research projects. The fact that many of our streams are on opposite ends of Taylor Valley, Wright Valley, and within the greater Dry Valley region meant that we had a lot of helicopter flights. I’ve been so spoiled.

The biggest helicopter available to scientific groups in Antarctica is the Bell 212, commonly called a ‘Huey’. These double-engined beasts are basically all-purpose flying pickup trucks. They’re used down here to transport as many as 8 passengers and huge amounts of equipment. The popular model during the Vietnam War, we generally only used these helos when flying with heavy loads of gear or with more than 3 passengers.

Fancy truck

Bell 212 landing at F6

The AS350, or ‘A-Star’, is the model that we flew on most of the time. Built to accomodate 4 passengers and a lighter cargo weight, these zippy helos are my favourite to ride in. Large passenger windows, car seatbelts, quicker loading/unloading process, and a hell of a lot smoother ride makes the A-Star infinitely more comfortable.

The 3-bladed A-Star

Not bad to look at from behind

At the beginning of the season I had never been in a helicopter before. Now, after a total of 43 hours in a helo, I’m well and truly addicted.

The other night I was talking about my love of flying to one of the helo mechanics. He replied: “Are you effing crazy? 40,000 moving parts all held together by one little pin. There’s no way I’m getting inside one of those.” It was like listening to a chef say he doesn’t eat his own cooking.

I’ll admit it. I’ve looked into getting a pilot’s license.

Home

It’s a hard concept to define.

The season is coming to an end and it’s sadly time to close down camp. I’ve lived here for 3 months but have hardly mentioned it, so here is a description of the place that gives me pangs to pack up:

We’ve spent most of our time at a place called F6. Named for the stream site it sits next to, it’s comprised of a small hut surrounded by several flat tent sites. The building itself is divided into two sections – one half is a dedicated lab space where we dress up in white coats and pretend to be important, and the other half serves as a kitchen/eating area. The building is small – each of the two rooms is only 10ft x 20ft – but it fits three people incredibly comfortably. It’s a prefabricated structure, and so while tiny, it’s so heat efficient that we only turned on our heater for a total of 2 weeks out of our 3 month season. The roof is painted black to increase the absorbtion of solar radiation, and the double-thickness walls are stuffed with baby-penguin feathers and imported kittens to serve as insulation.

Guests from base help pack up the lab

Our lab has supplies for filtering water samples, a fume hood for toxic gases, and enough scrap supplies to rebuild a gauge box in the event that it’s destroyed by wind/glaciers/the second coming. Several different sorts of emergency eye washes and absorption towels line the walls on the chance that we are unfortunate enough to have a chemical spill.

Our gym?

Between the lab and the kitchen is an exciting area of the hut that we often refer to as ‘the doorway’. This underappreciated space contains not only our refrigerator (seemingly redundant in Antarctica), but our pull-up bar that serves as our only means of staying fit.

Disassembling the kitchen

After an exhausting 6 foot distance to the opposite end of the building, our kitchen contains the precious Cinnamon Toast Crunch and coffee that provide me the motivation to wake up in the morning. We have a propane stove top and a sink fixture that leads into a grey water bucket. The technical piece of equipment in the right hand side of the photo converts and regulates the input from our solar panel to our storage batteries. There is no electrical lighting in F6 – the 24 hour sun provides quite enough light for both indoor light and for our power needs: our solar panel is sufficient for our limited power draw and we rotate it by hand 4 times a day.

Renewable Energy

Outside of the hut there are a number of rather unsightly items that are necessary for running a field camp that is off-the-grid and self-sufficient. Several 55-gallon barrels are stacked near each other. While hard to distinguish, they have different contents: most are grey water/urine barrels, one contains AN8 fuel, another is regular gasoline, and some are propane.  The fridge and the stove run on propane while our ATV runs on gas. I’m still trying to figure out what we have that uses AN8.

My tent at F6

There are no living quarters inside F6. This means that we live in 4-season mountain tents and -40 degree sleeping bags for the entire season. I slept wonderfully. The constant exposure to the sun meant that I could wake up to a tent that sometimes reached a blazing hot 25C (77F). On cold nights the dryness of the air meant that no condensation would form inside the tent. Spacious, warm, and dry, it is difficult not to feel at home.

Room for two

A view to wake up to

The outhouse. I’ve decided to spare readers the grim reality of it, so to describe it succinctly: a bucket. But damn if the view’s not good.

The great outdoors

F6 will be missed.

Miers Valley

Some of our stream sites are gauged only once a season because of their unique location. This last week we had the chance to go to one of the more remote and less visited valleys of the region: Miers Valley. As we headed south from our field camp our helo pilot informed us that we were the first American group he’d heard of to visit Miers this year (there’s a small isolated Kiwi camp of 4 researchers at the head of the valley).

We broke up into two teams for our visit. The first was dropped off at the west end of lake where the major stream system enters. They were to measure the amount of water going into the lake, while I was dropped off at the other end of the lake to measure how much water was leaving.

Miers on the right, Adams on the left

Miers is a much smaller valley than Taylor (where I live); roughly 1/3 the size. Being further south it has a phenomenal view of the Royal Society Mountain Range which acts as a protective barrier to keep the East Antarctic Ice Sheet at bay. The visual feature defining Miers are the two glaciers that form a crescent at the beginning of the valley. These glaciers are actually flowing in a curved rather than straight direction.

Cairn for something important

As our short three hours in Miers came to a close, I noticed the remnants of an old field camp site. Cairns marked a historic science site and footprints ringed a flattened patch of disturbed gravel where a tent used to be.

Since we’ve been hiking a lot this season to conserve helo hours, we also had the chance to get an extra set of measurements and explore a bit more of a valley I described a few posts back: Garwood Valley. The major feature of Garwood is a subterranean river that cuts through the bottom of a glacier and winds under the Earth to emerge at odd intervals down valley. Our first visit to the valley was exploratory in every sense of the word – we were dropped off at an arbitrary location, had vague GPS coordinates of where the valley was measured years before, and had nothing but our feet and a profound lack of a direction to guide us.

Garwood Valley. "Same-same, but different" view of the the Royal Societies

On our second time through we were prepared with recent GPS locations and my faltering memory to ensure that we were measuring the exact same spots as earlier in the season (replication is the key to data collection). As I held the GPS upside-down and wandered along the length of the river, I came across a section that I hadn’t seen previously: the spot where the river dives down into the Earth and becomes subterranean for the first time. It was epic.

The Earth splits apart.

The river cut jagged walls in the dirt leaving exposed boulders that fell apart as I stood there. It descended 30 feet straight down and the waterfall’s mist created huge 6 to 10 foot icicles that lined the cavern’s entrance. It was the single most impressive river site I’ve seen down here.

You can see it falling apart on the right side

My final photo below wasn’t taken in either Miers or Garwood Valley, but rather was shot when I was out doing some deconstruction near Taylor Glacier this weekend. As my teammate and I were disassembling an old stream gauge he noticed a small face peering out of the moraine. An old seal mummy was being buried underneath the accumulating boulders and gravel that collect at the end of Taylor Glacier. Only the jaws remained exposed. Even as I took the picture sand and rubble were coming down the edge of the moraine making it clear that this would be the the last time that the several hundred year old corpse would be seen.

Soon to be buried

Science! Part Two

Thus far I’ve managed to evade discussing much of my work other than a brief, poorly written post awhile back with paragraphs stitched together from broken sentences. I received a few messages from people still confused with what I do, and after 2 months I’m proud to say that I now understand at most 20% of the science behind my ‘job’. How about another science lecture?

Stream Flow. The biggest consumption of our time is spent measuring the amount of water flowing from the glaciers to the lakes. Unlike temperate glaciers, the hydrology (water system) of polar glaciers are such that they are frozen most of the way through, while in temperate glaciers there is an internal system of flowing water. This means that most of the water flowing from a polar glacier comes from the exposed surface of the glacier that is melted by the constant 24-hour sun. This surface water then flows down the side of the glacier (sometimes as dramatic waterfalls) and collects into streams that flow downhill into the lakes of the valley. A separate research group is constantly measuring the mass of these glaciers, and another group is measuring the size of the lakes. The data that we collect can tell you how much of the glacial melt is actually reaching the lake and contributing to the lake’s rise and fall.

As good-looking as a bass fisher

Another way of measuring flow: Acoustic Doppler Velocimeter. Photo Credit: Seth Davidson

To measure stream flow we get dressed up in incredibly sexy hip waders (as worn by such athletic models as sports fishermen) and we hold something called a pygmy meter in the flow. A pygmy meter looks like a small spinning weather vane with cups. It makes a clicking sound with every full rotation. We count the number of clicks per minute or so, and this tells us the velocity of the water. We then measure the width and depth of our stream section to give us total area. Multiply area and velocity and viola! stream discharge. If you graduated 5th grade then you’re completely capable of the calculations we do.

Shiny

(If you’re currently losing interest with the dry science talk, I can truly promise that it will not get any more interesting. YouTube is just a click away.)

Stream Chemistry. Whenever we visit one of our sites we always collect a water sample for analysis. What we’re looking for are things like nutrients, cations (potassium, sodium, etc), anions (nitrates, sulfates, etc), pH, oxygen content, etc. Sound dull? Check this: the chemistry of streams just a mile apart can be completely different despite coming off the same glacier. What’s more is that a transition in glacier stream chemistry can be detected as we look at streams closer to the ocean vs streams closer inland. For instance: Streams more inland are much higher in nitrates because these chemicals collect from the atmosphere on the polar plateau and gradually move towards the exposed part of the glacier where our streams are. In contrast, streams closer to the sea have higher sulfate levels because the ocean air contributes different chemicals to those glaciers.

Our ultra high-tech lab for filtering water samples

What’s also cool is how the life in a stream can affect the chemistry. Some of our sites have thick algae and moss mats – truly the only visible permanent life in the valleys. This black, orange, or green gunk consumes what limited resources are in the water, so we find very little nitrates in the streams with large algal mats.

Different kinds of algae within our streams. Photo credit: Seth Davidson

Surveying. We have 17 sites in the valleys that have year-round computer monitoring of water height, temperature, conductivity, loneliness, etc. Way back in time (1993 I think) when these sites were installed the original researchers established elevations of the equipment and the stream. Every year during the beginning (November) and end (January) of the season we survey the elevation of our sites. We do this because elevations can change for a number of reasons: ground thaw during November, crazy massive flooding during the summer’s peak, or ground freezing during January/February.

Every guy measures at least once. Photo Credit: Seth Davidson

When we put flow, chemistry, and surveying all together we end up with a fairly good picture of the dynamics of glacial streams. While many of our sites are pretty same-same, certain questions begin to pop up. Why does one stream have huge algal mats while only a half-mile from another that has none? Why does our Blood Falls stream site still flow at -6C water temp, smell like the ocean, and look like carbonated soda? What the hell am I exactly doing here? Many things will remain a mystery, but the exciting parts about science are the cool new doors that one discovery will open up.

For those of you that made it through this I applaude you heartily. I myself fell asleep twice while writing. It’s amazing how comfortable a -40C sleeping bag is with a pack of Chips Ahoy within arm’s reach. Tomorrow is another day of big science. I’m excited.

Hard at work. Photo Credit: Seth Davidson