Yellowknife

I’m just happy the knife’s there.

This relatively large sub-arctic town represents the midway point for my trip north. While it’s actually fairly far up at latitude 62°N , Yellowknife’s (summer) climate is fairly mild when compared to other areas of Canada’s North. It’s governed by a more ‘continental’ type climate as opposed to an ‘oceanic’ type, and so has more extreme winter lows and summer highs. “Oceanic” climates tend to have warmer winters, but colder summers, as the surrounding ocean heavily moderates seasonal air temperature change by acting as a heat sink/source. ‘Continental’ climates are surrounded by large landmasses and don’t have as large a heat sink/source, so this is where winters dip crazy cold, but summers can reach a balmy high. This phenomena caused by large bodies of water actually explains why the Antarctic is so much colder than the Arctic – the Arctic is a frozen ocean surrounded by land, whereas the Antarctic is a frozen continent surrounded by the ocean. So the interior Antarctic gets MUCH colder than the interior Arctic. But either way you slice it it’s miserably cold here in winter. But summers are lovely.

10 hours to Yellowknife, then 8 hours to Eureka. Canada’s a big country.

Which brings me to my wonderfully summery stay in Yellowknife. I was lucky enough to have a one-day layover to wait for my baggage to come up, so I took the opportunity to tour the town and see the sites. And what a town it is. This speck up north is the administrative capital of the Northwest Territories. When I first heard the name Yellowknife and saw it on a map, I imagined igloos, ice, and a desolate little village. It’s anything but. Yellowknife sits comfortably at a population of over 19,000 (and growing) and has high-rises, asphalt roads, and a well-developed downtown. Rush-hour (if you could call it that) even gets so busy that the main drag is littered with traffic lights. The town itself is divided into Oldtown and Downtown. Oldtown is a collection of old buildings and residences, some dating to the original exploration of the north. These are beautifully positioned onto or next to Great Slave Lake – the deepest lake in North America and the ninth largest lake (by volume) in the world. This is where I chose to stay and enjoy the peace and quiet provided by a lakeside B & B.

My dream home.

My dream home.

The Downtown is the exact opposite of Oldtown, it’s bustling, busy, and provides all the trappings that you would expect of any major city. You have your chain grocery stores, your fastfood shops, and plenty of government administrative buildings. Driving nearly all of this success in the north is the insatiable urge that southerners have for diamonds. Yes. The major industry of the Northwest Territories is diamond mining. The minerals are so abundant and plentiful that it puts Canada as the third largest producer of diamonds world-wide. This economic boom has attracted people from all corners of Canada. Indeed, when I asked people in town what the hell would bring them all the way up here, the number one answer was work, and that work is industry. But in order to support all this development, a lot of civilian infrastructure goes in place and those jobs need to be filled, which helps to explain my newly immigrated Chinese taxi driver, the Somali grocer, and the other wonderful diversity this far north.

View of Yellowknife’s high-rises from across the lake.

Arctic hustle and bustle.

Arctic hustle and bustle.

But despite the wonderful attractiveness of this city in summer, and despite the economic boom it’s undergoing, there are huge social problems that exist just beneath its service. When walking through the downtown or the myriad of gorgeous park trails that surround the city, it becomes abundantly clear that Canada’s aboriginal population hasn’t experienced the same good fortune as the rest. There’s a palpable division between the First Nations aboriginal groups and the other, mainly white, Canadians. I had a good conversation with a few locals that helped put these things in context:

I had been walking around an 8km trail next to a nearby lake and had stopped to enjoy the sun. After a short while, a group of First Nations people (they were from different tribes) came up and sat with me. They were the first people to make an effort to talk to me and we got to chatting about Yellowknife. After 40 minutes, I was blown away with the normalcy with which they talked about drug abuse, alcohol abuse, arson, rape, and other things that mainly plagued the city’s aboriginal population. Being in southern Canada you always hear about the high level of social problems up north. But it was utterly depressing to hear people talk about it as normal. The people that stopped to talk to me were wonderful and (content aside) pretty damn hilarious. As they went to leave they told me “you’re not so bad for a white guy,” which leads me to believe that there’s not much positive interaction between the two main groups in the city. I’m not a historian, and not being a Canadian myself, I’m not fully aware of the history or social contexts in which these societal discrepancies exist. But what I do know is that the racial undertones in town were so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Packing

I’m back after last year’s hiatus. I did go into the field, but due to a continually down internet connection and an enthusiasm lower than the mercury level I wasn’t able to properly write about that field season. I went north, explored sites, slightly injured myself, and needed a helicopter rescue. In short, a success.

But this season I’m back in full force. I’m headed north now in charge of my own project, my own field camp, and an almost total degree of autonomy. It’s been a change in scale and responsibility that I had entirely underestimated. Being a lackey on someone else’s project is a lot of work, and at times stressful, but in the end you get to wash your hands of the responsibility of a failed endeavor. Knowing that the success or failure of this particular season is on your shoulders changes the game. So why the change in pressure? This is the first official season of my PhD where I have to implement my thesis design. And that’s the last I’ll mention of that damn thing. Life is bigger than grad school.

So what kind of changes does that mean for this season? This year I’m setting up my own field camp on Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian High Arctic. An assistant and I will be sleeping in tents surrounded by electrified dental floss and a nervously loaded shotgun (for the polar bears, not each other). We’ll be collecting data and hiking around to places that have only been explored by satellite images. It should be fun.

However, my season has started before I’ve even arrived. At the moment I’m on a plane headed to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories where I’ll have a day long layover until I fly further north. But the last month has been an ulcer-inducing, sleepless struggle to get things ready.  For a simple field camp I’ll be taking in 200 pounds of scientific gear, 100 pounds of personal gear, and a further 300 pounds of camp gear. Add to this the stress that it’s not possible to ship directly to Ellesmere and what you have is a nightmare. The cost of shipping to Resolute (the furthest north you can fly/ship commercially) is $15 per kilo or about $7.50 per pound. This accumulates very fast. Mix into this a fistful of regulatory permits, overweight baggage restrictions, limiting funding, and the looming threat that there’s only one flight a month to where I’m going. It’s been a stressful few months preparing and now that I’m on my way to Yellowknife there’s nothing left to do but sit back and hope that all that checked baggage went through. Otherwise, it will be an interesting time in the Arctic.

So it’s with cautious optimism that I approach this field season. I may arrive and find that this season is harsher than previous years, and a prolonged snowstorm would make it impossible to even begin my work. I may get there and find that my baggage didn’t get on that one flight a month. Or I may get there to find that the bears have developed a profound taste for humans. At least I get a layover in Yellowknife first. It’s warm there, right?

The yellow bag fits a human.

MARS

Geologic history

It’s a fitting acronym for the small camp I’ve spent my season in. Canadian Space Agency projects run through the McGill Arctic Research Station use Axel Heiberg as a Mars analogue site for research on polar desert landscapes. The idea is that the climatic conditions and geological history of this area of the Arctic (as well as those of the Dry Valleys) share many similarities to the conditions on Mars, and by examining these processes on Earth we can then apply what we learn to our friendly red neighbor.

A dark and stormy night

These are just on the walls to try and make us look cool.

Being trapped here comes with a relative level of comfort you wouldn’t expect given our location. The kitchen hut is a half-century old structure that feels like you’re cooking in a museum’s storeroom. The view from the outhouse (barrel) looks out across a massive glacier with the sounds of the floodplain in the distance. As if these weren’t perks enough, the central work/sleeping hut is about as cushy as any outdoorsman (or woman) would want. The back half of the building is the sleeping quarters with military style bunks and all sorts of expedition gear lining the walls: ice axes, rescue rope, flares, and the odd radio or two left over from 1960.

The social hub.

The front half of the building serves as the main work center and social area of the camp. Our communication gear is perched in the corner, surrounded by the lab and computer space needed for processing scientific samples and checking facebook. Miscellaneous parts line the walls of the room and a central Preway heater runs on diesel to heat the building. During the lonely polar storms there’s an emergency library stocked with the latest Nora Roberts books and the complete Twilight series to keep the spirits up.

The expedition's library.

It’s interesting to think that someplace so remote is set to become a second home. In a mix of design and good fortune I’ll be returning to this spot in the North several times over the next four or five years. Beginning this coming January I’ll be starting graduate school to look at how the changing climate influences ice and in turn the sensitive biological ecosystems that surround it. The unjustly lucky aspect of this work is that Axel is not the only potential research site, but much of the Canadian Arctic and even the Antarctic.

The long journey forward

Regardless of where the research takes place I’m set to return to Axel to continue working on the station, even during different times of the year. The prospect of coming back over several years, watching seasons change, living with the potential terror of being eaten by a bear – these are things that allow someone to become intimately familiar with an environment on a personal level. As I finish my first season in the North there is no worry about my ability to return or an emotional feeling of conclusion – only the excitement that for one reason or another, at some time in the near future, I’ll be back. At this moment there is potential for everything, and that is something to look forward to.


Construction

It's alive.

The largest single project of our field season has been the construction of a new kitchen hut for the field camp. While the building of a 24′ x 16′ structure may not call for much celebration in more southerly latitudes, things move slower in the Arctic. As the station is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary it’s incredible to see that the eating quarters have remained relatively unchanged since the beginning. We still use the original 12′ x 16′ structure built 50 years ago. Floorboards squeak, decades old food, and a chronological collection of (unopened) Spam containers through the ages are just a few of the memorabilia that decorate this living museum. As it’s only a few decades younger than some of the expeditioners’ huts in the Antarctic it really does have the feel of being a living piece of history. At the moment it can cook/feed about 6 people at a time in relative comfort, although it has served far greater groups in the recent past. While the mystery and sense of adventure when opening up old boxes will be missed, the completion of the new hut will be a wonderful doubling of the floor space and a vast improvement on quality of life. Fret not however that the living museum will be torn down – instead it will be re-outfitted as a reading room/library stocked with all the Nora Roberts books one needs to survive in the lonely Arctic.

Cleaning the mud after the rain.

Our new building has been a crash course on what it means to be Amish. Every piece of it was built from scratch, and aside from a miter saw and a drill, there were no power tools or pneumatic equipment. All the trusses for the roof were built by hand, the ground was leveled using a shovel, and the color of my thumb nail provides testimony to the epic number of nails put into the kitchen.

The view

The new kitchen hut has been perched on a gorgeous ridge that overlooks Colour Lake and Wolf Mountain in one direction and a massive glacier in the other. While this ridge at first looked to be rather level it still involved an entire day of digging to produce the correct surface. One of the cool features incorporated into the design of this building are the adjustable “wedges” that support the three main beams of the foundation. The freeze/thaw cycle of the seasons can cause dramatic shifts in the level of the building, and these pieces of wood can be pounded in/out in order to raise/lower the specific section of the building as needed.

Sadly, we weren’t able to complete the building this season. However, the main structure is up and it has been weather-proofed for the coming winter months. Not much remains to be done for next summer – simply adding in the windows and adding insulation to the interior of the building. Oh, and building the patio. Why build a ridge-top chalet in the Arctic without a patio?

This is the time-lapse video I did of the absolute start to near finish of our construction project (the music is by the incomparable Michael Stearns). Building in the Arctic is not just working on a static landscape – the environment is a dynamic, moving force that is constantly in motion around us and interacting with us while we work. The rolling fog, the rain, the ice shifting across the lake with the changing wind: these are all things that are easy to miss when our heads are down making sure we don’t hammer nails into our fingers. Enjoy!

Fog

The last five days have been one of the stranger things I’ve experienced. We’ve been doing a rather large construction project at the field camp and for the most part the weather has been quite enjoyable until the last few days: one evening as we were wrapping up leveling the floor to the new kitchen hut a low level fog came rolling up the valley. And it didn’t leave for five days.

How it all started

It would be a huge exaggeration to call it extreme weather since it was generally around 1ºC and drizzling the whole time, not exactly the stuff of legend. But what made this an otherwordly feeling was that the whole valley system was socked in with this thick fog that reduced our visibility to about 100m the entire time. And since the sun never goes down, the grey color was absolutely constant. No change in hue, no change in darkness. Just days spent in a small grey bubble. We have been outside doing physical labour the whole time on a 2-hour work, 1-hour of rest/eat/dry off schedule. Days blended together and I’m confident that if dinner and breakfast weren’t different meals then time would have truly lost all meaning.

The haze rises momentarily

When the mist finally lifted for the first time and the sun broke through it was like waking up from a dream. The weather was not severe but the constant, uniform grey and lack of darkness gradually crept in and glazed over my brain in a nearly imperceptible way that numbed my senses. It’s the same feeling as sitting in an organic chemistry lecture. Or being in a casino for a week. Or painting in an apartment with no ventilation. Glad I don’t live in Seattle.

One of the clearer moments

I’ve done a time-lapse video of the project from absolute start to tolerable level of finish and should have it posted in a few days.

Logistics

The logistics of working in a research camp have facets beyond those of life at home. Skill sets that are thought of as hobbies are in reality practical techniques needed not just for survival, but to go beyond this and start accomplishing work.  The long list of things worth knowing is highly complex and something I am generally unaware of. That said, here’s the first six things that came to mind:

Logistic support

Infrastructure. There is less support infrastructure in this area of the Canadian Arctic than my field camp in the Antarctic. There are only three of us on the entire island (which is a touch smaller than Nova Scotia) and we are a minimum 2-hour flight away from our logistics support hub. It’s incredible that Antarctica can have a larger science support center than an island that’s 8 hours north of Toronto. This largely reflects the fact that Canada’s Arctic is relatively undeveloped and unexplored, and that’s incredibly appealing. It also means special safety considerations. At 7:30am and 7:00pm all field camps across the Arctic call in to the station at Resolute to report the local weather and to verify that everyone is alive and well. If a camp misses two calls in a row an emergency plane is sent out. With the flights at $2000 per hour, missing check-in isn’t a great idea so knowing how to operate an HF radio and repair the different types of communication is critical. It was also a convenient way to get the World Cup results.

Spoiled

Transportation is an essential tool. Many of the research sites can be accessed by hiking, but if the distance is great or a large amount of scientific gear is being carried different methods are used: helicopters to other valley systems or different parts of the island, ATVs over the tundra, and snowmobiles during the coldest 11 months of the year. Simply using a vehicle is not enough though – safety is a huge consideration and field repair knowledge is essential. The risks and consequences of a rollover on an ATV is amplified given that a medevac is likely days away, and a breakdown means prolonged exposure to inclement weather. Knowing how to properly use an ATV could save your life.

Medical training. Let’s say that ATV does rollover; the closest doctor to us is a flight away, so our medical kits have to contain a little more than aspirin and band-aids. Having an ultra-swanky medical kit is only as good as the user though and it’s no good having items you don’t know how to use. Anyone going in the backcountry should have first responder training, and it’s a great idea for field camps to have a field medic on staff. My personal med kit usually consists of Robitussin and a few packs of Oreos.

While I’m on Oreos: Food takes up a significantly larger portion of the day and the field party’s expectations of productivity need to reflect this. Working in the field has the pressures of time constraints and money invested in the research, so there is an internal push to work as much as possible 24/7. But learning to pace oneself is key because rushing through eating doesn’t make for happy campers. Meals are moral boosters – after long weeks of work, often with very little time off and a large degree of physical labour, being able to sit down to a warm dinner can be enough to boost the spirits for the next day’s tasks. In the end if you don’t love where you are or the work you’re doing, it’s time to go home.

Better than Aquafina

Water. Generally, this factor controls much of day-to-day tasks in the field, but at our camp on Axel Heiberg we have access to a beautiful lake with pristine water that requires absolutely no filtering or sterilization. We’re spoiled, and I enjoy that on a daily basis.

Safety practice

And lastly: firearms. While a great option for dealing with troublesome teammates, knowing which end is the barrel is essential information as a last line of defense against Canada’s terrifying white teddy bear. We’re prepared because scientific studies have proven that: Polar bears > Humans; p=.99 (Becker et al, 2008). We have all manners of flares, pepper sprays, and scare devices but polar bears are notoriously persistent. Thankfully, passing footprints are the only evidence of these animals in this field camp in the last few decades.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of aspects of fieldwork but it gives an idea of the different context we operate in. By no means am I yet able to write a how-to-guide – there are still things to learn. I don’t think there is a ‘finish’ in field education because there is a kind of art of living that takes practice and patience that comes mainly with experience. Learning to be comfortable in your environment and at peace by yourself is the foundation upon which all else is built. That and Oreos.

Axel

“Polar desert” is the term that characterizes most of the landscape of Axel Heiberg. The island gets very little precipitation, the humidity of the air is very low, and there isn’t much groundwater available to plant or animal life. The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are very much a polar desert as well, however there are vast differences between the two locations.

Well, relatively covered in life.

Green. Axel Heiberg is astoundingly green despite the polar desert definition. Plant life covers many of the valleys and the soils can support large moss communities where snow and glacial melt water collect. There are a number of gorgeous flowering species of plants and even a rather edible item called Mountain Sorrel that’s taste is quite similar to rhubarb. Despite this relative abundance of plant life (roughly 170 different vascular plant species on Axel) it’s all quite small in stature and grows very slowly due to the harsh climate and incredibly short growing season. A prime example of this is the incredible Arctic Willow. Existing far above the tree line, it is the northernmost woody plant in the world and lives happily around Arctic Canada and Greenland. The higher in the Arctic the shorter the plant, on Axel it only grows to around 10cm in height and it serves as food for the roaming muskox, caribou, and hare. This brings me to the second major difference:

Makes excellent throw pillows.

Animals. Axel is rich in animal life when compared to the Dry Valleys. I saw one bird in three months down there and I nearly had a heart attack in excitement. In my first week on Axel I’ve come across herds of both caribou and muskox, and have seen both the before and after effects of wolves on the Arctic Hare. Wolves are relatively common but the largest land carnivore in the world, the polar bear, is also known to occasionally traipse through the island. Although sighting one is rare we do carry protection in the event that one decides to become confrontational. So while the weather and one’s own (lack of) judgment are the major safety concerns in the Antarctic, the Arctic has the added concern of wildlife to deal with.

Staring at the sun

Having gone from 77º S to 79º N in such a short space of time has given me an opportunity to compare the two landscapes on a very informal level. Being able to fly over mountain ranges by helicopter gives a wide aerial perspective to witness the effects of glaciers and ice on topography, while hiking to the different study sites provides an up-close and visceral experience. But of all the readily apparent differences I’ve noticed between the two polar landscapes, telling the time of day has been the most subtle change to cause me the most confusion: the 24-hour sun rotates clockwise in the Arctic and counterclockwise in the Antarctic.

North

To the Arctic!

After four months of post-ice recovery I’ve headed north in search of the next ridiculous escapade. I’m still only vaguely aware of how I ended up here but the story goes as follows: During my Antarctic survival training I shared a tent with a researcher from McGill University. Upon hearing that I had gone to the same school and finding that my personality was tolerable enough to spend a night in very close quarters with, he offered me a position to work at the McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS) in the Canadian High Arctic to pursue research on climate change.

MARS is located in the territory of Nunavut on Axel Heiberg Island, which is located at roughly 79º North and is utterly uninhabited. But getting to this degree of latitude is no simple endeavor. To put things in perspective, Alaska is completely south of us. While getting to the Antarctic is largely arranged through the US military in uber large aircraft, flying to Axel is done by a series of “milk-runs” in small prop planes. First Air runs flights out of Ottawa to Iqaluit, after which the connecting flights north become increasingly weather dependent – heavy winds, snow storms, and caribou on the runway can all throw a wrench in travel plans. From Iqaluit a 16-seater makes a stop at Nanisivik airstrip (a narrow patch of flat space atop a mountain crest) and then on to the desolate town of Resolute on Cornwallis Island. Resolute is a gateway station to the extreme latitudes of Canada. Adventurers, thrill-seekers, and in our case, scientists, use the town as a staging area to get to Axel Heiberg, and the Polar Continental Shelf station provides the last hot shower before heading out to our field camp. We spent two days in Resolute preparing food, scientific equipment, camp supplies, and clothing – with Canada Goose generously providing me with the attire I need to survive this season.

First glimpse of Axel Heiberg

After a few nights sorting out a few thousand pounds of gear we jumped on our chartered Twin Otter and took off. The flight to Axel was two straight hours north from Resolute over barren Arctic landscape. Gravel, sand, clouds, ice. As the plane descended towards Axel the cloud cover broke to reveal an entirely different scene: jagged peaks, creeping glaciers, and green valleys that defy expectations. We landed directly on the tundra, unloaded our gear, and I watched the plane take off – knowing that I have another field season of isolation, limitless scenery, and only a vague sense of where I am to look forward to.

The midnight view from camp

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

Pressure

The dynamic movements of ice on the continent create staggeringly gorgeous formations. While I am currently surrounded by glaciers and frozen lakes, I was able to catch a glimpse of a different kind of ice sculpture earlier this season.

Around the coast of Antarctica there are many areas where the permanent ice shelves of the continent meet the winter sea ice of the ocean. Pressure ridges form during the repeated heating and cooling of the surface of the ice. The meeting of the ice shelves and the sea ice is the perfect breeding ground for these jagged ridges.

I took a walk to an undisclosed location. Without breaking any rules whatsoever, I was lucky enough to snap a few photos of my short jaunt.

When ice meets ice

Like mountains

Blues and whites

Sharp

March of the penguins

Our internet (and communication in general) has been out for the last week, preventing me from updating as frequently. Sadly it looks like we will continue to have trouble with it until the end of the season, but I will be doing my best to post again soon this weekend. It’s tricky.