Saturday, November 27, 2010

Happy McMurdo Thanksgiving!!

I know you all are thinking, "what? That has already passed."  McMurdo moves it's holidays to the closest Saturday because the staff and scientists get part or all (depending on your group) of Sunday off, but they work the rest of the week.  So, although Thanksgiving has come and gone in the states, it is now turkey day at McMurdo!

This morning I participated in the McMurdo 5K Turkey Trot!  All I can say is, there are big hills here!  Although I was a bit plagued with breathing issues, the run was alot of fun.  There were about 100 participants and it was actually a timed race with numbers and everything (I now have a race number from the "Antarctic Racing Series"!!).

Everyone lined up at the start.  A lot of people dressed in costume (the banana in the front row is one of my roommates).

Coming in to the finish (being chased down by Pocahontas)

My race number!

This afternoon my lab group volunteered to help out in the kitchens.  A ton of work goes into Thanksgiving here!  There are 4 separate eating times that everyone signs up for ahead of time.  I was in charge of cutting cheese.  I cut 4 huge wheels of cheese in to little squares -- but they were not as nice and even as they were supposed to be.

Dinner was delicious!  It consisted of some of the traditional fare (mashed potatoes, yam casserole, green bean casserole, stuffing, and turkey.  However, they also had giant king crab legs -- which were delicious!!

Minus the hours of doing dishes in the lab between the run and working in the kitchen, it was a memorable Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 26, 2010

The First Field Day at the Cotton Glacier

Yesterday was our first big field day.  I was so excited to finally escape the lab after this week and get back outside!!  Our primary field site is located at the Cotton Glacier, which is about an hour helicopter ride from McMurdo station.  The trip was gorgeous -- it was slightly overcast in the morning, but it was beautiful as the clouds spread out.
McMurdo from the helicopter!

 Clouds over the coast
Ice breaking away from the coastal line

As we flew over the coast, we passed a bunch of black looking spots, which the pilot confirmed were a bunch of Adelie penguins!  These penguins are one of the most common species found in Antarctica (total of 7 different species found here).  Even though they just look like little black spots, I took a bunch of pics -- which was pretty funny.
The tiny black dots are really penguins, I promise!

We had a lot of work to get done during the day, so we had planned to have around 9-ish hours of ground time at the glacier.  Our actual work takes place in the primary surface meltwater stream on the glacier surface.  However, when you are actually in the channel, it looks like you are in the middle of some sort of bizarre desert.  There are sand dunes everywhere, with rippled surfaces from the strong winds.  However chunks of ice stick up through the sand in random spots throughout the channel.

We collected several short ice cores, which will be melted under controlled conditions to examine bacteria content.
My teammate Heidi (left) and one of the Principle Investigator pulling our first core out of the manual ice core drill.

We also set up a Meteorological station that one of my teammates Mike has tirelessly been working on.  It was pretty impressive once he got the whole thing set up.  There is a "Plant Cam" attached to the side (little green box) which takes a picture at a set interval so that we can monitor stream flow and changes in the channel when we are not out in the field.  The station also has a temperature guage, a wind direction/speed propeller, relative humidity gauge, a li-core (involving CO2 measurements) and a solar panel to power it all!  I learned a lot helping mike get all of the various gadgets wired up!
Intense concentration setting up the solar panel to power the station.

 The completed weather station

We deployed a bunch of other sensors including temperature and pressure sensors for the streams.  Through the pressure sensors, we can calculate stream height.  We also collected 60L of water to filter for various analyses back at the lab!  We had an enjoyable but long field day.  Our pick up time was scheduled for 7:45pm, so around 7:00, we started gathering up all of our gear near where the helo was going to land.  As it got later, the temperature began to drop and we tried to stay active to keep warm.  We were doing jumping jacks, short laps, sit ups, and attempted some yoga poses.  However, in the amount of clothing we were wearing, just moving around was difficult -- the sit-ups were pretty hilarious since none of us could sit up in our giant jackets!  We even got creative and started making people pyramids!
Ta da!

However, as 7:00 rolled around, the clouds moved in blanketing the upper valley and the temperature began to drop.  By 7:30, only a small window at the end of the valley was open.  The helicopters don't fly in heavy cloud cover or fog, and we started to get a little apprehensive.  We had survival bags with us (that contain sleeping bags, a tent, a camp stove, and dehydrated meals), so we would be fine for the night, but possibly unhappy.  7:45 came and went and we all still sat with our grear.  By 8:15 I was getting a bit worried and not super excited about employing my new skills from happy camper on my very first day out in the field.  8:30 rolled around and Christine (our Principal Investigator) pulled out the satellite phone to call into the base to see what was going on.  As she was trying to get it warmed up and turned on, at around 8:45 we all heard the distant, whop, whop, whop, of the helicopter blades -- we were going to get back to McMurdo.  Thank goodness.

On the way back our pilot spotted the same group of penguins that we saw on the way out, but he flew us really low down to the ground so we could get a better look!  It was great!!  Unfortunately, I was on the wrong side of the helicopter to really see them well, but I still got a few pics!  They were so cute.  Whenever there was a hole in the ice, it was filled with the penguins swimming in the water.

Overall, it was a long but fun first day out in the field.  I was glad to finally escape the lab and spend some time outside on the Cotton Glacier!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Happy Camper!

I just wanted to start off with a few fun facts about McMurdo Research Station. McMurdo is located on the Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island at 77 degrees, 51 min S 16 degree 40 min E. It is actually built on volcanic rock nearby the active volcano, Mount Erebus. According to the McMurdo station website, the peninsula where the station is located is the ground furthest south accessible by ship.

I arrived back to McMurdo yesterday afternoon from several busy days at Snow School. It was a blast – 2 days of survival training and 1 night sleeping out on the ice! We had beautiful weather, or rather as nice of weather as you can get in Antarctica. It was around the twenties (degrees F) when we left the station, with clear skies and gusty winds (temp with wind chill = 3 deg F). The winds died down at night, but the temperature dropped to about 1 deg F.

The camp started with lectures about risk management and proper layering for life on the ice. Then we were driven out past the station to the McMurdo Ice shelf. For those of you who are not familiar with the terminology, the ice shelf is region of the glacier that flows down and spreads out, whereas the sea ice is1 formed when the ocean surface freezes. The airstrip of McMurdo is currently out where the ice shelf meets the sea ice. Later in the season, we will apparently see water there. One of my labmates told me that our flights back home will actually be from another airstrip located further in on the ice shelf.

A view of Scott Base (which is the New Zealand research base) from the Happy Camper campsite.

All of our luggage and gear piled high to survive a night on the ice.

Once in the field we learned about setting up camp stoves, building snow walls to prevent wind/storm damage to tents, setting up tents, and my favorite part of the camp was digging snow trenches! It was awesome! We dug out these trenches in the snow and then cut out blocks to make a roof. I actually spent the night in my snow trench ;-). Some people got really elaborate with their trench design, but I was so tired after just digging it out I lost steam on making it pretty.

We set up enough tents to keep me happy for awhile. There were 2 Scott tents (which are the pyramid-shaped tents made out of a heavy canvas material; they were super heavy but really warm and apparently can even be used as a cook tent in a pinch) and 7 mountain tents (which are the lightweight backpacking tents). I have never actually set up a tent on the surface of a glacier. The snowpack is fairly dense, so you can wrap the guy lines around a short stick (we used small bamboo poles) and then bury the stick, allowing us to use a trucker's hitch on the ropes to tighten them up!

Our beautiful snow retaining wall that gaurded our tents from unexpected storms that could blow in during the night.

Four of our 7 mountain tents we erected for the night.

Josh stuck in the entrance to his snow trench ... He got a little carried away with closing it off.

Home sweet home!

Snug as a bug in a rug in my snow trench

This was taken from inside an awesome igloo that Cheryl (another happy camper) and I found on our walk during the evening. It was a remnant from a previous Happy Camper camp, but had frozen solid so it was still standing strong!

Ready for bed inside the snow trench ;-)

The lessons continued on day 2. We awoke at 6 am to break down the camp so that everything was completely packed and ready to go for our 8:30 "pick-up," when our stuff was wisked away to the instructor's hut which was only about a 1/4 mile away (we walked ;-). That morning we learned about radios and used a really old school HF radio to contact both McMurdo and the station at the South Pole! Camp ended with us acting out a couple of "practice scenarios." One of them was essentially that we needed to use the survival bag to establish camp and radio the station during horrible weather. It was essentially rushing about doing everything we had learned the previous day: set up the tent, build a snow wall, set up the HR radio, get the stove going, make some water (I thought I was done with putting up tents!). The other was a bit more fun. The scenario was that we were in a massive blizzard and visibility was essentially zero. One of the group ventured out to the bathroom, but didn't make it back. We had to safely conduct a search for the lost group member. In order to simulate blizzard conditions, every time we stepped outside we had to have a white bucket placed over our heads! It was pretty amusing, but really interesting to brainstorm with the group how to go about the search without placing anyone else in danger. Overall, I had a blast at snow school. Although most of the things I learned won't be useful at our actual field camping site (which is located in the Dry Valleys where there is no snow on the ground), it was really interesting information to learn and a lot of fun to practice!

Arrival at McMurdo!

Sorry! I meant to post this several days ago, but I got swept up in snow school, so here it is:

We arrived in McMurdo after a 5 hr plane ride on a C-17, which is a pretty large cargo plane. There was a lot of build-up in Christchurch before our departure. Apparently there was a real risk of “boomerang-ing” which happens when the weather is really bad when the plane gets to Antarctica. Apparently, when this happens they often have to just turn around and return back to New Zealand! The informational video we had to watch prior to our departure said that the record for boomerangs before landing was 7!! Thankfully, our travel went without a hitch. It was quite an experience to ride in the giant cavity of the plane. To be honest I liked it a lot more than the commercial travel – it was much less claustrophobic; we had plenty of leg room and they didn’t keep bothering everyone about their carry on baggage being properly stowed!

It was fun to walk around on the plane a bit during the ride and look out the few windows (there was one on each escape door).

At the airport ready to head to the ice!

When we landed it was -8 deg C (which is about 23 deg F) so it wasn’t horribly cold. It was actually quite a beautiful day. The sun was shining and there were only a few clouds in the sky! Perfect!

I was so excited to finally land in McMurdo. The station here is much larger than Toolik Station, where I worked while I was in Alaska. The population at McMurdo is slightly greater than 1,000 people, so it really is its own town. There are tons of labs and dormitories, which are basically fully equipped buildings. The lengths the staff and managers go to in an attempt to reduce the carbon footprint of this base is impressive. We separate all of our trash into different types of recycling (glass, aluminum, plastic, papers), food waste, paper products, etc. There are actually have wind turbines and some of the field camps have solar panels to supplement energy. Water is a premium here and they actually installed waterless urinals for the men, which they say save ~40 gallons of water annually!

We arrive at McMurdo!! (we are all required to travel in our extreme cold weather gear, so we all look the same in the giant red jackets).

loading into our ride to the base

McMurdo from Ivan the Terra bus! (the wind mills are on the top of hill to the right of the pic)

Tomorrow I start snow school, what is affectionately known here as “Happy Camper.” As far as I can tell, this is basically a crash course for extreme cold weather survival. We will be doing activities such as building a snow hut and learning how to navigate in a blizzard (simulated by placing buckets over your head).

We were in training sessions most of the day, so I am on a bit of information overload. This afternoon we unpacked tons of boxes and set up the lab. Although it was a lot of work, the lab is looking pretty good. When we first got here it was quite sad, with nothing on the shelves and nothing on the benches.

This evening was dishes. I washed more bottles than I wanted to think about …. Science is definitely not all glamorous ;-).

(I actually just got back from snow school yesterday, my entry on it is to follow!)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gearing up for Antarctica!

Sorry for the delay in entries – life has been fairly run-of-the-mill in Columbus as I settled into graduate life. However, I am off to my next adventure and this time I am heading south—way south—to McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica. I am part of a group that will be examining dissolved organic matter from the melt water on the surface of the Cotton Glacier. I apologize if your eyes are already glazing over, but hang in there for a couple paragraphs and let me explain this a bit more. Dissolved organic matter (affectionately known as DOM in the organic chemistry world), is a material that is found in all natural waters and is a group of complex compounds that are produced by microbial sources (for example: Phytoplankton, bacteria, etc.) and by the breakdown of terrestrial materials such as plants or animal remains. “Now, why does this really matter?” you may be asking yourself. Well, dissolved organic matter constitutes a very large carbon reservoir—which is significant for climatologists in the assessment of the transformation and distribution of carbon in the environment. The other issue is that dissolved organic carbon plays a critical role in many different chemical reactions including the transport and breakdown of pollutants in the environment. Therefore it is important to understand how this material reacts with different pollutants and what affects its reactivity.

So what does this stuff actually look like? Well, we know that DOM contains carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and sometimes nitrogen and sulfur. We generally know some of the partial chemical structures (known as functional groups), but we really don’t know what the rest of the material “looks like.” This is why we are going to Antarctica. Unlike everywhere else in the world, where the DOM is a mixture of both microbial and terrestrial sources, the Antarctic DOM is solely microbial which provides a unique opportunity to characterize the DOM. At this point, you are probably thinking, “whew, that is enough science for me!” So let me continue a little about the travel and NZ.

I left on Saturday afternoon at around 4 pm and after almost 22 hours of airplane time plus layovers, we finally made it to Christchurch, NZ where we will stage for our trip down to the ice. The travel was relatively uneventful, minus the standard unhappy babies and some turbulence. The international flight was actually by far the most enjoyable I have been on as of yet since no one sat next to me in my 4 seat section of the row so I had enough space to stretch out and actually sleep most of the way (unheard of for me on an airplane!). Once in Christchurch, we checked in at the CDC (which stands for the clothing distribution center, not the center for the disease control), grabbed a quick dinner and then completely crashed at the hotel.

My flight schedule:
Columbus to Dallas – 2 hrs 40 min
Dallas to LA – 3 hrs 15 min
LA to Aukland, NZ – 13 hrs 20 min
Aukland to Christchurch, NZ – 1.5 hrs

Today was our “clothing pull” where we were issued our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear. I unpacked and repacked everything to double check all of our chemicals for the trip made it – which they did thank goodness! I went for a run this morning through the Christchurch botanical gardens, which are absolutely beautiful. I really just needed to strech my legs and shake the airplane malase out of them! Traveling just makes me so sluggish. Before I headed to the CDC, I wondered about Christchurch– browsed through a bunch of little shops, watched a giant chess match (see pics below), and listened to a choir sing in the huge cathedral in the town square. It was nice morning. I better head to bed now, we have another big day of traveling tomorrow – I think it is about a 5-6 hr flight down to the ice! I'm going to do my best to keep you all updated, but I hear the connection is slow down at McMurdo!

Our Extreme Weather Clothing Selection

My mess of baggage!!

The giant chess game in the square