Thursday, December 30, 2010

Antarctic Christmas

Beautiful blue meltwaters of the Canada glacier
I can't believe my time in Frxyell is already at an end.  The last week was so busy but we had a lot of great hikes and beautiful sights.

On Christmas eve, my group took a helo flight up the Taylor Valley, past Lake Hoare, to Lake Bonney.  This camp is similar to the camp at Frxyell, but slightly older.  It was nice to have the camp to ourselves.  I took a hike late afternoon up the hills behind the camp up to an area known as the rock garden.  It was spectacular!  In this area, the glaciers deposited giant boulders (known as glacial erratics).  However these eratics have been abraded by windblown sand and/or ice crystals, which carve out holes and smooth the surface of the rocks, a process that leaves beautiful rock-sculptures.

 The timer on my camera barely gave me enough time to get over and up into the rock, this was the best out of several tries!

More beautiful scoured ventifacts

During the evening we headed out on the lake ice via RTVs toward a waterfall of the Taylor Glacier known as "Blood Falls" due to the red coloring of the iron-rich meltwater.  There are several theories on where the iron-oxides originate, but the basic idea is that there is a pocket of old seawater underneath the glacier and a combination of microbial activity and chemistry results in the dissolution of iron from the bedrock material, which oxidizes as it is released at the tongue of the glacier.  The falls apparently were quite strongly flowing earlier this season, but since then have stopped flowing completely.  However, the red staining from the iron oxide is still readily apparent.

Taylor Glacier

A Waterfall from supraglacial melt of Taylor glacier
I thought it was difficult to really see the glacier in pics so I took a short movie 
standing infront of a plunge pool for the supraglacial melt

Blood Falls

The night was so calm and the clouds completely disappeared, so I pulled my sleeping bag outside by the water and curled up for the night.  The next morning I woke up to the bright sunshine that had impressively warmed the top of my sleeping bag.

The day of Christmas, we packed up our backpacks and headed out on the 5.5 hour hike to Hoare Lake.  We couldn't have asked for more beautiful weather or views along the way.  Those pics will follow soon!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My first few days at Fryxell

I was so excited to finally arrive at Fryxell!  I have been here for 5 days now, but we have been so busy, I haven't had much time to update!

The morning of my flight, I got at call from the helo asking if I was ready to head out a couple of hours early.  "I could be" I said jumping up.  In a rush I grabbed all my bags and shut down the lab.  I got all my stuff plus 4, 20L carboys full of deionized water for the Fryxell labs down to the helicopter pad --- and I was off to Fryxell!

It was a beautiful day, though there was a thick, low cloud cover between McMurdo and Fryxell.  We easily flew up above the clouds and the mountains looked like they were just floating in a sea of clouds.
Heading up through the clouds.

A sea of clouds

The approach of Lake Fryxell from the helo

Lake Fryxell is a small field camp sandwiched between the Commonwealth glacier and the Canada Glacier in the Taylor Valley.  The camp is composed of a commons area (called the James Way), four labs (all about the size of tool sheds), and a generator room.  The camp is powered through a combination of solar power, wind power, and generators run on diesel gas.  There is no running water, but we are located right next to Hughie River, where we collect all of our water. 

Upon my arrival, I moved into my newly vacated tent and changed into my hiking boots -- I was ready for anything.  My first few days here were spent in a similar manner to the last few at McMurdo -- in the lab filtering water!  The group had gone out that morning and collected ~40 L of water that needed to be filtered and processed for analysis either in our labs here or preserved for later analysis.

On my third day here, I finally had the opportunity to go visit the glacier!  I was so excited.  Most of the glaciers I have visited in the past have been fairly small and although awesome, could not hold a candle to the Canada or Commonwealth glaciers!  The glacier edges are amazing, with their tall precipitous slopes.

The front of the ice edge of the Canada Glacier

A close-up of the ice

I had to get one posing in front of the ice ;-)

Yesterday one of my group-mates, Heidi, and I headed out to hike part of the way up Canada Glacier to collect water and sediments from the cryoconite holes on the glacier surface.  It was a beautiful day, with little to no wind -- absolutely perfect for a hike.  In case you missed the earlier entry, cryoconite holes form due to the collection of wind-transported dust and aerosols that land on the surface of the glacier.  The particles absorb solar radiation which speeds the melting of the surrounding ice and forms a hole.  Heidi and I collected sediments and water from several of the cryoconite holes so that she can later look at factors such as bacteria productivity.

The glacier surface was fun to walk on!  The warm temperatures of the past couple weeks has sped the melting of the glacier surface and the formation of meltwater streams.  Walking across the surface had to be approached with caution since many of the streams, though on the surface of the glacial ice, are covered by a thin layer of ice and snow and thus are difficult to see.  Heidi and I both had several exciting instances of accidentally breaking through the ice when we stepped on something too thin to hold our weight.

The ice on the surface of the glacier was beautiful.  Stalactites form under many of the thin ice layers overlying the streams.  However, they all have interesting bulbus shapes probably due to the continual changes in the water height of the streams.

Funny little stalactites over the glacial meltwater streams.

At the top of the glacier are the icefalls.  This area of heavily crevassed ice forms due to changes in slope and width of the head of the glacier.  Steeper slope cause the ice in this area to move much faster than the rest of the glacier and the ice cannot accommodate these "high speeds" through elastic deformation, which results in the formation of cracks and thus the amazing crevassed icefalls!

Heidi hiking up to the beautiful icefalls 

We've been going non-stop since I arrived at Fryxell, I can't believe my time here is already half-way over.  We are heading to the Canada Glacier tomorrow morning to collect biofilms and then we are back to the labs for more sample processing!  So I will hopefully have some more pics to share soon!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

An ode to my week of science

Sorry for the lack of entries the past few weeks!  After the day with the penguins, my life sadly turned into 24-7 lab work.  I was running 3 different machines which are all located in different labs in the Crary science building in McMurdo, so I actually spent quite a while running from lab to lab.

In honor of my week of science, this entry will be about the last few things I did in McMurdo before heading out to the Field camp at Lake Frxyell!

So the main thing I have been working on is a technique to isolate dissolved organic matter (DOM).    In order to isolate the DOM, I am using a technique called Solid Phase Extraction.  The cartridges contain a solid material (the composition of which depends on what fraction you are targeting for extraction) which supposedly bonds strongly to particular compound classes.  One common type of solid phase extraction cartridge, is composed of carbon chains that are 18 carbon atoms long and thus is suitably known as a C-18 cartridge.  The carbon chains attach to the hydrophobic compounds retaining them on the cartridge.  Humic materials are commonly colored, which allows you to see to see a dark band forming as the compounds collect.  The collumn is then eluted with an organic solvent (usually methanol), which captures the DOM and pulls it out of the collumn.  This is actually pretty fun to watch since you can actually watch the colored band move down through the colllumn.  As my organic geochemistry teacher used to say, it is "Science in Action!"

Since we are dealing with glacial waters, there is extremely low concentrations of everything in the water and I have to pass almost 20 L of water (at a flow rate of ~20 mL/min) through the cartridge get any significant amount of DOM returned (you do the math on time!).  Thus, the elution of the DOM is quite an exciting event and much photo-worthy.

 My Collumn after 22 hours of pushing glacial meltwaters through -- look at the band of color!

The beginning of the methanol extraction...

Almost through ...

 Here it comes!!

Meanwhile, I washed literally 100 glass amber bottles for the return of the rest of my group to McMurdo...

Last week I also started to pack up for my venture out to the field camp at Lake Frxyell!  I started transporting everything down to the helo hanger.  The helicopter group uses these carts to organize different groups gear and get it out onto the helo pad.  They are all individually decorated with different themes and designs.  I just saw this one the other day and thought it was pretty appropriate ;-)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Antarctic Birthday

My 24th birthday was just a few days ago down here in Antarctica.  I was initially a little sad about the day, being so far from family and friends back home.  However, my team did their best to make it a great day.  Majority of my lab group are currently out at Lake Fryxell field camp so they baked me a delicious cake and sent it back on the helo in a box of "keep cold" samples.  In lieu of candles, they used yellow pipette tips around the edges and a large white tip in the middle!  It was delicious!

The last couple pieces of the apple cake!

Lab Glove Balloon sent from Lake Fryxell

My adviser also had the kitchen bake a little personal cake for me: vanilla cake with white chocolate covering and a little purple flower on top!

Although most of the day was spent working, Yo and I took a couple hours in the evening off to go for a hike around hut point.  The hike took us up on the ridge along the frozen coastline and toward the NASA observatory dome.  It was a perfect day for a hike, with temperatures up to around 40deg F!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Cape Royds Part 1

(Re-reading this, I realized there were a bunch of grammatical errors, sorry!  I think I corrected most of them -- that's what I get for working late at night!)

Escaping out to Cape Royds for the morning was an extremely welcome distraction from working in the lab.  My adviser and I hoped to collect some water from Pony Lake to test out our analyses for the various methods we are using.  When we arrived, we realized sadly our plan would not work.  The lake, which showed open water in the pictures from the “penguin cam” during the previous day, was completely frozen over.  However, the trip was not completely a bust, since I still got a lay of the land for our future sampling trip to Cape Royds.

Also … there were penguins!  The colony of Adelie penguins at Cape Royds is composed of around 4,000 penguins and is the southernmost colony of penguins in the world!  At this point in the season, the male penguins are all tending to the nests and sitting on the eggs, while the females head the (now short) journey to the ice edge to get food.  While we were there, the wind was continually blowing with gusts greater than 30 knots!  The penguins sitting on the nests all turn so that they face into the wind.  At first I thought this was a bit odd; at least from the human standpoint, we tend to turn so our backs are to the wind.  However, as the helo pilot corrected, they probably don’t want the wind going the wrong way up their feathers!

The male Adelies all keeping their eggs warm

"What are you looking at?!"

Life is rough out there on the ice ... 

Lost eggs, now frozen

Although cold, it is quite beautiful

 Another view of the mountains behind the penguins.

An Adelie posing for Yo's picture

As Yo and I approached the penguin colony, a group of about 5 females came running up to see what we were up to.  They just waddled over to us, looked us over, decided we were not interesting enough and moved on!  
For the male penguins, everything is about finding the best rock!  The Adelie penguins make their nests out of rocks, so they are constantly readjusting the rocks and finding new ones.  The males occasionally sit up on their nests and flap their little wings, which is their way of showing off their beautiful rock nests.

Rearranging rocks in the perfect nest.

 An Adelie collecting rocks for the nest.  He (or she?) collected multiple rocks while we were watching, waddling back and forth again and again

The males also occasionally argue about their rocks.  One will steal a rock from another’s nest, which causes quite a racket.  The penguin who the rock originally belong to will start squawking and flapping his wings, which causes the thief to return with the same noise and displays.

Angry Penguins!!

 This is a short video of the penguins arguing over the rock 
We also took a trip out to Shackelton's hut, but I will have to continue about the hut in my next post!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Science and Discovery Hut

Life has been hustle and bustle here at McMurdo the past few days.  I kept trying to find the time to write a post, but I get distracted so easily!  My Adviser arrived down on the ice a week ago with two of our other team members.  Jill, who will be helping out with the phytoplankton radioactive enrichment incubations and Marco, who brought all of the fun toys!  Marco is helping us characterize the geomorphology of the cotton glacier using a variety of equiptment including an RC helicopter with an additional camera (photos and video) attachment.  The helicopter can be flown down into the meltwater channels and into other regions that are too dangerous for us to travel, but allows us to still obtain pictures and video of these regions.  The helicopter also has its own GPS system that will allow us to pair photos with location and essentially map out regions of the glacier.  I sadly won't get to head out in the field in time to really watch it in action, but he took it for a test drive in the basketball gym in McMurdo, which was a lot of fun to watch!

 The Helicopter!  

The helo with it's camera mounted to the bottom.  The angle of the camera can be changed using the controller and Marco has a small screen you can wear over your eyes (makes him look like someone from Strar Trek) that allows you to see the video the camera collects in real time! 

In particular, Marco is interested in identifying cryoconites, which is basically airborne sediment (dust and soot) deposited on the surface of the glacier.  These particles absorb solar radiation and speeding the melting rate of the surrounding snow and creating holes known as cryoconite holes.  Marco has studied the cryoconites in Greenland ( and is on a search for cryoconite holes on the Cotton Glacier in Antarctica. 

As for my work, I have been mostly spending time in the lab cleaning up and trouble shooting machines.  I have been mostly focusing on the high-pressure liquid chromatograph (HPLC), which looks very much like a Rube Goldberg contraption.  We will use a size exclusion chromatorgraphy (SEC) column which will allow us to monitor the average and range of sized molecules that compose the dissolved organic matter.

On a more recreational note, after work a couple of nights ago I had the opportunity to walk out to Captain Scott’s hut from the Discovery Expedition (1901-1904).  This mission had both scientific and geographic exploration aims.  The scientific investigations included a magnetic survey and study of meteorology, oceanography, and biology.  The hut was built primarily as shelter and cooking area, but never actually lived in since the men continued living onboard their ship and working in their mobile laboratories. As I briefly mentioned before, my adviser Yo Chin is an “official” tour guide so we checked out the key and took a walk out.  It is really impressive to see all of the artifacts preserved in the cold.
 Discovery Hut Entrance Plaque

 In order to keep the hut warm, they burned seal blubber (as you can see in the photo above, the rotting remnants of which still remain in the hut )

Sheep Skulls -- I think that is what someone told me ... but they look awfully odd to me.

 A biscuit, some bottles, and an old cooking stove

 Boxes of gar and food

This box speaks for itself!

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to head out to Cape Royds for a short recognizance trip of Pony Lake.  While we were there, Yo and I visited Earnest Shackleton’s hut.  This hut housed Shackleton and his entire party of men, they even over-wintered in the hut during the winter of 1908.  The hut was left with sufficient provisions and equipment to last a team of men to stay, so there are still tons of artifacts left!  However, I have to do a bit more reading before I can really give much history about it.  We also visited a giant colony of Adelie penguins!!  I will try to get a post about the trip written as soon as I can!!

 Stay tuned, much more to come!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Observation Hill

There seem to be a lot of features and spots here called "Observation," but I suppose that is because there is a lot to see.  As I mentioned before, McMurdo is situated at the base of Mount Erebus right near Observation hill.  It is a short hike up, bout 45 min to an hour round trip, but it is one of the few hikes around here that you can do on your own without signing out and submitting your route info (known as submitting an efoot plan).  I have gone up Ob hill a couple times now, since it is an easy way to escape and from the lab for a while and clear my head in the evening or early morning.

Apparently it is new this year, but about half-way up Ob hill is this beautifully crafted wooden box, with the Antarctica Trail System logo affixed to the front.  I was so excited to open it, thinking there would be something amazing inside such a carefully crafted box!  I opened the latches and was a bit confused when all that lay inside was one of the blue trays from the cafeteria here.... what?  There was a pencil inside with the tray and everyone had signed their names on it.

At the top of the hill is a giant cross which was erected in 1913 in commemoration of Captain Scott and his men who froze to death on their way back from the South Pole on the Terra Nova Expedition.  One of the huts built on Captain Scot's first expedition (the Discovery Expedition during 1901-1904) to the pole is just near camp and with a tour guide you can actually go in the hut -- (my adviser Yo is apparently a certified guide, so I will hopefully convince him to take me on a tour soon!).

The signature box -- sign the blue dining room tray!

 Captain Scott's cross on the top of Ob Hill

There are nice views of both McMurdo and the New Zealand base, Scott Base from the top:

McMurdo Base from the top of Ob Hill.

 A view of the Kiwi base from Ob Hill.  They are located right near the pressure ridges where the sea ice meets the glacial ice shelf.   The pressure between the two causes the upheaval of ice, which forms the ridges.

The NASA observatory dome up on the hill behind McMurdo.  I thought the crane next to the dome helped in actually seeing the scale of the dome, it's huge!

As I mentioned previously, the rest of the group out to the field the other day, but I don't think I mentioned the collection of field food prior to their departure, known here as food-pull.  I just ran across the picture when looking for pics of Ob Hill, and I wanted to share it. We grabbed so much food, it was a lot of fun!

Freeze-able, dried goods from food-pull (everything must be sorted into do-not-freeze and can-freeze piles for shipment out to the field site)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Phytoplankton + Observation tube

Today the rest of my field group is headed out to our field camp at Lake Frxyell.  We have around 4,000 lbs of gear that will be transported via 4 helicopters!  We are all anticipating the move, when we will really start our field work.  Sadly, I am stuck back for a while so I can work a bit in the labs with my adviser, who is scheduled  to arrive this afternoon.  I hope I can get out soon, but there has been discussion of an sadly short ~2 weeks field season for me this year... Fingers crossed that I can get out sooner.

The past few days in the lab have been busy.  I have been working with one of my teammates, Heidi, to construct phytoplankton reactors, where I can sterilely incubate one of her phytoplankton cultures at extracted from the Cotton Glacier meltwaters.  After incubation at 2 different temperatures (one ambient and one at 4 deg C), I will filter the phytoplankton culture so that I can analyze the exudates (what the algae excrete) of dissolved organic matter.  When I return to Ohio, I will be using some pretty awesome machines to examine how temperature (and in the future I will hopefully be doing one based on light intensity) affects the DOM composition.  This is just an adjunct experiment to a larger incubation Heidi has set up to look at a bunch of other factors of DOM excretion.  For those incubations, Heidi will be looking at some of the more biologic aspects of the DOM formation and I will additionally be analyzing those samples for lipid content, masses of compounds, protein content, etc.
 The finished reactors growing away.  The glass tubes that allow for gas exchange are capped with filters that will prevent bacteria from entering the system.

My group was actually supposed to head out yesterday (minus me), but because of busy helo schedules, they couldn’t get out till today.  However, that meant yesterday was a slightly slower day in the lab, which was a welcomed break from the usual hustle and bustle.  We took an hour or so in the afternoon to visit the observation tube (Ob Tube) out on the sea ice.  On the way we spotted two giant seals!  They were happily napping on the ice. 

 Seal nap

Thin ice near the ob tube
 The Ob Tube was literally just that: a metal tube going down through the sea ice.  At the bottom of the tube there was a small chamber with windows (just big enough for two average sized people) so you could see out to the ocean.  The most striking feature that we saw were the colors of the ice.  The sun shining down on the ice surfaces causes the underside to brilliantly glow in shades of yellow and green.  The ice/water boundary is actually covered in delicate ice crystals.  As you move down below the ice, the light rapidly dissipates and the ocean just looks black.  When I first got down into the observation chamber, there was an entire school of fish hanging out near the tube, which appeared as little sparkly specks.  We actually saw a seal zip by us as we were sitting in the tube.  Pictures were difficult since it was rather dark and the glass and water tend to distort the image the camera captures, but I managed to take a couple of the ice.
Christine, on her way down into the Ob tube!

Hellooooo down there!!! -- Mike and I looking down at Christine 
(Picture courtesy of Christine Foreman, Thanks!)

Ice Crystals!

The bottom of the sea ice

A couple art-sey ob tube pics:
Mike leaving the Ob Tube!

Looking up from within the Ob tube