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Thanksgiving in a Tent

November 29, 2014

Tent_1The week of Thanksgiving I slept like the Pilgrims, in a tent below freezing outside without plumbing or fossil fuels. However, there was 24/7 solar as well as my own body heat. Here is what it looked like, Monday morning. This particular tent I inherited from a taller student who couldn’t sit up straight in it. Each tent is positioned in a “historic” spot where tents have been before. This is part of the NSF extreme attention to minimizing human disturbance of the protected Dry Valley ASMA (Antarctic Specially Managed Area). Other areas are more restricted; for example even overflights are prohibited over the Barwick Valley region.


After unzipping the main door, here is the front porch of dry valley sand. The rock holds my sleeping bag to keep it from sliding downhill into the back of the tent. My right foot has an extra sock because my toe is sore and won’t fit into a boot today.


And here is the view. A cloud layer crosses the glaciers today—that’s new, for this desert.

As I climbed down to the camp, my sock foot worked surprisingly well in the dry sand. Why don’t they make boots more flexible, like a sock? But the camp was horrified to see me without a boot, so they called NSF for a Medivac (medical evacuation). That is, a first-class seat on the next helicopter back to McMurdo. Conveniently, this would be the today’s helo, which Amy’s group needs to get their live samples back to the lab for assay. Amy’s group is assaying whether the lake microbes are more growth-limited by nitrogen or by phosphorus. “Growth limited” means that which nutrient falls short first, ending microbial growth. If you provide  the nutrient, you get an algal bloom—like lakes in Ohio.

But the weather has changed. It’s snowing.


It’s actually snowing in the Antarctic desert. If you look closely, you can see the big frosty flakes. Across the lake, the mountain is beautifully etched in snow like powdered sugar.


This snow may not look like much, but meanwhile around McMurdo we hear there are tons of snow, and even Condition 1 weather (the kind where everybody is ordered to stay indoors). So there will be no helos today. Amy’s team will have to resample fresh microbes from a hole tomorrow.

The good thing is, my toe cleared up fine with Ibuprofen. But NSF refused to rescind the Medivac order. NSF works on an abundance of caution; safety is always the first priority. Thus, old-timers say they never report injuries unless they’re half dead. So  I still have a first-class seat on the helo, whenever that will be.

 The camp needs comfort food. It’s my turn for dinner, so I used what ingredients we had to bake something like my mother’s lasagna. There was plenty of mozzarella, but the ricotta was actually mayonnaise.

Meanwhile, Rachael has compiled results of our time-course experiment. Much of the data collected here is long term, and won’t be analyzed till later. But Rachael has used the fluorimeter in camp to measure the densities of green algae and yellow algae at 15 meters depth, over the past several weeks.

The data show that the yellow algae are outcompeting the green algae at this depth, the depth where the most organisms live. This is interesting because yellow algae are mixotrophs; they can gain energy from eating organic foods, in addition to photosynthesis. It’s as if they are combination animal-plants. The green algae, with the strongest photosynthesis, dominate in the surface water, where the light is most intense; but at the lower depth, the yellow algae do better, perhaps feeding on the falling bodies of the green algae.

Every day now the “helo ops” tells us when the next flight is scheduled; there is always a schedule, even though we know the valley is full of clouds and the flights are down. But the helos always say they are looking for a “weather window.” So Amy’s limnology team has to obtain new samples every day. Someone gives me a dark look, muttering that all the unusual bad weather happened just when I arrived. This is typical camp humor; the newest arrival is always suspect.

Actually, I did bring the bad weather. I looked down the valley and asked the storm goddess to keep the clouds around a while longer. Whereas Amy has been here eleven seasons, I just got here, and if I leave now, I might never get back to the field again. Every day without helos is a win for me.

One day we had to drill a new hole for Amy’s samples. This is because if you take samples from one hole, the water layers are disturbed and you have to wait a while before sampling. The mention of the drill wakes up even the most depressed of the boys. Drilling a hole in the ice is a Freudian activity (I’ll post the video when bandwidth allows). All the boys want a chance to do it.


The ice is so thick that you have to chain one drill bit onto another, drilling each one through in turn.

As the drill breaks through the bottom of the ice, water gushes out (Freudian, like I said) and you have to pull out the whole thing.


Wednesday the helo ops say that they’ll definitely fly on Thanksgiving. Down the valley, the storm goddess has had enough. Knowing this is my last day, I skip sampling and spend the afternoon on the mountain, rock-tripping.

The wind-carved rocks are so mind-blowing that you need no drugs for a psychedelic experience. Every rock is a trip to another world. This one is a stack of pancakes:


And this one, a sleepy brown bear:


The colors of all the different minerals give you kaleidoscope eyes:


On Thanksgiving morning (a day ahead of the USA), I hike down to the kitchen in bunny boots, expecting to leave. But the helo ops has called off all flights for the day. The camp is in uproar; everyone is fed up. Most of them leave to hike four hours to Camp Hoare for Thanksgiving dinner. I watch them leave, knowing they’re wrong.

Those of us who stay behind catch up on internet, revising manuscripts. Our diesel fuel is nearly gone, but the solar electric is strong. The students decide to use the day’s useless lake samples to shower or wash hair (they haven’t showered for two weeks). All of us badly miss our families. Wei’s computer plays “Hey Jude,” then another hour of Beatles medley. Rachael’s plays Irish ballads: “Fare thee well, my one true love, although I am far away.”


For dinner, we have no turkey, only this turkey-shaped rock. Wei and Mie make chicken chile. They compare notes on holidays in China and South Korea.

After dinner, the helo ops calls. The helo is on its way to pick up everyone. With no time to waste, it will swoop down like a Valkyrie to scoop up everyone, with propellers running.

But students have showered in the sample water, while others are out at Lake Hoare after Thanksgiving dinner, well hydrated but in no condition for a hike, if you know what I mean. So at Bonney they rush out to the ice hole to quickly get more samples. Sure enough, around midnight the helo swoops down through the valley, stopping at Lake Hoare to pick up the well-hydrated scientists, then back to Lake Bonney.

Now the Valkyrie has a pit stop. A mechanic was brought to fix the original helicopter, long parked on the helipad. Stepping out, the first thing he does is snap photos; he’s never seen this lake before. Meanwhile, we cannot leave until the original helo is flying. The mechanic’s work takes three hours.


Much of this time the mechanic spends lying on the top of the helo; you can see his boot hanging down. He is amused by the parking ticket, although the helitech says he will contest the charge of double parking.

It occurs to me that the mechanic is really the most crucial part of the whole science operation. The mechanic’s work has to be perfect, otherwise none of us can survive out of the valley. In fact, huge numbers of other essential support personnel in McMurdo toil in the background supporting our mission. This will be the subject of my next post.


One more salute to East Knox High School. Like this helicopter, you have endured many challenges and setbacks; but the Bulldogs will prevail.

Next: Mactown–Special People
Index: Antarctica


Three Helicopters and a Floating Rock

November 25, 2014

Helicopter 1

As we recall from last time, Amy was really excited for the limnology team to fly their samples back to Mactown. The NSF helicopters are a precious resource; only five of them available for the entire Antarctic operation, and expensive to operate. And they are essential for the science. Some experiments require live lake samples immediately flown out to the lab in Mactown to run experiments; otherwise, the microbes die and are useless. All experiments generate samples stored in bulky ice or dry ice containers; sometimes multiple helo runs are needed to take them all.

Here is the awesome Bell 212 helicopter that descended from the heavens to the helipad to pick up everyone and everything. Helicopters are the gods of this region; we had to watch a training video, on approaching the helo with your head bowed (to avoid the spinning propeller overhead) and never to so much as look at the invisible tail propeller. So this visitation from above was truly exciting. We all pitched in to haul up the samples and sleepkits, and computers in backpacks uphill to the sacred helipad. Here’s how it looked:

But wait–what’s that second little helicopter? Helicopters are notoriously difficult to catch on video; they just pick up and go without notice. To capture two helos landing together, out in the middle of nowhere, is like getting visited by Zeus and Athena at once (you can tell I miss Michael). The second one, a tiny A-Star, came to pick up a sling crate from this lake to cart off to another frozen lake. The A-Star actually landed on the ice. Rachael ran out on the ice to hook the sling load, and the A-Star took off with it. A short while later a third A-star landed on the ice to cart one scientist with gear from one lake to the next; after that I lost track.

While all the gear and samples were being loaded, the helicopter pilots came down to the Jamesway to chat (and keep warm, as they don’t wear Big Red). The pilots are totally awesome professionals, dedicated to picking up people and samples from one lake and depositing them at the next one, or at Mactown; it’s a lot to keep straight. Also (for Wendy’s benefit) they are extremely good lo0king.

One of the pilots spent a long time on the radio checking to make sure they were taking the right stuff to the right places. At this point is where our good luck ran out.

First, the pilots discovered a huge oil slick spreading on the helipad, and a tank was empty of oil. So the helo wasn’t going anywhere until a mechanic was flown out. Steve Arnett–Where are you? Since I’m here, this is a Kenyon operation; you need to send Dave Boughter out here to fix this helo.

Then we learned that in Mactown the weather had turned. There was snow and zero visibility, and all helos were cancelled for the rest of the day. Interestingly, we could see the weather for hundreds of miles around; first, looking west into the mountains, you can see the weather is clear. Then, looking east toward McMurdo (about 75 miles) you can see the snowstorm. As for here in the Dry Valleys, weather only varies from wind to more wind.



The camp members swore they’d never seen a broken helo at Bonney Camp before. The pilots got out somehow, but the rest of everybody had to stay another day. The grad students planned new experiments, edited manuscripts, and watched The Big Bang Theory.

Meanwhile, Rachel’s team had a big day planned collecting samples from West Bonney. We will compare the population density and species at different depths of water. As we traveled the ice west, the banks got steeper, with piles of rocks like a child’s tower of building blocks. Occasionally there was even a rock “floating” atop the ice. You can see this one, carved by the wind into beautiful forms. It’s about the size of a Volkswagon.


A small amount of thought leads to the conclusion that, despite the high salt concentration of deeper water (the Bonney lakes started out as part of the ocean thousands of years ago) it is not possible for the volcanic rocks of this region to actually float on water. The inescapable conclusion is that this rock must have got onto the ice from somewhere, most likely by rolling down the mountainside. I notice many similar rocks perched on the mountainside above our tents, but Rachael insists these will never roll down into our camp.


Out on the ice, a “polar haven” is a small hut above a hole in the ice, where samples can be collected. Chris and Rachael sent down a Niskin bottle, a bottle with a hole at each end so the water flows through. After the bottle reaches the right depth, a “messenger” weight goes down to release the latch and close both ends so the water can be hauled up. For this operation I ran the winch; it was fun though it wore through my glove liners.


Back in the green camp lab, Wei concentrates samples by filtration, 1000-fold. There are a lot of samples from all the different depths, and filtration takes a long time. These samples hold crucial information for Wei’s PhD thesis.

Wei filtering

Now I can search the samples for interesting microbes, using the Cellscope, on loan from Frankie Myers at Berkeley. The Cellscope is completely portable; it uses a cellphone to record a sample at 200X. It was designed for telemedicine from remote regions. Thanks, Frankie!


From West Bonney, the Cellscope reveals these curious little algae (cells enclosing round organelles). These cells associate with each other, for an unknown purpose. Perhaps, like our team in the Jamesway, they somehow support each other living in brine at 4 degrees C, with what little light penetrates the ice.


The limno team is frustrated but in good spirits after their day of revised plans. They post a parking ticket on the grounded helo.

Next: Thanksgiving in a Tent
Index: Antarctica

Bonney Camp

November 24, 2014

So what does Lake Bonney Camp have in common with Cuba? We’ll soon find out, but first, let’s take a look at the camp that supports all the work of the scientists.


First, here is a labeled map of all the key features of the science camp at Lake Bonney. From left to right (arrows):

  • Helicopter landing pad. This is where the totally awesome helicopter lands to deposit scientists, gear, and food; and to pick up scientists, exciting new samples, and human wastes.
  • Research lab. This small green building houses filtration for lake samples, fluorimeter to measure photosynthesis, and other instruments for three or four research groups.
  • Survival box. This yellow box contains extra sleeping bags plus 40 days worth of dried food. We found out why—sooner than expected.
  • My tent. This is where I sleep at night, below freezing. Other tents scattered all over are where others sleep.
  • The Jamesway. A reconverted army unit for kitchen and social activities. Where we seem to spend most of our time—more than expected, when the weather turns.
  • Outhouse. Two different seats for liquid and solid waste. Not a drop to be left. Somebody peed hiking up a mountain, and Mactown (McMurdo) had to send out a full environmental hazard incident crew to clean it up.
  • Solar panels. How we get much of our energy, though not all. Wish we had more of these.
  • Helo loading box. A sling-loading box had to go out today, packed with equipment, sleep kits for departing scientists, and hazardous waste containers. I’m looking forward to learning this technique.


The Jamesway is where we all cook, read email (when it’s up) and generally socialize. Also where we all check in every morning. If somebody doesn’t check in for Bonney Camp at the required time, every day, about 50 responders get notified and all heck breaks loose trying to rescue us. At left, Mie is a member of the limnology chemistry lab, directed by John Priscu (back home). Next to her, Wei is in Rachael’s lab. At left, the blonde guy is Steve, with the limnology lab. Dimitri (dark hair) cooked us an amazing chicken with broccoli and mushrooms.

CookingThe whole group often cooks together. Here, Mie cooks Pad Thai while Chris helps Amy make a birthday cake for Ben (everyone was told to hush so he wouldn’t know, while climbing over the rest of us). Amy Chiuchiolo (Priscu lab director) is in her eleventh season, extremely peppy and keeps everyone going, a lot like Michelle Clark home at Bacteria Lab.

So what is a Jamesway? According to Wikipedia, Jamesway is a version of an army Quonset hut designed for arctic weather. The hut is made of wooden frame with insulated cloth covering. A wood stove keeps us toasty warm.

This particular Jamesway actually saw action in the Korean war. The date of construction:


We know the hut saw action because the cloth ceiling still has bullet holes:


The bullet holes remind me of Cuba, where I saw their revolutionary museum still has the bullet holes from when Battista escaped. Apparently our Jamesway got strafed by enemy fire back in Korea. Then it got put in storage, until use for the NSF Antarctic program. This says a lot about the Antarctic program—Mactown looks like a military camp (think Avatar with bizarre large-wheeled vehicles milling around) and all the vocab is military based. Optimistically, think of swords into ploughshares.


How do we get drinking water? We go up to the glacier and saw chunks of ice to thaw on the woodstove. The water for drinking gets filtered.

Cake_AmyAmy frosts Ben’s cake, triple layer chocolate with amazing frosting that would have had vanilla if there were some. Then she shares an enormous photo album of all the birthday cakes she has baked for family and friends. The Jamesway is quite full of people now–Even Jill Mikucki drops by, a colleague of Erik Zinser (my old Kenyon Honors student) at UT Knoxville. Hi, Erik!  Jill studies bacteria from Blood Falls, the red-colored frozen flow from the glacier at the end of West Bonney. Lots of iron there. 20141123_033540

My, what a lot of people have dropped in for Mie’s dinner and Amy’s cake. The Jamesway is getting pretty full. Amy and her group are excited to be moving out tomorrow with all their great lake samples to analyze.

Next: Three Helicopters and a Floating Rock
Index: Antarctica

Frozen Waves in Volcanic Desert

November 23, 2014

Lake_to_MountainsFrozen Lake Bonney is where we are seeking protists (single-celled life with traits related to animals or plants). At either side rise the mountains of Taylor Valley. During summer, streams flow down the mountainsides from melting glaciers. The rest of the year, the water sits there, freezing and subliming, shaping unique contorted forms that persist throughout the year. The cracked and frozen surface looks forbidding, but with “stable-icers” on your boots, it’s easy to walk across.

 Lake_hatDifferent parts of the lake show different unique ice features (hat for scale). This patch of ice looks like cracked-open styrofoam, with many pockmarks tinged with volcanic dust. The dust is dark, so where it settles it absorbs light and heats the water, melting a little hole, which then collects dust and melts more. But the holes remain small, whereas the ice is nearly 4 meters thick.

Our field team is studying microbial photosynthesis. The photosynthetic microbes grow in water beneath the ice, using light that filters through. There are many different species of phototroph (organisms that conduct photosynthesis). Rachel’s team has isolated two unique species, one a green primary alga Chlamydomonas that grows only with light; and an Isochrysis, called a “secondary alga” because it evolved as a food-eating protest than engulfed a green primary alga. Isochrysis can grow without light by eating food such as the remains of other protists.

Isolated species of protists can be cultured within the lake environment, through a hole drilled and melted through the ice (Rachael’s blog).


Samples_GreenRachel is culturing the two kinds of phototrophs  together, in the lake environment, within dialysis tubes that permit nutrients and minerals from the lake to reach the trapped microbes. The idea is to show which grow better, at which depth in the lake. We predict the Chlamydomonas grows best near the surface, whereas the Isochrysis does best at the mid-level depth (15 meters). You can see how green the cultures look, with all their chlorophyll.


Here, grad student Chris Sedlacek adjusts the sample holder. Chris is a very kind, helpful Canadian from Rachael’s lab. A great team-mate for Rachael and Wei.

Besides Rachael’s team, there are two or three other teams coming and going at various times. We all use the same camp facilities and take turns cooking and cleaning. More on the camp, and the lab analysis, to come. And a riddle: How is  our camp like my Cuba tour, two years ago?

Next: Camp life
Index: Antarctica

Dry Valley: Mars On Earth

November 22, 2014

Today, after dozens of training videos, I finally joined our research team in the Dry Valleys–one of the most sensitive protected regions of Antarctica. Packed like sardines, our helo flies across the Ross ice, then up Taylor Valley, passing the Kukri Hills of the Antarctic desert. You can see how steep they are, and how the snow is thinning out. Glaciers surge down between the hills, then we reach frozen Lake Bonney. The white stuff is like frozen foam–hard as glass, vicious if you fall. Our camp appears below: the Jamesway, then the lab (green box-like thing).

The scientific interest of the Dry Valleys is that they resemble Mars more than any other place on Earth. Looking south of Lake Bonney, the Kukri Hills rise above the sandy slope, strewn with boulders carved by the wind. To the west, a dozen glaciers flow into the valley, though most dry out in the wind before reaching the lakes. North rises Mount Thomson, with scarcely any ice or snow. Then east, the valley continues toward the Ross Sea and McMurdo Station.


The helo has landed in the camp. We unload food, supplies, and my tent. Everyone sleeps and dresses within individual tents dotted around the lake, at well below freezing temperatures.

Terrain From the mountains flow several small glaciers. But the glaciers all dry out before they reach the lake. The terrain is full of beautiful volcanic rocks, red, gray, and chocolate brown. The tents dot the landscape at spots specified by regulation, to avoid disturbing the landscape more than necessary. Not a rock may be carried off site.


Rachel checks out the sample cultures of photosynthetic microbes growing in the lake. For more on the research, see Rachel’s field blog.

Next: Frozen Waves in a Volcanic Desert
Index: Antarctica

Midnight Sunglasses

November 20, 2014


The night that our C17 came over the Antarctic mountain range, this was what my cellphone saw pressed to the glass of a porthole. The jagged shadows from the mountains show how steep they are–and how low on the horizon the sun was. Yet it was bright enough for sunburn, especially given the ozone hole. This is about as dim as the sun gets in the summer. All around the clock, it feels like daytime. The dorm windows are taped over with foil.


This shows everybody in the C17 preparing to land. We’re all supposed to be wearing full EWC (Extreme Weather Clothing). The grad student with bare shoulders is on her fourth mission, monitoring ecological toxicity. She studies how things like Wade Powel’s dioxins accumulate in Antarctic food chains. Next to her are two more newbies, along with me. Farther beyond  are engineers, food service workers, pilots.

Actually, the ice flight in the hold of the C17 was better than I expected. There is plenty of leg room—much more than on any commercial flight. And there’s a real toilet. The huge pallets of freight gave us something to look at, more interesting than a flight magazine. One crate was so large it had a window and door. The straps do look precarious—we wonder if the stack of boxes would shift into us. But the national guard officer assures us the straps hold 8 times g (Earth gravity force). The air was warm, but the floor is metal—freezing. I didn’t realize, though, because the inch-thick soles of the “bunny boots” keep it out. No chance of losing toes.

The plane opens out onto ice–the vast white expanse of the Ross ice shelf. We all load onto the infamous Ivan the Terra Bus, known as the slowest bus on Earth. The interior wood panels date it to the mid 20th century. No shocks–you can tell from my video:

In the video, you hear someone saying, “Better than a Delta truck.” One of many bizarre outsized vehicles at McMurdo [I later ride back in one.] The mountains beyond include snowcaps and one with less snow, Black Island. They say that when Black Island “disappears” in weather, you have half an hour to build snow shelter.

Some of the guard officers are excited, their first time out here. The old hands are more jaded. A seismic engineer grouses that we’ll get in too late for dinner—“They’ll even turn off Frosty Boy” (the soft icecream featured in Herzog’s film).


Here we are at the Air Force security briefing–one of numerous training videos we had to watch. You can see the range of people coming out here, and how interesting the video appears to be.

Most of the videos emphasize safety. The major causes of injury appear to be:

  • Falling on ice. Three broken bones already this season. Apparently, nobody knows how to deal with ice that thaws and refreezes slick. Really? I guess my best training experience was Ohio ice storms and Gambier Middle Path.
  • Too macho to radio in for help. The gender ratio out here is obvious, and as the old-timers point out, “We don’t ask directions.”
  • Old timers tell newbies tall tales. We were strongly advised not to believe anything we hear in the dining hall.
  • The fire department. Everyone goes on about the importance of fire regulations, avoiding daisy chains, cigarettes, etc. The fire dept is a common subject of the tall tales, as there hasn’t been a fire in several years. A key job of the fire department is issuing tickets to the under sea viewing tunnel. [However, later I find out their other jobs, like rescuing people from a crevasse.]


The Ross ice shelf, and the Royal Society mountains across the bay. This was the view from our late-night walk down from McMurdo to the bar at Scott Base, the New Zealand place. You can tell Kiwis, because they all wear orange, not red. They have about a dozen green huts and the reputation for the best night life.


Late evening (still bright!) Rachael, Chris and Wei, the lab crew are heading down to Scott. We face about two weeks out in the camp with no heating nor plumbing.

Our helicopter rises from McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Facing the mountains across the Ross Sea, we turn toward the helipad, the Crary Lab (three white buildings connected by ramp), the blue dining hall with dorms, fuel storage tanks (round white things), windmills above Scott Road. Then a brief view of volcano Mount Terror, before we head out across the Ross Sea. Mount Discovery appears, then the Royal Society Range (I think). Then a long stretch of sea ice, ending with a giant flat iceberg.

Next: Nearest thing to Mars, the Dry Valleys.
Index: Antarctica


Antarctic Fashion

November 18, 2014


Finally got all the Extreme Cold Weather gear (ECW) at the Antarctica center in Christchurch. The poster shows all the stuff we’re required to wear on the Ice Flight, the Air Force plane that lands on the Ross ice shelf. The outer layers are shown, but actually there are supposed to be four layers in all: thermal underwear, fleece over-wear, inner jacket, red jacket and wind pants. The “bunny boots” have air-pocket insulation and inch-thick soles. The problem is that you get on the ice flight in Christchurch, at 70 degrees F, fly eight hours, then step out into zero F.


If you want to get yours, there’s a whole warehouse full here in Christchurch. That’s Marie waving, so come on over and pick your “big red” (sorry it sounds like Denison). I did spot one purple inner coat there. Anyway, they have every possible size of everything.

The group I arrived with were there for all kinds of science and construction work, including seismometers. Not for earthquakes–for glacier quakes. In the morning, we all crowd into the cargo hold with our gear. BIOL 103 students are watching Encounters at the End of the World  by Werner Herzog. Much of what’s in that film I will be doing in the next few days.

Next: Midnight Sunglasses
Index: Antarctica


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