Skip to content

Antarctica: The Videos

December 26, 2014


Thanks to all my friends for keeping my spirits up, while I survived Antarctica, that “harsh and unforgiving continent.” At my return, my new Ultraphyte was here waiting, custom designed by Little Fingers Gifts. You can meet the new ultra with me in February, at Boskone.

Those cyano mats haven’t yet come home (still frozen at Crary Lab, I hope) but they’ve already swept into the plot of Blood Star Frontier.  And my Antarctica blog has been updated with videos that were too large for the bandwidth. Any videos you missed, here’s the list.

Ivan the Terra Bus, known as the slowest bus on Earth, takes us from runway across the Ross ice shelf to McMurdo Station. Note the wooden interior panels, and the lack of shocks. From Midnight Sunglasses.

Helicopter view of McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Facing the mountains across the Ross Sea, the helo rises, turning 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, heading out across 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.

The helicopter sails across the Ross Sea to the Dry Valleys. 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 Freudian exercise–drilling a hole through 5 meters of ice!

Mars on Earth:  The scenery around frozen Lake Bonney (East Lobe).

Three-helicopter day; the day the one got stuck. You can see two of the three in this video.

Back at McMurdo, we tour the Pressure Ridges, where the sea ice meets land ice. Huge blocks thrust upward, and the holes attract seals–but we humans try to keep dry.

Off to a new lake, Lake Fryxell. Amazingly, each lake and surroundings have specific character. Around Fryxell, the sand shrinks into polygons, “patterned ground.” You can see it clearest at 1:30-1:50. In the lake, meanwhile, look at all those frozen castles, surrounded by the smoother blue ice that will melt forming the moat.

The Leopard Seal

December 13, 2014


Every so often a seal or penguin gets lost, and for some reason heads up Taylor Valley. In my hikes I’ve come across a few seal vertebrae and skua bones. But here by Lake Fryxell, Renee from Lake Hoare shows off an exceptionally preserved specimen, perhaps a year old: the leopard seal.


Leopard seals are exceptionally aggressive predators. Solitary beasts, they are rare to find in the wild, let alone a stray one. They eat fish and penguins; look at those teeth. Their teeth can also lock together to strain water for krill.


The position of the dead seal shows that it died desperately pointing west up the valley, away from the sea about ten miles behind. You can see from this map where the seal was found (red arrow) and the direction to the sea (blue arrow).


Upon reflection, the seal offers scientists a cautionary tale. No matter how sure you are that you’re heading in the right direction, always listen carefully in case you’ve missed the point.

Well it’s time for Rachael’s science team to decamp to McMurdo, helos full of loot (microbial samples). The equipment is packed, the stove turned off. This will be another three-helicopter day. Meanwhile, I take a short hike to remember all the cool parts of this valley.  The grooves of patterned ground.


A ventifact, a deeply windswept rock.


A volcanic rock full of bubbles.


The first helo shows up, an A-star with Shelley, a woman pilot. Way cool.


My clothes bags get packed into the side basket. Yes, it’s a bit unnerving.


All our boxes and samples got packed into #2, then the four of us rode home in an A-Star. The pilot offered to show us penguins on the edge of the Ross ice shelf. All our cameras came out, as the helicopter dipped close. They were too far for my camera, but we saw several colonies of Adelies and of Emperor penguins. The penguins waddled away, flapping flippers, just like an Attenborough documentary. A great end to our field season.

So where did all our samples and equipment go? Back to the Crary Research Laboratory.


The Crary lab has an unusual structure, for several reasons. Its primary function is to process field samples and ship them out. Researchers also conduct experiments on samples that cannot wait. But for our team, the main priority is to get our sample microbes home alive before the holiday “blackout” period. Note the helo staging area, conveniently situated downhill.


Crary has three “floors”  but no elevator. From what I understand, McMurdo buildings have no elevators, because if they break down out here they could not soon be fixed. So Crary’s three “floors” are actually three distinct buildings, situated downhill; the higher numbers go lower. A long ramp connects all three floors. So you can wheel a cart full of gear easily all the way downhill, almost right to the helipad.

The third floor (downhill) is a wet lab where divers bring in their latest catch from the sea. The Ross Sea under the ice boasts an enormous variety of exotic fish and invertebrates. Often the invertebrates grow to unusual size, defying the expectations of divers trained in the tropics.

Some of the daily catch is brought to the Touch Tank, a tank of wildlife for exhibition and outreach. Here we see a sea lemon (slug-like invertebrate animal), anemones, and two starfishes feasting on a clam.


The Touch Tank is so-called because visitors are allowed to touch the creatures within. So of course I had to touch the sea lemon.


Who dives for these creatures? Mainly scientists studying the populations, physiology, and behavior of these amazing cold-adapted life forms. But this year, we also have a special grantee: Lily Simonson, resident artist. Lily dives herself to collect the organisms, which inspire the paintings that she creates on site in Crary.


So what’s up in Mactown since I’ve been gone? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

Neville the boiler inspector had his last day. He showed up at breakfast looking sad. We couldn’t bear to say goodbye, but Mike arranged an official certificate of appreciation. Then we heard tales of what happens over winter when someone hits the wrong button, and the whole station goes dark. The first thing you do is lock the door to keep out all the rubberneckers while you fix the problem. I must say, I’m glad it’s summer.

In the galley, we met Christine–the Christine of the viral Condition One clip on Youtube. The other half of the Year On Ice couple, Christine told us “Ants” Powell was out filming somewhere, I believe the South Pole. The Powells hope to film a television series here.

We heard that an ATV drove into the lake at Hoare, just outside the glacier where Rae told us the ice was thin. No one was hurt, but they got cold and wet, and a helo had to lift the ATV out.

A congressional delegation is showing up Tuesday (the day after I leave) including key House members who led the sequester last year that laid off several hundred Mactown employees. Obviously they waited till I leave before they dare show up here. In their honor, a “voluntary” carwash was called, to freshen up all Mactown’s motley collection of vehicles.

On Sunday I joined the 10 kilometer Scott Run. The temperature was 27 F, with no wind.


This evening, after “bag drop,” I’m looking forward to a lecture by Tyler Mackey on cyanobacterial mats and models of early life. Tyler is the one whose voice on the radio fills the valley each evening for check-in from Joyce camp: “Four souls are here, and we are all well.”

Only one thing left for me do here: Try out for the Antarctic Fire Department.


At the open house, the fire department showed off their vehicles. This unique fire truck has special tractor-tread multiple wheels, for driving across ice. It has been used to deal with vehicles engulfed in electrical fires.

I also got to use the equipment to lift a incapacitated person out of a narrow spot such as a crevice in the ice. They have this neat four-pulley system that enables you to lift someone out. Then I got drafted into a training exercise of firefighters going into a smoking building. There was real smoke, and I wore the whole gear, from boots and mask to oxygen unit. We had to climb up a staircase and crawl into three rooms looking for victims. We finally found the victim lying under a bed, and had to pull him out by the legs.

I must say, this last experience was the farthest thing from my mind when I signed up to discover microbes in Antarctica. It goes to show–whatever your adventure, keep your eyes open and expect the unexpected.

Update: I did make it off the ice, though this time a Delta truck (not Ivan) took us back to the runway. (Fortunately, our truck did not get stuck.)

Next post: It’s Alive!
Index: Antarctica

Upside Down Lakes

December 10, 2014


Last week I finally got back to the Dry Valley frozen lakes, bringing cubitainers and Coca Cola. The helicopter stopped briefly at Lake Bonney to join the lab members moving out—to a new camp, at Lake Fryxell. Lakes Fryxell and Hoare (separated by Canada glacier) are on the rough side, as you can see. The ice layers open and rear out of the lake; looking down in, you feel as if looking into the maw of the Dune sandworm.

The ice layers open up, scoured by wind and pressed by surrounding ice. They do not open into the liquid water, several meters below. Only at the lake’s edge is the ice melting through. During summer, a watery “moat” surrounds the lake ice, the vast majority of which never thaws. The ice surface however does “ablate” with the wind. Meanwhile, streams form on the mountains, carrying glacier water downhill into the moat. This water is raising the level of several lakes. In winter, more water freezes at the base of the ice layer, as the top of the ice ablates; thus, there is a continual upward “treadmill” of ice.

Here is my helo ride to Fryxell:

The white fluff is ice frozen into crystal towers–very rough. You can barely climb across it. But the helo glides down across the smooth blue ice near shore–where the “moat” will soon melt. The famous “patterned ground” shows up best at 1:30-1:50.

The surrounding land looks very different than at Bonney—more gentle slopes before the mountains, full of pebbles rather than sand. The pebbled slopes form intriguing patterns.


The patterned ground (also called “periglacial landform”) consist of long straight grooves that tend to meet at hexagonal angles.


The patterned shapes can be large, perhaps a hundred meters, with deep grooves; or they can be small, local, with thumb-wide grooves. The grooves tend to collect rocks and snow; but that is not what forms them. The grooves are caused by repeated freezing and thawing of sediment watered by glaciers. The water-logged sand freezes, then contracts, forming cracks that fill with water. Each cycle of freeze-thaw digs the cracks deeper and wider.

Another puzzle is the source of all the sediment in the lake ice. Some is trapped from wind. But in some places, the sediment consists of lake mud that originally formed at the bottom of the lake. Here in Fryxell, sediment has reared up through the ice, forming a “sediment mound.”


That’s why I call this an “upside down lake”—the sediment is on top. Scientists seek clues about tiny life forms that may lie dormant there.


The nearby Lake Hoare has a similar rough ice appearance, much of it too rough for an ATV. We hiked across some of it—warily. The ice forms spindly columns, like a giant field of crystal glass. As you walk over it, the crystal goes crunch with every step. I feel guilty about crushing so much crystal—structures that might have taken years or decades to form. I feel the same about tramping through the patterned ground. Our footprints will last a long time. It is impossible to study this place without marring it a little bit.


Of course, the place has its own events of change. Note on Lake Hoare the many rocks perched upon the ice, some of them the size of a car, like the one at Bonney. Where did these many rocks come from?


The mountainsides at Lake Hoare are close, steep, and full of rocks. Camp assistant manager Renee reports that recently she heard a loud noise, and looked up to see several large rocks bounding down the slope. The rocks landed on the ice, forming impact craters. Over time, the wind will scour away the ice surrounding each rock, leaving the rock upon an icy pedestal.

Both Fryxell and Hoare are dammed by Canada glacier. To hike from Fryxell to Hoare, we had to go around the glacier.


Frequently we passed a pile of pristine blocks of ice called “glacial berries.” These glacial berries form when the glacier “calves” — that is, a large chunk of glacier  falls off and crashed below. The crashing ice block fragments into clean ice. These clean ice chunks are what we collect to boil for drinking water.


On this hike we did not witness a piece of glacier fall, but we did hear a sound like a shotgun, the result of a crack forming in the glacier.

The more wind-exposed side of the glacier forms beautiful shapes, finished like porcelain. Here is a porcelain amphitheater.


What science did we do at these lakes? We collected more water samples of algae, using the winch and the Niskin bottle.


We also investigated intriguing forms of life called “uplift mats.” You can see them here—little puffs of desiccated cyanobacteria that originally grew in mats at the bottom of the lake. The mats support other life forms such as tardigrades (water bears) and nematode worms—the largests animals known in these frozen lakes.


So what are these desiccated mats doing atop the ice? How did they get here? Did they blow in from somewhere to land on the ice?

Here is a mat that Chris spotted, buried in ice. Amazingly enough, the cyano mats actually come up from below.


First, the cyanobacteria photosynthesize, producing oxygen. The oxygen bubbles eventually float pieces of mat up to the underside of the ice. Each year, more water freezes onto the ice, building up beneath the trapped mat. But at the same time, the wind is ablating the ice above. So eventually the mat will poke through the ice elevator. The mats dry out, then blow in the wind, to land in a moat—or perhaps even another lake.


Little is known of the genetics or culturing of these uplift mats. So I collected samples of uplift mats to send back home for Kenyon students to culture and sequence DNA.


Field sampling at temperatures below freezing is very different from pipetting in the lab. Most of the mats I picked up blew away as I tried to poke them into the 50-ml tube. My bag also blew away, until it was caught, thereby preventing an environmental contamination event. Another time I caused a more serious environmental event by losing a steel ice chipper down an ice hole. The metal content could alter the lake chemistry. Such events are not uncommon, with so many people investigating so many things in the lake. However, it still feels bad. It’s probably a good thing for a full professor to be reminded of what it feels like as a new student in orgo lab (i. e. like a total idiot).

Remarkably, my fingers all survived—and so did my Samsung Galaxy 3 that took all these photos and never cracked despite falling on the ice many times.

Next post: A leopard seal didn’t make it.
Index: Antarctica

Scott Base: Kiwis and Seals

December 6, 2014

Downhill from McMurdo, at the foot of the congealed lava blob on the Ross Sea, stands the New Zealand research center, Scott Base. Named for the famous South Pole seeker Captain Robert Scott, Scott Base was founded in 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year project. New Zealand plays a key role in all Antarctic missions, for flight connections and resupply.


New Zealanders (often called Kiwis after their Maori-named indigenous bird) have a longstanding interest in Antarctic exploration. Their base conducted scientific research before research became the focus of McMurdo. Their buildings are all colored a pretty “Chelsea cucumber green.” Proud of New Zealand’s native heritage, they have a Maori statue (left) presented by a Maori delegation who came to visit.

Today, Scott Base and McMurdo are heavily interdependent, but maintain distinctive identities. The general opinion of Scott Base is “smaller and better.” While accommodating just 85 people in the summer, they do impressive research on geophysics and seal behavior. Their site has the better view, including two smoking volcanoes Mount Erebus and Mount Terror. You can see the smoke rising from each.


Closeup of Mount Erebus:


Scott Base manages the coolest tour site, the pressure ridges. Pressure ridges are the place where the sea ice meets the more permanent land-based ice, crushing it up in chunks; you can see those in the middle (above; more below). The pressure ridges make holes, which attract seals (yes, we’ll get to those below).


The Kiwis, as they call themselves, have superior extreme-weather gear, orange-black parkas that are less bulky than Big Red but just as warm. Kiwis get about on orange-black skidoos, the coolest personal vehicles we’ve seen. They have their own helipad and contribute an orange-white helo to the Dry Valley fleet.


I was honored to accept an invitation for a tour from Jill, an NZ air force officer at the base. Here we are in their flight control room, run by Ben (who is navy, but Jill doesn’t mind.) Scott Base runs their own helos as well as flights from Christchurch; these are coordinated closely with McMurdo, where I met an NZ crew visiting the day before.


Jill showed me the historic site of the original Scott Base building on Pram Point (named for a boat called a pram). The interior has been kept frozen in time, the way it looked back then. Here you see the original living room, with a bathtub and a board game.


Today, New Zealand hosts weather researchers like Jack. Jack had just come off a helo setting up twenty weather stations on the Ross ice shelf. New Zealand is installing their own array of weather stations, to see if their data confirms the American set, and to test additional questions.


As we saw in McMurdo, every scientific project requires extensive maintenance. Scott Base has its own awesome maintenance shop, where I wish I’d had more time to explore


In the gear supply, Amanda is sewing a sleeping bag. Scott Base’s gear supply center resembles that of McMurdo’s BFC—but some of the gear is quite different. Kiwis prefer the famous Scott tents. A Scott tent looks more like a teepee, includes a chimney exhaust for cooking, and houses more than one person. This makes more sense to me than the American style of one person per tent.


In the living quarters of Scott Base, I was introduced to Anthony Powell, director of the award-winning documentary film A Year on Ice.


Powell maintains an office at Scott Base. You can see he is proud of having overwintered. Unfortunately I was too star-struck to ask questions.

The Kiwis maintain the tour site for the pressure ridges. This time of year, it’s still safe to walk out on the ice, though later it melts too far in; last year, orca whales were seen here.


For now, the ice is safe enough for visitors to walk with care. The Kiwis go out every day with an “alpenstock” stick to probe the ice for cracks. Then they set up flags for the tour. Green or red flags are okay, but black flags mean don’t go here because there are holes or deep cracks.

Here you can see the sea ice rear up, exposing its blue underside. We walk past, close enough to touch; it’s unnerving. Our guide Lauren walks ahead, probing with her alpenstock.  Uphill the windmills turn, providing most of Scott’s power.


No, this is not a hole straight through the ice! Here, pools of water have melted atop the ice, forming moats around the jagged mountains.


But there must be holes somewhere–since there are seals. The holes in the ice attract seals, because the animals can dive for food here without predators such as whales. And seals attract visitors with expensive cameras.


The seals basically loll around for days, smelling up the neighborhood. They rest after diving hundreds of meters for food, and after fighting with each other; the snow shows red blood stains. According to law, we are not allowed to “disturb” the wildlife. But their availability for dozens of humming cameras enhances public support for protecting Antarctica.


Here, a baby seal (right) extends a flipper while resting next to the mother. That’s how I feel in my tent after a long day.

Thanks to the Kiwis for maintaining the pressure ridge tour, and for sharing their distinctive mission at Scott Base.

Next: Back to the field, where lakes are upside down.
Index: Antarctica

Mactown: Special People

December 2, 2014

This page is a salute to all the special people who keep things running at Mactown (McMurdo Station, Antarctica). Run by the National Science Foundation, McMurdo is the USA’s major Antarctic research center. It’s also a unique town community, built upon a blob of lava that dribbled out from Mount Erebus and solidified thousands of years ago. For my full run of posts so far, see Antarctica linkAny corrections, please report here. 1_Loomie_Sandra Loomie and Sandra have my vote for the cutest couple in Mactown. As in a college town, the work of the scientist-educators requires tremendous support from people with all kinds of skills. Loomie does special construction projects, such as building a new footbridge at Blood Falls–one of the Dry Valleys’ most famous landmarks. Studying such sites is a challenge because it requires a safe observation point for scientists, with minimal disruption of the site. Sandra  follows helo flights at the Flight Center. 2_Sandra_Flight_Ctr You can see at left the screen where two helicopters are off across the ice. The middle screen shows a plane arriving from New Zealand. At right are all the radio channels. This is an amazing amount for one person to keep track of, and keep all our travels safe. The buildings require all kinds of special maintenance. 3_Michael_Neville Michael does maintenance for Crary science lab. Here he meets with Neville, the boiler inspector. An important part of Michael’s job is feeding Neville lobster so that he’ll let the boilers pass inspection. If Neville fails the boilers, the whole station will go dark. Crary lab (which I’ll blog more about next week) requires all kinds of special maintenance. For instance, you need different kinds of water–the sink water, here, as well as de-ionized water. Keeping all the special plumbing straight is important here, just like at Kenyon where Dave Boughter does it. This photo shows the “cubitainers” for lake water collection, which I’m bringing out to the Dry Valleys today (weather permitting). The cubitainers are cubical plastic containers that cleverly pack half-inside-out, for transport. However, even the fresh plastic contains impurities that we have to wash out with acid and deionized water, before collecting lake samples. 4_Cubitainers Once samples are collected, we filter them and they need to ship back by helicopter–a lot of heavy loads for those poor helos. Then the samples need to ship off continent. This is a challenge because different samples need different conditions to stay fresh. 5_Kara_Craig Kara is an expert sample shipper. She was hired for her degree in Environmental Science, so she understands why some live samples need to be shipped on ice, whereas others need to be frozen on dry ice or liquid nitrogen. Kara’s husband is Craig, the helitech who brought me home from the field late at night last week. There are a lot of hard-working couples here. Besides cubitainers, I was instructed to bring some other essential items of field science equipment: 6_BFC Thanks, Greg, Claire, Brent, and Isaac! Here are Manuel and Karsten, in the craft room. On their own time, they are making T-shirts for the Thanksgiving night party (see below). 7_Manuel_Karsten Karsten is a steward, who keep the food in stock and cleans up the galley and mess deck. Like at Kenyon College, that’s quite a big job. Manuel runs shuttles, and drives Ivan the Terra Bus. Famous as the world’s slowest bus, Ivan drives visitors in from the planes arriving at Pegasus field (on the ice). 8_Ivan_Terrabus Here is a video I took from Ivan, the day I arrived. You can tell from the video that the bus has no shocks. The interior is wood paneled, way cool! At such an isolated post, a major challenge is to keep up morale. On a daily level, McMurdo is not exactly the most lovely place. It’s very functional, and the functional pipes are there, going every which way in the mud. Can you see the mountains? Yes, if you look closely, but it’s easy to forget. 9_Mac_road Fortunately, people are so friendly–this is the friendliest place I’ve been. And there are great opportunities for a makeover! 10_Alicia_Hair Even scientists need a haircut after the first month or so. Alicia offers the best haircut on the continent–for only ten dollars. And you can’t beat the décor. Got milk? 11_Elise_Joan Nothing beats the blues like good food. Elise instructed me how to use the cafeteria–especially never to eat on the blue tile. The galley has very involved procedures to avoid disease transmission, especially the awesome hand-washing machines. I’d like to see Kenyon implement those back home. 12_Blue_tile Everyone is friendly and glad to talk about their work. But they also work hard, and they always mind the clock. Check out this gigantic Antarctic clock; look closely at the “numbers.” 13_Clock Thanksgiving is a special holiday. There are three seatings for a very special dinner. Here you can see people lining up for the 5:00pm seating. 14_Line_Tday I was thrilled to get all the traditional turkey and pies, as well as more exotic items. 15_Tday_mealBut when I sat down alone without Michael and Daniel, I teared up. Everyone has family so far away. Fortunately a couple of old-timers invited me to share their table. They described what it’s like to “overwinter” here. Most of the buildings go dark, but the galley can be self-sufficient and survive on its own for a long time. Surprisingly, most of the renovations go on during the winter. 16_Tauntaun_poster After dinner came the party. The theme was “Year of the Tauntaun,” a monstrous creature from an ice world in the Star Wars universe. 17_Tauntaun_Party The party was full of cheerful gals and shy guys. One gentleman expressed amazement at seeing so many ladies in skirts instead of Carhartts. 18_Skua Of course, it wouldn’t be Mactown without skuas. The skua is a fierce marine bird that hunts for any item that might be edible; it will dive at food you carry from the galley. Here this skua has found a stick and is trying to eat it. Come to think of it, scientists are like the skua: We dive for data wherever we can, desperate to find meaningful patterns we can publish. And we’re always grateful for Mactown.

Next post: Kiwis of Scott Base — And Seals!
Index: Antarctica

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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 78 other followers