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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?

Dry Valley: Mars On Earth

November 22, 2014


Today, after dozens of training videos, I finally joined our research team at Lake Bonney in the Dry Valleys region–one of the most sensitive protected regions of Antarctica. The scientific interest of the Dry Valleys is that they resemble Mars more than any other place on Earth. Here, the team prepares to take the helo out to camp, with a shout out to Kenyon and East Knox High School. In the distance, you see the mountains past the sea ice that our helicopter will cross.


From within the helo, packed like sardines, I took this view of the approaching mountains of the Antarctic desert. You can see how steep they are, and how the snow is thinning out.


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.



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.

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 (more on that later, I hope).


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 Station, 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.


Rachael, Chris and Wei, the lab crew heading down to Scott. We face about two weeks out in the camp with no heating nor plumbing.





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.

Polar Packing

November 12, 2014


The best part of packing for Antarctica is you get this super cool luggage tag, so that wherever in the world your luggage ends up (after three international flights) they know where it’s supposed to go.

So what goes into the suitcase? A list of only about a hundred things–besides the big red coat (which we get in Christchurch.) The US polar program office provides all the outerwear. But what about underwear?

LuggageA dozen sets of Thermasilk long johns from Sierra Trading Post. For those of you facing the “polar vortex” from Alaska, I enthusiastically recommend these. Thermasilk underneath is worth more than a sweater; it keeps you comfortable at a wide range of temperatures, from sitting at the office to running the frozen trail.

The UV goggles, of course, to protect you from the ozone hole. Baby wipes, to clean yourself without water for a week. And above all, chocolate. McMurdo appears to be populated by chocoholics, who distribute this thermal protectant fuel to all passengers on the ice flight. In case they don’t, though, it’s recommended to pack one’s own (if the New Zealand Customs lets it in).

Meanwhile, our advance team asked me to bring various items they left behind.


Power cords and filters? You can’t get these anywhere on Antarctica?
Is this any way to run a continent?

My big question is, who’s left to bring all the stuff  leave behind?


Wendy Busenburg’s got it covered, all set with a backpack for whatever doesn’t fit in my suitcase. And Steve Arnett plans to come help sling-load my helicopter.

Thanks to everyone for pitching in and making adjustments so I can make this trip.

What National Geographic Never Shows

November 9, 2014

SONY DSCYour National Geographic view of Antarctica is the pristine, endless icy expanse. What it takes to get there, however, is eight hours in the cargo hold of an Air Force prop plane. Barely heated. No restroom–just a cardboard box, like they gave the Ebola nurse.


You have to sling your own gear onto a helicopter. Once you get out to the mountain camp, be sure to get away from the helicopter as quick as possible, or its liftoff will shred your tent.


At the desert mountains, no live penguins–only dead ones that lost their way. This actually is a deceased seal, scraped to the bone by katabatic winds, dry winds that blow down the mountain.


No human wastes allowed anywhere on the continent. Voilà the urine barrel!


Antarctica–Advance Team Arrives

November 7, 2014


In Antarctica, Rachael Morgan-Kiss and her grad students arrived on the “ice flight,” courtesy of an Air Force freight carrier. They are already sending messages back to me to pack equipment they missed.


At left, one of the vehicles they rode across the ice to McMurdo. McMurdo Station is built on an island in the middle of the sea ice.


The grad students, Chris and Wei, who is from China. Getting from Ohio through Australia and New Zealand was extra interesting.

Arrival4Rachael is setting up equipment in the McMurdo lab. The flasks hold photosynthetic microbes. We are going to culture known Antarctic microbes, as well as hunt for new ones.  More info, see Rachael’s field blog.


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