Friday, December 15, 2017

Hello from the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica!

Howdy folks!

I am writing to you from a small field camp in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice free area in Antarctica. I am here to monitor glacial melt streams that only flow for a short time each year.

My tent at our field camp. Our camp is called 'F6' and is named after the stream that is adjacent to camp. Here we have a small hut where we cook, eat, and do lab work, however, we otherwise sleep in tents. People think it sounds harsh to sleep in tents in Antarctica, but the tents can stay rather warm and I like it! 

Glaciers flowing into Taylor Valley from the Kukri Hills. The Sollas Glacier is on the left and the Hughes Glacier is on the Right. These are alpine glaciers, which are formed by snow that accumulates in the mountains and turns into ice that flows into the valleys. You can think of glaciers as slow moving rivers of ice. 

The streams that we monitor flow from 4-12 weeks during the austral (southern) summer when temperatures hover around freezing (32 deg Fahrenheit) and energy from the sun starts to melt the glaciers.

An early season melt pulse on Canada Stream started to channelize the snow that was overlying the stream bed. This image was taken shorty after the stream 'turned on' -- when glacial meltwater begins to fill the dry (or snow-covered) stream channel. Eventually all this snow will melt away as the water carries thermal energy (heat) through the channel. 

My job is to monitor the chemical, physical, and biological components of the streams.  This involves collecting water samples for chemical analysis; measuring water temperature, conductivity (concentration of salts, or ions, in the water), and discharge (amount of water moving through the stream channels); and sampling the bacteria and algae that grow on the rocks of the stream beds and ponds.

Desiccated microbial mats (bacteria and algae) situated around a frozen pond, at the foreground. This image was taken early in the season before melt. Once the glaciers melt, water will fill this pond and the microbes will start to photosynthesize by using the energy from sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugars (plant energy) and oxygen!
I love doing this type of field work and hope to share what I do with you! If you have questions, please ask! I look forward to responding to your questions.


Friday, January 20, 2017

Questions from South Lyon 6th Grade from 12 Jan 2017

We received lots of great questions from the 6th Grade class in South Lyon, MI. Our field team is camped out in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, and they were able to take some time to answer some of the questions:
Hello! We are a sixth grade science class from South Lyon, Michigan. We are beginning a unit on geology and have some questions about your work in Antarctica!
Where do you stay in Antarctica? Where do you sleep?
In the dry valleys we stay at field camps. The camps typically have a small hut with space to cook and eat in addition to lab space. The huts are too small to sleep in, so we sleep in tents.
The F6 hut with our tents, located in the Fryxell Basin.

What do you eat? Where do you get food and water?
The food we eat is similar to what you eat, but with less fresh produce. A lot of our food is frozen or canned. We eat things like mac n cheese, enchiladas, potatoes, steak, frozen vegetables, rice, beans, sardines, etc. On occasion, however, we are gifted fresh fruit from McMurdo Station -- this is a treat.
Inside the hut at F6 camp.

What kinds of tests do you conduct?
In streams we perform basic in-field tests to measure the electrical conductivity, pH, and temperature of the water. Upon returning to the hut, after visiting streams, we process samples by filtering water for further analysis of the anions and cations, nutrients, and dissolved organic matter. The filtered samples are then sent to the established laboratory at McMurdo Station to be processed and analyzed.

What types of animals are around you every day? Does your work help save any animals?
It’s rare to see animals around the dry valleys. Although on occasion, penguins and seals sometimes get lost and wander west into the dry valleys, subjected to an ill fate. In the cold and dry climate, the seals become mummified and preserved for thousands of years. The penguins, however, quickly get picked apart by the Skuas (seabirds). Also there are micro-animals, like Tardigrades.
A mummified seal situated near the F6 camp.
A lost penguin playing in a brine patch below Blood Falls on the west lobe of Lake Bonney.

Have you seen any Polar Bears?
No Polar Bears here - they’re up in the Arctic (north). But there are Water Bears, or Tardigrades, a resilient micro-animal, which are about 1 mm long and inhabit the soils, streams, and lakes around the dry valleys.

A Water Bear, or Tardigrade, harvested from Von Guerard Stream, under the microscope at 40x.

Tardigrade reaching for a colony of cyanobacteira. Viewed at 10x. Sample harvested for Von Guerard Stream.

How did you get to Antarctica and how will you get home? If you traveled by plane, is your plane still there and is it frozen?
From the United States we first flew to Christchurch, New Zealand. From Christchurch, we boarded a U.S. Air Force aircraft enroute to Antarctica. After the plane landed, we got off while others boarded for a return trip to Christchurch. Throughout the austral summer, airplanes make many trips to and from Antarctica, carrying people and equipment. During cold and dark winters, it is more likely for planes to become frozen to the ice during their landings.

How do you not get frostbite?
When it’s chilly we bundle up with hats, mittens, and jackets to keep us warm. But it’s summer here, so the temperature can often be higher here than it is in Michigan on the same day (into the 40s deg F)!

Have you seen any other people there?
Yes! There are many field camps around the dry valleys, and from time to time we meet other scientists stationed at these camps. The New Zealand Antarctic program has a good representation at several of the other camps. It’s always nice to meet other people in the remote region. 

What is the coldest temperature that it gets to be while you are there? What is the warmest temperature?
Summer temperatures are fairly tolerable and typically hover around freezing, 0 deg C, or 32 deg F. The wind chill, however, can make it feel much cooler. The warmest temperature I’ve experienced this season was 1 or 2 deg C. The coldest day was early in the season where the temperature dropped to about -17 deg C.

What kind of trees are there in Antarctica? Do you even have any?
Trees are absent from the Antarctic. In the dry valleys there are no flowering plants, however on the western Antarctic Peninsula there are two species of plants.

Do glaciers have layers?
Glaciers are formed by the accumulation of snow over time. The snow that remains after a season of melt becomes very dense and formed into granular ice, this is called firn. Over time, the firn is compressed and buried as more snow accumulates. As layers of firn are compressed and buried, they become fused to the glacier to form a thickened mass of ice. So, in a sense, yes, glaciers have layers; layers of firn, which add to overall glacier mass as they become compressed.
Lower area of Canada Glacier with supraglacial melt channels.

What is the difference between being and geologist and a biologist?
The root word ‘geo’ means earth. The root word ‘bio’ means life. I would say, geologists study earth and biologists study life. However, the terms are not exclusive. For example, some geologists study the remnants of ancient life preserved in fossils.

Are there volcanoes in Antarctica?
Indeed, there are volcanoes in Antarctica and many are active. Mt. Erebus (pictured) is the world’s southernmost active volcano and visible from McMurdo Station.
Mt. Erebus (Eric's photo from a past field season)

How come you use ATV’s to cross frozen lakes?
We use ATVs as a convenient way to cross Lake Fryxell, which is approx. 3 miles long. Further, it’s nice for carrying heavy equipment to sample sites, and it’s nice for lazy people.
Commonwealth Glacier (background) and our ATV tracks on the snow covered Lake Fryxell. We use ATVs to travel across ice covered lakes and visit streams around the basins.

How long is the sun visible?
In mid-summer, and during cloudless days, we can see the sun 24 hours. The sun starts to rise in late August and starts to set in May.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Greetings from the Antarctic Dry Valleys! (from Josh Darling)

Hi Folks,

Greetings from the Antarctic Dry Valleys.
The East lobe of Lake Bonney, looking east down the Taylor Valley from above the Bonney Reigel. The Hughes and Sollas Glaciers flow north into the Valley from the Kukri Hills.
Recently the Stream Team has been busy monitoring glacial melt water streams around the McMurdo Dry Valleys.
Angela Zoumplis collects water samples from Garwood Stream just below Lake Colleen in the Garwood Valley.
Our job is to monitor stream discharge, which is the amount of water flowing through stream channels, in addition to the chemistry and biology of the streams.
Control on F3, where we measure stream flow on Lost Seal Stream in Taylor Valley
Due to considerable snowfall in November, we have had a late start to collecting discharge data for this season's flow period.
F21, Upper Von Guerard Stream in Taylor Valley
Typically, the flow period coincides with warmer summer temperatures and will span from mid-November through until mid-February. This season, however, many streams did not begin to flow until early to mid-December. We are finally happy to be hiking and flying around to visit the approximately 30 streams we monitor.
Adams Glacier with the orange Adams Stream gage box in the Miers Valley. Oh, and a helicopter.
Some green and orange colored microbial mats adhered to rocks in Canada Stream, which flows into the Lake Fryxell in Taylor Valley.
Angela Zoumplis collects microbial mat samples from Canada Stream in the Lake Fryxell basin.
Commonwealth Glacier (background) and our ATV tracks on the snow covered Lake Fryxell. We use ATVs to travel across ice covered lakes and visit streams around the basins.
We look forward to hearing from you soon. Post questions and comments here, and we will respond as soon as possible.

- Josh, Stream Team, C506.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The 2016-2017 field season is beginning!

It's beginning. Scientists from the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research ( program are beginning to travel to Christchurch, New Zealand, and then on to McMurdo Station on Ross Island in Antarctica. They will be working hard to collect data about the amazing and mysterious ecosystem in the McMurdo Dry Valleys--possibly the driest ecosystem on earth. The typical field season for ecologists and environmental scientists working in Antarctica spans the austral "spring" and "summer", from now to about February.

I have been to the dry valleys five times, but I'm not going this year. However, I will be coordinating with some of my colleagues so that they can answer questions and post updates from the field. I will also write posts--since I'll have more regular internet access then the scientists in the field--and answer questions based on my past experiences from time to time.

Pictures from Taylor Valley from my last field season are posted below.

Face of the Commonwealth Glacier in Taylor Valley, Antarctica

Headwaters of Aiken stream, which flows into Many Glaciers Pond, in Taylor Valley, Antarctica. The Commonwealth Glacier is in the background.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Ross Sea in Antarctica is now officially a marine sancturary!

This is great news!

See a story on the new marine sanctuary on npr here: link

McMurdo Station, the main hub of U.S. research activity in Antarctica is located on Ross Island, which is in the Ross Sea. While the Ross Sea is remote, there is still significant fishing and whaling pressure that is affecting the marine ecosystem. My understanding is that these activities violate the Antarctic Treaty, or at least the spirit of the treaty. However, the fishing boats are often from countries that have not signed onto the treaty, or the fisherman may be rogue actors in a remote area that is just really hard to police.

What are the consequences of the Ross Sea being designated a marine sanctuary? Now some of the countries where Antarctic fisherman have been coming from have endorsed the marine sanctuary, maybe their governments are recognizing the value of conservation of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Further, these countries (e.g., China) are investing more in Antarctic research at the national level, which seems to indicate that their governments are indeed buying into the value of Antarctic science. I sure hope this is the case! It is always great to see our science colleagues from other countries getting more support from their national programs.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Questions from members of a Second Grade Classroom in Troy, Michigan!

I've got lots of great questions from members of a Second Grade Classroom in Troy, Michigan!

Anhad..."On silde 20 of 64, Is there a sticker on a rock?"
I think what you're looking at is a lens flare, which is an effect that sometimes occurs in photos when the light hits your camera lens a certain way. In this case, I think it was because it was so sunny that day.
Ronald..."How much snow do you get in Antarctica?"
The McMurdo Dry Valleys, where I do most of my research, get a very small amount of snow. Here is a picture of snow packs in Taylor Valley, which are present during the Austral summer.
Snow patches in the Taylor Valley, Antarctica
The Dry Valleys do get snowstorms. However, it's so dry that the snow will sublimate (evaporate) very quickly. We had a storm while I was at a field camp, but the snow had evaporated by the following day.
Summertime snow on my tent at F6 camp in Taylor Valley
Snow collected during a summertime storm at McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Addsion..."How cold does it get in Antarctica?"
The average temperature in the Dry Valleys is around -13 C, where C stands for centigrade, and 0 C is the temperature at which water freezes. During the summer, the air temperatures can get as warm as 10 C, and during the winter, the air temperatures can as cold -60 C.
Alyssa..."Why does the plane have skis and not wheels?"
Most of Antarctica is covered in snow and ice, so planes with skis are much more useful because they can land on snow and ice. At McMurdo, planes land on the Ross Ice Shelf, which is a glacier on top of the sea. The planes with skis can also land on top of the Antarctic Ice Sheet at the South Pole, and on snow and ice fields near other deep field camps and other research stations. The wheeled aircraft, on the other hand, can only land on specially prepared ice-runways. As far as I know, the only such runway exists at McMurdo station, and it is only used when the weather is cold enough to keep the ice frozen solid -- which is not the case during the summer months.
Madden..."How did the ice glaciers form?"
Great question! I think that is one of the major questions glaciologists are studying. My basic understanding is that as snow accumulates, over many thousands of years, it is compressed into ice. Some of the ice on the Antarctic Ice Sheet is hundreds of thousands of years old! You can think of the glaciers as really slow moving, frozen rivers. The ice is constantly moving downhill, although too slow for us to see in real time.
Ariela..."How long was your trip from your home to Antarctica?"
My trip home takes about 3 days. It's about an 8.5 hour flight from Antarctica to New Zealand, and then about 30 hours of travel and layovers at airports to get from New Zealand back home.
Dean..."Why are the rocks different colors?"
The different colors arise from the different processes that created the rocks. There are lots of rocks that are of volcanic origin in the Dry Valleys, and those create lots of the dark streaks in the landscape. Rocks with a lot of iron tend to be reddish, like rust.
Dominick..."How many avalanches have been in Antarctica?"
I have no idea, but probably a lot. I've seen one, when a glacier behind one of our field camps calved.
Audrey..."What does F6 mean?"
The streams that flow into Lake Fryxell in Taylor Valley are numbered, so that researchers can keep them straight in the notes. The stream nearest Canada Glacier is number one (stream F1, or Fryxell stream #1). The sixth stream is F6, and the camp located where that stream flows into Lake Fryxell is F6 camp. The streams all have other names as well. For example, stream F1 is also known as Canada Stream, and stream F6 is also known as Von Guerard Stream.
Will..."What are you doing now on January 27, 2015?"
Now I'm back at McMurdo Station. Instead of camping at a field camp and collecting samples, I'm staying in a dorm and working in the lab at McMurdo to analyze the soil samples I collected. Our group of researchers looks for microorganisms in the soils and we also measure soil chemistry.
James..."How tall are the mountains in Antarctica?"
Pretty tall. Mount Erebus, which is the southernmost active volcano, is about 12,500 ft.
Harish..."How many valleys did you see total?
This year I've been to two. I've been to 8 over the past 5 years.
Jaden..."Why is there dirt in the snow?"
Lots of different reasons. Glaciers pick up dirt and rocks as they slowly scrape away at the ground underneath. Also, this is a very windy place, and wind blows dust on top of the snow and ice.
Emily..."What kinds of rocks changed color?"
I don't know of any that change color, but I'm not a geologist.
Julia...On picture 46 of 64, Is that a volcano?"
Good question. That particular mountain is not a volcano. It's just shrouded in clouds and I took a picture because I thought it looked cool. However, Mt. Erebus is a volcano and it is right behind McMurdo Station!
Mt. Erebus, Ross Island, Antarctica with steam rising out of the caldera at the top.
Jeremiah and Prisha..."Why are there so many rocks/stones?"
Liquid water, plants, and animals contribute a lot to the weathering and decomposition of rocks, which creates soil, in more temperate parts of the world. Because the Dry Valleys are very dry, and there are not plants, and biological processes occur very slowly, rocks and gravel dominate the landscape.
Jenna..."How big are the rocks in centimeters?"
From less than 1 to greater than 1,000,000
Ivan..."Is there gold or diamonds in Antarctica?"
I don't know, but I bet folks are looking.
Sameer, Lillian and Xavier..."Why can't someone drive the ATV on soil?"
It took many thousands, if not millions of years for many of the features in the Dry Valleys to form. The ATVs leave tracks in the soil, and we want to minimize our impact on this pristine landscape. The ice around the edge of the lakes melts and reforms every year, so any tracks we leave with the ATV disappear each year.
Nolan..."What are the camp buildings made out of?"
Some are made of wood. Some are rack Tents or similar structures that have wood frames with canvas stretched over them.
Prisha..."Why is the Canada Glacier so big?"
Canada Glacier is actually a fairly small glacier for Antarctica. It is considered an "alpine glacier" which is hanging off one of the mountains into Taylor Valley. The glaciers that run from the interior of the Antarctic continent to the ocean are thousands of times bigger. There is a lot of ice down here!
Vukadin..."What is in the soil that you picked up with the spoon?"
We collect those samples to look for cyanobacterial mats, which are a kind of photosynthetic bacteria that live in colonies. Cyanobacteria, diatoms, and mosses are some of the main primary producers in the Dry Valley ecosystem.
Anhad..."On picture 46 of 64, is that an avalanche?"
That is not an avalanche, though it kind of looks like it. It's clouds that accumulated around a mountain. In the foreground, that is the Canada Glacier.
Madden..."Why is the water by the glacier not frozen?"
Good question. The radiation from the sun causes the glacier to melt, so that water is melt water running off the glacier. The glaciers are so big and so cold that the loss of melt water doesn't really changer their size. However, if the climate warms, this could change. For example, in North America, glaciers in Glacier National Park are melting away.
Emily..."What are the minerals that Kevin is holding?"
 I'm not sure what picture you're talking about, but I think I have pictures of him holding everything from algal mats to basalt (volcanic) rocks.
Sai..."What's the tempearture?"
Right now it's around 0 C
Dominick..."How did some of the snow melt?"
Even if the air temperature does not get above freezing, radiation from sunlight can heat up the snow and cause it to melt. Although, it does get above freezing here in the summer. So that can cause snow to melt too.
Audrey..."Why does Antarctica have so much snow?"
I don't think it snows all that much here. I think it's more an issue of the fact that it's so cold here year round, and the snow never has a chance to melt. The snow and ice that we see covering Antarctica has accumulated over hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. The exception is the Dry Valleys, which see very little precipitation, mountains stop ice from flowing in off the ice sheet, and the air is so dry that the little bit of snow that does fall each year immediately evaporates.
Alyssa..."What are some of the different animals in the water besides the sea spider?"
The sea spider that I took a picture of was in one of the aquariums in the lab at McMurdo. Those animals are from marine (saltwater/ocean) habitats. We don't find any of those things in the lakes in the Dry Valleys. There are lots of different types of animals in the Ross Sea around McMurdo, from sea stars to isopods and amphipods to eel pouts and other types of fish. And then, of course, there are also Orca and Minke Whales, Weddell seals, and Adele and Emperor penguins.
James..."What other penguins are there in Antarctica besides the Adelli Penguin?"
Around McMurdo, the only other penguins are the Emperor penguins.

Thanks for all the great questions!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Fish under the ice...

Some of our colleagues with the WISSARD project drilled through hundreds of meters of ice on the Ross Ice Shelf and found life! Many of the biologists on this project also do really interesting work to understand the microbial life that lives under the ice in the lakes in the Dry Valleys.

Read about the story here: