Thursday, December 27, 2012

Field work in the Dry Valleys

Antarctica 2012-2013 field trip to F6

The field season is now well underway for Kevin and me.  Our first week at McMurdo station was spent in orientations and meetings ranging in topics from how to survive in a sudden blizzard to where to find gloves for cleaning the lab to planning helicopter transportation to and from field sites.

We spent about a week in Taylor Valley at a field camp called F6 on the shores of Lake Fryxell.  The trip started out with a helicopter ride from McMurdo station to the field camp in the Dry Valleys.  This is a 30 minute trip by helicopter, or a 70 mile treacherous journey by foot over the sea ice... which we never do.  We always take a helicopter.  Once in Taylor Valley, our mission was to hike to streams and find cyanobacteria mats, and collect soil samples for a student's project back at Virginia Tech.  Pictures from our trip to the field are in the photo album (linked above).  We saw some interesting things, including a mummified seal near one of our study sites!

As is common in Antarctica, the weather did not really cooperate with us.  We needed the melt-water streams to be flowing for some of the work we had to do.  Instead, the valleys were cold, overcast, and snowy for much of the time we were there.  Thus, there was very little met-water flowing through the streams.  Also, we found a recently lost and headless juvenile penguin on the lake ice on Lake Fryxell while we were travelling back from one of our field sites.  It is not uncommon for penguins or seals to get lost and wander up into the Dry Valleys from the sea ice.  Skuas (giant gulls adapted to cold climates) will scavenge or kill the weakened animals and take what they can.  There are quite a few seal carcasses that have been mummified by the cold and dry climate in the Dry Valleys.  Some of these seals are hundreds of years old.  

A snow storm hit Taylor Valley on the day we were scheduled to return, two days before Christmas.  The helicopters don't fly when the weather is bad, and thus we were stranded in Taylor Valley until after Christmas.  We hiked from F6 camp to Lake Hoare camp, where some other Dry Valley researchers had gathered for Christmas.  The hike over Canada Glacier is well marked and usually uneventful.  However, we were hiking because the helicopters weren't flying on account of the bad weather.  Consequently, our hike was a little nerve-wracking because we were trying to beat out the on-coming snow storm.  We ended up seeing about 4-6" of snow, which is rare for the Dry Valleys since it's a desert with very little precipitation.  Being on top of a glacier with the big fat snowflakes surrounding us was peaceful, but it's always a little scary when you don't know how much is going to accumulate or now bad visibility is going to get.  Needless to say, we made it to the camp just fine.

We celebrated Christmas at Lake Hoare with about 10 other people.  We made a very elaborate gingerbread house.  Maybe some pictures of that will come later.

We are now back at McMurdo.  We will be doing some day trips to work on some long term soil ecology experiments.  I'll post more about that later.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Arrival in McMurdo!

Hi everyone,

This is my first blog post!  I can't promise it will be the most memorable posting, but over the next few months I hope to contribute some thoughts about what it's like to live and work in Antarctica.  While it's certainly not easy, and can often be frustrating, the rewards you receive from working in such a beautiful location along with other hard-working scientists from around the world is fantastic.  As a graduate student at Virginia Tech, this is my third time traveling to Antarctica.

Eric Sokol and I are now in McMurdo (Ross Island, Antarctica; having arrived late yesterday.  We traveled here from Christchurch, New Zealand.  This is the city which all people heading to McMurdo must pass through.  Here we had a two night stay, a requirement so that no one arrives "on the ice" (slang for "in Antarctica") with severe jet-lag from the trip.  During our time in New Zealand Eric and I visited beautiful botanical gardens (December is summertime in the southern hemisphere) and also visited some portions of downtown that are still being reconstructed after major earthquake damage that took place in the last few years.  Although that was sad to see, we also had the chance to view The Hobbit in 3D!

Christchurch is also the home of the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center), another important stop for Eric and I before leaving for McMurdo.  This is where all Antarctic workers get the cold weather coats, gloves, and boots necessary for working in subfreezing environments.  Some of the gear may look funny, but it's designed to provide protection from the cold and could save our life in an emergency.  Because of the long history of Antarctic travelers passing through Christchurch, this city also features a number of museums and interactive centers that describe life on the icy continent.  Statues of famous Antarctic explorers, such as Robert Falcon Scott, are found in town too.

Once we had all our gear and were rested from the trip to New Zealand, an 8 hour flight took us to McMurdo on a C-130 military plane.  In contrast to normal passenger airliners, these planes are designed for transporting cargo and so there is little insulation in the walls (which makes the interior very loud and usually cold during flight) and seats are mostly cargo netting suspended along the walls.  But, the perks include having a fairly large area to roam around in during flight to stretch your legs.  This is a BIG benefit when your over six foot tall like I am.  Commercial airlines are not able to land at McMurdo because no concrete runway exists.  Instead, planes like the C-130 must be able to land on ice and snow!

Once our plane landed, all 15 passengers and 6 crew members were herded onto a Delta for the ride into the town of McMurdo.  A Delta is a large machine (about 15 feet tall) that pulls an equally tall, enclosed trailer where people can sit.  Although it's a bumpy ride, this machine has very wide tires that makes driving on snow, particularly slushy snow, much easier.  After an hour trip we were dropped off in town, we picked up our luggage, and got keys to the dorm where we are staying.  Now for the past 24 hours Eric and I have been attending many training sessions that are designed to make all McMurdo residents familiar with how to live and work successfully here (more about that in a later post).

Well I guess it's dinner time in McMurdo, I should stop writing for now!  On the menu tonight is pork chile verde and grilled flank stank, yum yum!  Everyone in town is fed at the galley, a large building with professional cooks that prepare meals for all McMurdo residents, about 1000 people right now.  Eric will be posting pictures to accompany this post, so feel free to look them over ("Antarctica 2012-2013 Travel To McMurdo").  If you have questions, please post them on the "Ask Questions Here" tab and we'd be happy to answer you!

Kevin Geyer

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Visiting the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand

On the way to McMurdo Station in Antarctica, participants in the United States Antarctic Program travel through New Zealand.  This is because New Zealand is the best staging point for a flight down to McMurdo Station.  On my way through New Zealand, I spent some time in Hamilton, which is on the North Island, to visit with some colleagues at the University of Waikato.  Charlie Lee and Craig Cary (pictured below) study microbial ecology (among other things related to microbiology), and they have some really neat projects with the New Zealand Antarctic research program (Antarctica New Zealand).  You can find out more about their research here  Here are some pictures of environmental chambers that Charlie and Craig had custom-built to simulate the cold dry climate of the McMurdo Dry Valleys.  This task is not as simple as you might think.  They painstakingly collected soils from the actual Dry Valleys, keeping track of the depth at which the soil was collected, and brought it back to the lab to put in the chamber.  They had to recreate ice cement mixed with soil (form the ice cement layer in the Dry Valleys), and they layered the soil in the chambers similar to how it was layered in the field.  The chambers also have very dry air (low relative humidity) and very bright photosynthetically active radiation (PAR - daylight that autotrophic microbes can use to fix carbon).  Using mesocosm experimental set-ups such as these will give Charlie and Craig an unprecedented opportunity to experimentally test hypotheses about how soil microbes in Dry Valley soils will react to the changes in the soil habitat. 

Charlie (left) and Craig (right) showing off an environmental chamber

Soils from the McMurdo Dry Valleys in an environmental chamber in the lab at the University of Waikato

A close up of the permafrost layer in the environmental chamber

Saturday, December 8, 2012

On the "road"

I left Virginia Tech on Thursday, Dec 6 and arrived in Auckland, New Zealand on Dec 8.  According to my flight itinerary, I have traveled 8,828 miles so far.  I was on a plane or in airports for 29 hours straight, and I still have a lot of traveling to do.  But for now, I am spending the weekend with a colleague at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand.  On Tuesday  I will fly to Christchurch, which is a city on the South Island in New Zealand.  This is where the United States Antarctic Program has their facilities where scientists and support crew get prepared to head down to Antarctica.  Christchurch was a beautiful city, but it was devastated by an earthquake on February 22, 2011. There were still aftershocks, even a year after the original earthquake, when I was in Christchurch last year. I'm looking forward to seeing how the city is recovering two years out.

View Travel to Antarctica in a larger map

The map above has the locations of the places I've traveled through so far.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A new field season! (2012-2013)

I gearing up for my third field season working in the McMurdo Dry Valleys in the Transantarctic Mountains. This year, our crew will be Eric Sokol (myself), Kevin Geyer, and Jeb Barrett. During a normal work day back in the United States you will find us somewhere in Derring Hall, which houses the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech. During the field season you will find us at McMurdo Station on Ross Island in Antarctica or somewhere in the Dry Valleys.  Jeb is a soil scientist who has been conducting research in the Antarctic Dry Valleys for over a decade. Kevin is a PhD student and this will be his third season in the Dry Valleys.

We are part of a larger group of ecologists and environmental scientists and engineers who study polar deserts in Antarctica as part of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (MCM LTER) project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation in the United States.

This season, I will begin my travels on Dec 6, 2012. I should at McMurdo base in Antarctica on Dec 13, 2012.  I will be there until Jan 30, 2013. Please feel free to post questions at any time. I will be checking the blog regularly and I will answer questions as best I can.

In other news, some scientists from the MCM LTER have been in the news recently because they have found microbial life in Lake Vida, which is really cold and really salty and covered year-round by a lot of ice.

Here's a link to an article about their findings.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mrs. Fridson's class asked:
How are things in New Zealand? We wanted to know what foods you ate in Antarctica and to let you know that here in Farmington Hills, it was 4 degrees this morning. That sounds colder then it was in McMurdo.
Wow, that's getting pretty cold.  At McMurdo Base there is a cafeteria that serves food for all the people who are living and working there.  We were provided with three hot meals a day at McMurdo.  My favorite food there was the fresh baked bread.  Things were a little different at the field camps.  We took food that was canned, dehydrated, or frozen out to field camps.  We cooked regular meals, like chilli, or soup, or rice and beans and vegetables, but we made it from food that had been preserved.  We had cheese and milk, but we made the milk from a powder mix and the cheese was frozen, so we had to thaw it out first.

Mike cooking at a field camp

Mrs. Cooperman's First Grade asked:
Thank you so much for answering our questions. Today we thought of one more! We were having a discussion about the top 3 things we would want to bring with us on a trip to Antarctica. One student thought to bring a cell phone. Would it work? Is there a phone system where you were?
That's a good question.  We use VHF (very high frequency) hand held radios and satellite phones for communication when we are in the field.  However, we can't use cell phones because there are no service providers or cell phone towers in Antarctica.  The top three things for me are good coffee, a good book, and sunglasses.  I love coffee, and if I want good coffee I have to bring it with me.  A good book is important for long long flights, or when I have to wait a long time for a helicopter to come pick me up from a field site.  Sunglasses are important because the sunlight is very intense in Antarctica because it's daylight 24 hours a day and because there is so much ice around to reflect the sunlight.

Here I am "using" a VHF radio at Lake Fryxell Camp

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Mrs. Radner's Fourth Grade Class asked:
When the insects are 'dormant' like you said, is this like polar bears who curl up in caves over the winter? 
In some ways it is similar.  Both animals that hibernate (like birds and some mammals) and small invertebrate animals in the soil (like nematodes) slow down their metabolism to deal with the cold.  Metabolism is a word for the chemical reactions that occur in a living organism's body.  Animals like some nematodes in the Dry Valleys do this by anhydrobiosis, which means they get rid of the water in the cells in their body.  When water freezes inside living cells, it kills them.  So these animals get rid of the water in their cells before their body temperature drops below freezing.  This way, there is no water left in their body to turn to ice crystals inside their cells in the winter time, so freezing doesn't kill them.  Some mammals and birds go into an inactive state called torpor to conserve energy during the winter months, but they still use chemical reactions (metabolism) to burn fat to keep their body temperature above freezing so that ice crystals don't form in their cells.  Brown and black bears hibernate, but apparently polar bears do not.   Although, I don't know if bears technically use torpor when they hibernate.
About the penguins, in what part of Antarctica did you see the penguin?
I saw penguins near McMurdo Base and Scott Base on Ross Island.  I saw an Emperor Penguin near the New Zealand base (Scott Base) near a pressure ridge on the sea ice.  I think it was lost.  I saw some Adelie Penguins near the U.S. base (McMurdo) on the sea ice where it was starting to break up.  There were also plenty of Weddell Seals near these openings in the ice.

A lost juvenile Emperor Penguin near Scott Base
Adelie Penguin near McMurdo Base
The curious Adelie Penguin sliding along the sea ice 
What's the difference in weather between New Zealand and Antarctica? Today in Michigan it is 36 degrees Farenheit, so according to your blog, Antarctica and Michigan had the same temperature. That's amazing! We always thought it was much much colder in Antarctica than in Michigan!
It is in the middle of summer in Antarctica right now, and it is the middle of winter in Michigan right now, summertime temperatures in Antarctica near McMurdo are the same as winter time temperatures in Michigan.  In the winter, Antarctica gets much colder.  It is summertime for the southern hemisphere (the part of the world that is south of the equator) right now, and New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, so it is also summertime here.  It was in the 60s (degrees Fahrenheit) when I was in the southern part of New Zealand.  It's a little warmer where I am now, in the northern part of New Zealand.  I think it is in the upper 70s or low 80s.  People around here have told me it has been a cold summer so far.  The northern part of New Zealand is closer to the equator than the southern part of New Zealand, so it is warmer.  Just like Florida is closer to the equator than Michigan, so Florida is warmer.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Hi everyone.  I have been doing some traveling in New Zealand and out of contact.  I will post answers to the questions soon along with some new pictures.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Answers for The Students in Mrs. Fridson's class

The Students in Mrs. Fridson's class asked:
Our first graders, along with Mrs. Cooperman's and Mrs. Dvorkin's classes are starting to learn about Antarctica. We also have a couple of questions. Are there many bugs in Antarctica? Over 100? What is the temperature there right now? This is their summer, but you can't stay there in June, right? That would be winter in Antarctica. 
Hi Mrs. Fridson's class, thanks for the questions!  It seems that the number of species of insects that live on the continent of Antarctica are fewer than 10 (maybe only 3 or 4, but I don't know how many species of spring tail have been described).  See my post below.  As a side note, there are no true bugs in Antarctica.  True bugs are insects in the order Hemiptera (like the giant water bug, a.k.a. the "toe biter").  So if you ask an entomologist about "bugs", he/she will think you are asking about hemipterans (and not beetles or ants or bees or flies, etc.).

I just left McMurdo today, and I'm now in Christchurch, New Zealand, where it is summertime!  The temperature when I left McMurdo was probably a few degrees above freezing (so the 30s Fahrenheit).  Still chilly, but not too bad, and probably warmer than Michigan is right now.  Some people do stay at McMurdo and the South Pole during the winter, but not very many, and you have to have a good reason to be there.  You're right, that is when it is really cold, and I will probably never be in Antarctica in June.  There probably isn't very much biology to study then, because most living things survive by going dormant (becoming inactive) during the winter months.  

Answers for Mrs. Nosakowski's First Grade Science Classes

Mrs. Nosakowski's First Grade Science Classes asked:
We have been studying insects in first grade science! We have been discussing common insects that are found here in the U.S. but are wondering what insects can be found in Antarctica? Can you share with us some cool facts?
Hi Mrs. Nosakowski's First Grade Science Class!  Thanks for the questions.  Insects are some of my favorite organisms to study, but there are not very many in Antarctica.  The only insects in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where I work, are Collembola (a.k.a. spring tails).

Image from
These are tiny microscopic insects that live on moss mats when there is flowing water in the Antarctic summer.  I haven't seen any of these in person, but I have been looking.  When I first took an entomology course (entomology is the study of insects) these guys were considered true insects, but I think that may have changed in the past few years.  The only other insects that live in Antarctica are midges (the family Chironomidae, see this link), which live on the Palmer Penninsula, which is the part of Antarctica that sticks out toward South America.  This part of Antarctica is further north and a little warmer than where I work.
Image from
You can find both spring tails and midges in Michigan, but they are different species than those that live in Antarctica.  Sometimes you can find springtails hopping around in the snow.  They look like fleas, and are sometimes called snow fleas, but they are not fleas.  Midges look like mosquitoes, but they don't bite.

The only other "animals" that live in the Dry Valleys are very small (microscopic) animals like mites, water bears, and round worms.  These things all live in the soil and they can survive the harsh winters by becoming dormant during the cold months.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Answers for Mrs. Cooperman's First Grade Class

Mrs. Cooperman's First Grade Class  asked:
Our first grade class just began learning about Antarctica. We are fascinated by the frigid temperatures and that animals are able to survive. Do you know how penguins are able to survive the cold? Also, we read on your blog that when you are out on field study, it can take a few days to complete your experiments... Is is difficult to sleep in a tent when the wind is blowing so hard? We learned that some winds can be up to 200 miles and hour! Also, when you put up your tent, have you ever had to pitch it on ice? Do you actually sleep well? Also, we want to know about electricity in Antarctica!
Thanks for the questions!  I don't really know much about penguins, but most of the larger animals, like seals and penguins, can survive because they have lots of insulation in the form of fat or blubber.  My guess is that they eat as much as they can, and then their bodies use that energy to produce enough heat to keep them from freezing, and their fat keeps the heat from escaping their bodies.  I'm sure there is a lot more going on with these amazing animals to help them survive.  I will see if I can find anything else out.  

Here is a picture of a juvenile emperor penguin.  The first emperor I've seen in person!
Sleeping in a tent here is a lot like sleeping in a tent back home, during a winter day.  Tents tend to act like a greenhouse by letting light in, but not letting the energy escape.  So if it is sunny, the tent can get pretty warm (like 50 degrees F), even if it is cold outside.  We also get really warm sleeping bags and sleeping pads.  I really like sleeping in tents, so I think it is a pretty comfortable situation.  The light doesn't keep me awake, especially if I'm really tired after a long day of field work.  

It can get pretty windy here, but I haven't experienced 200 mph winds.  We had a katabatic wind storm a couple of weeks ago where a few unoccupied tents were blown away.  Katabatic winds occur when dense cold air falls from a high place (like a mountain, or the polar plateau where the south pole is) to a low place (like the McMurdo Dry Valleys).  I made sure my tent was secure so I didn't have to worry about it blowing away.

Solar panels at Lake Hoare Camp, McMurdo Dry Valleys

Solar panels and the main hut at Lake Hoare Camp
The field camps I have been to all have electricity.  Most of the science projects require instruments and tools that need electricity, so the field stations are well equipped.  I have seen solar panels at all of the field stations I have been to, and there are also wind generators at some of them.  Ironically, one of the wind generators was damaged by high winds during a katabatic wind storm last year.  There are also diesel generators that serve as a backup if we don't get enough power from the sun.  It seems the solar panels do the trick, because we haven't had to run the diesel generator at the field camps while I have been out there this year.  

We do use diesel to power a heater in main hut where we cook and eat, and we use propane to power a stove and refrigerators and freezers for food and science samples (we keep samples and food in different freezers). 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Thanks for the mail!

I received some mail from Mrs. Radner's fourth graders!  I saw that the letters were dated December 22, 2011.  I received them on Saturday, which was January 7, 2012.  However, I think my mail actually arrived in McMurdo on January 5, and they sent it out to a field camp, but I was no longer there and the people at the field camp sent it to me at the science lab in McMurdo.  So the letters and cookies made a little extra trip out to the Dry Valleys and then back to McMurdo.

Thanks for the letters!

...and the cookies (Thank you Noa and Noa's mom !), they were delicious!  I enjoyed them in my office in the Crary Laboratory in McMurdo, and I shared them with my friends here.  

Answer for Mrs. Radner's Fourth Grade Class

Mrs. Radner's Fourth Grade Class asked:
Dear Dr. Sokol:
We are exploring the "Westward, Ho!" movement and learning about travel in a wagon. We discussed the items we would bring if we were travelling out West. We saw that you travel by helicopter and that you said you put a lot of gear in that helicopter. We were wondering if the kind of gear you put into your helicopter is similar to what we would put in a wagon to travel out West.
The answer to this question depends on whether I am heading out to the field just for the day, or if I am heading out to a field camp for many days and nights.  When we have a lot of work to do in the Dry Valley desert, we will camp near the work site because it will take us more than one day to complete our tasks.  When I went out to Lake Fryxell Camp I had to pack food, clothes, a tent, a sleeping bag and sleeping mat, some tools, hiking boots, and lots of socks.  I bet this list is similar to what people had in their wagons when they were traveling west.  However, I also took science gear with me.  This included whirl packs (which are plastic bags for collecting samples), instruments to measure the amount of water in the soil, flags for marking plots where we sample, test tubes, and a special liquid chemical for preserving the DNA in soil (so we can study it later).  I suspect that these items would not be found in the wagons in the "Westward, Ho!" movement.  I've included some pictures, below, of other things that we brought out to the field with us...

An instrument that measures the amount of carbon dioxide coming out of the soil.

Stabilizers - these strap on to my hiking boots and give me traction on the ice, so I can walk across frozen lakes and glaciers.

Here I am with my water bottle.  It's as important to have something to carry water in so I don't get dehydrated.

Here is Adam next to a stream on top of a glacier (Canada Glacier).  We stopped to get some water from this stream.  

On the left is a hand held GPS (global positioning system) - this tells us where we are.  We use this to record the location of all of the places from which we collect samples.

Here is Adam sampling some soil near Canada Glacier.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Back from the field camp

I just got back from a week in the Dry Valleys, specifically Taylor Valley. Between work and internet outages at the camps, I wasn't able to update the blog, but now I'm back in McMurdo so expect some more updates and pictures.

My tent at the camp at Lake Bonney in Taylor Valley
I had lots of different tasks while I was in Taylor Valley.  This year I am working on projects that are part of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research Program.  Lots of scientists have been working on this research for a long time so that we can understand how the ecosystem works in Antarctica.  I'm working with the soil scientists so I got to do lots of hiking to collect soil samples to bring back to the lab.  I also had to use a machine to measure the amount of carbon dioxide coming out of the soil, which we can use to figure out how active the soil microorganisms are.

I had a chance to hike over the Canada Glacier, and hike up to the Hughes and Taylor Glaciers.  The Glaciers are very impressive up close.
The Hughes Glacier

Expect more blog posts and pictures and answers to questions in the coming days.   Oh, and Happy New Year!

Angelica asked:
Which part of Antarctica do the penguins live in? Also, have you seen any big groups of penguins?
That's a great question!  The penguins live in rookeries.  Rookeries are the places where the penguins build their nests, and they are near the coast of Antarctica.  However, there are places in Antarctica where the ice over the sea never melts (this is called the ice shelf), so they have to be far enough north so that they can find places where the ice melts or cracks so they can get into the water to find food.  

The place where I am is McMurdo Station, which is on Ross Island, which is partially surrounded by ice shelf (does not melt) and sea ice (does melt).  Because we are near ice that melts, we have penguin colonies on this island, but I haven't been able to see them because they are on a part of the island that you can only go to if you have a special permit.  I have heard that when the ice melts near McMurdo Station later in the year that we will see more penguins and whales.  I hope that happens before I have to leave.