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.