Friday, January 18, 2013

Answers for Mrs. Phillips and her First Grade class

Mrs. Phillips and her First Graders asked some really great questions:
How many miles is it from Pelzer, South Carolina to Antarctica? How long would it take to travel there?
I measured the distance on Google maps and it was about 8,900 miles.  In reality, I travel farther than this because I have to go to New Zealand before heading down to Antarctica.  This is because the United States Antarctic Program runs all of their flights to McMurdo from New Zealand.  I think it takes about 30 hours for me to travel from Blacksburg, Virginia to Christchurch, New Zealand.  I also get all of my warm clothes issued to me in New Zealand.  Then I travel another 5 to 9 hours by plane to McMurdo where the plane lands on ice on the Ross Sea or the Ross Ice Shelf.  From there, it can be an hour or more over the sea ice to McMurdo base on Ross Island.  It takes about a week to complete the beginning of season survival training and get more gear for field work and plan trips out to the Dry Valleys.  Then it is a 45 minute helicopter ride out to field sites.
What kinds of bugs have you seen in Antarctica and have you caught any?
I have not seen any bugs here in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.  There are supposedly Collembola and mites where I am, but no true insects.  Collembola are related to insects, and they can be found down here in the Dry Valleys.  Collembola are also known as Springtails or snow fleas.  You can find Collembola in North America in leaf litter.  They have an appendage called a furcula that they use to "spring" or hop around.  The Collembola down here apparently don't have a working furcula, so they don't hop.
Have you seen any penguin rookeries while you've been there?
I have not seen any penguin rookeries.  The rookeries are specially protected areas that we have to get permission to visit.  There are penguin rookeries on Ross Island, where McMurdo station is located, but they are pretty far away.  The closest adelie penguin rookery is at Cape Royds (about 20 miles away), and the closest emperor penguin rookery is at Cape Crozier (about 50 miles away).  Ed Stump has a really good blog post about the penguins near McMurdo here.  He actually got to go to the rookeries and take some pictures.
How many types of animals live in Antarctica?
Overall, there are not very many animals living on the land near McMurdo. There are a handful of nematode species, mites, collembola, and tardigrades that are all very small animals that live in the soil that can be found in the Dry Valleys.  The Dry Valleys are very cold, dry polar deserts that are on the Antarctic mainland, nestled in among the mountains and glaciers.  Near the coast of the Ross Sea you will find Adelie penguins, Emperor penguins, Weddell seals, and Skuas.  The most common animal where I am, in the Dry Valleys, is Scottnema lindsayae.  This animal is a microscopic nematode that lives in the soils of the polar deserts in Antarctica.  It is is a very small worm that you would be hard pressed to see without a microscope.   Our friends at the nemablog specialize in these types of microscipic animals.  There are trillions of nematodes in the soil in Taylor Valley, the valley that I am currently camping in.  I have also seen Skuas, which look like really large, brown sea gulls, Weddell seals on the sea ice near McMurdo, and an Emperor penguin near Scott Base.  There are more animals farther north where it is warmer.  I have read that the marine life around Palmer Station near South America is much more diverse, but  I have never been there, so I can't tell you much about that place.
Why can't people live in Antarctica, but they can visit? What kind of clothing or shelter do you have to use to keep warm?
This is a really good question.  No people live here permanently because it is really cold and there is no way to grow food here. Everything we need to survive is shipped or flown in from other continents.  This includes everything we use to build shelter, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the fuel we use for electricity and keeping warm.

People visit here for many reasons.  The first people to visit here were  adventurers in the age of exploration.  Great explorers like Earnest Shackleton, R. F. Scott, and Roald Amundson were looking for a route to South Pole.  Many of the people who come here visit for science.  There is a lot to learn about geology and biology.  Many of the researchers here are trying to learn how microorganisms live in very harsh habitats, like thousands of feed underneath the ice in subglacial lakes.  My research group is interested in how microorganisms live in the very dry and cold soils of the Dry Valleys, and what this desert ecosystem will do as the climate warms and ice starts to melt.  Also, cosmologists, astronomers, and physicists come to Antarctica because there are some unique ways scientists can observe stars and planets and the universe from the bottom of the world.  Scientists use giant balloons to put high tech telescopes up in the air above the clouds to take pictures of space, and there are special sensors that have been placed in the ice at the South Pole that are used for measuring particles from space.

We are issued Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear to keep warm.  Even in the summer, the temperatures here are often below freezing, and the wind can make it much colder.  ECW includes a big red parka (called "Big Red"), wind pants, and bunny boots.

Bunny boots are really warm boots, but they're heavy and no very practical for hiking
Big Red - a really warm parka
We are issued lots of warm clothes, hats, gloves, mittens.   
At McMurdo there are buildings that we use for shelter.  We sleep in dorms, have meals in cafeterias, and work in the Crary Science Laboratory.
Here's a picture of McMurdo.  The Crary Science Lab is the big gray building in the middle of the photo.
At some field camps we sleep in tents and work and cook in huts.  In deep field camps we only have tents to work and cook in.
This is the tent I will be sleeping in tonight at F6 field Camp.
This is a Scott Tent at Lake Hoare Camp.
Solar panels and hut at F6 camp
How do you make your food? Is there enough electricity?
Kevin cooking frittatas for dinner
At the field camps we cook our own food.  We have lots of canned and frozen food that we can use to make meals.  Sometimes in deep field camps we eat instant backpacking food (meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs), but we try to avoid that as much as possible.  At McMurdo station there is a cafeteria people who prepare food and bake fresh bread and cookies.  If the weather is cooperating, we get fresh vegetables and fruit from New Zealand when cargo planes fly down to McMurdo.  However, the cargo planes have had lots of delays recently so we haven't seen fresh fruit or vegetables for a month.

We usually have enough electricity.  There are solar panels at many of the established field camps.
Solar panels that power the Lake Hoare field camp
These work really well during the austral summer because the sun us up 24 hours a day.  On Ross Island, electricity is produced by large wind turbines that were built in 2009.  When those don't provide enough power, diesel generators are used to produce more electricity.

Thanks for the great questions!  We really appreciate you following our blog.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mrs. Happ and students wrote:
We enjoyed looking at all the pictures of the glacier and ice fields you posted. We were surprised that you were able to wear fairly light clothing. We thought it might be somewhat colder even though it is summer there. Nonetheless, we had a few questions about the pictures and hoped you might have some time to answer them. We wanted to know about how tall the glacier that looked like a cliff measured and what the lines on the face of the glacier are caused from. We were also fascinated by the picture of the rock formation that looked like long fingers. What type of rock was it? Would we be able to find similar rocks here in Michigan? We hope all is going well and look forward to your answers.
Canada Glacier in Taylor Valley, Antarctica
Thanks for the great questions.  It is not too cold here, but keep in mind that this is the middle of summer and we are still getting snow!  I'm not entirely sure how tall the Canada Glacier is near where I was standing, but my guess is a few stories.  So 10 or 15 meters (30 to 45 feet).  You are asking a lot of great questions about glaciers that a glaciologist would probably be better suited to answer.  I'll give it my best shot.  You can think of glaciers as giant, slow motion, moving bodies of water.  Sure, they're frozen, but they're still moving.  As these masses of water slowly flow down hill, the surfaces crack.  The lines you see in the picture I took are probably the result of cracks, and chunks of ice falling off the face of the glacier.  But, if you see a glacier from the air (like in a helicopter), you'll see massive cracks and fissures called crevasses.  These enormous cracks result from the glaciers flowing over uneven terrain, or around topography that causes the flow of the ice to be disrupted.

Rock near Canada Glacier that has been broken apart by freeze-thaw cycles
I think the rock you are referring to was cracked apart from freeze-thaw cycles.  There are many rocks that look like that.  Water works its way into the rocks, freezes and expands, thaws out, and repeats many many times over many many years.  The rocks eventually crack like the roads in Michigan.  I think the rock was volcanic in origin.  You may think there are not volcanic rocks in Michigan, but there are.  In the upper peninsula, Isle Royale is of volcanic origin.  When glaciers dug out Lake Superior, the harder volcanic rock was more resistant and was left behind as islands.  The soil and rocks in the lower peninsula are from glacial till.  This means that the glaciers dug up rocks and soil and moved large quantities of rocks and soil.  When the glaciers melted and retreated, they dropped large quantities of rocks and soil all over the lower peninsula.  My understanding is that slow moving glaciers that advanced and retreated many times over the lower peninsula created this really deep soil that is called "glacial till".  Farther north, in the upper peninsula, the glaciers retreated more quickly and scraped away rock and soil, exposing bedrock, and the volcanic rock that makes up Isle Royale in Lake Superior.

I think it's very interesting that the landscapes of both Michigan and Antarctica have been so heavily influenced by glaciers.  We can still see the glaciers in Antarctica, but they are long gone from Michigan.  The outwash plains in southeastern Michigan, which are really flat and sandy, are from ancient lakes (like Lake Maumee) that existed because of glacial melt water that was blocked from draining by ice dams.  The soils in Taylor Valley in Antarctica have also been heavily influenced by ancient lakes that existed because of glacial dynamics.

Thanks again for the questions, and keep them coming!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Picture tour for Mrs. Bodman's 2nd grade class

Antarctica 2012-2013 pictures for Mrs. Bodman's Class

Click on the picture album above for a tour of the places I visit when I am doing science in Antarctica.  The captions should explain most of the pictures, but please feel free to post questions if you have them!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Columbia High School, Maplewood, NJ

Hi Ms. Biasucci’s Columbia High School Biochemistry class!
Thanks for all your great questions.  Eric and Kevin are busy working in the lab processing some samples that we collected the other day so I thought I’d fill in for them while they are working and try to answer your questions.

Corey asks: “How long is McMurdo Station open for research (out of the year)?
How much work do you do outside of Antarctica compared with that done in the field?”

McMurdo is open all year but is inaccessible for the winter months (typically from March until August).  So people who “winter-over” come down in February and stay on until at least August.

Our work focuses on the summer melt season, usually between November and early February when conditions allow the simple life-forms down here to be active – during this time of year temperatures are usually above freezing for most of the day, so it’s not that cold.  I’ve never been down here later than February or earlier than late October.  I hear it’s cold then – cold enough that you want to avoid exposing skin. That’s also when you can see the Southern Lights, something that I’ve only seen in photographs.

For the rest of the year we’re back at Virginia Tech teaching and working on the samples that we bring home.

Keely ask: “What kind of field resources and equipment do you have available to you for your research? Do you have to bring your own, or does the research station provide everything?”

This is a great question Keely. The station (run by the U.S. National Science Foundation) provides all of our logistical support and a lot of the equipment that we use. Everything from basic camping gear like tents, sleeping bags, stoves and parkas to the science equipment that we use to measure weather conditions and study the biota in soils and streams.  But sometimes we bring down specialized equipment from our university.

Sometimes when things go wrong (for example an important piece of equipment recently blew away in a wind storm) the people on station help us to find alternatives. You can think of McMurdo as a small town with lots of good neighbors to borrow things from.

Tim and Jack ask: “What does your diet consist of? How often do you get to eat? What kinds of foods are available to you? What's not available?”

This is one we get a lot and food is something that we definitely think about.  On station we eat cafeteria style.  The cooks do a really good job considering how many people they have to cook for (around 1000) and considering the ingredients that are available - this time of year cargo flights are very limited so the menu is limited to frozen, dried and canned food. So no freshies! Let me give you an example. Today was sausage day at lunch, with a vegetarian option of seitan sausage -I’m not sure what this is and I have been afraid to wiki it. Vegetable choices consisted of frozen green beans and mash potatoes. Here is tonight’s dinner menu:

We take turns cooking for ourselves when we’re out in the field camping. I’m a big fan of one-pot meals like stews, curries or lentils.  Eric specializes in bacon and we don’t let Kevin cook anymore since the incident with the gray icing.

Nigel asks: “What do you think are the most immediate consequences of climate change on Antarctica and globally”.

This is an excellent question Nigel and of course one that many of the researchers who work down here are studying intensively. I could tell you that climate change is associated with increased glacial melt, enhanced stream flow, and changes in soil communities and lake primary productivity (and it is).  But right now the change that everybody is really concerned with is the fact that we have a foot of slush over our ice runway and this is making it very difficult to get airplanes on and off the continent (all of the air transport around this part of Antarctica is on and off an ice runway on the Ross Ice Shelf).  This has been an issue for the past couple of years, but this year is worse than normal. It seems to be a combination of very warm conditions and a wind-storm that dumped a lot of dark volcanic soil on the runway. If you know about the concept of albedo you’ll know that a darker surface absorbs more energy, so a dirty runway is a slushy runway.

Of course the one thing we know for certain is that it will get colder here as the season wears on, so don’t worry. The runway will eventually refreeze and normal flight schedules will commence.

Nick ask: “How often do you interact with other researchers and is there often a language barrier?”

This is a really good question for at least two reasons. Reason number one is that Antarctica is not “owned” by any country.  This means that all the activity on the continent is coordinated by all the different countries that participate in the Antarctic Treaty.  Number two is that researchers from New Zealand, Italy, Korea and Russia regularly travel through McMurdo on the way to their stations.  So we interact with researchers from other countries a lot.  Most of my interactions have been with New Zealand, British or Italian scientists who speak English, but I’ve been down here when we could have used an English-Russian translator.

Jack ask: “Are the data (and techniques used to collect data) similar to that collected on Mars???”

This is great question Jack.  There are some similarities between Mars soils and the soils we study, and this has motivated NASA to test some of their equipment down here. The greatest similarity is probably the cold and dry conditions, so understanding how soils form and elements cycle in Antarctic soils may help us to interpret the results from the recent Mars rover missions.

Well it’s time to go to the galley (what we call the cafeteria) and check out that Tuscan Mixed Grill and Boca Parmesan.

Keep the questions coming!


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Holidays in Antarctica!

In the past few weeks you've probably had a few holiday celebrations.  Hopefully they've been filled with fun and relaxation alongside family and friends.  Like most things in Antarctica, holiday celebrations here are a little more strange than usual.  Strange in that you're surrounded by coworkers instead of close loved ones.  Strange in that you've been working 65 hours per week, for weeks on end, and suddenly you're taking time away from the science.  And strange because you're in Antarctica, where life is always a little odd.  Here's a quick run down of how Eric and I have celebrated these past weeks, and some more in general about living in Antarctica.

Living in the Antarctic is certainly not for everyone.  Although the mountains are beautiful, and the science presents once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, there are many inconveniences (probably no surprise there) that make working and living here difficult.  In fact, when I tell most of my family and friends that I work in Antarctica, I get two typical responses.  One is "Wow!  That must be so cool, you're so lucky!"  The other is "Wow!  That sounds miserable, do you have to stay long?"  And indeed, some days in Antarctica feel like the former, and others the latter, but more often than not we're very happy to be here.

I often describe McMurdo as looking like a cross between a mining town and college campus.  Buildings are simple, efficient, and rather ugly.  Streets are unpaved and muddy.  Everyone wears hardy, weather-resistant clothing that is often ragged and dirty.  But we're all here for really the same reason, much like students at a university.  In fact, McMurdo is kind of like summer camp for scientists.  We're all here for science, or at least in support of the science.  Town might not be much to look at, but we do have a number of amenities.  Hot showers are available almost regularly, although we're encouraged to bath only four times each week.  Meal times in the galley offer many buffet selections that are filling, but the availability of fresh foods is extremely limited.  Often times we actually enjoy being in the field camps more than town, as you can cook your own food and enjoy the solitude of your own tent.

Eric and I took our first trip of the season, via helicopter, into Taylor Valley for collection of some soils just four days before Christmas.  Taylor Valley is one of the primary valleys where science occurs around McMurdo, and five permanent camps are located here.  Each camp can house between 6-15 people at a time, and consists of typically a main hut (just a room or two) for cooking, socializing, and doing work.  Around the camp are sites for individual sleeping tents, as well as fuel barrels (the camps run primarily on diesel, although some are outfitted with wind turbines and solar panels), waste barrels (all wastewater is collected for transport back to McMurdo), and heavy-duty cardboard boxes for solid trash.

F6 camp is where Eric and I stayed for this first sampling trip.  From the camp, we took supplies for an afternoon of collecting soil and got on an ATV to drive around Lake Fryxell.  The ATV is quick and convenient transportation around Taylor Valley, but it can only be used on the lake ice, never on the soil (it's too easily disturbed).  The lakes in this part of Antarctica are permanently frozen, although small portions around the shoreline typically melt into a moat during the summer.  When this happens, it's difficult to make your way between the soil and remaining ice on the lake, but early in the austral summer it's generally not a problem.

For a few days we collected soil samples from F6 camp, but were scheduled to return to McMurdo just two days before Christmas.  Unfortunately our flight back to town was canceled when the weather turned sour with snow and poor visibility.  So, instead of spending Christmas in McMurdo, Eric and I decided to spend our holiday at another permanent camp in Taylor Valley, Camp Hoare, which acts kind of as the epicenter of valley activity.

Camp Hoare has an annual Christmas Eve party that involves a huge meal, cookie decorating, a gift exchange, costumes, and loud music/dancing.  This year we managed to accomplish all of these, including gingerbread house construction.  Before any of this begins, we close shutters on the outside of the camp to block out the light.  We light the interior with candles and Christmas lights and, this year, sat down for a feast of king crab legs, ham, stuffing, salads, and lots of desert.  Afterwards we have a gift exchange, and this year I received an insulated water bottle and chocolates.  Eric got a travel-version of the card game cribbage.  Cookie decorating was also taking place throughout these events; I think something like 250 were made total.  The absolute best was our gingerbread house though, which included stained-glass windows and a fully decorated yard.  Christmas at Camp Hoare is also special because of showers, which rarely happen in the field.  We dip water from a nearby lake, warm it over a stove, and fill a solar shower bag with it.  It might not be much, but a primitive shower that washes away a week of grime is amazing!

Soon after Christmas we were able to get a flight back to McMurdo, where we would spend the upcoming New Years Eve.  McMurdo celebrates New Years with an outdoor concert composed of "local" bands who have spent a month or two (sometimes much less) practicing.  The event is appropriately called "Icestock."  This year nine bands played on New Year's Eve and ranged from pop rock to folk/country.  At midnight everyone counted down to the new year and we toasted with some cheap champagne.  At the same time as the concert was a chili cookoff, which provided plenty of free, warm food to combat the chilly temps.

The holiday celebrations are definitely bittersweet occasions for all of us in Antarctica.  While we certainly miss not having close family nearby this time of year, our colleagues become extended family who are sharing in a very unique experience at the bottom of the planet.  I haven't made a New Year's resolution this year, but I think that trying to maintain a positive attitude for all life's experiences, even when all the hikes seem uphill with an icy wind in your face, seems appropriate.  Well I think that's about all I should write for now.  Again, if you have any questions about our experiences, please post them under the "Questions" tab.  We'd love to hear from you!

Happy holidays everyone!

Kevin G.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Updated Map!!

View Travel to Antarctica in a larger map

Our current location is marked by the yellow pin. Right now we're at F6 Camp on Lake Fryxell.
Mrs. Happ asked:
Thanks Eric! The hike you took before Christmas looked beautiful over the glacier! How far was the hike? Also, do you ever take any samples or study the the animal carcasses that you find?
Thanks for the questions!  We traveled from a total of 7 to 7.5 miles, but probably 3 of that were by ATV across a frozen lake (Lake Fryxell).  We then hiked 4 miles, partly over the frozen lake, then along the Canada Glacier, then over the glacier, then back down the side of a mountain to our destination (Lake Hoare Camp).

We didn't take any samples on this hike, but we often do lots of hiking and sampling and more hiking on a normal day of field work.

Any sort of science involving animals like seals and penguins, even mummified seals and penguins, can be tricky.  The Antarctic Treaty prohibits any interaction between people and animals, including the carcasses.  Scientists who study the live or mummified animals need to get special permits.  Our research is not really concerned with the live or mummified seals or penguins, so I just take pictures of them.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Getting with the times... like us on facebook, follow us on twitter!

Hi everyone.  I've just set up a twitter feed associated with this blog (@Antarctic_Bio), and also a facebook page ( ).  Tweets and pictures should show up on the facebook feed.  I'm just setting these other accounts up now, so it may be a few days before the pages actually look nice and have some content.

...and HAPPY 2013 EVERYONE!!!