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:

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Some pictures from the beginning of the 2014-2015 field season...

Trying on the Extreme Cold Weather Gear

We fly from New Zealand to McMurdo Antarctica on a LC130 with skis!

Almost there...

Landed at Pegasus Airfield on the Ross Ice Shelf near Ross Island, Antarctica.

McMurdo Station holds an annual concert called Ice Stock to celebrate New Year's Eve.

Our team planning the field season...

I don't have pictures from field work yet... but here are some soils we collected. We're analyzing soil chemistry here, including pH and nutrient contents.

Jess is washing our glassware for more analyses.

Ashley is counting nematodes in the soil.

Ruth is measuring soil pH and electrical conductivity.

Question from Dan Bryant:
As a current college student, how does one get in contact or find the "path" to conduct research in Antarctica?
Hi Dan,
Great question. I highly recommend getting involved in undergraduate research. At my school there was a program called the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program that listed which professors in the Biology Department were looking students to work in their lab. At some institutions there are professors that are looking for students to work with them as research assistants in Antarctica.

Even if there are not professors who do Antarctic research at your school, I would still recommennd undergraduate research. You won't necessarily start off getting to go to remote field sites, but undergraduate research can help you get your foot in the door. My undergraduate research involved identifying and counting aquatic insects from streams in Venezuela. I didn't get to go to South America, but I learned a great deal about freshwater ecology from working in that lab, and I got to help out with field work around southeastern Michigan. I found that I really loved field ecology, and the professor I worked for recommended me for a job doing field work in Alaska, which was awesome. Eventually, I went to graduate school for ecology and met a Professor who was doing research in ecology got a proposal funded to work as a postdoctoral researcher in Antarctica.

If you don't make it to Antarctica as an undergraduate, there are opportunities to do graduate research here. If you're interested in ecology or environmental sciences, there are a number of professors involved with the Long Term Ecological Research program at McMurdo who conduct research and advise graduate students who do research in the Dry Valleys and beyond. I recommend finding professors who study topics that you find fascinating and contacting them about graduate school.