Archive for September, 2009


September 29, 2009

Rich’s young ward Waddles has just updated her webpage with pictures of her recent travels. The album also includes a number of examples of Rich’s stunning photography, so I definitely recommend a visit.

My advisor Steve heads home today, if he isn’t delayed by weather again–originally he was scheduled to leave on the 29th, but a bit of a snowstorm blew in. This sort of delay is evidently fairly routine. On the plus side, the snow was lovely and gave us an opportunity to give him a proper send-off.

The day I’m due to leave the Ice, October 9th, is also fast approaching. However, I’ve still got months worth of interesting things to write about. A few things on my list:

  • Something about my own personal segment of the science project, examining the effects of algae slime on sea ice
  • A series of posts about what goes into providing everyone on station with food, water, heat, waste disposal, and fun (thanks to my friend Ramon for asking about this!)
  • A post or four about the Dry Valleys
  • A post about weather at McMurdo and the implications of Condition 3, 2 and 1
  • A post with more details on the Results So Far from our science
  • More about the effects of albedo on weather
  • …and so on.

So I’ll have plenty to write about even after I leave the Ice, possibly with some help from all the amazing people I’ve met here.


Another Day of Science and Mystery

September 27, 2009

Friday night was another overnight at the hut. We had dinner on station, which saved us the time we would otherwise have spent cooking and washing dishes at camp, and then headed out onto the ice. (A side note and brief glimpse into the mind of a couple of working scientists: Steve and Rich both profess to greatly enjoy doing dishes. Dishes, you see, unlike science, have a straightforward methodology and a well-defined endpoint. When you’re done doing a science experiment, it has already raised ten more questions which you must rush off to address; but when you’re done doing dishes, you can bask in a sense of closure and accomplishment.)

We got up around six A.M. the next day (my cot was next to the door, so as people went in and out I got several bracing facefuls of -28C air to drag me into alertness.) The sunlight is getting longer by about 20 minutes every day, so every time we go out we have to get up earlier in order to take measurements while the sites are still in shadow. Somehow, we managed to get the light dusting of snow swept off three sites and measure them all before the sun caught up with us–we made it with just a couple of minutes to spare:

From Pupsicles and Traverse Gear

The sun catches the edge of the site just moments after we complete our measurements.

It was all very dramatic, really. Rich tells me the measurements are excellent, and are showing exactly what we predicted they would show, which is gratifying. I’ll post graphs when Rich gets them all processed.

Having completed our Science and packed our gear, we went investigate a peculiar phenomenon which Steve had discovered earlier that morning:

From Pupsicles and Traverse Gear

Rich and Steve search the snow for tracks that might suggest how this happened.

That, if it’s not obvious, is a very frozen Weddell seal pup stuck in the ice like a flagpole. We investigated the area pretty thoroughly, and found evidence of the birth (blood, the afterbirth and umbilical cord, the outline left on the ice where the mother seal had been lying) but no identifiable footprints other than our own. The seal clearly froze while lying flat on the ice, as you can see from another angle:

From Pupsicles and Traverse Gear

'Flat-bottomed Seals': the less-successful predecessor to Queen's famous hit song

We thought someone from the seal research group might have set it up somehow, but those we’ve talked to deny it, and as I’ve said, there were no visible tracks. The other possibility is that the body was simply levered up by the action of the moving sea ice; if you look at the tail, you can see where some slabs of ice have been tilted upward.

Antarctica is a mysterious place.

As a bonus, we found what we think must be new-frozen frost flowers on the ice nearby:

From Pupsicles and Traverse Gear

Today's theme: things that are charming, fuzzy, and frozen.

Caffeinating at McMurdo

September 24, 2009

Those of you who know me know that my love for coffee borders on obsession. My travelogues always seem to end up centered around it in one way or another–the espresso I got in a beautiful old shop in Alexandria, the seven-dollar iced coffee at the top of the Shanghai Tower, the caffè corretto that made nights in Venice that much more entertaining. I don’t see why this trip should be any different, so I thought I’d discuss the places I’ve found coffee around McMurdo.

The most basic coffee at McMurdo is found in the galley. The galley is a broad, open space, quite pleasant to hang out in and a nice place to catch up with friends; the food is of course free and generally surprisingly tasty given the limited ingredients with which the chefs have to work.

McMurdo's vital center.

The coffee is not what you’d call gourmet, but neither is it actively bad, and it certainly does the job.

Simple, economical brain fuel.

If you want to get a little more involved in the coffeemaking process, you can buy coffee beans at the store (roasted in my beautiful hometown of Anchorage–there are a lot of Alaskans working here, and clearly they have had some influence on the purchasing process.) If you have neglected to bring suitable equipment, you can also buy a French press, a thermos and a coffee mug or three.

One stop shopping for all your coffee needs.

Thus equipped, you can make coffee in your dorm or office with relative ease (provided you can find a source of hot water.) Or you can sponge off others who have their own coffeemaking setup; I’ve found if I’m nice to the IT guys in the science building, they will sometimes share their coffee. On no account, however, should you forget your camera in their office:

If you do, then you come back to a memory card full of this sort of thing. Thanks, Holly.

One of the best places to get coffee, of course, is the Coffeehouse. The Coffeehouse is a beautifully appointed building made from a couple of Quonset huts. It has Internet access (although not wifi–we are in Antarctica, after all) and it’s decorated with a variety of old polar exploration paraphernalia:

Just in case your coffee inspires you to go on a new expedition, you'll be set for gear.

A latte, with a hint of cinnamon. Also available for coffee enhancement: Bushmill's.

It’s really more like a combination coffeehouse and bar, with a variety of wines and liquors available. Regardless of what you choose to drink, it’s a pretty excellent place to go for a relaxing conversation with a fellow coffee-loving friend:

Rebecca enjoys her cappuccino. Stimulating intellectual conversation + stimulating beverage = win.

The best coffee, though, happens when your field safety people bring an espresso maker to the ice hut. Then Rich makes lattes:

The rigors of Antarctic camping.

Audited by Emperors

September 23, 2009

I made a comment in a previous post about gangs of ne’er-do-well Adelie penguins vandalizing our site. That was, of course, a joke; there are no roving gangs of Adelie penguins out here. There are roving gangs of Emperor penguins.

From Penguin Day

The Emperors are here to inspect our work.

Backing up a bit: yesterday dawned cold and cloudy, perfect for taking measurements, so we headed out to the study site and got there around 1:00pm. The ice surface has been changing a lot in the past week or so. The snow crust is becoming thinner, probably eroded by high winds. Wandering away from our camp a ways, we found that the bare blue ice we’ve been hoping to find ever since we got here had finally begun to emerge from beneath its snowy blanket. As we explored we noticed a number of distinctive black-and-white forms in the distance.

From Penguin Day

Bare blue ice has never been so exciting. That's my boot for scale.

We selected a good site and set up our instrument, and soon acquired company in the form of fifteen Emperor penguins who sauntered up to watch. Apparently this phenomenon is fairly common: small groups of non-breeding individuals will break off from the main colony and wander aimlessly for large distances, stopping to inspect anything that catches their interest. (This is also exactly what the penguins say about scientists.)

From Penguin Day

An attentive audience of Emperor penguins watches Rich take albedo measurements.

Evidently the penguins decided our scientific endeavours were worthy of closer investigation, because when we set up the instrument at our original, carefully-groomed site for comparison measurements, we had a devil of a time keeping the entire group from marching directly across it.

From Penguin Day

Rich tries to convince the penguins to move slightly further away.

By keeping myself between the penguins and the study site, I managed to avert their repeated efforts to get penguin prints (and penguin excreta) all over our nice clean ice. Fortunately they tend to follow each other, so by discouraging the foremost penguin I could get the others to bypass the site as well. The penguins took it all with good humor and hung around for a while after we were done taking measurements.

From Penguin Day

Rich and Steve take measurements; meanwhile, the penguins stop their advance on our site to pose for a group photo.

Around six o’clock we retired to our hut to make dinner and bed down for the night. I don’t think I have told you about the ice hut we recently acquired (I’ve been shockingly lax about updating this week, for which I apologize.) The hut sleeps five in reasonable comfort and makes a good staging area for equipment during the day:

From Penguin Day

Our home away from home.

It’s also heated and equipped with solar panels for electricity. Evidently the penguins thought it was pretty nifty too, because shortly after dinner we heard their distinctive trumpeting just outside the door. We thought they might come in for cocoa, but they just wanted to get out of the wind. For obvious reasons, the side of the hut that’s out of the wind is also the side of the hut where we set up our pee bucket toilet facilities, so for most of the night any of us who went out to answer a call of nature found ourselves doing so in front of fifteen interested penguins.

Meghan, the wilderness safety person who came out to the hut to ensure we didn’t do ourselves an injury somehow, says that she heard the penguins near the hut until the wee hours of the morning; then they marched around it, perhaps to see if any of us were interested in joining them, and struck off into the night.

More photos at my Picasa album; this time I added the link under the pictures. I haven’t included the link to the album on previous posts, but a lot of them have additional photos on Picasa as well.

Frost Flowers Revisited

September 17, 2009

Somebody asked about frost flowers (thanks, MeghanC!) This gives me an excuse to pontificate upon them a bit. Here’s a great picture of frost flowers from a New Scientist gallery:

Those of you who haven’t spent a lot of time hanging out in the polar regions may not be familiar with the sequence of events involved in the formation of sea ice (apologies if I’ve explained this one before…) As the winter begins and the ocean cools down, little bits of ice begin to form at the surface of the water; these are called frazil or grease ice. Eventually they stick together into a flat sheet, called nilas ice. Pockets of seawater (brine) get trapped between the crystals as they freeze.

As the ice gets colder, water freezes onto the walls of the brine pockets. When water freezes, it tends to exclude any non-water substances, so the brine within the pockets gets saltier. Water also expands as it freezes, so some of the salty brine is pushed out of the ice. Part of it goes downward, and the sinking of this cold, dense, salty water has interesting effects on ocean currents. Part of it goes upward through whatever channels it can find:

Experimenting with hand-drawn diagrams this time, as you can see.

The ice continues to freeze, and the brine being pushed out of the pockets forms a thin layer across the ice. This layer is very salty, so it stays liquid even at very low temperatures:

Frost flowers form at temperatures below -15C (or lower, depending on who you ask.) Seawater, of course, can never get colder than -1.8C. This means that under frost-flower-forming conditions, the ocean is quite a lot warmer than the air. The brine layer on the surface of the newly-formed ice is also comparatively warm, and it gives off water vapor. The vapor re-condenses and forms crystals on top of the briny “bumps” we saw earlier:

The flowers continue to grow, and some of the brine travels up them via capillary action, making them very salty compared to most sea ice:

That, anyway, is the short version of how frost flowers form. They may have some effects on the atmosphere because salts from the ocean are caught in their delicate fronds where the salts can easily be picked up by wind. They may also, as we are now seeing, have some effect on ice albedo both by themselves and by capturing snow that blows across the ice.


September 13, 2009

Another beautifully sunny day, entirely worthless for albedo measurements. We stopped by our Tent Island study site anyway, just to say hello to the seals and make sure the local street gangs (groups of young, disaffected Adelies, mostly, looking to rumble tourists for pebbles) hadn’t vandalized it.

You may recall that we spent quite a while last week, on the 4th, doing janitorial duty on the ice, clearing off the crust of salty snow that was clinging tenuously to the surface. We came back a few days later on the 7th and the surface was still perfectly clean.

Our beautiful clean ice.

We came back today to find this:


The top photo shows the old crust, which we originally assumed had been there for months. The bottom photo shows the new crust--the bumps are slightly smaller and it's softer, but otherwise strikingly similar.

This is intriguing, because, as I mentioned before, we originally figured that the peculiar snowy crust on the ice must be composed of old frost flowers. However, frost flowers only form on new sea ice. This sea ice is several feet thick and months old. And this new snow crust isn’t just composed of snow fallen from the sky, because that would be fresh; this is salty.

There have been a couple of warm days since the 7th, and a minor storm (seen here out the front of the pisten bully as I attempt to drive home through it):

Fortunately there is nothing to actually run into out here.

But, frankly, we’re pretty stumped as to what could have regenerated the snow crust like this.

After visiting the study site and scratching our heads over unusual snow phenomena, we headed up to Cape Evans to visit Cape Evans Hut, used by both Scott and Shackleton during various Antarctic expeditions.

Cryogenically preserved ketchup

More picturesque than our lab, if rather smaller.

Oh, and here’s our second mystery of the day: we discovered, on examining the high-resolution pictures, that a century-old British paper from the hut has a front-page story about an injury that occurred in the small town of Saranac Lake, New York. Saranac Lake, New York also happens to be the town that Rich calls home. Bizarre coincidence, or prophetic attempt to communicate across a vast span of time and space?

Antarctica, Macabre and Sublime

September 12, 2009

We’d originally planned to stay in on Wednesday and analyze our results from previous trips. When we learned the forecast was for clouds, though, we realized it might be our last chance for a while to make good measurements, and headed out to the ice. Upon getting to our planned site, however, we found that the day was beautifully bright and sunny, with barely a hint of the “partly cloudy” the day’s forecast had promised.

SCIENCE INTERLUDE: Why, you may well ask, do we need cloudy days for our measurements? Here’s a series of pictures I took on Wednesday, showing the same patch of ice from different angles:

You can see that the amount of light reflecting from it is radically different depending on what direction you’re looking. If we tried to determine the amount of light reflecting from the surface, we’d get similarly variable results. So we need a cloudy day, when the light is diffused and comes in equally from all directions.

Given the weather, it was clear that the day was entirely inappropriate for taking measurements. Happily, that made it an ideal day for a hike. We parked the pisten bully on some multi-year sea ice near an outcropping called Turk’s Head and set off to explore.

Our first discovery was something that looked a bit like a rock sticking out above the ice, but upon closer inspection proved to be the frozen corpse of a small Weddell seal. A little more searching turned up two others. Below is an image of the third one, which shows evidence of having been scavenged, probably by large gull-like birds called skuas. (Skuas are a big problem around McMurdo in the summer, apparently–they’ll divebomb anyone who appears to be carrying food.)

I later learned that the head was probably removed by local biologists.

Bits of dead seal scattered around the ice nearby had protected the ice beneath them from the sun, leading to these strange structures with a small stem of shaded ice holding up a scrap of frozen skin.

Fungoid, alien forms gradually emerge from beneath a residue of death.

Rich and Steve deemed the loose scree on the side of Turk’s Head to be suitable for climbing, so up the slope we went.

Unsettlingly steep, but lots of fun nonetheless.

We ran around on the top for a while admiring the view and plummeting down snow slopes so I could practice stopping an uncontrolled slide using an ice axe (a useful life skill.)

Tent, Inaccessible, Big Razorback and Little Razorback islands. From here you can see that they are actually parts of the rim of an ancient volcanic caldera. They say it's extinct, but you can tell it's merely biding its time beneath the ice.

As we descended, the pressure ridges in the sea ice showed up beautifully in the low light of the sunset. Pressure ridges are formed, as the name suggests, when currents and winds press huge slabs of ice up against each other. The combination of pressure, wind, and sun creates these grotesque and fantastical forms–I’m a bit vague on the specific mechanisms.

Ominous eldritch being or Muppet?

The ice fog rolling in at sunset produced a sundog, a circular rainbow around the sun:

The sundog touches down in the ice fog around Tent Island.

All’s well that Weddell

September 8, 2009

The weather on Monday was cloudy, which is perfect for our measurements, so we rushed out for another chance at the study site.

This time we actually saw a Weddell seal! First wildlife we’ve seen in person yet. Perhaps we’ll manage a penguin next. The seal was hauled out on the ice near our study site–an unusual thing this time of year, because of the cold. It was a good twenty or thirty degrees (Celsius) colder above the ice than in the water beneath it, so I imagine that emerging from a hole in the ice and hauling out into the chilly air was rather like leaving a warm bath and running right out into a brisk and breezy fall evening.

The seal, visible in the distance behind Steve.

There’s another study group here looking for Weddell seals, so we gave them a call on our radio and they rushed out to take a look. They have the proper permits to be able to approach Antarctic wildlife, and they walked out alongside the seal and determined that it was a yearling male, too small for their purposes. They’re attaching instruments to the seals–cameras and other things that will give them information about the seals’ hunting behavior–so they need an adult-sized seal for things to work properly. They told us that the seal had probably been driven out of a breathing hole by larger males; breathing holes are a scarce resource, and I guess a yearling seal just doesn’t have the oomph to compete with half-ton adults.

The seal, galumphing (I'm told that's the technical term for the inchwormish way seals get across the ice.)

Scientifically, the day was interesting; we experimented with creating new sea ice by pouring out jugs of seawater onto a surface we’d shoveled clean. The surface wasn’t ideal, but we did discover that we could see a very distinct brightening of the new surface ice when it reached the temperature where the salt crystallized in the brine pockets.

The analytic spectrometer. Just before sunset the sun dipped below the cloud cover, turning our nice diffuse light into a direct beam, so we had to stop taking measurements until it set.

We got back just a couple of hours before a rather nice storm hit the station, with so much snow blowing that you could barely see a building across the street. It was fun in town, but I’m certainly glad we didn’t have to drive back in it.

Another day out on the ice tomorrow–more exploration this time, if the weather is appropriate (that is to say, cloudy but not too stormy.)

Our Heroes

September 7, 2009

As I mentioned in a previous post, the little band of which I am a part includes two other members:

Steve Warren is the Principal Investigator of the project, a professor at University of Washington, and my advisor (my advisor for astrobiology-related projects, that is; my advisor for glaciology projects is Ed Waddington.) He’s been down to the Ice more times than I can keep track of, he knows an immense amount about light and radiation and how it relates to climate, and he keeps his eyes open for interesting problems to solve.

Rich Brandt is a research scientist at University of Washington, though he telecommutes in from upstate New York. He is an expert on ice, snow and the reflection of light therefrom. He too has lots of on-Ice experience. He uses his excellent camera skills and vast collection of equipment to record Antarctic vistas and small stuffed penguins alike.

These are the individuals with whom I am privileged to work, who have developed most of the research protocols we’re following as we do science on this trip. They will show up in my pictures a lot.

Curse You, Frost Flowers

September 5, 2009

Another sea ice day on Friday. We admired some Fata Morgana mirages on the way out:

Some nice sastrugi (snow dunes) with a band of mirage in the background

A mysterious cyclopean edifice in the distance

We returned to our previous sample spot and attempted to get better measurements by removing the snow:

Janitorial duty on the sea ice

The crust of snow was pretty well stuck on to the ice, requiring us to shovel, sweep, and then kneel down and scrape with spatulas and ice axes until the ice was more or less clear. We tasted the snow and found it was salty, which means that a lot of it actually started out as frost flowers. Frost flowers are fluffy, rather ethereal-looking crystals that form on new sea ice; they are pretty fascinating, scientifically. If anyone requests it in the comments I’ll write up a post about how they form.

Nifty as frost flowers are, they are making our life difficult. As you may recall from my previous post Salt, Sea Ice and Science we are looking at the way the albedo of sea ice changes when the salt in brine pockets forms crystals. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to see anything useful through a layer of frost flower remains. Hence our janitorial activities.

I am reminded that I promised equipment pictures in that post I just linked. You’ve seen the field equipment, of course, but I shall have to do a post about lab technique and some pictures of my impressive array of beakers.