Posts Tagged ‘tourism’

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.


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.

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.

The Altered Nature of Things

September 4, 2009

One of the weirdest things about the extreme cold is the way familiar substances begin to betray your expectations. Plastics stiffen and become brittle after just a few seconds’ exposure to the outside air. Metal burns to the touch. Moving parts freeze together or shrink apart. Batteries dwindle to a fraction of their former capacity and LCDs update sluggishly. The various vital fluids of vehicles freeze and coagulate. I can’t even imagine how much more bizarre and difficult it is at the South Pole, where ambient temperatures regularly dip below -100F.

We had a lot of this out in the field today. My issues with spectacles persist (frosting over completely, attempting to freeze to my face, what have you) and the goggles do nothing don’t help very much. (The little fan died their first day out, as I sort of expected it to do.) Our ice corer nearly got stuck in the ice. And our electronic thermometer, which we use to take the temperature of ice cores, refuses to function properly when it gets too cold. This meant I spent quite a while with it stuck down the front of my pants, nestled against my belly, trying to get it warm enough to give a reading–like an emperor penguin incubating an egg, as my advisor put it.

Speaking of penguins, I saw my first sign of the local wildlife today. Small clouds of steam, puffing up from a crack in the sea ice once a second or so: a Weddell seal at a breathing hole. We didn’t see the actual seal, of course. Weddell seals are fascinating creatures. They live under the sea ice, so they have to breathe through any cracks or holes in the ice they can find. They keep them open by chewing away at the ice as the holes freeze over. Any hole in the ice is likely to attract a Weddell seal; Antarctic divers often find themselves suddenly sharing their diving hole with a half-ton of blubbery, snorting Weddell, and our Kiwi friends say that their little hut on the sea ice has been visited (and splattered with seal snot) more than once.

A Weddell seal breathing hole in a sea ice crack.

It seems like a precarious lifestyle, being dependent upon the ever-shifting sea ice just to be able to breathe. Antarctic animals are a resilient and determined lot.

Observation Hill

August 29, 2009

Currently working on a post about Sea Ice Safety–for some reason I decided to whip up some diagrams, so it’s taking a bit longer than expected. In the meantime, here are some pictures from Thursday afternoon when my advisor and I hiked up Observation Hill.

Observation Hill as it appears from the middle of McMurdo.

In the foreground, the cross commemorating Scott and his men; in the background, my advisor and also the Sun.

It was particularly exciting to see the Sun because, from most of McMurdo, it hasn't yet been visible.

It is certainly a privilege to be here during one of those brief times when the sun actually rises and sets every day.

Home, Icy Home

August 25, 2009

So, I arrived in McMurdo on schedule on Monday, but I had some trouble getting my laptop onto the ‘Net. Here’s a post I wrote on the plane coming down, and here are some pictures from the journey and of the station itself.


Currently on the plane to McMurdo, just about at the midpoint between there and Christchurch. It is a very loud plane; everyone is wearing earplugs, so there’s not a great deal of conversation with one’s seatmates. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you about the International Antarctic Centre and the “Antarctic Attraction” museum. (Incidentally, Antarctic Attraction would be a great name for a romance novel. A parka ripper, if you will.)

Christchurch evidently takes great pride in its status as “gateway to the Antarctic”. The tourist information center downtown even includes a small “Antarctic shop.” The actual International Antarctic Centre is out by the airport, and acts as a base for the New Zealand, U.S. and Italian Antarctic programs. I don’t know much about the Italian Antarctic program, but the Kiwi and American programs are quite neighborly, with New Zealand’s Scott Base being located just a couple of miles from McMurdo. (Our team actually has an invitation to dinner there tomorrow night.) According to my Lonely Planet Antartica guidebook, both bases sit on land to which New Zealand has laid claim. The status of Antarctic territorial claims and the Antarctic treaty are pretty fascinating topics in and of themselves, which I’ll address in another post.

The CDC (Clothing Distribution Centre) where they issued our gear is in the International Antarctic Centre right across from the Antarctic Attraction, so my advisor and I decided to go investigate and see how much they’d gotten right. (Most of it, as it turned out.)

The Little Blue penguins are indifferent to their admirers.

We got there just as they were feeding the Little Blue penguins. Twenty or so birds–rescued from predators, car accidents, or parental abandonment–make up the museum’s Little Blue penguin colony. It is worthwhile to note that while Little Blue penguins are widespread on the New Zealand coast, they are found nowhere in the Antarctic. Evidently the Antarctic Attraction felt that any penguins were better than no penguins at all.

Feeding a recalcitrant penguin. Since they are all rescues, they tend to be invalids to a greater or lesser degree. A few have missing or paralyzed flippers and therefore a tendency to swim in circles.

The Antarctic Attraction also features a simulated Antarctic storm, taking place inside a refrigerated Antarctic landscape held at around -5 C/20 F. The windchill gets down to about -25C/-20F during the storm, which is respectably nippy but distinctly unimpressive to Alaskan sensibilities. I found the ice slide much more entertaining.

Museum visitors relax after their harrowing artificial ordeal.

Once upon a time, clipart dinosaurs roamed the Antarctic.

Everybody loves penguins! Remember, penguins in the Antarctic, polar bears in the Arctic. It is interesting to ponder whether, if introduced to the opposite pole, either species would thrive.

More bits of exhibit.