Field Work & Mc Murdo Quirks

Yesterday and today saw our first science operations on the sea ice. We went to the jetty in front of the station, where a large hole was drilled for us a couple of weeks ago and instructors began collecting specimens before we arrived. Unfortunately, very few animals had turned up: some starfish, sea cucumbers, and urchins, but no amphipods that were supposed to be abundant and a major focus of study for us. So, the objective was to drill five more holes along a north-south line (“transect”) and see if we could catch more stuff. The catching is done with plankton nets and bags that larger animals get in or attach to. Some in our group also caught a couple of fish with toy fishing rods. These joined their starfish friends in the aquarium part of the science lab, where they’re swimming happily.

Drilling holes large enough to pass through sampling gear (like salinity-temperature sensors) turned out to be much more difficult than we expected. These holes need to be 10 in (25 cm) in diameter, and we have “flights” (ice drill bits) large enough, but they wouldn’t go down no matter how hard we tried. Frustratingly, the 5-in and 2-in flights worked perfectly. We tried first drilling a 5-in hole through the 2 m (6 ft) of ice and then widen it with the 10-in flight, no luck. We tried drilling several adjacent 5-in holes to make a bigger one, still no luck. This was complicated by splashing seawater gushing up the smaller hole and flooding the area around it where people holding the drill stood.

We came back today with a sharper flight and this time had no problem drilling wider holes. Our 4 hours on the ice were super productive: we collected phytoplankton, zooplankton, ice cores, and more fish. We also became comfortable using water and bottom sediment samplers. For now, we’re taking baby steps and we have all the time we need by the station’s jetty, but when we take the helicopter north out to the edge of the sea ice there will be no time for mistakes.

By the jetty, the ice cover oscillates up and down every day because of the tide. This stresses the ice and fractures it, which reminds me of Europa or Enceladus whose geyser eruptions are, too, modulated by the tides. No eruptions for us, but the cracks provide opening for seals to jump onto the surface. One was sunbathing and scratching nearby all afternoon. Often from far away, cracks are hidden and the lined-up seals are all we can see.

In between these field sessions, an artsy event took place last night in one of the warehouses. The party was crowded and featured all kinds of quirky displays that reminded me of Encounters at the End of the World, a movie that captures the Mc Murdo spirit very well. Beyond photography, improv paintings, and music, we attended an interactive, esoteric performance involving feeding someone cake for each of the world’s problems and a fashion show with bubble wrap-clad models. We also got to read letters from schoolchildren and convicts alike who wrote to the station’s postmaster, see a large Lego display of a polar base, and look at people’s personal maps of Mc Murdo annotated with what the places mean to them. Quite the experience!

Tomorrow morning is our last and much awaited training: recreational outdoor safety. This means that I might be able to check out some skis from the gear rental and go explore the Mc Murdo surroundings. More to come…

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