Research Design, Hillary’s Hut, and More

We got busy these past 3 days! We’re designing the research campaign, which comprises several projects that the twenty of us are going to carry out for the last two weeks of our time in Antarctica. In order to come up with a feasible project, we’re proceeding step by step, alternating planning to tackle the right questions, field work to ensure that rapidly changing ice conditions still allow collection of appropriate samples, and lab time to check that we have the right analytical setup. For example, a few of us were excited about looking at life in brine channels within the ice (as seawater freezes, it makes relatively pure ice and the salts get rejected into the remaining liquid, turning it into brine). But in the past three days, the bottom quarter of the ice with most of the brine channels has melted, so we can no longer study them!

That’s OK: we also want to look at life in the ice itself (yes, there is some) and in the water below. We’d like to understand what microorganisms and phytoplankton species are there, how they are distributed as a function of depth, and whether that distribution changes with time (as the sea ice keeps melting, since it’s summer here). Most importantly, we want to know why this distribution is the way it is. Is it because of temperatures from the top of the ice down to deep waters? Salinities? Light profiles? Nutrients? Today, we took samples and made measurements that tackle all of these questions. We’re now in charge of planning field hardware, ensuring everything works, and doing lab analyses, which doesn’t leave much time for non-science activities.

Still, we got to go to New Zealand’s Scott Base to visit the hut built by Edmund Hillary’s party in 1956-57. Hillary had just come back from summiting Mt. Everest with sherpa Tenzing Norgay; they were the first to do this and make it back alive. In Antarctica, Hillary led a group whose goal was to lay out depots of food and supplies on the way to the South Pole. The depots would support another New Zealand party that left from the Weddell Ice Shelf, on the other side of the continent, and would be the first expedition to cross the Antarctic from coast to coast through the Pole. By this point, transportation was mechanized, which made travel safer and easier. Hillary’s party finished their mission with time to spare and decided to push on to the Pole, where they waited for the Weddell party. They were the third group to reach the Pole by land, after Amundsen’s expedition in Dec. 1911 and Scott’s expedition in Jan. 1912. It was kind of a big deal and some weren’t too happy that Hillary made that decision to reach the Pole.

Entering their hut, Scott Base’s first building, we travelled back to the time of formica kitchens and spin-dial phones. The hut is very cosy and home-y. Meals were prepared there for the entire base until the 1980s. Although recently renovated, it is filled with all kinds of objects from the time: photos (including one hand-signed by Hillary and a much older one by Scott), maps, food ingredients, Hillary’s armchair, communications equipment, and even salty crackers found behind a cabinet where they had fallen. I felt very privileged to sign the guest book started by New Zealand’s Prime Minister and Ed Hillary when the hut opened for visit in 2007. Not so many people have been inside since…

The second fun outing was a late-evening cross-country ski trip on the flat road to the airfield. After the evening lecture, five of us biked past Scott base and onto the Ross ice shelf. Once at the snowmobile parking, we skied halfway to the planes and back, watching the midnight sun illuminate the foothills of Mts. Erebus and Terror, all alone in the white expanse. I won’t forget that experience anytime soon. The price to pay was a day feeling tired and sore afterwards, but it was absolutely worth it!

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