Experiments & Experiences

The past two days have been so amazing, it’s hard to find where to begin. Let’s start with the science. We got broken up into two groups; I was part of those who stayed in the lab the first day and went in the field the next. In the lab, we set up an experiment to measure metabolic rates of small animals (the babies of shrimp-looking amphipods, which we finally caught by the jetty), while others prepared growth media or filmed clams to determine their mechanisms of motion. For our metabolic experiment, we’re trying to measure how respiration (oxygen consumption) varies depending on the temperature of the water that the amphipods are in. In Antarctica, the water is very cold: about -2ºC in Mc Murdo sound, the salt keeps it from freezing. The cold slows down chemical and biological reactions, just like you put food in the fridge to prevent growth of microbes. Except this is colder than a fridge, which causes all kinds of experimental challenges: keeping things between fridge and freezer temperatures; avoiding any freezing that could damage the instruments; getting rid of air bubbles that would skew oxygen measurements; waiting a long time (days?) because reactions are so slow, etc. Our first attempt was promising, though.

The other half of the group went to the field, for the first time using snowmobiles. They had logistical issues getting helmets and having science cargo fall off from towed sleds. Thankfully, those kinks were ironed out yesterday when it was our turn to go. Riding a snowmobile on the ice shelf and then getting to the sea ice was such a blast. We couldn’t avoid passing by a couple of placid seals that perked up as we approached but quickly dismissed us and went back to resting. Another seal tried to come up our sampling hole. At first, it went back down, and we were told to be quiet in the event it’d come back, but I couldn’t help gasping when a few minutes later we heard a loud, whale-like blow. It must have been holding its breath for over an hour.

The seal didn’t come back once we started lowering instruments and nets into the hole. Our sampling was super successful: in just shy of three hours, we acquired a salinity-temperature-depth profile of the waters below, sampled phytoplankton and krill, retrieved water samples from as deep as 200 m, and measured visible spectra (absorption of light as a function of wavelength) down to 70 m. It’s amazing to see in real time how the light dims 500x below surface levels and turns blue-greener. With so much data and so many samples, we’re going to be busy in the lab in the next few days, organizing science questions and research plans for the remainder of our time here.

Two days ago, we also got the green light to wander off on the trails around the base. I borrowed a snow bike and a pair of skating skis. I’ve only used the former so far on short trips to Hut Point where the Discovery hut stands. I was very lucky: just as I was contemplating the surrounding mountains, three Adélie penguins came around the peninsula. They merrily strolled along like uncoordinated toddlers, at times adorably sliding on their tummy, or stopping by a seal before marching along.

I also hiked up Observation Hill, a prominent landmark overlooking the station, probably an old volcanic cone given how steep and treacherous the ascent was on loose volcanic rock and gravel. The weather was exceptionally clear, and in addition to the Trans-Antarctic mountain chain to the west (which doesn’t get old), I could see the distant open sea and floating icebergs to the north, smoking Mt. Erebus (the southernmost active volcano in the world) to the east, and toward the Pole the vast, flat, white expanse of the Ross ice shelf, dotted by the airfields and long-duration balloon launch facilities. Atop Ob Hill is a cross commemorating the lost lives of Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans on their journey back from the Pole. Coming from the open sea, the icebreaker Polar Star was carving a channel into the sea ice so that the annual resupply and fuel ships can make their way to the base in the next couple of weeks. Yesterday, I could see the icebreaker go back out to widen the channel when I hiked up the other side the station.

Tonight, between lab work and our evening lecture (on how cells maintain their sodium content), I hope to make it to New Zealand’s nearby Scott Base and visit the hut built by Edmund Hillary’s 1956 expedition. History time!

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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…

Walking on the Ice

Walking on the ice may seem pretty obvious if you’re in the Antarctic, but for the first few days we were told to “stay on the brown stuff”, i.e. the safe roads in and around the station. Today was our first outing on the white stuff as part of our training. After a briefing, we were divided in three groups, tossed our ECW bags in the back of a Hägglund and climbed onboard. We drove back around Scott base on the road toward the airfield, but then headed onto the sea ice covering Mc Murdo sound. We stopped at one of the holes where we’ll be sampling over the coming weeks. The goals were to spot ice cracks, drill holes, probe the ice thickness, and learn landmarks and weather cues (i.e., when a polar storm is coming from the south and how long until it hits).

We did accomplish all these objectives (the ice turned out to be 155 cm/5 ft thick), but for everyone the memories will be of the wildlife. A seal was resting by the hole with skuas nearby, and (woohoo!) an emperor penguin stood all day by our field area! Apparently it’s a juvenile who’s molting and whose feather coat is not quite waterproof, so it’s very vulnerable for a while. That’s while they seek loneliness at this age. I couldn’t imagine how to top such a magical encounter until after we got back on station: the other groups, who had come after us, saw two seals playing in the flooded hole and were approached up close by a whole group of curious and adorable Adélie penguins! Although it’s quite rare to see them this far inland, we might see more as the ice starts breaking up in the coming weeks. This afternoon I did see from afar 3 Adélies moving fast on their belly past a group of seals, so let’s hope for the best!

In the rest of the afternoon, we got acquainted with the instrumentation in our labs and our sampling tools. I’m amazed at these facilities, especially given how hard it is to get stuff down here. We’re now officially ready to begin field work, which is the plan for most of tomorrow.

Indoor Time

It snowed all day yesterday, and although the weather was still Condition 3 (the highest level), it was decided that we wouldn’t see well enough on the sea ice for our field training. So we had to rework the schedule, which we’re used to at this point, and instead do all the possible indoor training: sea ice “theory”, GPS, and ice edge operations.

To get to many of our field sites on the sea ice, we’re going to drive. Drive what? Vehicles like PistenBullys, snowmobiles, and Hägglunds. Some are quite modern, some might date back to the Korean war (a few years before Mc Murdo was built). All are quite heavy. Can they make it without breaching through the ice and sinking all passengers? The good news is that if there is any ice at all, it’s a couple of meters (6 ft) thick. Even when the ice is warmest, as is the case this month, it will break up instead of thinning (unlike on freshwater lakes). What we have to watch for, then, is cracks. Each vehicle can cross cracks no larger than 1/3 of the length of its “wheels” (tracks). That’s up to 90 cm (3 ft)-wide cracks, not bad! If the crack is wider, we have to measure the ice depth at various places through the crack. There are minimum thickness requirements for each vehicle (around 30-50 cm / 12-18 in) that depend on the ice temperature. With all these guidelines in hand, we should be able to travel safely. If a vehicle breaches (it’s happened once so far this year), we can still escape by a roof hatch and get the crack named after us, a guarantee to be infamously remembered for years to come.

We’re supposed to use good judgement when navigating from the base to the field sites, and two tools are guiding us: flag routes laid out by the amazing science support staff who’s been training us, and a GPS. These become especially useful if the visibility decreases to the point where we can’t see landmarks. We got acquainted with the GPS units and demoed them by walking around the base along a pre-programmed route. We have to be careful that the batteries don’t die in the cold and carry spares. Finally, when working at the sea ice edge to collect water, starfish, etc., the goal is to not fall in the water, so we’re tied into a rope. This is much like rock climbing, except in addition to a harness we’re wearing a deflated (and inflatable) life jacket that’s also tied in. All this is anchored into an extra strong V-shaped double hole in the ice. Two field staff members will assist us and lift us out if we fall, and we’re carrying a full supply of extra dry clothes, survival gear, and hypothermia wraps.

That still made for a relatively light day, which left us time to explore some of Mc Murdo’s indoor amenities. After dinner, we attended a new “Science Coffee” event to foster conversations between scientists and staff. This took place at the Coffee House, which looks like an abandoned silo when you walk past it but inside is a fully equipped café, bar and lounge. The same goes with each of Mc Murdo’s three gyms: the “gerbil” gym full of treadmills, a yoga/weights room behind the galley, and a basketball/indoor team sports gym by the helipad. After Science Coffee, we went to play ping-pong and basketball, probably on one of the southernmost courts on the planet.

Today the weather has improved, so we’re preparing for a reboot of the sea ice training: ECW bag, packed lunch, snacks, water, no cotton clothing, spare socks and hat, goggles, pee bottle (yes, we care about the environment, what did you think?) and make sure we don’t forget anything. This should be fun!

Training, Training, and More Training

It takes a lot to have 800 people live safely, efficiently, and harmoniously down here, let alone do science. That’s what we’re learning for three days: General Fire Safety training, Waste & Recycling training, Medical Brief, Science lab tour, Field Safety training, Communications training, Sea Ice Field training, Ice Edge training, GPS training, and Outdoor Safety Lecture (if we want to go on recreational hikes beyond “the brown stuff”). The firehose of information continues…

It’s fascinating to get a grasp of the level of planning and organization required. Every little issue in everyday life (say, your car’s battery is out) can happen here too. It’s actually often more likely to happen (batteries don’t do so well in the cold), and the consequences can be dire (if you drove out in the field that day and were planning on driving back in the fog). So, every car gets checked over and over again. There are also special procedures for vehicles to back up: the cars and trucks tend to be huge (with wheels up to my height) and with large blind spots, going up and down steep slopes.

Same goes for the waste: about 2/3 of it is recycled, but the recycling is done in California. Every year, a resupply icebreaker ship brings years’ worth of supplies (e.g. fuel and food, so the station doesn’t need to be evacuated if for any reason the ship doesn’t come one year), and packs out trash, machinery that can’t be further repaired (from laundry machines to towing equipment), and any cargo (e.g. scientific) that can’t be flown. Our trash is very carefully sorted in a dozen categories, as even the trash that can’t be recycled will take about a year to make it to a landfill. In Antarctica there is no landfill, no incinerator, and no drain of wastewater into the ocean.

The station’s gem is arguably the Crary science lab, our home base for this month. Opened in 1993, it replaced science shacks with university campus-class facilities. The lab is off-limits for most of station personnel outside of short weekly visit hours, so we’re very lucky to have much of this world-class facility dedicated to our use. There are lab rooms for chemistry, biology, geology, engineering, astronomy, meteorology, etc.; freezer, water, and reagent rooms; offices where investigators can move in during their time here; staging rooms and workshops for field deployment; and a wing with aquarium tanks dedicated to our project. Scientists comprise a relatively small fraction of the base population, so much of the science done on station within the next month will be done by us. It amazes me that the station is bending over backwards to accommodate a bunch of early-career people like us.

The most fun training of yesterday was no doubt the field safety (a.k.a. survival) training. Every time we go in the field, we have to take one survival bag for every 2 people. That bag contains everything needed to make it for two days in the worst Antarctic weather: a light, stable, breathable, and easily deployable tent; foam pads, sleeping bags, rope, stakes (which must be used as dead-man anchors; we learned the appropriate knots), hammer (to kill your mate for food?), stove, pot, fuel, dehydrated food, pocket knife (if the hammer doesn’t do it), small spare clothing like socks or hat, and mental survival items like a guide to camping in Antarctica, a deck of cards, and a magazine. We learned about identifying environmental and human-factor hazards, evaluating risk (likelihood x consequence), and planning ahead to reduce it. We also learned about flags used to indicate safe (e.g. crevasse-free) routes through the ice, dangers, and fuel lines; how to recognize hypothermia or frostbite; and how to deploy by helicopter (yes, it’s coming!). The instructors were amazingly patient and helpful as we practiced lighting up the camp stoves (we managed to do so without setting the building on fire) and pitching the tents.

Communications are also a big deal. The communication central is called MACOPS and they manage radio comm with day trippers, field teams, and even the South Pole station. There are over a dozen radio channels, some requiring direct line of sight, some repeated, and we need to know which one is which and what the protocols are to signal what we’re doing. If we don’t “check in” (give an update) by the agreed-upon time, emergency rescue operations are immediately put into motion, so we definitely want to be on the ball. How embarrassing would it be to be sitting at dinner (or worse, the bar) while the fire department is sending out rescue parties for us…

All this made for another long and exhausting day, but we were told that it was OK for us to venture out to Hut point, where Scott’s Discovery expedition built a hut in 1902. The hut was also used by Shackleton’s party in 1909 and Scott again on the ill-fated 1911-1914 Terra Nova expedition. It still stands, full of supplies just as expedition members left it over a century ago. Because Antarctica is essentially a giant freezer, everything from food supplies to seal carcasses to clothes and kitchen items is in near-perfect condition. We’ll need a special permit to get in (and that’s the plan at some point this month), but for now we could still see all that through the dusty windows. What a time capsule, and how impressive that these people spent several years (winters included) in this one building. We really have it easy these days.

Hut point also provides a very scenic outlook onto Mc Murdo sound. We spent a while watching Weddell seals at close range, resting by or coming out to breathe through cracks in the sea ice. After dinner and our second evening course lecture, it was high time to crash and get ready for today’s day-long training on the sea ice, where I’m headed in a few minutes.

On To a Quick Start

Without much time to get settled in and recover from the week-long travel, our Antarctic Biology Training Course started on Sunday from 8 am to 6:30 pm, with a brief break for lunch. So much effort has been put in to arrange our limited time here that we better make the most of it. Although the course seems to have been offered a dozen or so times since the early 1993, this particular offering has taken 6 years to implement. The funding was granted in 2012 for deployment in late 2013, but at the last minute the US government shut down (don’t get me started) and the course was called off. It took 4 years to make it happen again, although an austral winter course took place at Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula south of Chile in 2016. I’m really glad that another shutdown was avoided this year. Yet one more reason that makes this trip improbable.

Yesterday was spent listening to short conference-style presentations by each of the Course’s participants about their research. I gave mine on modeling ocean worlds and measuring the chemistry of Yellowstone extreme microbial communities. Only a handful of us here are astrobiologists, and instead we got to learn a lot about microbial physiology, evolutionary biology, or strategies for adaptation to the cold by tardigrades, birds, fish, and even squirrels (yay). The onus of the Course is on “integrative biology”, integrating molecular biology, microbiology, physiology, ecology, etc. from molecules to ecosystems. It’s meant for people who normally work in different university departments to talk with each other and break artificial boundaries between these branches of biology. We astrobiologists bring in an extra “interdisciplinary” dimension of cross-talk between biology and other disciplines such as geology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy (planetary science). Paying close attention to 20 presentations on such seemingly disparate topics and making connections between them was draining, but after dinner and a short refreshing walk around the base, we attended yet one more science lecture in the dining hall. These take place twice a week and anyone on the base can attend, from lab techs to cooks to mechanics.

We also started to learn a lot more about the schedule for our time here. The plan is to attend two science lectures each day at 8 am and 8 pm, and do research in the field or lab in between. Starting next Thursday (weather and logistics permitting), we’ll begin to conduct field work on the sea ice, provided it’s not too inaccessible. Apparently, the weather has been mostly sunny and near 0ºC for the past two weeks, and the sea ice is partially melted, which is not unusual at this time of year. Weddell seals are coming out through cracks in the ice and dotting the sound. And in a couple of weeks, the massive icebreaker Polar Star is scheduled to make its yearly resupply to the station, which will further fracture the ice. So, we’ll see what we can do! For now, it’s fantastic enough to discover the base and contemplate the stunning Transantarctic mountain range across Mc Murdo sound during every minute of free time.

First Contact

“It doesn’t feel real until you touch the ice.”  The saying among those privileged to have traveled here before is a practical one: much like a space launch, so much can go wrong with flight preparations to the Antarctic that there is no way to tell if you’re going to go until the moment you do. But for me, it also takes the sensory input to realize that I am actually in freaking Antarctica, right now.

We awoke in Christchurch to a much nicer weather (albeit windier), which held promise as to our chances of flying out today, on the fifth try. My excitement of the initial attempt had worn off. I was ready to spend another day in New Zealand if need be, but tried to remain focused despite the early hour and short night so as not to forget or mess up any step of Thursday’s briefing. We donned our thermal underwear and ECW clothes, checked our bags, and headed to a solid breakfast (in case we boomerang, since we only get one brown bag lunch onboard). Still no contrary order came in, and I started to realize that this time might be it. We came back to the terminal for a couple of flight safety briefings. Not much differs from a commercial flight, except if the cabin loses pressure, we don’t get the dangling masks but some sort of autonomous inflatable fish bowl with an oxygen cartridge that we have to swap out every 10 minutes. We were also explained where to use the “bathroom”. As it is more like a corner hidden by a curtain, and requires acrobatics while fighting 4 layers of leg clothing, there was a strong incentive to make the most of our short post-briefing break.

Through customs formalities, security (no sharps, but liquids of any size allowed), and onboard the bus, off we went to the tarmac and the LC-130. Space aboard is larger than I thought: there is enough legroom to extend your legs horizontally, and the fishnets, padded by the parka, are actually quite comfy. The cabin is heated by the engines, so we got to smell jet fuel for 8 hours and experience pretty strong temperature swings. Earplugs are mandatory once the propeller engines are on. But on the whole, this was almost cushier than my flight to Auckland. And as a would-be astronaut hopeful, I couldn’t help but find similarities with a space station module, with uncovered pipes and items fastened and dangling everywhere you look.

1 pm came, 4 hours into the flight, and we didn’t turn back. Soon after, we began spotting broken sea ice through the clouds, and around 2:30 pm, mountains. The continent! Everyone jumped out of their seats to peek through the tiny windows. Some vistas were spectacular: smooth crests undulating on mountainsides (a skier’s dream), pockets of cracks, vertical drop-offs into the sea, reflections of the sun making icebergs float on gold water… Eventually we flew over Mc Murdo sound and strapped for landing, which was so smooth that I didn’t immediately realize we had touched down. I felt a little bit like Neil Armstrong stepping on the ice shelf, and true to the above saying, took off my glove to feel the ice. Already, the bus driver ushers us in. We quickly snap a few photos with the plane and Mts Erebus and Terror in the backdrop (first sighted during Cook’s expedition and summited by Shackleton’s party), just to be able to say we were there in case the continent suddenly magically vanishes.

This is not your city bus: the “Ivan” shuttles passengers on the snow routes and steep slopes that link the airfield, New Zealand’s Scott base, and Mc Murdo (all a few km apart). We first stop at Scott base to let off the 8 Kiwis who were on the flight. We’ll probably see them again during one of the nights open to Mc Murdo residents. The base is on land (Ross Island), but walking distance on the sea ice is a seal colony. A couple dozen leopard seals are sunbathing lazily this afternoon. Further out are the plane we took and a couple of others, with the Transantarctic mountains on the horizon. Quickly, we lose sight of Scott base, steeply climbing a hill behind which is Mc Murdo. We’ve arrived!

One more welcome briefing, after which we receive our room keys and a number of training assignments, and we’re off to dinner. The living and dining arrangements seem great, more on that later. At 8 pm, we meet again, this time in the science lab for a 2-hour intro to the course itself (more later as well). We then pick up our checked bags and move into our rooms. Tomorrow, we’re each giving a 20-min research talk. Since there are 20 of us, that’s the whole day. So much for the annual marathon that starts at 9 am… For now, time to acclimate physically and mentally to being in this extraordinary place.

I woke up this morning and we’re still in Antarctica. It’s real!!!