Cape Evans

On Wednesday we flew out to Cape Evans, about 15 miles north of McMurdo. This is the only other spot on land where we went aside from the station. What a change of scenery. Cape Evans, nestled against the “ice barrier” flanking Mt. Erebus, is where the Terra Nova landed Scott’s last expedition. Much like in 1911, the land is currently directly accessible by boat, so long as one avoids floes and icebergs. Once on land, a look back at the ocean will not reveal the same landscape twice: the ice drifts surprisingly quickly, and the ever-changing sky dyes the ocean in sparkling blue one minute, threatening gray the next, with a dash of orange along the horizon as the evening settles in.

The hut is still there, and it’s much cosier than the Discovery hut. Scott had learned the lessons of the 1901-1904 expedition. This hut was meant to be inhabited in any season, and it was for three consecutive years by about 25-30 people. Inside, it’s divided in “rooms” with walls of crates. There are separate spaces for seamen, officers, and expedition leaders, a kitchen (still well furnished and with much of the food probably still edible), a small laboratory, and even a dark room to process photographs. The interior is tidy, well lit and insulated, and centered around a stove and a long, inviting dining room table. The berths are very poignant, with folded clothes and personal photographs and items (toothbrush, playing card, candle, newspapers dated Feb./March 1908) that make it look like the expedition left yesterday. Along the wall and up in the ceiling beams are 1910s skis and Nansen sleds ready to be taken out for a ride.

Against the outer wall are stables where the Mandchurian ponies were housed. The ponies are long gone, but there are still crates, piled seal blubber, and even a bicycle! (The tires need to be inflated.) All around the hut, pieces of glass and wood are scattered. Some are brought by the wind, and some by the sea, to this day. We put our ECW bags down by an anchor from the Terra Nova and a dead seal and went to explore the surroundings. Climbing the hill just south of the hut provides a fantastic panoramic view of the iceberg currently just passing the cape, Tent Island and Inaccessible Island, and southward all the way to Hut Point.

On these heights are several freshwater ponds colonized by orange mats of microbes called cyanobacteria, the scientific reason for us coming here. They are pretty much the only life form able to withstand the harsh environment, aside perhaps from skuas (their only predators?). It’s nesting season for the skuas, which were very defensive and swooped every time we intruded on their territory.

Back at the water’s edge, a seal had come out of the water, and so had Adélie penguins. We’re very close to their rookery at Cape Royds, so some must have been venturing out here. One got chased by a leopard seal and jumped out of the water in a narrow escape. As the evening drew in, the sky and water took on a metallic sheen against which contrasted the white/blue ice, a spectacular sight. We came back exhausted, but had to push this and the day’s memories aside to finish our project reports and polish our presentations, which took the better part of the night. Thankfully, it’s been snowing since, giving us indoor time to recuperate.

Our experiments to investigate the drivers of algal vs. diatom dominance of the surrounding waters have shown that it’s not bacteria that cause the algae’s demise. Yet, in the past week, the algal bloom of mid-January has collapsed and the diatoms have taken over again. Our environmental measurements (temperature, salinity, light) suggest that the ocean hasn’t changed that much, so maybe it’s just that the algae ran out of nutrients (food). We won’t know until the water composition is analyzed, but that will have to await our return to the US.

Our flight back was scheduled Saturday, but it’s been postponed to Monday. We’re flying a larger C-17 this time, out of a different runway, because it’s late and cold enough in the season that these larger, faster planes can land. Our flight will be on the second C-17, but getting the first one to Antarctica has proven more difficult than expected. So, we have a couple of days to catch up on sleep and world affairs north of here, learn some scientific programming, and mentally get ready to see trees, children, and paved roads again.

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On the Edge of the Ice

This was an effective sampling trip: in just an hour onsite, the six of us acquired an ice core, measured temperature and salinity with depth, and collected phytoplankton. But it was also utterly magical. In searching for a suitable landing location, we flew back and forth over the ice edge. “It’s SeaWorld down there“, says my seat neighbor. Looking out, we see fireworks of Minke whales spouts. Our first landing spot was deemed too unsafe as waves were crashing over the ice where we’d be sampling, so we took off again to a calmer area. Two nearby emperors noticed our not-so-discreet arrival, and decided to come and check us out. They got bored seeing us coring and preferred tagging along the field staff laying safety ropes by the edge. While uncoiling rope, I turned around just to see an orca breaking the surface just a dozen feet away. Whoa! Later on, Adélie penguins approached us from several sides. Time to go before they converge on us. On the way back, we flew low and slow over the channel carved by the Polar Star, where orcas, penguins, and Weddell seals somehow had decided to spend the evening together. It’s not often that one gets so lucky!

It’s hard to chase away the memories of last evening and focus on writing up the results of our projects, which we’ll present on Thursday. Still, we’ve been spending the day analyzing data and making plots. Tomorrow afternoon (weather permitting) will be our last field trip to Cape Evans, by helicopter again, where we’ll sample freshwater ponds and hopefully get to see the hut built during Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. What a way to conclude our time in Antarctica!

Polar Crud

“Even though you won’t die from it, you might wish otherwise.” That’s how one of the briefing videos back in Christchurch described the polar crud, a sort of common cold whose cause is still a mystery after people have come down with it for over 50 years. Bacterial? Viral? Allergy to volcanic dust? Anyways, a cough that had been lingering for a week started to prevent me from sleeping a couple of days ago, and I woke up two nights in a row unable to breathe air in. Great… The first time, I called the firehouse since the medical unit was closed after hours. No joke, they sent a crew in two fire trucks to my room to take my vitals. That later made my roommate crack up, saying they must have been really bored, but I was happy to get a super fast (and free!) consultation.

They drove me to the medical unit, having on their way in woken up the doctor and nurse. Both walked me around the hospital (which is well equipped) and very nicely spent 45 min chatting with me. They ended up giving me a small asthma-style inhaler and cough suppressant meds. As it turns out the inhaler made things worse, but taking antihistamines really helped, so I think whatever throat cold I had has morphed into an itchy throat allergy. After 12+ hours of sleep last night, I feel much better and was able to enjoy our only day off for our stay here.

I joined one of several groups hiking up to Castle rock, the destination of our previous ski trip, but this time we climbed it. It’s a really steep, Monument Valley-style butte that seems to me like it’s the solidified magma chamber of an eroded volcano (which would make sense, so close to Mt. Erebus). I think Scott’s party described getting up as “a nasty bit of rock climbing”. At least, these days the Field Safety staff sets up ropes, otherwise I don’t think we’d have been able to get up without rock-climbing gear. The top offered a panoramic view, but given the hard-blowing wind and overcast sky, we only stayed a couple of minutes. I guess the journey (part hike, part ski, part climb) mattered more than the destination.

Back at McMurdo Station, things have changed quite a bit since the resupply ship arrived yesterday. Entire areas have been fenced off in order to move shipping containers around. The good news is that the ship brought clementines, our first fresh fruit since New Zealand. That made my day! Another good news is that the ship’s arrival and (relatively) warm weather have created areas of open water called polynyas, which have attracted emperor penguins and elusive whales and orcas. I saw emperors a couple of times from far away, but haven’t had the luck to see marine mammals yet. Another chance to see them is coming tomorrow (weather depending): I am supposed to fly out to the edge of the ice, which has been teeming with wildlife according to those who went on previous trips. Fingers crossed that the clear weather holds up.

Science!

The sea ice conditions have changed drastically in the past week. The sea ice is now too fragile and slushy for us to go sample there safely, leaving helicopter trips to the ice edge as our only opportunity to collect samples of ice, water, and microorganisms. Unfortunately, these trips have been few and far between because of changing weather conditions and demand on helicopter time. I haven’t had the chance to fly out yet, and my trip is third on the current list, so it may be that there won’t be enough time to make it happen. We’ll see!

Instead of sampling in the field, we’ve devoted much time this past week to analyzing what we’ve collected, using the capabilities of the Crary science lab, a “university lab on the ice”. Indeed, walking around Crary feels just like being inside a science building on a university campus. Three rooms and the entire aquarium are dedicated to the projects of our group. In the aquarium, a few of us have set up an experiment to pin down the causes of a weird shift in the populations of microorganisms that dominate the subglacial waters of Mc Murdo Sound. The balance of power is disputed between diatoms, tiny organisms with shells made of glass, and colonies of algae called Phaeocystis. This year, the Phaeocystis have taken over. Why is that? What decides who wins? We’re thinking that there could be reasons linked to (1) the physics and chemistry of the environment (how much light these species get, how warm or salty the water is, etc.), or (2) interactions among microbial species (presence or absence of bacteria either helpful or harmful to the Phaeocystis algae).

To find out about the influence of environmental conditions, we’ve measured the temperature, salinity, and light levels in the water at different places and times. That required lowering probes through holes in the ice on a rope down tens of meters, then hauling them back up. We’ve also taken samples of water at different depths by lowering an open Niskin bottle with a switch that closes it. The switch gets tripped by a “messenger”, a weight tied to the rope that we let fall down once the bottle is at the desired depth. We can then bring the water back to the lab to analyze its chemical and biological composition. We have yet to finish many of these analyses, but so far one interesting measurement has been that of light, which gets absorbed much more strongly in shallow waters than in deep waters. We think that’s because the shallow waters are full of algae capturing sunlight for photosynthesis. In deep water, there is not enough light and the algae can’t live there, so the water is more transparent.

To understand the biological relationships between algae and bacteria, we’ve set up that experiment in the aquarium. We’ve put Phaeocystis algae in bags full of seawater under three conditions: without many of the bacteria (killed using antibiotics), without the bacteria but with vitamin B12, and as is (control). This should help us understand if the bacteria are helpful to the algae (those bacteria are a natural source of vitamin B12), or harmful, or have no influence. If the bacteria are helpful, we should expect less algae in the antibiotic bag than in the others (control and antibiotic+B12), because the algae are deprived of bacterial B12. If the bacteria are harmful, we’d expect less algae in the control, in which the bacteria haven’t been killed by the antibiotics. If the bacteria have no influence, the three treatments should give the same results, in which case the answer to the diatom-Phaeocystis power struggle may lie in the environmental conditions instead. We hope to have an answer by next week!

We’ve turned our attention away from the sea ice for fun as well. Last night, two of us hiked up and skied down a trail leading inland toward Mt. Erebus. This trail took us near Castle Rock, a prominent local landmark that we could have climbed, but didn’t this time as it got late and cold. A good reason to go back… The return path faced the glorious and eerie Trans-Antarctic range backlit by the midnight sun. On the horizon to the north, we could see the orange glow of the oblique sunlight hitting iceberg cliffs contrasting with the deep blue ocean. Not a soul miles around (thousands of miles even, if it weren’t for the nearby stations). Just magical!

Polar Ships

In the past week, I’ve had the chance to step onboard two polar ships: the icebreaker Polar Star and the polar research vessel Nathaniel Palmer, unfittingly named after a seal hunter. The Polar Star came from Seattle through Hawaii and New Zealand, which it left just a few days before we did. Its mission was to carve a channel from the ice edge (where I’ll be flying by helicopter soon) to Mc Murdo Station, about 15 miles (25 km) “inland”, in order for other ships to reach the station too. It arrived last week and stayed docked for a couple of days, a good time for us to come on board.

The Polar Star is a Coast Guard (military) ship. Inside, space and comfort seem pretty minimal, although there are common areas to relax such as a TV room, a tiny gym, and a coffee window where gourmet blends acquired during stopovers can be purchased inexpensively. This must be what it takes to keep up the morale in the rough seas of the Southern Ocean: as an icebreaker, the Polar Star does not have a long keel, and therefore easily rocks beyond 30º if the waves pick up. The few dozen Coasties aboard had a merry time on terra firma, but they’re now back to work keeping the channel open for the incoming resupply and fuel ships scheduled to arrive later this week.

Breaking 2 m (6 ft) of ice is not easy: often the Polar Star has had to stop, back up, and ram full steam ahead into the ice. This leaves its mark on the ship, and divers are on call around the clock to inspect ice and ship conditions and make any needed repairs. These are numerous, because the Polar Star was built over 40 years ago and is the last US icebreaker of its kind. So if it gets stuck, nothing can easily come and get it. There have been pressures in political spheres to rebuild a fleet of icebreakers like the US had in the past decades, but at this rate any new ship wouldn’t be ready to go before the mid-2020s.

In contrast, the 25-year-old R/V Palmer looks inside like a spacious floating laboratory. All labs are located on the main deck, which rocks the least in rough seas (imagine trying to pipet in a small tube without spilling during a storm). The analytical equipment is impressive! Any science team can propose to the US National Science Foundation to book the ship for a month or two and go wherever they want, provided their research is found to be the most compelling. The team will also enjoy a comfy TV/movie space, a reading room, a foosball, meals in a New Orleans-themed galley (the ship was built in Louisiana but never went back, its port of call being Punta Arenas), and a helicopter deck.

Above the lab deck are the bedroom cabins, then climbing three more decks one reaches the bridge, which offers a panoramic view of the surroundings. It’s a would-be navigator’s dream, with sounding charts, compasses, binoculars, and the captain’s chair in which no one else can sit. We climbed three more flights of ladders to get to the pilot’s cabin, which can rock back and forth meters and surprisingly lacked an emergency bucket.

The Palmer came here in the midst of a long cruise that took it from South America and counterclockwise around the Antarctic Peninsula; it will head to Tasmania next. All that traffic back and forth has really disrupted Mc Murdo Sound, which now features prominent pockets of open water in which rumors say some have seen whales peek out. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we get to see one in the next 10 days!

Inside the Discovery Hut

The night before last, we got the rare chance of going inside the hut built in 1902 during Scott’s Discovery expedition. The hut, meant as a storage building rather than living quarters, was also used by Shackleton’s 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition (the name “Nimrod” is notched in a door), Scott’s party again in 1911-1914 (this is the last building Scott slept in before heading to the Pole, never to come back), and once more in 1914-17 by a team in charge of laying depots to the Pole for Shackleton’s party, in the first attempt to cross Antarctica coast to coast (40 years before the Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition).

Shackleton’s attempt at the trans-Antarctic crossing went awry almost from the get go. One of his two ships, the Aurora, brought the support party on Ross Island near today’s Mc Murdo, but was blown away during a storm, leaving them trapped on land. The other, the Endurance, sailed to the Weddell Sea on the opposite side of Antarctica, where it got trapped in the pack ice and eventually sank. Shackleton and the 28-men crew wandered off in the world’s worst seas in life boats, ducking crushing icebergs, fog, and storms until they reached the narrowest of flat land, a few dozen meters across on Elephant Island. There they camped through the winter, after which eventually Shackleton was able to lead one of the boats north to South Georgia and find rescue. He first rescued his winter crew from their forsaken “beach” before heading back around Antarctica to pick up the crew marooned for 2 years on Ross Island, who had laid out the depots for nothing.

The hut today is just as Shackleton’s men left it, in a hurry. Pants are hanging on a line, there is seal blubber (not fully burned) on a stove, crates of biscuit, cocoa, oatmeal, and herring are lying around, and dead seals are piled in a corner, barely decomposed in this permanent freezer. All this makes for a strange smell, and we were also warned to be mindful of any signs of potential pathogenic infections in the coming months, given the people and animals who died here. Items from all four expeditions are mixed and matched, as it was British Navy tradition to leave everything for later-comers who might need it. The floor bears the marks of the ponies that were brought inside during the worst storms. As this hut was not meant as living quarters, it was not insulated and therefore inhabited mostly in temporary or dire situations. Hence the campground-like layout, with blankets hanging from the ceiling in order to provide meager protection against the cold and wind.

I’m very grateful to have seen this legendary place.

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!