Sunday, January 29, 2006

1-30-06 Monday

The major news of the previous few days was that we got hit by a little snowstorm. Helicopters were grounded for two days, and visibility was poor all around. We spent the time in the lab, staying nice and warm. The upside to all the snow we got was the blanket of white powder that coated all the roads and hills around McMurdo. This place loses some of its dirty mining town aura when it's covered in white.

Observation hill, with the old nuke plant site visible about halfway up:

Self portrait in front of the labs

The Discovery Hut on Hut Point:

The other big news of the day was that the Krasin icebreaker pulled out from the dock the day before (still with one missing propeller blade on the starboard screw) and went out to escort the Palmer in. The Palmer has been doing a scientific cruise in the open waters around Antarctica for more than a month, and has come in to McMurdo for just one day. Much of the science crew is getting off, and new crew and science staff are getting back on for the cruise home.

The fuel tanker will come in in a few days, escorted by two ice breakers (the Krasin and her sister ship, the Captain Unspellable Russian Surname). The fuel tanker is wider in beam than the Krasin, and the ice in the channel is not clearing out, so its necessary to run two ships ahead of the tanker to chew up a wide path.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

1-25-06 More seal pictures

We took a trip to the fishin' holes by snowmobile again. When we got there we found a Weddell seal peeking out of one of our two holes.

We stayed back to avoid disturbing the seal, and shot a few pictures. At one point the seal came up with a large chunk of fish in its mouth, so the hunting must have been good today.

When a Weddell finds a hole in the ice, it spends a lot of time maintaining the hole to keep it from freezing. They use the holes to get a breath of air after long dives and for hauling out onto the snow. This seal had scraped away quite a bit of ice from around the underside of our fishing hole, so we decided to leave the hole to seal instead of re-capping the hole. We pulled up the rest of our gear from the second hole at the site and bid the seal a good day.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

1-20-06 Cape Evans

Last Friday we took a class trip out to Cape Evans, which is a point of land just a few miles north of McMurdo Station. This is the site of Scott's nicer hut, where he based the operations of his second attempt on the South pole. The Cape Evans hut is a substantially nicer hut for living in, as it is insulated and larger than the hut at McMurdo.

Scott's hut sits surrounded by snow next to the water on Cape Evans. In the background is the Barne Glacier, which is moving down off the slopes of Mount Erebus until it meets the sea.

Outside Scott's hut is the anchor used to secure the ship Aurora to shore. The Aurora was part of Shackleton's last voyage to Antarctica. During a heavy storm in 1915 the anchor chain broke and the Aurora was blown out to sea, carrying much of the expedition's food and equipment with it.

Inside the hut you find fairly good living conditions. There are windows to let the light in, there was a phone setup to communicate with other huts on the island, and there were even covered stables for the ponies used on the South Pole expedition. The officers of the ship got to eat dinner at this fine dining table.

During Scott's 1910-1913 South Pole Expedition there were a number of scientists brought along to carry out experiments and observations during the time in Antarctica. The scientists were provided with facilities to do their work, and much of the gear was left behind. Here we see the biologist's lab bench, covered in science-y stuff.

Although I keep saying that this hut was comparatively luxurious by Antarctic standards, it's not exactly paradise. These are the beds in the officer's quarters. Now, either everyone on the expeditions was a midget, or else they all had to sleep with their legs hanging off the end of the beds. You might imagine that the enlisted mens' sleeping arrangements were somewhat less plush than this.

The class trip also involved some sampling and collecting of organisms for use back in the lab at McMurdo. We took a walk around the pond system, which was somewhat reminiscent of the ponds at Bratina island. There were heavy growth of microbes and plankton in some of the ponds. We also went out onto the sea ice and punched our way through some old fishing holes in order to catch some more fish for the thermal tolerance experiments.
Those of you with sharp eyes will recognize the SquareBob SpongePants fishing reel on the left:

The fish were biting like crazy all afternoon long. It's not exactly a major fight to pull these fish to the surface, as you can tell by their size.

Some members of the group really got in to the fishing. We learned that they do things a little differently up in Canada, but the fishing technique, demonstrated here, seems to work equally well.

Lastly, the cracks in the sea ice around Cape Evans were home to a number of Weddell seals. The seals haul out on the sea ice near the cracks and spend the day sunning themselves before venturing back into the cold water to hunt for fish.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

1-18-06 Bratina Island

A second update for the 18th of January. Yesterday I got to tag along on a class trip to Bratina Island, which is southwest of McMurdo Station across McMurdo sound. Bratina Island is a true island surrounded by the Ross Ice Shelf, which is pushing up against the island and all the way around it. The ice shelf here has a very rough surface due to uplift and cracking and the pressure ridges that form. The ice shelf is also topped with a layer of dirt that was scraped up off the sea floor hundreds of years ago and has moved up through the ice as the top layers of ice evaporated off the top. The dirt and rocks are left behind on the surface of the ice shelf, and they form a set of low hills in which many hundreds of ponds form. These ponds are formed by water collecting in low areas, and the ponds vary widely in their composition. Some are freshwater ponds, some are slightly salty, and some ponds are extremely salty, over 100 parts per thousand, compared to the ocean's normal value of around 30 ppt.

We traveled to Bratina by helicopter, which is the normal mode of travel across the ice for the field sites which are far away from McMurdo Station. The helicopter ride took about 10 minutes.

The landing pad at Bratina is a primitive circle of rocks in the dirt. There are three small huts and a porta-john on the island, all set here by the Kiwis for their research program. The porta-john is locked, and we are not allowed to go to the bathroom anywhere on the ground, so that we do not disturb the delicate pond system. Instead, everyone brings a bottle to do their business in, and you carry your bottle back to McMurdo with you.

Bratina includes a set of tidally influenced ponds that have the water rise and fall up to a meter every day. This is the beach at high tide. The water along the shore and in the footprints is all frozen in a thin sheet which cracks and falls apart as the tide drops.

Here is the same beach at low tide later in the day. The ice has all melted and all that is left are several individual pools in the depressions.

To get to the pond system on the ice shelf you need to leave the island and cross this crack onto the shelf. The legend is that this crack falls more than fifty feet straight down to the bottom of the ice shelf. No one fell in today.

The interest in Bratina has to do with this extensive pond system. Pictured below is a set of three ponds sitting right next to each other that have vastly different water types. The pond the right side is a freshwater pond, the pond in the back left is a brackish pond, and the small pond in the foreground on the right is a hypersaline pond. You can see the white crust of salt crystals surrounding the salt pond.

Some of the ponds had a thick layer of ice on top, some were unfrozen, and some ponds had a paper-thin sheet of ice on them that you could easily sea through. The oil slick of colors on this pond are from the layer of ice floating on top of it. You'll notice the orangish tint of the sediment around the edges of this pond. All of that is a conglomeration of many different bacteria that are growing in thick mats on the sediment. People come here to study the make up this microbial mat community, and to compare the communities among the different ponds.

The microbial mats can grow very thick over long time periods, and continuing ice movement under the surface can lift them up out of the ponds. In the picture below is a layer of microbial mats several inches thick.

The only real wildlife we saw at Bratina were a few Skua birds. These things are like seagulls, but even more aggressive. They will defend their nesting territory from other Skuas and from humans who trample by.

The skuas came down to investigate our activities and to see if we might drop any food. I caught a picture of this skua wandering around on the ice surface of a pond. They are rather awkward on the ice, as you can see by this bird's splayed legs.

I mentioned the movement of dirt and rock from under the ice sheet up to the surface. Included in this transport are the occasional sea creatures which get picked up by the ice. Many years later they emerge on the surface, and we found a sea sponge at the top of a small hill as proof of this process.

Here is a close up shot of the sponge. It is fairly degraded, but you can still pull apart the spicules that make up the body of the organism. Spicules are extremely hard to degrade, so they will be around for a very long time.

To close this out, I've been notified that Heather Archie and the rest of Ms Ewert's 5th grade class from Cubberly Elementary School are checking in here occasionally. Here is your official "Hello!" from the bottom of the earth. If you have any special requests, you can drop me a line on email and I'll see what I can do to fulfill it.

1-18-06 Discovery Hut

We were able to take a guided tour of the Discovery Expedition Hut which sits out on Hut Pt. next to McMurdo Station. In order to keep the relics inside preserved, access to the hut is limited to small groups that must check out a key to get in. The hut was erected in 1902 by Scott's first expedition to Antarctica, and was used by four subsequent expeditions, in some cases under very dire circumstances.

We started out by taking our class picture outside the hut. I'm all the way over on the right side, sporting a freshly shaven face. Next to me is Donal Manahan, the grand master of the class. Hiding in the back row are Mark Denny, my PhD advisor, and George Somero, also from the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, CA. For those of you keeping track, Jason Podrabsky is all the way over on the left in the front row. There are 21 students in the group and eleven instructors and TA's.

The hut has a limit of eight people at a time, and even then it's a little crowded inside. I can't imagine the expeditions which sometimes had up to fourteen people inside this hut along with supplies to last them for months on end.

The inside of the hut is arranged very much as it was left by the last expedition group which left in 1917.

On the floor are a number of fuel cans used to power the cooking stoves. The English tended to have bad luck with their fuel can seals, so they came back to find half-empty or completely empty fuel cans on a number of occasions.

This box bears the stamped insignia of one of Scott's expeditions, the second 1910-1913 Terra Nova Expedition.

The hut also includes things like the mummified remains of a few seal carcasses, which the men had to eat on occasion when supplies ran low. There are a pair of dried out pigs hanging in one of the back rooms as well.
The hut was notorious for being extremely cold inside, due in part to its original design as a hut for use in the Australian outback. Its design sheds heat from inside to outside extremely quickly, and doesn't allow the sun to heat it from the outside very effectively.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

1-15-06 A few laboratory pictures

We've been playing with scallop abductin tissue in lab. This is the rubbery bit of tissue in the hinge of a scallop's shells that forces the two shell valve apart. We have been looking for effects of temperature on the abductin rubber to inform us about its material properties. Mark came up with a pair of interesting experimental setups to run these tests, and with the exception of clay, a bit of mirror, a laser pointer, and some z-spar, we were able to piece everything else together using equipment from around the lab and stockroom.

Here's a wide shot of one setup used to measure the resilience of the abductin. The basic idea is to take the scallop shell sitting in the water bath on the floor and twang the upper shell with your finger. This makes it oscillate up and down, and you can watch the deterioration of the oscillations over time to get an idea of how springy the material is.

Inside the water bath is the scallop. Most of the upper shell has been cut away, and a piece of plastic syringe is glued in its place. On top of the syringe is a bit of mirror, for reflecting the laser beam.

The tricky bit of the setup is how we record the oscillations of the shell. The mirror and laser pointer project a spot of light up onto the ceiling. If you twang the shell, the point of light bounces back and forth across the ceiling. The trick then is to turn that laser line into a sine wave trace so that we can make measurements of the amplitude of the wave as it decays. That's where we got lucky and found a bacterial culture wheel in the stockroom. We stripped off the wheel portion and used the slow-turning motor drive. We attached my camera body to the motor drive, and pointed it at the ceiling. When you turn the motor on, the camera pans through an arc. With a 2.5 second exposure, you can capture several oscillations of the laser beam.

The output from the camera is a really nice sine wave drawn across the sensor of the camera as it is rotating.

Our other setup is another complicated conglomeration of a water bath, some pipettes, clay, a linearly variable differential transformer, precision weights, some suture string, and a chart recorder. (Don't tell Mike Boller that we used the chart recorder instead of the A-D board that he set up)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

1-13-06 Fishing trip

We made another trip out to our deep fishing holes to open them up and spend a little time trolling for fish. The weather was beautiful and somewhat warm, and we had a fun ride out on the snowmobiles.

When you have too many people for the skidoos, pulling people on sleds is a handy alternative transport method. The passenger is sitting on one of our survival bags that is full of tents and sleeping bags, so the ride isn't too rough.

Out at the fishing hole one of our group pulled out a stuffed penguin, and we got a few pictures, as this may be as close as we get to a live penguin this month.

Here is the stuffed penguin sitting in a real penguin track. We found this track along the side of the road, and it was heading inland with no obvious destination in sight.

After scooping all the loose ice out of the fishing holes we were left with a pleasant little fishing hole to sit around. No one got any nibbles this afternoon, but the major effort begins today.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

1-11-06 More ice drilling

It's another one of those big giant drill pictures. We finally punched through the sea ice with 5 flights on the Jiffy ice drill. That works out to somewhere over 15 feet of ice under our feet. We were close to the bottom the other day, but we gave up just a little too early.

Monday, January 09, 2006

1-10-06 Tuesday, Fishing

There are some things that I shouldn't be put in charge of, and we've now learned that setting fish traps is one of those things. We wanted to catch some notothenioid fishes and amphipods using a big mesh fish trap. The trap was set in the same hole that we've been doing all our other work in so far. We left the trap out for roughly 28 hours, and came back this afternoon to find out what we had caught.

The suspense built as we hauled up the 90 feet of line and flopped the trap up onto the ice. Inside was a major haul...of worms.

Hundreds of nemertean worms had found their way into our trap over the course of the day that it was sitting outside. This hadn't been a problem with our earlier, smaller traps baited with other dead notothenioid fish. But this trap was different, and the reason probably had to do with the bait we used this time.

It seems that nemerteans love sardines. We punched some holes in this can and tossed it in the trap for the trip down. The nemertean above had its front end completely buried in one of the punched holes. We tossed it and the sardines back in the trap and sent them back down to sit for another night. Our total haul for this trap set was one fish and six amphipods. The stories we hear of fish traps coming up covered in amphipods are turning out to be tall tales.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

1-8-06 Sunday

Today was the first class trip out on to the sea ice. We walked just a few yards off the land at McMurdo out to the ice holes where I did the diving the other day. The plan was to have this be an introduction to a few field techniques for getting down to the water and taking various types of samples. Although we had one hole already drilled for us, the students were tasked with trying to drill their own holes, just to get the experience.

George Somero digging himself into a hole. George's many years of Antarctic experience allowed him to choose a spot where the snow on top of the ice was only about 1.5 feet deep, which was much easier to deal with than the spot that the students chose, where the snow was more like 3 feet deep.

The student hole started out small:

And it eventually got much larger with 15 people helping to dig;

We even finished it off with a nice stairway entrance so that people wouldn't break their necks trying to jump into the hole.

With the holes dug down to the ice we could start playing with the various ice drilling tools. Here Dave demonstrates how they did it in the old days with a hand-drill.

The more common way to drill holes, if you don't have a tractor to drill them for you, is to use one of these gas powered ice augers:

You just set it down on the ice in your hole, start it up, and lean on it. When you get down far enough, you can pull the drill out and add another section of drill shaft to extend your hole even deeper.

Here the students are pulling up the extended drill bit to clear the ice chips out of the hole.

This was as far as they got on the small drill bit size. The drill bit there is about nine feet tall, and they didn't hit sea water

For George's hole they used a larger diameter (~8") auger to make a hole big enough to fish in. After 9 feet of big drill bits and another 6 feet of small bits added on, they still didn't make it through to the seawater. Tomorrow we need to get more drill sections.

Here is Mark Denny holding an ice coring tool. This drills in by hand and its hole center keeps a nice ice core for you to bring up and study.

The ice core that you get out looks exactly like you'd expect:

After all that unsuccessful drilling, people wandered back to our pre-drilled diving hole and took a bit of time to fish.

The fishies weren't biting today.

In other news, the Distinguished Visitors came for a tour of the lab this morning. George gave them a little introduction to what the course is about and what his own work is on. The guy in the back there is Mr. McCain from Arizona. The gentleman by the sink is the representative from the armpit of California, the Fresno-Bakersfield area.

Friday, January 06, 2006

1-7-06 Saturday

Here are three more underwater critter pictures.

The class has started its first full day at the station with a non-stop session of training videos and instructions courses on how to stay alive out in the cold. The science doesn't really start until tomorrow when we will take them all out to the fish hole by the station to do some practice plankton sampling and CTD casts.

We also started the installation of the first DNA sequencer/analyzer to show up on the Antarctic continent. It was a somewhat inauspicious start that consisted of four of us having to pick the thing up by hand and carry it to its new home on the lab bench. Applied Biosystems sent down a representative with our group to help set up the machine. When the course is over it will get shipped back to California to continue its life as a demo model. It's a 16-channel 3130XL Genetic Analyzer if that means anything to you. It means nothing to me.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

1-6-06 Dive day #2

Here are some pictures from today's dive at the McMurdo jetty. I took along my underwater housing and Olympus 5050 digital camera. When I came back from the dive and took apart the strobe I discovered a bunch of mucky water in the battery compartment, which probably got in when we hooked the camera to the down-line near the bottom before making our ascent. I managed to clean out all the gunk and get the strobe working again, so next time I will have to glue the door shut with silicone prior to making a dive.

The class also arrives in just a few minutes, after having flown in today with a group of special visitors including a couple of US congressional representatives and a senator or two. Class starts in earnest tomorrow morning.

An anemone in the mud bottom, surrounded by a few clam siphons and some other critters.

A pair of sea spiders, pycnogonids, crawling around.

A sea cucumber with its feeding tentacles extended.

Urchins with all sorts of goodies stuck on their backs.

A pile of nemertean worms scavenging on something.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

1-4-06 Diving

We did our checkout dive today. The dive was through an ice hole off the McMurdo jetty, which is right down the hill from us. We loaded gear and drove down there, then hauled equipment across the ice for about 50 yards to the hole. The hole was in good shape, so we popped the cover off and geared up. We took two dive tenders along to help haul the gear and put on the gear that we can't put on ourselves. The dive officer Steve went in first to see what it looked like, then came back up to tell us to suit up and come down. You suit up by sitting on the edge of the hole and putting all your ancillary equipment on. The last bit of kit is the dry gloves, which are a tight fit onto the suit, so you need to have an assitant put them on you. Once all that was done, I dropped in.

Suiting up:

Putting the dry gloves on:

All suited up and ready to drop in. Hello to everyone back home.

The initial descent is through a 15ft deep, 4-ft diameter ice hole filled with a lens of freshwater. The visibility is poor, and you're semi-cramped in there. Halfway down I stopped and asked myself what on earth I was doing, but after taking a deep breath I decided that indiscretion was the better part of valor, and kept descending. After dropping out the bottom of the hole into the open salt water it became a lot more comfortable. It also became rather dark. The thick ice and snow on top of it makes for very little light penetration, so we had to carry dive lights. The down rope we hung through the hole also had 3 strobe lights attached to it so that we could find it in the dark. The two ice holes in the surface are the only real source of light, so you can see them readily when looking up. The mud bottom was at 90 feet, and it was covered with all sorts of critters. They all resemble things that you see back home, but they're all slightly different and are often larger. I swam by one white sponge that was about 4ft tall and 4ft in diameter. There were soft corals, urchins, seastars, anemones, nemertean worms (big ones), sea cucumbers, jellyfish, and many other things. Unfortunately there was no camera on this dive, since it was the checkout dive. We spent about 25 minutes down there and then came up to the surface. I'm definitely going to have to do this again, and hopefully with a camera next time.

1-3-06 Field Trip

Today was our first field trip. We took a trio of snowmobiles out to a set of holes drilled through the sea ice. The holes are used for catching fish, dipping plankton nets, and dropping various instruments through. Holes are drilled with a large tractor rig that drives out on the sea ice early in the season and drops a 3-foot diameter auger through the ice. The ice under these holes is supposed to be around 15 feet thick.

The first part of the afternoon consisted to loading gear in a pickup truck to drive over by the New Zealand Scott base, where the only active ramp from land onto the ice is currently located. The transitions from land to ice near McMurdo have all been shut down due to melting and unstable ice right next to shore. We then had to walk about a 1/4 mile on the ice to get our snowmobiles, bring them back to the transition, and load our gear. We need to bring large survival kits with tents, sleeping bags, food, and a stove for any trip out on the ice or away from base. We also brought along tools for cleaning out the ice holes, along with our bags of cold weather gear.
Here we are getting acquainted with the snowmobiles.

Hauling gear by snowmobile is best done with these large plastic sleds. All of our gear for three people is loaded on this sled and pulled behind the snowmobile at brisk speeds. Today was quite windy, and coupled with the long drive on snowmobiles, we had to bundle up completely. With all the gear on it was quite warm and pleasant.

Once we found our ice holes, we set to work digging them out. These holes had been used by other groups earlier in the season, but they had not been used since some time before Xmas, and were covered in snow. As this was an exploratory and shakedown trip, we took some time to dig out the holes, but we didn't completely chip all of the ice out of them yet, since we won't really start using them for another week.

THe holes were marked with flags, but were otherwise obscured.

We set to work digging out the accumulated snow. The holes are left covered with a foam plug topped with plywood to help keep the hole from freezing solid.

Here is the plug pulled up out of the hole, showing the layer of ice that has frozen underneath it. Next week we will have to chip out the ice in the hole.

Mission accomplished, we turned around and raced back home to get there before the cafeteria closed. Along the way the view to Mt. Erebus cleared up enough to take some pictures. This volcano is quite active, and was making small eruptions within the crater back in December. Today it was making a nice plume of steam.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A few more Icestock photos, New Year's Day

A few more pictures from the Icestock music festival. They keep the crowd warm by making them spin hula-hoops for long periods of time.

The festival attracted a large crowd of a few hundred people.

The chili cookoff was a great way to keep warm while standing outside and watching the bands play. There were six different chili styles, ranging from flavorful to just plain spicy.

There was a beard contest as well, with a few different categories. I should have entered for fullest/longest beard, as I could have beaten everyone on stage. However, there are definitely guys running around here that could beat me handily in that department as well, but I think they opted out of the contest to make it easier for the young guys to compete.

This is unrelated, but here is a picture of my dorm room. I share it with one of the other TA's in the class. It is luxurious by McMurdo standards, since we have a shared bathroom, a sink in the room, a TV, and a refrigerator. This dorm would be considered a hovel at every US college these days, but for around here it's not too shabby.