Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Crevasses

Our field work this year will take us out onto glaciers. Even though we study soil, we’ll have to cross glaciers and ice to get to the locations we want to sample.

One of the dangers associated with walking on ice is that we could fall into a crevasse. Crevasses are cracks that form in large chunks of ice (like glaciers and ice sheets). They can be narrow or wide. Sometimes you can hop across it, but sometimes they can be too wide to get across. They can be shallow (ankle or knee depth) or very deep (100 feet deep or more).

Crevasses aren’t always visible from the surface, because they can be covered with a thin ceiling of ice and snow on top, making it difficult to spot. However, that “ice bridge” covering the ceiling of a crevasse may not be strong enough to hold the weight of a human, particularly one wearing heavy clothing and a backpack full of gear and samples!

People have died from falling into deep crevasses. Typically, we try our absolute best to avoid going into them! However, they have secured one crevasse and we are allowed to visit it. We use a lot of safety gear to make sure we don’t fall further into the crevasse, should it become unstable. It’s absolutely amazing inside!
 It’s like being in a cave made of ice, with icicles instead of stalactites. The only light is what can filter through the snow above our heads, so everything is very blue.

The picture below shows the tiny hole we had to squeeze through in order to get access to the expansive cave. You can see how easy it might be to not realize that a vast, deep cave is down there. You could easily step on it and fall into it! It was fun going into a crevasse under my own control with the necessary safety gear, but we certainly don’t want to surprise ourselves by falling into one while we’re out sampling.

To avoid these dangers in the field, we follow very strict safety protocols. Yesterday, we were trained on how to properly keep our team safe. We will walk roped together, carrying all of the appropriate gear that will be necessary to save someone from a crevasse should the worst happen. We had to practice all of these techniques during our training. Here’s Uffe practicing the method for raising yourself out of a crevasse if you fall in. (Of course, he’s doing it completely unharmed in a warm, dry building, which is very different from how it would feel if this were a real situation!)

We are still waiting for the sea ice to blow out so that we can start sampling. Bad weather is predicted to roll in, so it might be next week before we can go.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

It looks like the first places we'll be able to sample are some of the islands near Rothera, which will be accessed from a small boat. Unfortunately, sea ice is blocking the dock we would be leaving from, so we have to wait for it to blow out before we can do anything! In this photo, you can see some of the islands in the distance, towards the left, and the remaining ice in our way. We're hoping it'll move on in the next couple of days, so that we can get out. Hopefully, then, the snow will also have melted enough to expose the soil we want to sample!
While the sea ice is blocking our exit, it certainly does make for nice scenery! The seal in the photo below certainly doesn't mind, either.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Rothera Station, Antarctica

A few days ago, we flew from Punta Arenas, Chile to Rothera Station in Antarctica. We flew in a small Dash 7 that is operated by the British Antarctic Survey.
Dash 7 waiting for us in Punta Arenas, Chile

We flew south over the Strait of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego, the Drake Passage, and on to the Antarctic Peninsula. As we approached Antarctica, we could start to see the sea ice (the ice-cap over the ocean) and the mountains poking out of the ice sheet on the mainland.
View of Antarctica from the Dash 7 window

After a five hour flight, we landed at Rothera Station. This is the British research station on the tip of Adelaide Island along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula (at 67°S latitude).

Since our arrival a few days ago, we’ve been taking our final training courses. We’ve had station orientation, survival training, aircraft safety, communication procedures, and medical first aid. We’ve also been setting up our lab to process soil samples for biology and chemistry. Soon, we will finally be able to get into the field to collect some samples!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Punta Arenas, Chile

We have arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile.

The flight into Chile was beautiful. We flew over the Andes Mountains, which you can see in this photo from my airplane window:
 
Punta Arenas is a small city on a peninsula along the Strait of Magellan (the passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans off the tip of mainland South America). The Strait of Magellan is known for its unpredictable winds, and we are certainly aware of that! It's pretty windy here! Along with the wind, it is overcast, drizzling, and 50°F (10°C), which seems to be normal for the summer here. It's fairly chilly! (But not nearly as cold as the 0°F (-18°C) that they're currently experiencing at Rothera Station, where we're heading!)

The main business in Punta Arenas seems to be sending people to Antarctica, both for science and tourism. You can see several large vessels in this photo, and there are also several very large, fancy cruise ships further out in the strait beyond the photo.
 

Here is the view from the hotel window.
There seems to be people falling from the ship in the statue. We're not sure if they fell or were thrown...
 Punta Arenas is the last stop before flying to Antarctica. We had to go to the US Antarctic Program's warehouse to pick up our gear. After wandering around the town for a while using very minimal directions, we eventually found it on the pier... where the street names and numbers aren't labeled... beyond a gate with security!

We found the scientific cargo we had shipped down ahead of us, as well as our "Extreme Cold Weather" clothing. We packed our big red parka, Goretex jacket and gloves, and fleece under-layers. We are very weight-limited, so we have to carefully pack only what we'll need. Here's Uffe stuffing everything into his bag inside the warehouse:

We are scheduled to fly to Rothera Station tomorrow morning. The internet from Rothera is very slow, but I will post as much as I can!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

I'm off!

Today the journey begins! I'm off to the airport. It will take about 24 hours to get to Punta Arenas, Chile near the southern tip of South America. We'll then spend about a day and half making our final preparations before flying to Rothera Station in Antarctica!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Prepping for departure

In just one more week, I leave for Antarctica! I will be flying to Punta Arenas, Chile, where I'll be meeting up with my research partner, Uffe. We'll spend about a day in Chile prepping the last of our gear, and then flying the rest of the way down to Antarctica.

We'll be flying to Rothera Station, which is a station run by the British Antarctic Survey. (Which we abbreviate and call BAS.) So, instead of working at one of the American bases like I usually do, I'll be hanging out with the British this year! This has developed from a great collaboration with British scientists, and we look forward to working with them! You can read more about Rothera Station on BAS's website.

During this last week at home, we are busy packing up the rest of the gear we need and making final plans for the sites we hope to visit. Plus, we have to pack all of our warm clothing, toiletries, and anything else we'll need for 2 months. I'm packing my binoculars so that I can watch wildlife, some good books to read during any downtime, and a lot of work from my office that I'll need to do while I'm away.

I'll keep you posted on my journey as I make my way to Antarctica!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Soil biology of the Antarctic Peninsula

So far, the research I've done in Antarctica has been out of McMurdo Station. That's on the side of the continent closest to New Zealand and Australia. This coming field season, I will be doing my field work on the other side of the continent, along the Antarctic Peninsula. This is the piece of land that extends up towards South America.


Image from Wikipedia
The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest changing regions on the planet. It is warming at one of the fastest rates on Earth. Also, invasive species are becoming an increasing problem. Invasive grasses and insects have been spotted along the Peninsula. Some of these species are accidentally brought from other continents by people. Also, because the Peninsula is warming, some Antarctic species can spread farther south into areas that used to be too cold for them to survive. This grass on the right, the Antarctic hair grass, has been spreading southward into new habitats.


Image from Nature Education
Of course, these changes in climate and invasive species can influence the biology living in the soil. If you're read my past posts, you'll know that the soil biology include bacteria, fungi, nematodes, mites, and other tiny invertebrates. The microscopic soil biology are the only year-round terrestrial animals on Antarctica. There are birds, seals, and penguins that live in Antarctica, but these are technically marine animals that sometimes come on land. Though the soil biology are small, they are the continent's only true inhabitants. This makes them very important to study, if we want to understand more about Antarctica!

From the hard work already done on the Antarctic Peninsula by many scientists, we know that the soil biology of the Peninsula is more abundant and diverse than in the McMurdo area where I usually work. That means there are more individuals from a larger number of species living in the soil in the Peninsula region. However, the Peninsula is a large area, and the soil biology in many places along the Peninsula have not been closely studied. We don't even know who lives where, and if we've seen all of the species that live there. How can we understand the impacts of this recent rapid change, if we don't even know who is there naturally?

Our research over the next couple of seasons will explore the diversity of soil biological communities along the entire Antarctic Peninsula. We will discover what species live in all of the places we visit. We will also compare who lives at each site with the plants and soil chemistry to understand how the environment influences the soil biology. That way, we can predict what will happen to the soil biology as the environment changes. Some of these species only live in Antarctica, so it's important to know how we can protect them. If they lose their home in Antarctica, they may be lost forever!