Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, from the bottom of the planet!

Here's the first photo of 2008:

This is the ice-covered Ross Sea and the Royal Society Range mountains across from McMurdo Station.

Today, we've been packing ourselves up to go back out into the Dry Valleys. This time we'll be at Lake Bonney, further inland from the ocean than where we were last week. But, it's been snowing here for the past 3 days, so hopefully the weather is good enough tomorrow for us to travel!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Animals Under Our Feet

All sorts of organisms live in the soil all over the world. When you walk on the ground, you're walking on thousands and thousands of critters that you can't even see, with every step! Most of the organisms in soils are bacteria and fungi. The fungi living in the soil aren't mushrooms, like you're used to seeing. They're microscopic fungi. Bacteria and fungi live in soils all over the world in every biome, and Antarctica is no exception! There are also things living in the soil that eat the bacteria and fungi. In many places, like deciduous forests in the U.S., there are tons of different types of organisms living in the soil that eat microscopic bacteria and fungi. On Antarctica, there aren't so many different types, because it's a much harder environment to live in. However, there are some here, but they're all microscopic! There's organisms like protozoa, tardigrades, collembola, and nematodes.
Nematodes are round worms. They are microscopic, and live in all types of habitats. Here, there are only 3 main species that we can find on Antarctica. They can dry themselves out so that they can survive during the cold, dry, dark times on Antarctica, and come back to life when conditions are better (except they were never actually dead, just preserving themselves). The 3 species here eat different things. One eats microbes. Another eats other animals (microscopic animals, of course), making him a predator! That is the top of the Dry Valley food chain: a microscopic nematode!

photo credit: Byron Adams
Tardigrades are a group of animals called "water bears" because they sort of look like 6-legged bears that live in the small amounts of water in soils. Aren't they cute? Water Bears eat microbes, algae, and are also sometimes predators.

Photo credit: Uffe Nielsen

Collembola are also called  "springtails" because they have tail-like appendages that are used for jumping. They mostly eat fungi, but not much is known about what they do in Antarctic soil.

So, as you can see, there are a variety of different types of animals living in the soil here. There's more than just penguins and seals that everyone knows about when they think of Antarctica! And these microscopic soil animals are very important, because they help process those nutrients that we've been studying! We focus mainly on nematodes, because they are the coolest animals down here!

Today, we spent some time preparing samples of soil to look at the nematodes that live in them. We have to be very careful not to hurt the nematodes, so that we can look at them under a microscope while they're still alive. Breana and Ed weigh out the samples of soil and label them:
Then, they give the soil to Diana, who puts them in a sieve and runs water over them. This rinses away most of the soil, so that you have only nematodes floating in water.
Then, Byron gets the sample. He tries to separate the nematodes from the water so that it is easier to see the nematodes under a microscope. Byron, however, lost his luggage when flying down to Antarctica. So, he's wearing clothes from the lost-and-found that we decorated to look like a bee. Here, it's not called lost-and-found, though. It's called the Skua Bin, because skuas are scavenger sea birds. The nematodes will sit in the refrigerator until later, when we look at them under the microscope to identify and count them. Hopefully I'll get some pictures of the nematodes to show you!
We've been working hard in the lab. We're processing our samples that we collected in the field from the elevation transects. The samples have to be sieved to remove the rocks, so that we have just the soil left over. On the soil, we measure pH, conductivity (the amount of ions in the soil that move a current), and the amount of nutrients. These things that we measure help tell us how good of a habitat for organisms the soil is at each of the spots we sampled.

Ross wears his fancy tie-dyed lab coat with his best friend Einstein in his pocket:
Mike says, "Safety first!"
The other team we work with from Colorado State arrived yesterday! Now, we are joined in the lab by Diana, Breana, Ed, and Byron.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

We flew back to McMurdo today. We had finished the work we needed to do during our first week in the field. Now, we're back at "home" here at McMurdo station. Here's a nice view from the helicopter.

Look at what came in the mail while we were in the field! Elizabeth and I received Christmas cards from our friend Bob! He made the cards, and drew the artwork himself. They're totally awesome! Now Elizabeth and I have the prettiest desk space in the lab, because we can decorate it with Christmas lizards.

Now that we're finally back from our first week of field work, it's time to shower, eat non-dehydrated food, and rest!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Today Mike and I hiked up another elevation transect to measure changes in soil chemistry with increasing elevation. So we are very tired again! We crossed some snow drifts that had very pretty patterns in the surface:

Another project we are doing in this area is testing whether adding nutrients to the soil affects the microbes and animals living there. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus are very important nutrients for most living things. These nutrients move through the soil very slowly here, because it is so cold and dry. We want to know what will happen if there are more of these nutrients in the soil to be used by organisms. So, last year we added carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus to different plots of soil. Now, a year later, Mike and I measured how much carbon dioxide is being produced by the living things in those plots. Just like with people, when the microscopic organisms in the soil breathe, carbon dioxide is produced. If there is more carbon dioxide produced when nutrients have been added, we know they are breathing more. They would breathe more if they're more active. The same happens with people. If you eat a good, nutritious meal, you'll be more active. You might run or play more. Getting that extra exercise makes you breathe harder and let out more carbon dioxide. That's exactly what we're doing for the soil organisms by giving them extra nutrients! We can find out which nutrients they need most by adding them to soil separately and measuring which nutrient makes them breathe the most. Today we measured carbon dioxide from each of the plots with different nutrients. Later in the field season, we will also look at the soil and what's living in it. We have to wait until the group for Colorado State University arrives before we can do that, since they work with us on the project.

There are two new arrivals to report! Natalie (left) was born December 21 in the Netherlands, and Eden (right) was born December 22 in Georgia. My friends are certainly keeping the obstetricians busy!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas on Antarctica

Well, it's Christmas on Antarctica! Santa Clause did not forget us, even though we're so far from home! He brought me a little stuffed cat that meows, so that I won't miss my cat back at home. Reindeer aren't allowed to come into the Taylor Valley, because they are not native here and their hooves might damage the ecosystem, so Santa had to come by helicopter. This made him very easy to spot! His elves also came with him and brought along cookies!
But, even though it's Christmas, we still had some work to do before we could enjoy the holiday.

In the morning, Mike and I hiked one of the elevation transects. This is similar to what we did several days ago on the other side of the lake. We hiked up about 1,000 feet along the edge of the valley. Once we got up to the top of the transect, we had a quick lunch , then started walking down to take soil samples at regular intervals along the way. We used the GPS to mark where we took samples, so that we know the exact location and how high up we were. We'll measure the chemical properties of the soil at each of the different elevations, from up at 1,000 feet all the way down to the lake. It was very hard, because we were carrying some heavy equipment and parts of it were very steep. Mike says, "The problem with doing the elevation transects is that you work really hard to get to the top, and your only reward is a beef stick and the opportunity to turn around and come right back down." That is very true! We ended up hiking about 10 miles total for the whole transect, so we were very tired!

While at the top of the transect, I had a really good view of the Fryxell Lake basin of Taylor Valley. Here is a panoramic video of the scenery I shot while we were eating lunch:

After working on the transect, we were ready to walk around the lake for Christmas dinner with the rest of our group and the NASA scientists. Since it was a special occasion, we tidied up as best we could. Since we can't use a lot of water, we had to find creative ways to clean up! Mike demonstrates how to take a proper Antarctic shower for Christmas dinner:

When Mike and I moved across the lake to this camp, we were able to take a helicopter. This time we had to walk! We were already very tired, and had to walk another hour and a half for dinner! But, it was worth it! Doug had made a great dinner for the group. We had turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, asparagus, and biscuits. Plus, Elizabeth made gingerbread and an apple & pear pie for dessert! We ate a lot of food and had a good time together. Here's a picture of all of us around the dinner table.

Luckily, when it was time to walk back, someone drove Mike and I back to our home in the camp across the lake. I'm very glad we didn't have to walk another hour and a half! We rode on the back of an ATV across the frozen lake, which only took 15 minutes. Here's the view we had off of the back of the ATV on the lake ice:

Overall, we had a good Christmas here in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica! We worked hard and did a lot of hiking. I think this is the only Christmas in my whole life for which I've had a net loss of calories, rather than a gain! And now, it's finally time for some hard-earned rest! Merry Christmas, from the bottom of the planet (and the farthest point on Santa's journey)!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Mike and I flew across the lake yesterday. From the helicopter, we got a great view of one of the glaciers that comes into the valley! Glaciers are huge expanses of ice made from layers of snow. When more snow falls onto the top, the bottom layers of snow are smooshed into very thick ice. So the result is a big, thick hunk of ice on top of the ground. Glaciers move like very slow rivers and scrape the land below them. Over very long periods of time, they can carve out hills and lakes. Over 10,000 years ago, a lot more of Earth was covered in glaciers, because it was colder. The Great Lakes were formed by glaciers from the last ice age. Glaciers still cover a lot of land in the colder regions of Earth today, such as Antarctica. Chunks of them sometimes fall off into the ocean, making icebergs.

The glacier in the picture is Commonwealth Glacier.

Glaciers grow when it snows and rains on them. They also melt, letting out water for streams and lakes. You can see a small stream coming off towards the left in front of the Commonwealth Glacier. If a glacier melts fast, a lot of water is released. When a glacier is "retreating", that means it is melting faster than it's growing. The glacier is getting smaller, which means more land is uncovered. If you're standing on the ground, it looks like the glacier is backing up. However, that's not actually the case. It's just shrinking! Glaciers shrink very slowly, maybe an inch or so per year. But, glaciers are huge. Two inches off the entire edge of a huge glacier is still a lot of water being released!

Many scientists are concerned that, as the planet warms, glaciers will melt faster. This will release too much water into the oceans, causing ocean levels to rise. There are a lot of cities on the coasts of every country. If the water rises too much, they will be flooded! At a museum in New Zealand, I learned that the predicted change in ocean level would flood Christchurch. Only the steeple of the cathedral in their city would be above water! Melting glaciers is just one of the many reasons that people are trying to stop global warming.
On another note, check out the new arrival! My "nephew" Henry was born in Georgia while I was in New Zealand. He is almost two weeks old now. I can't wait to meet him!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Life at the Field Camp

This is our second full day in the field. The weather is much nicer. It is just above freezing outside, and very sunny! Yesterday, it was colder, cloudy, and windy, but today will be great for field work.
There are several permanent camps around the Taylor Valley. The camps have several small cabins that are the labs for research. The bigger, round building is for cooking, eating, working, and relaxing. The buildings are solar powered and have satellite internet. So, even though we're so far away from civilization, we have electricity, phone, and email! However, there's no plumbing here, so we have no running water. We take water from the lake to cook, drink, and clean. The lake and stream water here comes from the glaciers, so is very clean and safe to drink. We bring the water to the building in buckets, filter it, and leave it in large pots until we use it.

Because this area is a desert, we have to be very careful to not use too much water, and we can't put any water back into the soil. We have to be very careful not to affect the ecosystem more than necessary. We want the Dry Valleys to be the same as when we got here and not leave any trace of human impact. We don't want to take too much water from the lake. Also, all of the water we use has to be stored and taken away with us. Since we're in a desert, the soils and living things don't get much water. If we dump all of our used water into the soil, we are giving them too much water and changing the system. We try to use very little water when cleaning and cooking, and we store all that is used. This used water is called "gray water". We even have to store the water we use to brush our teeth! We can't even take showers, because they use a lot of water. So, I haven't taken a bath for 3 days!

We also have to store all of our trash to take away with us. Our trash is taken away from Antarctica and either recycled, burned, or put into a landfill. We have to sort our trash so that this can be done properly. There are five trash cans here, each for a different type of trash. We also have to store all of the waste our bodies make. There are no bathrooms or toilets here. Everything our bodies produce (all those yucky things we don't think much about) is stored in buckets or barrels and taken away from here!

Overall, we try to be very careful not too change the Dry Valleys, which means we have to be very careful about everything we do. We eat, work, walk and sleep very carefully so that there's very little evidence that we were ever here! This way, future scientists (maybe you!) will be able to see Antarctica the same way that we're seeing right now.

Later today, our group of four researchers will split in half. Ross and Elizabeth will stay here at this camp. Mike and I will fly across the lake to a different camp. We have different projects on the other side of the lake to work on, so need to split up. This way we can get more work done during the week we'll be away from McMurdo! Mike and I will take a helicopter across the lake. That means we'll get to wear the cool helicopter helmets again!
It snowed here Thursday night! It was only a dusting, but that's a lot of snow for this area. The bad weather did not keep us from getting to the field, though (it only delayed us a few hours while the helicopters waited until they could see). So, Friday morning we flew in a helicopter across frozen water to Taylor Valley. Here is a picture of us, in all of our gear, ready to go! There's Mike, Becky, Elizabeth, and Ross, with the helicopter in the background.

We landed at Lake Fryxell, and set ourselves up at the camp. There are small buildings here for eating and working in, but we sleep in tents outside. We are staying at this camp with four people from NASA. They are working on the Phoenix Project, which is a machine that was sent to Mars to look at Martian soil. They are comparing the dry, cold soil here on Antarctica to the dry, cold soils on Mars. This is one of the NASA scientists, Doug, acting silly after a day of hard work!After settling in, we started our field work. We hiked up one of the slopes in the Valley, taking soil samples every 10 meters. This way, we can compare different types of soil with elevation. Long ago, the water in the lake was higher, and there were glaciers covering the whole area. This means that the soil changes as you go higher up a slope. Different soil types will then also change what can live in the soil. We're also interested in what lives in the soil, we also spent some time looking for mosses and measuring how much the animals living in the soil breathe.
We have a neat machine that can measure that for us, by measuring carbon dioxide (the gas that's released when you breathe) in a small area of the soil.

The computer is almost out of battery, so I'll need to write more later!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

So far, we've been at our "home base" of McMurdo Station, which is on Ross Island. So, right now, we're technically not sitting on the continent of Antarctica. We're on an island very close to Antarctica in the ice shelf (which would be water, if it weren't covered with a glacier). Tomorrow we'll take a helicopter from McMurdo to the mainland of Antarctica to begin our field work. The particular area where we work is called the Dry Valleys. These valleys are in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. This big chain of mountains runs from one end of Antarctica to the other. It is made up of smaller ranges, such as the Asgard Mountains and Royal Society Mountains. This is similar to how the Appalachian Mountains run from Georgia into Canada, but are made up of smaller ranges like the Green Mountains and White Mountains, or the Tetons in the Rocky Mountains. The smaller ranges of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains run next to each other, with valleys in between them. These valleys are the Dry Valleys. Here's what that looks like in a close-up map (upside-down from the one above):
And here's what that looks like from a satellite (rotated 90 degrees from map above):
This picture shows where each of those ranges meets the sea. You see the mountains running alongside each other, with flat parts in between them. Those flat points are the valleys, some of which are covered with glaciers. The Dry Valleys are the valleys without glaciers, and they form the largest ice-free area on Antarctica. They receive very little snowfall, and never any rain. Instead of being covered with ice and snow, they are covered with loose rocks and soil. It's the soil that we're interested in! We do most of our work in Taylor Valley, which has 3 lakes (that are frozen, of course). Tomorrow, we'll be going to one of those lakes, called Lake Fryxell. Soon, I'll be able to show you actual photographs of our research group at Lake Fryxell in Taylor Valley!

The Dry Valleys are deserts, just like we have in the U.S. Most deserts are very hot, but the deserts on Antarctica are very cold! This is called a polar desert. So far the weather has been fairly nice, without being too cold. But, the weather is predicted to change before tomorrow, and will become cloudy with a chance of snow!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Snow School

Yesterday I went to Snow School. This is a camping trip where we learn survival skills to help us when we're out in the field. Antarctica is very windy and it's hard to predict when a storm might come, so we always have to be prepared to be caught in bad weather.

Our group was driven out to the McMurdo Ice Shelf. This is an incredibly thick piece of floating ice, several hundred meters thick, that forms where the glacier breaks off from land and flows into the sea. An ice shelf is different from sea ice, because sea ice is made of frozen seawater and melts when the temperature warms, but ice sheets are permanent because they are made of glaciers (so not salty). In the picture below, the mountains are on land. The jagged edges of the mountains show where the glacier breaks, and the flat ice is the McMurdo Ice Shelf, where we were camping.
On Antarctica, roads are marked by flags. Green and red flags show where it is safe to travel, and black flags show where there is danger (but only the danger that has been mapped! There are many dangerous areas that are not flagged). The flags in the picture above show a road on the McMurdo Ice Sheet leading to the airport. No pavement, yellow lines, or street signs here!

We were driven out on these roads by huge trucks called Delta's. The Delta's big tires can safely cross the traverse from land to ice and prevents it from falling into cracks.

At our camping site, we built our own structures to sleep in. First, we put up a special type of tent called Scott Tents, which are tall and pyramid-shaped. These are especially designed to withstand high winds (up to 80 mph). This is necessary, since Antarctica is the windiest of all the continents. We didn't want our whole camp to be blown away and be left homeless all night! So, we built a wall of snow connecting the Scott Tents. We did this by cutting squares of snow from the top of the ice shelf and stacking them into a wall (just like you do with Legos!). The Scott Tents, connected by the snow wall, will help protect the rest of the camp from the wind.

Inside the wall, we also put up regular dome tents, like what you and your family may use when you go camping. However, it's hard to anchor tents to the ground in soft snow, so we had to dig trenches into the ground to bury our tent stakes (these buried anchors are called "dead men").
We also learned to build structures out of snow, in case we get stuck out in the weather with no camping gear. We built a snow cave by piling up all of our duffle bags, then covering them in snow. The snow gets packed down with shovels, then left to sit in the sun and refreeze. After a while, you dig a tunnel to pull out all of the bags, and an open cave remains. It's sort of like an igloo, but messier.We also dug snow trenches that you can sleep inside of. They are small (just the size of one person) and not very warm, but protected from the wind.

Overall, the first day of snow school involved a whole lot of shoveling and sawing! We camped out that evening in the structures we built, and were able to stay very warm even though the temperature outside was only about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. We spent the next day (today) learning other useful survival skills, like how to set up portable VHF radios. We were able to call and talk to people at the South Pole with those radios! We also pretended to be caught in a white-out (when it's snowing so hard you can't see or hear) by placing buckets over our heads. With our heads covered, we had to try to locate one of our team members who was pretending to be lost in the snow.

Tomorrow is our last day to prepare ourselves for our field work. Friday morning we'll leave for Taylor Valley, where we will spend the next week collecting samples for our research!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Here are some pictures from the area around McMurdo:In the background you see Mt. Erebus , the most active volcano on Antarctica. You can see the steam coming out of the top. However, the lava is not very thick, so it is not likely to clog and cause an eruption.

A seal warms itself in the sun on the ice covering the Ross Sea. Since the temperature hasn't been very cold, the ice is starting to melt. This happens every summer when the temperatures get warmer. Just imagine a summer where the temperature is just barely above freezing! The roads that cross the ice have been closed, since the ice is no longer thick enough to carry the weight of a truck or airplane.

These shacks get pulled onto the ice, so that the scientists studying the sea underneath can stay warm.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

On the Ice

We have arrived on Antarctica!

Friday morning we left New Zealand on a US Air Force C-17 airplane (crewed by the awesome 62d Airlift Wing from McChord Air Force Base). In the picture on the left, Ross is stretching his legs during the 5 hour flight.

We were allowed to come into the cockpit during the flight, which gave us a great view of the ocean, sea ice, and the Antarctic continent as we approached.

After we landed, we traveled to our new home: McMurdo Station. We have spent the past day and a half setting up our lab and preparing for our field work. We have machines to set up, supplies to collectto wash, chemical solutions to make, and camping gear to collect before we can begin our research.

So far the weather has been great! It is slightly below freezing (about 30 degrees Fahrenheit) but overall much warmer than Dartmouth was when we left! Since we're in the Antarctic circle, the sun never sets and there are 24 hours of daylight. The earth is tilted, so as the Earth revolves around the sun (which takes one year), certain parts of the Earth are closer to the sun at different times of the year. This is why we get different seasons of warm and cold temperatures during the year. Right now, the southern hemisphere is closer to the sun than the northern hemisphere. That makes it summer here, but winter for the northern hemisphere. Antarctica is at the tip of the southern hemisphere, so always facing the sun during this time of the year. In six months, the Earth will be on the other side of the sun and it will be winter on Antarctica, with 24 hours of darkness (which it will be summer for us in the US!).

Below are a couple of pictures from areas nearby our base. Elizabeth is walking around a pond. She's the small red dot on the other side of the pond. She was very excited, because she found some algae and bacteria growing on the rocks alongside the stream! The ball in the mountain behind her houses a very large satellite dish that tracks the US space shuttles. In the second picture, I am squatting in front of the Ross Sea (which is frozen). On the far side of the Ross Sea is the Royal Society Range of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. We will be doing most of our research in the valleys of this mountain range. The mountains appear fairly close, but they are actually about 60-70 miles or so away from me. That means it would take an entire hour for me to drive across if I could go as fast as a car on the highway in the U.S. Since there are very few people or man-made objects here, there aren't very many things to help you judge the size and distance of things.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Today we were outfitted with all of the gear we need to wear while on Antarctica. The board in the top picture shows the variety of clothes they give us: everything from long underwear and socks to coats and hats. That's me to the left trying on all of the clothes I was given. Underneath that big red parka and the windpants, I am wearing 2 pairs of long underwear, fleece pants, a long undershirt, and a fleece jacket. I was very toasty warm!

Tomorrow we are scheduled to fly to Antarctica. Before leaving New Zealand, we stopped by the statue of Robert F. Scott, the explorer who traveled to Antarctica several times in the early 1900's and led the British team on the race to be the first people to reach the South Pole in 1912. The Norwegian team beat Scott to the South Pole by a month, and the entire British group of explorers died on the return journey. That ended Scott's very great and famous career as an explorer! The statue we visited was sculpted by Scott's wife and placed in Christchurch in his honor. Becky (me), Mike, and Ross are in the picture at the statue. On Antarctica, the New Zealand research station is named after him (Scott Base), and the hut built by his team for the expedition to the South Pole still stands.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Journey to Antarctica

Our group (Ross, Mike, Elizabeth, and Becky) left Dartmouth very early Monday morning. The bad weather made us late to the airport and we almost missed our flight! We have now arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand late Wednesday morning. Because of the time zone difference, we traveled for almost 36 hours (1.5 days) but arrived in New Zealand over two days later! New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, like Antarctica, so it is summer here. When we left Dartmouth, it was snowing and sleeting, and about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, two days later in New Zealand, it is 70 degrees and the flowers are blooming!

While in New Zealand, we will get outfitted with all of the warm clothing we will need for Antarctica. Then, very early Friday morning (which will be late Thursday morning for most of the people reading this blog), we will board a plane to take us to Antarctica. In the meantime, I think I will enjoy the warm weather while I can!

In Christchurch, we went to the Canterbury Museum, which teaches about the natural history and human heritage of New Zealand. There is a whole section about Antarctica and the explorers that have been going to Antarctica since the early 1800's. It's amazing that people have been exploring and studying Antarctica for 200 years! People were going to Antarctica before there were great inventions like fleece and portable power generators! We saw some of the gear and huts used by explorers such as Roald Amundsen (who led the first group to reach the South Pole in 1912), Robert F. Scott (who was racing Amundsen to the South Pole, but lost and died on the way back), and my hero Sir Edmund Hillary (who has explored a lot of really neat places besides Antarctica, including Mt. Everest).