Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Return to "Civilization"

Well, I'm back at home at Dartmouth now.

If you want to hear about some of my and Elizabeth's adventures in New Zealand, check out this website: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~beckyball/photos/nz.html

Thanks to everyone for your comments, questions, and excitement during our field season in Antarctica. Stay tuned in for more adventures as we travel to the poles for more soil biogeochemical research!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Time to Go

Well here it is. Our season is over and it's time to leave. In a few hours, we will ride Ivan the Terrabus out to Pegasus Airfield (the ice runway) to get on the C-17 that will carry us back to Christchurch, New Zealand.

It's been a great field season! I've been in Antarctica for just over 7 weeks, and spent 30 days of that out in the Dry Valleys. We collected about 960 lbs of soil and mosses that are being shipped back to Dartmouth for processing and analysis. Over the past two months since leaving New Zealand, I'll have spent about 10 hours on helicopters, 10 hours on C-17's, 3 hours on ships, 2 hours on ATV's, and 0 minutes in a car!

I will travel with Elizabeth for a week around the South Island of New Zealand, then it's back to Dartmouth, my warm bed, and my kitty cat! I will certainly miss being here, and I'm sad to go. But, there's always next year to look forward to!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Final Touches

I finally got a chance to drive a piston bully today! It's my first track vehicle driving experience. It was FUN!!

Well, this is Elizabeth's and my last full day on Antarctica! This continent is such an amazingly beautiful, unique place. There was no way I could include all of the great photographs that I've taken since I got here. Here is a random sample of some other interesting photos I've taken over the past two months. Enjoy!

Taylor Glacier, where it meets Lake Bonney in Taylor Valley:
The three postdocs discover the station sign, cleverly hidden behind a lot of buildings and not at all visible to the public:
Myself and Elizabeth in the field one sunny afternoon:
What happens when you let a helicopter pilot get a hold of your camera:
Standing at the base of Canada Glacier, looking straight up:

Myself and Elizabeth working on some soil samples in the lab:
A sample of the underwater life living below the Ross Sea Ice. These guys are currently living in the touch-tank in the aquarium in the lab:
On the left: What Elizabeth was doing in the field one afternoon on Lake Fryxell.
On the right: What Becky was doing while Elizabeth was working in the field that afternoon on Lake Fryxell.

It's late in the summer, and the sun is dipping lower onto the horizon. We're getting close to having a sunset! That signals that the end of the field season is near.

Weathering Antarctica

Antarctica is a very windy continent. In the Dry Valleys, with so much loose rock and soil, wind has a big impact on the landscape. Weathering is the process by which wind and the atmosphere break down rocks and minerals. There are many types of weathering, but on Antarctica mechanical weathering from wind is the most common. When the wind blows, it picks up pieces of rock and soil and carries them through the air, often at very high speeds. These pieces of small rock and soil blow past and around other rocks. The friction of the soil and rock particles in the air rubs away at the rocks being hit by the small pieces. This is called abrasion. It causes the rocks here to take on very neat shapes!

The rocks that take on these cool, weathered shapes are called ventifacts. They have been worn down, grooved, and polished by the wind and the grit it carries. Ventifacts are very common in dry, desert environments. We see lots of ventifacts of all shapes and sizes in the Dry Valleys. Here is a particularly cool one that we found around Lake Bonney last week that Elizabeth is using as her throne!
The soil, sand, and rock that are blown around by the wind don't always remain on land. Sometimes soil is blown onto nearby sea or lake ice, creating what is called "dirty ice." The soil absorbs and holds more warmth than ice, causing the ice beneath the soil to melt faster than neighboring uncovered ice. There is a large patch of dirty ice near the entrance to Garwood and Marshall Valleys. We have flown over it several times now!
Our time on the Ice is coming towards a close soon! We fly away from McMurdo on Tuesday. That means we have one more full day on station to get the rest of our work done and soak up the Antarctic scenery. We have a lot to do!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Weddell Seal

One Antarctic animal that I haven't talked about yet is the Weddell Seal. Seals are marine mammals that breath air and live on land, but spend much of their time in the water. The Weddell Seal is a species that lives in and near Antarctica. They live farther south than any other mammal!
[photo credit: Wikimedia]
Because Weddell Seals live in such a cold environment, they have a very thick blubber layer to help keep them warm. They are a bit fatter than most other species of seal, and can weigh up to 1000 pounds! They also have dark fur to help absorb sunlight. Lying on the sea ice in the sun also allows seals to warm themselves. Throughout the day, there are hundreds of Weddell Seals lying around on the ice while we're out working hard in the field!
Weddell Seals hunt in the water for fish, squid, and krill (very similar to what penguins eat!). Seals are very well adapted for swimming in the water to hunt. They can dive very deep (up to 700 meters) and hold their breath for over an hour (up to 80 minutes!). Myoglobin in the seal's blood stream helps store oxygen for longer periods of time, allowing them to dive so deep and long. They are also able to collapse their lungs and lower their breathing rates.

Weddell Seals also mate underwater. They give birth to pups in the Antarctic spring, during September to November. Pups reach maturity after 3 years.

However, the water is not always safe for seals. Their main predator in this area are orcas (killer whales), which love to eat seals! When they're not hunting, seals stay on the sea ice, where it's much safer. However, they still have to be careful, because an orca will come by and jump onto the end of a loose piece of sea ice to knock a seal into the water!
Seals aren't as social as penguins. While you'll find penguins in large groups, seals tend to spread out. They scatter across the ice as individuals, rather than hanging out in large groups.

Weddell Seals can live for up to 20 years, which is actually much younger than most other species of seals, which can live for up to 40 years. The reason Weddell seals don't live as long as other seals is that they constantly have to chew away at the ice to give themselves breathing holes, which means their teeth wear out much earlier in life. Without good teeth, they can't eat which means they won't live as long. Sometimes, seals crawl far into the Dry Valleys. Because they are so far from food and the ocean, they die there. Because it's so cold, the bodies don't decay very quickly, and we occasionally find centuries-old mummified seal carcasses while we're doing our field work! I'll spare you the photographs...

Weddell Seals are not the only seals living in Antarctica. There are also leopard seals and elephant seals, but they do not live in this particular area of Antarctica where we work. Elephant seals are much bigger and hunt larger animals, and have even been known to attack humans! The skulls below show you the difference in how the animals are built. The elephant seal on the far right has a bigger hard with much sharper teeth (and a stuffed animal in its mouth) than the Weddell seal skulls on the left. I'm glad I haven't met an elephant seal!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Well, Elizabeth and I have had a very exciting past few days! A lot has been going on, both with field work and around McMurdo.

We've taken several trips to new places in the field!

Earlier in the week, we traveled to Lake Hoare. This lake is also in the Taylor Valley, between Lake Fryxell and Lake Bonney, where we've been spending most of our time. We wanted to see if any cool moss forests were growing around Lake Hoare. Elizabeth was very happy, because she found some! We also measured soil respiration for the full 24 hours that we were there. This way, we know exactly how active the critters living in the soil are at different periods of the day. Staying at Lake Hoare also means that we get to hang out out with the camp manager, Rae. She lives at Lake Hoare all season to make sure that everything runs smoothly in the Valley for the scientists. She also is a great cook and very good at Boggle!

I also traveled around to upgrade all of our "met" stations. These are electronic equipment that live in certain locations all year to measure soil properties at regular time intervals. The little boxes have probes that go into the soil to measure moisture and temperature, which are useful pieces of information when we interpret the data we collect each field season. This type of information is called "metadata" (hence the name "met" stations). Once a year, we go around to these stations to download the data they've recorded all year, and replace the batteries. This is what I like to call the "Metstravaganza!" I serviced these stations with my friend Hassan at many places I've already been, but also at one new location: Beacon Valley. Beacon Valley is farther inland than Taylor Valley, and looks quite different. The soils are very red and volcanic, and there are no streams or lakes running through it. It felt like I was landing on Mars! Since it's farther inland, it's also colder. It was very sunny, but still -10 degrees Celsius.

Today, we went to Marshall Valley, which is farther southwest of where we usually work. We were looking for mosses, since we didn't know if any grew there. We walked for hours without finding any, but we found a small patch just before the helo came to pick us up and take us home! But, it was a beautiful walk, even if we didn't find many mosses. It had just snowed there, so the valley was covered with a beautiful dusting of snow.
We've been flying a lot this week for our various day trips. We've flown a lot with a great pilot named Dustin, who has been explaining to us everything we want to know about the physics of flying a helicopter and how to navigate. We were given this website to help practice our flight skills. You can practice, too!

In town, there's also a lot of excitement. The various big ships are starting to arrive to bring supplies and fuel to McMurdo. The coolest ship is the Gianella, which is the supply ship that brings all of the fuel McMurdo will need for the next year. The Gianella has the coolest two Captains, Bob and Rob, who took us on a tour of their boat. We got to see the 5-story engine room that gives the Gianella her 15,000 horse power. We also walked the 608-foot deck. Here's a picture of Elizabeth and I at the stern, looking out over the Ross Sea (taken by Capt. Rob himself!):
There was also a research vessel in town: the Nathaniel B. Palmer (nicknamed Natty P). This is a boat that travels to Antarctica each year, so that marine biologists aboard can conduct scientific studies along the way. The boat has a lot of equipment that monitors all sorts of water properties, which the scientists can read from the TV's in their bedrooms. Here's a picture of Elizabeth sitting proudly in the captain's chair on the bridge of the Palmer:
We also toured the Waste Water Treatment Plant at McMurdo (because we were curious!). We got to see how all of the water produced by people living at McMurdo is treated. All sewage comes into this building, where microbes consume the waste material to eliminate the carbon and nitrogen. They purify the water as much as possible. The purified water is then separated from any remaining "sludge". The clean water is pumped back into the Ross Sea, while the sludge is collected, compressed, boxed up and shipped back to the US for disposal. I don't have any pictures of the waste water plant, but it was certainly interesting!

Elizabeth and I are coming to the end of our stay in Antarctica. Today's trip to Marshall was our last flight out to the Dry Valleys. The next several days will be spent cleaning up the lab, packing up our samples to send back to Dartmouth, returning our gear (and probably playing a little bit with the helicopter simulator...).