Thursday, December 31, 2009

Back at the Lab

Jen and I finally made it back to McMurdo Station! We got stuck at Fryxell camp for a couple of days. The weather over McMurdo was bad, so the helicopters couldn't leave to pick us up. But, the weather in the dry valleys was very nice, so it was a nice place to be stuck. It's good to be back in town, though, because we have to process all of those samples we took to start getting some data! Since we were a day and a half behind, it's been a very busy couple of days (but at least we had a chance to shower and put on clean clothes for the first time in 8 days).

There are a lot of chemical and physical properties we measure on our soil samples. Some of them get done here at McMurdo, and some wait until we get home. One of the basic things we measure here on our soil samples is soil moisture. We want to know how much water is in the soil. Knowing how much water is in the soil tells us how much might be available for organisms living in the soil that need water. (It also helps us standardize all of the other measurements we make. If we express the amount of nutrients per gram of dry soil, it's standardized among all of the different soils we measure, rather than changing based on the amount of water in each sample if we expressed it per gram "fresh" soil.) We measure soil moisture by simply weighing a subsample of the soil, placing it in an oven at 105°C, then weighing it again after 24 hours. The weight lost was water that evaporated from the soil. Jenn and I both have weighed a lot of samples to measure moisture over the past two days.
I also started working on the moss samples I took. To measure the nutrients in the moss, I first have to rinse away all of the soil that's mixed up with the moss. I have to do that using a microscope so that I can see that all of the little pebbles have been rinsed away.

Yesterday, our colleagues from Colorado State arrived from the U.S. So, the lab has become very busy! Tomorrow, the other two group members from Dartmouth are scheduled to arrive, and then our group will be complete! So will 2009!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Getting Our Feet Wet to Sample Moss

Most people think of Antarctica as being a big, barren land with no animals or plants living on it. That is not true! In fact, there are plants growing in Antarctica, even here in the dry valleys. You just have to look very closely to be able to see them, because they are small! The only plants we have in the dry valleys are several species of moss. They grow very slowly and are generally found only in small patches.

Moss has a lot of challenges to face to grow in the dry valleys. It's very dry here, so they cannot get much water to grow. The only time water is plentiful is during the 14 weeks of the year when the meltwater streams are flowing, and that water is only available if you're right next to the stream. Sunlight is also a problem. During the winter there's no sunlight for photosynthesis, but during the summer the sun can be so intense that it can actually damage plants. So, it takes a very hardy plant to be able to grow here! Most of the time you do not find moss that is lush and green, because it's usually too cold, too dry, or there's too much sun damage. Sometimes, though, you find moss that was recently uncovered by the water or a rock, and it is green and happy.

But, moss is the only above-ground life in the dry valleys. All of the other organisms live in the soil, not on it. So, moss are in a way like the redwood forests of the Antarctic Dry Valleys! They are one of the few sources of food for soil organisms. When mosses die, they decompose in the soil, just like plants in warmer climates. The carbon and nutrients released from mosses when they decompose are probably a very important part of the soil food web.

We want to learn more about moss's role in the carbon and nutrient cycles in the dry valleys, so one of our projects is to find out where they are getting their nutrients. Mosses grow in the soil like other plants, but are always very close to water. Are their nutrients coming from the soil or the water? Do mosses take up all of the available nutrients, or just some? We're trying to find out by taking from each location a moss sample, soil sample, stream water sample, and groundwater sample. (Groundwater on the edge of a stream can be very different from the stream water, and is more likely the water being used by moss when stream flow is low, which is most of the time!) We will measure the ratio of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in the moss tissue and see if it reflects the ratio in the soil or the water. If the ratio (called "stoichiometry") of the moss is more like that of the water than the soil, that would suggest that the nutrient source is the water. We've visited many of the streams and wet areas around Lake Fryxell and taken moss, soil, and water samples. You can see the patch of moss at the base of the rock that my backpack is on. Jenn is in Lost Seal Stream taking a sample of stream water. She pulls the water up into a giant syringe, then snaps a filter onto the end of the syringe and sloooooowly squirts the water through the filter to remove all of the sediment. If you click on the photo to make it bigger, you can see that between my backpack and Jenn is my setup for collecting groundwater. We use a miniature well system called a piezometer. I insert a long tube into the ground using stiff wire, then attach a hand-powered vacuum pump onto the end of it to suck water out from below the stream bed into a flask. The water comes out very, very silty so I will have to filter it using a more powerful setup back at the lab. You can see a groundwater sample on the rock next to my backpack (it's the bottle with the orange label).

We've visited several streams to do sampling like this so far. Each stream that flows into Lake Fryxell has a different ratio of nutrients. If the nutrient content of moss changes the same way that the streams change, this would be a clue that nutrients are coming from the stream and that mosses use all the nutrients that are available. If the nutrient content of the moss doesn't change with the stream and soil, this would be a clue that the mosses only take up a certain amount of nutrients no matter what is available. That would suggest that their role in nutrient cycling is more stable and less likely to change if nutrient availability changes.

This is one of the projects that Jenn and I have been working on this field this past week. We are trying to return to McMurdo Station tonight to process our samples and get ready for the next field project, but the weather is bad and the helicopters can't come get us! Hopefully we will get home tonight or tomorrow morning.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from Lake Hoare, Taylor Valley, Antarctica!

Before we left F6 to come to Lake Hoare, Santa and his elves came to visit us by helicopter. They brought us a giant box of "freshies": fresh vegetables, fruit, and homemade cookies and bread! We aren't normally able to get a lot of freshies down here, especially in the field, so it was a very wonderful treat!
We arrived at Lake Hoare and were set to work decorating. We decorated Christmas cookies, put up the Christmas tree, and made a gingerbread house.
Then, we had a big family dinner! There are scientists from many different projects gathered here, so there were 15 people for dinner. After dinner, we played the "gift game" by the Christmas tree. I got a cool, new water bottle! Now, in Antarctica, it is the day after Christmas, and it is time to get back to work! We'll be hiking over the glacier to Lake Fryxell camp to sample mosses along some of the streams.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Changes Brought by Permafrost Melt

We've been in the field for a couple days now taking soil samples. One of the projects we've been working on is to study the effects of permafrost melt water seeps on soil chemistry.

Beneath the soil in the dry valleys there is permafrost. Permafrost is permanently-frozen ground. Beneath the surface, the temperatures are so cold that the water associated with the soil is always frozen, making the soil in the permafrost a frozen block. In the Lake Fryxell basin, where we are, the permafrost starts about 30 cm (about 1 foot) beneath the soil. When the ground gets warm enough, the permafrost can start to melt, and that water moves up through the soil and appears on the surface as a wet patch like this:
As that water moves up through the soil, there are a lot of ions, including nutrients, that get dissolved and move up through the soil with the water. We want to know how much nutrients are moving in the soil profile with that water and how much that changes soil nutrient cycling overall. To study that, we have to dig a lot of soil pits. That's what Jenn is doing in this photo. We dig pits both inside and outside the seep patches to see how their soil nutrients differ.In the pits, we take soil samples from the wall of the pit along the depth of the soil profile. That way we can measure the ion concentrations in each layer.
Last season was a particularly warm year, so there were a LOT o f permafrost seep patches all over the Fryxell basin. We dug many pits and found that nutrients were much more abundant in the seep patches than dry soil, especially at the top near the surface. With more ions and nutrients in them, the seep patches are a very different habitat for soil organisms than what would normally exist in dry soil. That is why we're interested in studying the seep patches. Nutrient cycles could change a lot when permafrost melts, because more nutrients become available and there's more water for organisms to use while they process the nutrients.

This year we're digging more pits and taking similar samples, but we're specifically interested in the sulfur cycle this time. We found that the ion sulfate (SO4) is very abundant in seep patches, but not at the very bottom of the soil pit near the melting permafrost. Other scientists have found that there are a lot of bacteria at the bottom of soil pits near the permafrost that use sulfate instead of oxygen to breathe. These are called "sulfate-reducing bacteria" and they live all over the world. We think that maybe permafrost melting releases a lot of sulfate, but near the bottom layer the sulfate is used up by the sulfate-reducing bacteria. Other scientists have also found that some of the bacteria in the dry valleys use a very old metabolic pathway for sulfate reduction, and we are looking to see if this metabolic pathway is being used by sulfate-reducing bacteria near the permafrost, and how much their activity can change the soil sulfur cycle when permafrost melts. It requires a lot of digging! So far we have sampled 7 soil pits.

Now we have moved camps, and we're now sitting on Lake Hoare. We will be doing some field work here, as well as enjoying the Christmas holiday with our friends from other science groups. It should be a good two days here on Lake Hoare!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Finally in the Field

We finally made it out to our first field site in the Dry Valleys. We were supposed to have left yesterday, but the weather was too bad for the helicopters to fly. Today, though, the weather was decent enough to get us out in the morning, and here we are in Taylor Valley!

We do our field work in the dry valleys. These are the valleys in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains that dissect the continent. The presence of the mountains prevent the ice sheet from moving into the valleys, so they are de-glaciated. It is a desert, so there is not enough snow to maintain ice cover on the ground. There is only about 2% of the continent that is not covered in ice, and the dry valleys are a large part of that 2%. Here is a map of the main area of the McMurdo Dry Valleys:
We do most of our work in Taylor Valley. There are three lakes in Taylor Valley, and right now we are on the eastern-most lake, Lake Fryxell, at F-6 Camp. The lakes are covered in an ice cap, but there is liquid water beneath it. That thin strip of white coming in from the left side of the photo is part of Lake Fryxell. These lakes are fed by glacial meltwater streams. That's Commonwealth Glacier in the background, and there are several streams from it that flow into Fryxell. So, there is liquid water in the dry valleys, but only in certain places. If you're not near a lake, stream, or glacier, there's not a lot of water for you to use.

The soil in the dry valleys is very rocky and sandy. Most of the soil comes from rocks that were left by the glaciers that once covered the area a long time ago. So, not all of the soil originates from inside Taylor Valley. Some of it comes from the volcano across McMurdo Sound. Some of it comes from further inland on the continent.

Since we're a day behind, we immediately started doing field work when we were dropped off by the helicopter. So, I'm pretty worn out and it's late at night. I'll blog more about what we're working on tomorrow, after I've had some rest!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow School

Hello everyone! I'm Jenn, one of the new grad students on the team. On Friday, I headed off to snow school for some overnight training in the field. After a brief introduction at McMurdo, we took the bus to a hut on the sea ice and learned how to use some of the gear in our survival kits. Then we walked over to our campsite on the snow and practiced setting up two large Scott tents and six smaller tents. We even built an open kitchen out of ice blocks, complete with countertops and benches! While some people started boiling water on the stoves for dinner and hot drinks, others started digging trenches in the snow to sleep in overnight. While my trench was pretty much a rectangular hole in the ground, some really enthusiastic campers built a snow palace with staircases and underground tunnels leading to multiple rooms. However, my little trench kept out the wind and snow, and I managed to sleep comfortably bundled up in my sleeping bag.

Dinner in the kitchen:

Home away from home:

The next morning, we took down the tents and headed back over to the hut to simulate some emergency conditions we might encounter in the field. For example, we pretended that one of our friends was lost in a blizzard on the way to the outhouse, and we had to find a way to locate him. We put buckets over our heads to imitate a white out situation, and about eight or nine of us grabbed part of a rope attached to the hut and began walking in the direction of the outhouse. Little did we know that we began to double back, and we ended up heading straight into the wall of the hut! Our friend over by the outhouse must have thought it was funny to see a bunch of people with buckets on their heads holding a rope and stumbling in circles. Afterwards, we talked about our mistakes and how we could learn from them. Then, the bus took us back to McMurdo, and we were home in time for dinner.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Getting Set Up

I've been spending the past couple of days getting our laboratory set up and our field gear put together and running. Today I've been assembling the gas analyzers that we use in the field to measure CO2 flux (to measure processes like photosynthesis and respiration). I have to make sure I write down every piece we need to run the analyzers, because if I forget to take something to the field, we can't come back for it very easily! It's not a very exciting job to do, but it's very important to be as organized as possible before we leave for the field on Monday. (Luckily I have some fabulous Florida State gear sent by my cousin Simone to use while I do it!)
The green notebook I'm writing in (with a FSU pen) is lovingly called a "green brain" here. People always have their green brain in their pocket and use it to remember, organize, and plan EVERYTHING. I'd be in trouble if I ever lost my brain! It's how I remember what gear I need to pack for each field experiment, how much each piece of equipment weighs for transport in the helicopter, important phone numbers, GPS coordinates for our research plots, permit numbers for shipping samples... EVERYTHING!

Tomorrow is our last day in town before we head out to Lake Fryxell for our first day of field work. We have more organizing and setting up to do, and a lot of packing!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Arrival in Antarctica

Jenn and I have arrived at McMurdo Station, Antarctica! On Wednesday, we woke up early in Christchurch, packed our bags and were driven to the airport. There, we boarded a U.S. Air Force C-17 and flew from New Zealand to Antarctica. The crew flying the plane were from McChord Air Force Base in Washington, and they were very nice to us, their "cargo". There were about 40 passengers on the plane- mostly scientists. We also flew with a bunch of cargo destined for the South Pole. The weather was great, so our flight was easy and on time. The view from the window was great once we got over the continent. This is a picture from the porthole above my head on the plane. It's part of the continent that is covered by an ice sheet (which is about 98% of the continent). Off on the horizon you can see the ocean with icebergs floating in it.

The mountain range that crosses Antarctica is (cleverly) called the Trans-Antarctic Mountain Range. Later in the flight, we were even allowed to go up into the cockpit for an even better view!
Then, after a 5-hour flight, we landed at Pegasus Airfield in Antarctica. This is an "ice runway". That means it's built on a sheet of very thick, permanent ice that covers the Ross Sea. So there's not even any solid ground under that ice holding the airplane up!
Here's Jenn in front of the C-17, right after we landed:We've been in McMurdo for one whole day now. We've spent a lot of time in various training sessions. There's a lot we have to learn about how to live in Antarctica, because it's so environmentally protected and the climate can be so dangerous. We've learned about everything from lab safety to light vehicle driving to how to throw out our garbage!

Over the next couple of days, we'll continue setting up the lab and preparing our supplies for the field. There are a few more trainings we have to do, too. Tomorrow morning Jenn leaves for "snow school", which is where she learns outdoor survival skills. Let's hope for good weather for her. Snow school is much more fun when it's sunny!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Time in New Zealand

Today we were outfitted with all of the gear we need to wear while in 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. We have to try on all of the clothes we're issues to make sure everything fits. I practiced my "ninja look" with the polypropylene base layer we're given. We also have to make sure that all of the layers fit overtop one another comfortably. 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!

Our flight to McMurdo will be tomorrow at 9 AM (New Zealand time). That means we have some extra time to spend around Christchurch. My favorite place to go in is the Botanical Garden. It's summer here, so all of the flowers are in bloom. It smells wonderful, and it's so nice to enjoy the sunshine and greenery before heading to Antarctica.
Jenn and I also went to the Canterbury Museum, where we learned a lot about the history of New Zealand and its people. New Zealand was originally colonized about 800-900 years ago by Polynesians. So, the ancestors of native New Zealanders are related to the people of Hawaii and other Polynesian islands in the South Pacific. These early people lived in New Zealand (or Aotearoa, as they called it) by hunting a bird called a moa. These are large, flightless birds that only ever lived in New Zealand, but are now extinct because they were overhunted by the early people! These early moa-hunting people of New Zealand are called the Maori. They have a very unique culture with their own language, art, and traditions. They hunted the moa until they were driven to extinction, at which point they relied more on farming and fishing. They were great craftsman that made beautiful wood carvings and ornaments made from jade and Paua shells. Their lives of course changed a great deal when New Zealand was colonized by Europeans, mainly the British, about 250 years ago. This is very similar to the U.S., where the Native Americans practiced their own culture until it was interrupted by European colonists. But, many aspects of Maori culture still remain in New Zealand. Maori is still one of the official languages of New Zealand, and even New Zealanders of European descent know many phrases in Maori, and you find Maori translations of most information given on signs and notices. Some of their cultural legacies in New Zealand include the haka dance (a war dance with a lot of shouting), and their art is still very much a part of New Zealand culture.

Well, if all goes according to plan, we will leave for McMurdo tomorrow morning and my next blog post will be from Antarctica! All but one piece of our luggage has arrived. Hopefully the final piece will come today so that we land in McMurdo fully-prepared for the next two months!

[Photo credit: Maori wood-carving from Wikimedia]

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Arrival in New Zealand

Well, Jenn and I have made it safely to Christchurch, New Zealand. It has been a long two days and every leg of the trip ran a little bit late. Our bus was a little bit late getting to the Boston airport. We left Boston a little late, so arrived in Los Angeles a little bit late. Luckily there was still enough time to meet our connection to Sydney without any trouble (but no time to stop and eat dinner). Our flight left Los Angeles only about 20 minutes late, but landed in Sydney about 40 minutes late. That caused us to miss our connecting flight to Christchurch, NZ. They arranged for us to get a new flight to Christchurch, NZ on a different airline, but it was still a close connection due to our late arrival. When we arrived in Sydney, we had to be rushed off the plane and driven on one of those big golfcarts by airline employees to our gate. Luckily, we made the new flight on time! Unfortunately, our luggage didn't. So, when we arrived in Christchurch a couple hours later than planned, our luggage wasn't there! And to make it worse, the U.S. Antarctic Program's headquarters were closed by the time we got in! So, all we could do was head empty-handed to our hotel and wait until tomorrow morning.

Now, I am sitting in the lounge of our favorite B&B in Christchurch with a cup of tea and biscuits. Luckily I put a lot of necessities in my carry-on bags, so I have showered and changed my clothes after 48 hours of travel and I feel much better! Hopefully our luggage will arrive on the next flight from Sydney and we'll be able to pick it up tomorrow. Then, we can start enjoying our two days in New Zealand!

Now, it is time for dinner. Keep your fingers crossed that our luggage finds us before we leave for Antarctica on Wednesday!

Friday, December 11, 2009

And We're Off!

We've begun our journey south! Jenn and I are on the bus to Boston now. The first leg of the trip has begun.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Almost Time to Leave

We're all packed up to go! Tomorrow morning Jennifer and I start our 5-day journey to Antarctica. First, we fly commercially to Christchurch, New Zealand. We're getting routed from Boston, through Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia to get to New Zealand. It'll take a total of 33 hours from the time we leave Dartmouth until we arrive in Christchurch, but because of the International Date Line, we'll land there 2 days later.

Check out this interactive map if you want to find out more about our travel plans.

We'll be in Christchurch, NZ for 3 days before we finish our trip and fly to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. While in Christchurch, we'll get fitted for all of our Extreme Cold Weather Gear, receive some safety training, and of course enjoy some of that great New Zealand summer weather!

Let's hope the weather is good for our travels and that we don't encounter any major delays! I'll keep you posted.

Friday, December 4, 2009

One More Week!

We are at the one-week mark! We leave for Antarctica on December 11, exactly one week from today. I'm finishing all of the labwork that needs to be done before I leave and getting the last of our gear packed up. It is a busy time for our group here at Dartmouth!

I'll keep you posted on our travels as we make our way across the globe.