Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! It's already 2013 here in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Our entire crew is finally all together at Lake Bonney camp. We had a very overcast and snowy New Year's Eve, as you can see from this photo, but we woke up to a warm and sunny 2013!
Chris, Brendan, Joe, Kelly, Becky, Brendan, Alex
Lily & Jay

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Wormherder Creek

Yesterday we moved to a different field camp further inland at Lake Bonney. Here, we will be sampling another water track. So, today, we traveled around the lake to a water track called Wormherder Creek, which I've worked on quite a bit before. To get there, we took the only wheeled vehicles allowed in the dry valleys: ATVs.
ATVs are only allowed to drive on the lake ice, because their wheels would damage the soil ecosystem. We rode the ATVs around to the west side of the lake where Wormherder Creek flows.

At Wormherder Creek, I helped locate the flow of water in the water track so that we could sample the water belowground. How do you find a water track, you might wonder? Well, Joe demonstrates int his photo. You poke around in the ground with a steel rod until it comes out wet. (Just like finding out if a cake is done baking!)

Once we found the flow of groundwater in the water track, Kelly and I set up piezometers. Piezometers are like miniature wells. They are pipes we pound into the ground that we use to pull up the groundwater. I had to carry a bunch of stuff up to the very top of the water track, where the glacier melts to release the water that feeds the water track. I didn't have my backpack with me, so I put everything into my pockets. I felt like Where's Waldo!

In this picture, I have the following items on me:
- a trowel to take soil samples from the piezometer location
- a metal mallet to pound in the piezometer
- plastic bags for soil and water samples
- two field notebooks
- Joe's fancy camera to document the water track
- a GPS to document the location
- two piezometer tubes
- the steel rod for finding the groundwater flow
- a probe that measures soil moisture, temperature, and conductivity
- a pencil, a pen, and two sharpies

I don't have any pictures that show how far up we walked up a steep incline. This picture is from almost the top, once it flattened out a bit. It was quite a hike carrying all of that in my pockets!

Tomorrow we go back to Wormherder Creek so that I can measure CO2 flux. That will be my last scientific activity of 2012, because that will be New Year's Eve for us!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sampling water tracks

We are now at Lake Hoare camp sampling water tracks.

My role is to measure soil respiration on the water tracks. That means I'm measuring how much carbon dioxide (CO2) is coming from the soil. That CO2 comes from the respiration of all the microorganisms living in the soil: the bacteria, fungi, nematodes, rotifers, and other tiny creatures that breath in oxygen and breath out CO2 (just like we do!). By measuring how much CO2 they're producing, I am estimating how much biological activity there is in the soil. We want to know if there's more or less activity in the water track than there is outside the water track.

To measure respiration, I use an "infrared gas analyzer". It's a fancy machine that measures the concentration of CO2 in the air above the soil. Here it is:
The white chamber (that looks kind of like a lantern) nests over the soil. It carefully sucks up the air coming from the soil and pumps it to the yellow box, which contains the analyzer. The analyzer shoots an infrared beam through the gas sample. CO2 absorbs infrared energy (which is why it's a greenhouse gas), so the amount of infrared energy that makes it all the way through the gas sample tells us how much CO2 is in the gas. The computer in the analyzer takes that information and calculates a respiration rate using a lot of math equations that describe the physics of CO2 and gas. All of the data gets stored by the analyzer, which I later download to my computer.

While I was measuring CO2, Lily was running ahead of me measuring soil moisture at each site. She used a probe to do that, which is what you see in the picture above. The probe shoots out a gentle electrical pulse, and measures how long it takes to get the pulse back. Water conducts electricity, so the higher the voltage that returns, the wetter the soil is.

After taking respiration and moisture measurements along the water track, I take a soil sample from the each location. We use a trowel to scoop the soil into a plastic bag. That bag will get packaged, frozen, and shipped back to Arizona State University for more measurements.

I will measure the biomass of critters in the soil that are doing the respiring. That will tell me how many organisms are producing the measured amount of CO2. I'll also measure other properties of the soil that influence the movement of CO2, such as soil texture and water content.

Yesterday, Lily and I sampled one water track on the north shore of Lake Hoare. Today, Joe and I will fly across to the south shore to sample another. It's great being able to finally get our work done!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

First day in the field

We finally made it to the field! The weather yesterday was very nice, so we were able to fly across McMurdo sound to the Dry Valleys! First, the helicopter dropped Chris, Brendan, and I off at New Harbor camp at the mouth of the valley. There, we were reunited with the rest of our team members.

Chris and Brendan stayed at New Harbor, but I had to skip right to the second field site, because I'm behind schedule. Now, I'm at Lake Hoare with some other members of our team that were already in the field: Kelly, Lily, and Joe. Shortly after landing, we got to work on the water tracks!  While we were out in the field, I used my MP3 player and its little speaker, so that's why they're dancing.

We started setting up the field work that I'll be working on today. I'll post more about that later when I have a bit more time.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas from the Ice!

Well, we never made it to the field. The weather didn't clear up enough to be safe for flying until after the holiday break began. That means that the three of us are sitting around McMurdo Station for a couple of extra days. So what did we do? We went back to the helicopter hangar and brought all of our gear back to the lab, so that we could at least spend the time fine-tuning our equipment in the lab, instead of the field.

To move gear between the lab and hangar, I drive the truck. I love driving big trucks, so this part of the job is very fun! All of our gear is in that yellow cart. We put about 500 lbs of it into the bed of the truck and drove it back to the lab.

Because we didn't make it to the field, we're celebrating Christmas from McMurdo Station. It's not quite as special as spending Christmas in the field, but everybody tries to make it a good time! Last night, on Christmas Eve, we had a large feast at the Galley (the common dining hall). There was steak, lobster tail, stuffing, potatoes, salad, and lots of desserts to choose from. It was quite good, considering the difficulties of getting fresh food down to Antarctica! Here's Brendan and I sitting down to our goodies:

 Since we aren't able to do much work from here, we spent some time walking around station to enjoy the outdoors. During the summer, there's 24 hours of daylight in the Antarctic. That means the sun was shining on us on Christmas Eve through the storm clouds. Here's our view looking down on McMurdo Station on Christmas Eve:

We've been rescheduled to fly to the field tomorrow (Wednesday). Let's hope the weather clears up and we can finally make it! We're starting to go stir-crazy!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Weather delay

We were scheduled to fly this morning to New Harbor, but we woke up to falling snow. This is what it looks like at McMurdo Station right now:

Our friend Peggy models in the snow. (Peggy runs the Food Room where we get all of our field rations.)

The bad weather has made visibility very poor. That means we're stuck in McMurdo, because the helicopters can't fly when visibility is poor. If we can't see across the sound to the Dry Valleys on the mainland, we're not able to fly there. This is the view from our lab window right now. Normally you can see straight across McMurdo Sound to view the mountains on the mainland (which is where we're trying to go). You can't even see them today!

We're technically only delayed right now, so there's a chance we'll get out later, but it's not looking good! If we don't get out today, we'll be stuck in McMurdo until Wednesday, because of the Christmas holiday. That would be bad, because we have work to do out in the Dry Valleys!

Getting ready for the field

We've spent the past two days at McMurdo Station getting ready to go to the field. We've had several different training sessions (too many!), and we've unpacked and set up our gear. We then packed it all back up again and dropped it off at the helicopter hangar. We've gathered together all of our camping and survival gear, which is also at the helicopter hangar. Currently, we have a total of 1,149 pounds of gear at the hangar to fly into the field tomorrow. And that doesn't even count the weight for the three of us and our bags of clothing and other personal gear! We're scheduled to fly by helicopter tomorrow morning to New Harbor, our first field site.

At New Harbor, we won't have internet connection, so it will be a few days before I'm able to post. But after Christmas, we will fly to our next field site at Lake Hoare, where I will be able to get online.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Arrival in McMurdo

We finally made it to McMurdo! Last night, we packed all of our gear, donned our ECW, and boarded the plane to fly to McMurdo. Here's a photo of Brendan, Chris, and I all packed and ready to go. (Notice the NASA scientist on the left is the one least capable of packing light.)
We're packed and ready to go!
Once we're dressed and packed, we wheel our carts over to the "pax terminal". ("Pax" is short for "passenger".) We hand over all of our checked luggage, which gets weighed. We can check as many bags as we want, but we have to stay under 150 lbs. We then have to step on the scale ourselves, along with all of our carry-on and ECW, so that the pilots know how much weight they're carrying. We watch a couple more training videos, and then we're off!

Normally, we fly on U.S. Air Force cargo planes. It's pretty fun, but not very luxurious. This year, however, we traveled to Antarctica in style! We flew on an Airbus 319, just like a commercial flight! Instead of flying in a cold, loud cargo plane on a jump seat made out of webbing, we sat in plush leather seats like first class, and we each got our own row! Instead of all scrambling to look out of one tiny porthole to see the view, we each had our own window! There were even flight attendants serving hot beverages!
Chris shows us how excited he is to be served hot tea by flight attendants on his way to Antarctica.

Because we each had our own window, we got a great view of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains  as we flew over the continent. I think this photo is pretty neat, because of the great cloud formations in the valley over the glacier. Above those clouds, the sky is beautiful and blue! Below those clouds, you feel the reason we weren't able to fly!

View from the Airbus window. I love having my own window!
After a four and a half hour flight, we landed on Pegasus Runway

Me in front of the plane at Pegasus Runway
Since our arrival, we have been VERY busy! We're a day and a half behind because of the delay. We've been busy setting up all of our equipment so that it's ready for use in the field. We've been packing up all of our camping gear and moving it to the helicopter hangar so that we can be ready to fly into the field. We also, of course, have more safety trainings to sit through. The current plan is that we'll be heading into the field on Sunday. Let's hope all goes well!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Delayed in New Zealand

Well, our flight never left Christchurch last night. We've been delayed for "at least" 24 hours, which means we get to spend another 24 hours in the beautiful summer weather. That could be fun, except we're anxious to get started on our field work!

What do you do during an unexpected 24-hour delay? Well, mostly we're sitting in our hotel room working from our computers. However, we did venture out for a short drive along the coast. This is a picture of the three of us on Lyttleton Harbor. This is the harbor from which R.F. Scott departed for his Antarctic expeditions (because they had to take ships back then, rather than planes!). We felt it was an appropriate place to visit on our way to the Ice! Featured are: me (on the left), Brendan (Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii) and Chris (Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University). We are the three remaining scientists that will be completing our research group. The others are already waiting for us in the field!
We propped the camera on a rock, but it was a bit slanted. We corrected for the slant. Aren't we clever?!

Preparing for the last leg of the trip

It's almost time to head to the Ice! The last leg of our flight, from Christchurch to McMurdo, is scheduled for later tonight.

During our time in New Zealand, we make some last-minute preparations for Antarctica. We have to watch some training videos and go through some medical and computer screening, but most importantly, we get outfitted with our Extreme Cold Weather gear (lovingly called our ECW).

We do all of this at the U.S. Antarctic Program's headquarters in Christchurch, which is on the Christchurch airport's property. This is a board at the headquarters displaying all of the cold weather gear we get issued.
We have to try all of our gear on to make sure it fits. This is not easy, given that it's summer here! We sweat quite a bit trying all of that gear on! We put on all of those layers of fleece and down to make sure they fit and aren't in need of repair. Then, we pack all of that gear up, along with the science equipment and personal gear we brought with us from the U.S. At this point, our gear is prepared, and we're all packed and ready to head to Antarctica. We're just waiting for our flight!

We're scheduled to fly later tonight. Normally, we leave for Antarctica in the morning, so that the plane can take us to Antarctica and return to New Zealand (with new passengers and cargo) within the same day. However, they've had to switch us over to flying at night, because the weather has become too warm, which causes damage to the airstrips that are built on the ice over the Ross Sea.

In the map below, you can see the three airstrips near McMurdo Station. (They are the yellow lines towards the bottom.) Pegasus Runway is the main airstrip used for flights from Christchurch at this time of year. It is built on the permanent ice shelf (the gray colored ice on the map) that does not melt each year. The "Ice Runway" is built on the annual sea ice that thaws each year (the blue colored ice on the map), so that airstrip is only used during the colder seasons. Normally, the Ice Runway is used during the colder months, because it's closer to McMurdo and more convenient. However, during the mid-summer, like right now, it naturally melts too much and we have to switch to Pegasus, the main airstrip. (Willy field is also on the permanent ice shelf, but it's only for small aircraft that fly within Antarctica, not for the big aircraft that come from Christchurch.)

Normally Pegasus works just fine throughout the entire summer season, because the permanent ice does not melt even during the summer. However, recently summers have been so warm that the ice runway starts melting. If large planes land during the daytime, they can gouge the ice runway. The weight of the plane is too much for the melting ice. Therefore, we have to land the plane at night when the temperatures are coldest. This has been the case for the past few years.

We were scheduled to take off at 9 PM, which would have us land in McMurdo around 2 or 3 AM. At that time it'll be cold enough to prevent damage to the runway. However, we've already been delayed, and our new take-off time is about 1:30 AM. That will have us in McMurdo in time for breakfast tomorrow! Let's hope there are no more delays, because I'll be sad to miss Waffle Wednesday in the Galley.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christchurch, New Zealand

We made it to Christchurch on schedule! For the past 24 hours, we've been enjoying some summer weather in New Zealand.

Almost two years ago, in February 2011, Christchurch was rocked by a pretty major earthquake. They had a pretty big earthquake in mid/late 2010, just before I was traveling through New Zealand on my way to Antarctica. There were some aftershocks while I was here in January 2011, and then in February 2011 there was another large quake that destroyed a lot of the city center. Since I've been here preparing for my trip to the ice tonight, I've walked around a bit to see the destruction.

For those of you that have read my blog in previous years, you might remember me posting a picture of the statue of Robert Falcon Scott. R.F. Scott was an Antarctic explorer who made several expeditions to Antarctica, the last one of which he reached the South Pole. Unfortunately, his entire team died on the return trip. R.F. Scott was English, but his expeditions left from New Zealand, so his memory is honored here. There is a statue of him that was sculpted by Scott's widow that stood in the city center.
This is me, with two of my team members, visiting R.F. Scott's statue in Christchurch 5 years ago.

The earthquake knocked it over and broke it into two pieces.
This is where R.F. Scott's statue now lies, in the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, after being broken into two pieces by the earthquake.
An awful lot of the buildings have also been damaged, particularly the ones in the "downtown" city center area. At the heart of City Center is Cathedral Square, where the Christchurch Cathedral stands.
This is a photo I took of the cathedral five years ago.

It survived the first earthquake, but the second major one in February 2011 did a lot of damage. The front end completely fell off! The entirety of Cathedral Square is fenced off. This is as close as I could get.
This is a photo I took yesterday of what remains of the cathedral. It's taken from a different angle. (Essentially, I was standing on the left side of the cathedral, rather than in front.)

This is what most of the streets look like in the City Center right now:

But, the Botanical Gardens, which is my favorite place in Christchurch, is doing just fine. It's as beautiful as always!

Rose Garden at the Christchurch Botanical Gardens

During our time, we've been getting ourselves outfitted for the field. I'll post more about that later!

Friday, December 14, 2012

And I'm off!

The trip has begun! I'm heading on my way back to Antarctica. The next time you hear from me, I'll be in Christchurch, New Zealand! Keep your fingers crossed that all goes according to plan.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Almost time to go!

I have 4 more days in the U.S. before I leave for Antarctica. On Friday I begin the journey south.

You can check out the link on the right to see the interactive version of this map, showing my travel route.
I'll be in transit for a total of 29 hours, from the time I leave my house until the time my plane lands in Christchurch, NZ. Because of the International Date Line, I'll land almost exactly two days later! I then spend a couple days in Christchurch completing some safety trainings, getting outfitted with my Extreme Cold Weather gear (lovingly called our ECW), and enjoying some sunshine and fresh fruit before I finish the journey and fly to McMurdo Station on Tuesday the 18th. That means a week from tomorrow, my feet are scheduled to be on Antarctic soil! Of course, that's assuming the weather cooperates and we can fly according to schedule. You never know...

In the remaining few days before I leave, I'm busy packing the rest of my gear. I have to pack my snow boots, my favorite pairs of long underwear, gloves, hats, and other warm items to be comfortable in the Antarctic summer, which is usually around 0°C in McMurdo at this time of year (that's 32°F). I also have to pack shorts and t-shirts so that I have something to wear in New Zealand, where it will be in the mid-7 to upper-20's °C (that's the 70's in °F). I'll also be packing some field gear that I need to carry with me, like knee pads for getting down to sample soil, the machine I use to measure carbon dioxide flux, notebooks, and my favorite trowel.

Well, I'd better get busy and finish packing!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Happy Antarctica Day!

This Saturday is Antarctica Day! December 1st is the anniversary of the day the Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959. This is a special date, because the treaty set aside Antarctica as a place “forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes… in the interests of all mankind.”  It preserves an entire continent as a place of scientific discovery and peaceful international cooperation. That feels like a rare thing in this day and age!

This is a video produced by Polar Educators International (PEI) to celebrate Antarctica Day:

You can also click on this image to view a poster to learn more about Antarctica Day.

You might be asking yourself: How can I best celebrate Antarctica Day? There are a lot of activities you could do!

For example, you can make a flag to be displayed in Antarctica! You can send in your own drawing of an Antarctica-inspired flag to be displayed by Antarctic scientists in the month of December. All you have to do is draw a flag, turn it into an electronic file, and send! Click here for more information. (Is English not your best language? Click here for translations of this activity into other languages.)

Another idea is to launch a virtual "Antarctica Day balloon". You can join others around the world in celebrating the peaceful, scientific mission that the Antarctic Treaty secures. This website tells you how!

I hope you do something special to celebrate Antarctica Day. I'll be celebrating by getting myself ready to head to the Ice. I leave two weeks from today. Time to start packing!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Water Track Time-Lapse Videos

As I mentioned in my last post, I'll be studying water tracks this coming field season. Because water tracks are fed by melting ice, they don't always have a lot of water flowing in them (and perhaps none at all at some points in time). That means that one day, we'll be at a site without  any sign of a water track, but then it'll appear later, then disappear again.

In this video, you can see Wormherder Creek appear at the beginning of the summer as melt begins. This is the water track I showed you in my previous post. The video runs from November through December of 2010. The water track is in the bottom third of the picture. You can see that, at the beginning of the video in November, there's only a trace of the water track, but it gets wetter (making the soil become darker) over time.

The time lapse video was put together by one of my collaborators, who positioned a camera and set it to take a photo at regular intervals. When you patch those together in order, you get the time lapse video. So, you also see the movement of the sun, which casts a darker shadow later in the day when the sun is behind the mountains. You can see the change in the weather, with some cloudy days and some sunny days. You can even catch a snow storm towards the end of the video in December!

In the next time lapse video, you can see water tracks appear on the mountain sides above Lake Bonney: They don't show up until later in the video, but they're very noticeable when they do! They'll be on the left side of the screen, and you can watch that downhill movement of water from the melting of ice higher up in the mountain. Remember, the video covers December through January, so it took a while for the water to move that distance. The water moves like an underground stream, but not quite as fast as a surface stream!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Water tracks: the focus for season 5

I am beginning preparations for my fifth season on the ice! This year I will be working with a team of geologists studying features called water tracks.

Water tracks are sort of like underground streams. A water track is a band of shallow groundwater seeping through soils, moving downhill, but without any flow on the surface. Instead of flowing on the surface, the water is flowing through the active layer (which is what we call the top layer of soil above the permafrost where biology and chemistry can be active). That means we don't see flowing water on the surface. We just see wet soil. Here is a photo of a water track from January 2009. See how the wet soil is darker than the surrounding, dry soil?

The water comes from melting ice. Water tracks are fed by melting glaciers, permafrost, and snow. That water percolates through the soil down until it hits the permafrost. It can't go deeper, so it starts moving downhill through the soil. Because ice melt is what feeds water tracks, we see more water tracks appear during extraordinarily warm summers.

One water track that reappears every time we have a warm summer is lovingly called Wormherder Creek. (It's named after the nickname for our research group, the Wormherders.) Here's a panorama I took of Wormherder Creek a couple years ago. You can see that the water track starts uphill and continues all the way down to the lake. With this particular water track, water sometimes also flows above the surface (when the melt water is coming in large volumes), which is why it's called a "creek".

We want to know how the appearance of water tracks changes the soil chemistry and biology, and what that means for the ecosystem as a whole. As you might be able to guess from the video of Wormherder Creek, when water moves through the soil, it makes it wetter, but it also carries along salts and other solutes to new locations. All of the stuff dissolved in the melting water is moving through the soil (to eventually be dumped into Lake Bonney below), and that can influence the behavior of the organisms living in the soil (like bacteria and nematodes).

For the organisms living in the soil, all of that extra water could be very stimulating! Organisms living in the soil are limited by water, because the McMurdo Dry Valleys are a desert. When you add water to desert soil, it could stimulate the microbes and invertebrates to be more active. However, along with the water comes a lot of salt, which could be very harmful to the biology. (Think about what would happen if you dropped a freshwater fish into the salty ocean. It can't survive! The same thing happens to soil organisms when their environment suddenly becomes saltier.) We don't know yet how soil biology, overall, respond to water tracks. Is the need for water in the desert a more powerful influence than the harmful influence of salt? That's exactly what our research this season will tell us!

I will be leaving for the Ice in mid-December to begin measuring the biological response to water tracks. In the meantime, I've been getting my equipment ready and sending it on its way to McMurdo Station. It takes a lot longer for the equipment to get to Antarctica than it will take me, so it has to have a head start.