Monday, January 21, 2013

Research at WAIS Divide

Here are some great videos that explain some research being done in Antarctica at WAIS Divide, one of the remote field camps at the point where the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) divides from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Ancient Ice: Studying ice in Antarctica tells us about the planet's climate history. Understanding what our climate has done in the past will help us predict what will happen in the future. This video tells you how scientists study the Earth's climate history from the ice at WAIS Divide.

Life on the Ice: Learn about the experience lived by the scientists at WAIS Divide and the reason they're living on the edge to do this research.

Modeling Our Future Climate: What happens with all of that data they collect at WAIS Divide? It gets used in making climate models to predict our planet's future. This video tells you what happens to the ice cores once they get back to the scientists' labs in the U.S.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Back in New Zealand

I spent the past two days in McMurdo waiting to fly home. Luckily I didn't have to spend those days in Mactown alone! Brendan and Lily came back into Mactown, as well. Brendan was fixing his infrared camera. This camera is different from a regular camera because it takes pictures of heat, in the form of infrared energy. Surfaces that are warmer emit more infrared energy and show up white. Cooler areas emitting less infrared energy are dark. We took a picture of my face with the camera. You can see that my nose and cheeks are colder than the rest of my face. That makes sense, since I'm in Antarctica! 
Don't I look creepy in infrared?!
Brendan of course won't be using his infrared camera on faces. He will be using this on the the terrain in the dry valleys to help find water tracks. The infrared camera will show where the ground is warmer than the surrounding areas. That will help us visualize where there is likely to be liquid water in a water track without being able to see the water itself from the surface.

Then, today, I finally made it back to New Zealand! After being delayed by two days, we were finally able to take off. The runway that we normally use for the Airbus and C-17's has been closed until February, because it was melting. (A storm had blown a lot of black soil onto the runway, which caused it to melt faster in the unseasonably warm temperatures.) Instead, we had to fly in a different type of airplane that has skis: a LC-130. However, the skiway for these planes was not designed for planes so heavy as a LC-130 carrying passengers and enough fuel to get all the way to Christchurch. They're normally used for travel within the continent of Antarctica, not for going to New Zealand. So, we had to wait a few days while they did work on the runway to make it ready. They finally did it! Here's our group of passengers loading onto the plane. Most of us had been trying for several days to leave, so we were nervous the entire time that they would cancel us. Once we finally were in the air, everyone on the plane applauded! Now we're in New Zealand, but our journey has come to another halt. There are no seats available on the airline to get us home to the U.S.! So now we are once again sitting and waiting. At least we're one big step closer to home!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

End of the season close-out

I'm back at McMurdo Station (which we refer to as being back in "Mactown"). I'm preparing myself to head back to the U.S. after a very short field season!

One thing I have to do is prepare all of my soil samples for transport back to Arizona State University. All of the samples that were scooped in the field were sent back to McMurdo Station where they were kept in a freezer. Yesterday, I carefully packaged all of those samples for shipment. They were double-bagged for extra protection and packaged into Thermosafe boxes. The Thermosafes are essentially big, sturdy cardboard boxes lined with styrofoam. Every sample I took is in the two boxes shown on the left. They're sitting in the -10 Celcius walk-in freezer in the lab, ready for their trip home! At temperatures that cold, we are able to prevent the soils from changing, so when I work with them from home, they will be as similar to field conditions as possible.

I've also packed up some of my sampling gear to be shipped home, as well. The samples and gear won't be flying home with me. They'll be taking the slow route on the vessel. At the end of every season, there are a few boats that come to McMurdo Station to deliver or carry away supplies. An ice breaker has to come in to clear a path through the ice. Then, the fuel tanker, research vessels full of marine scientists, and supply vessel can dock. The supply vessel brings down food and other supplies for the following year, and leaves with all of our samples and shipments. It will deliver the samples to Port Hueneme, California, which will take a while! I won't see my samples until March or April.

I was supposed to fly back to New Zealand today, but the ice runway is melting again! My flight today was canceled, but hopefully I'll be able to begin the journey home tomorrow. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Other fancy equipment

Aside from our measurements and samples that we take in the field, we have a few other pieces of equipment we use in the field to learn about the water tracks.

Soil temperature is being measured continuously in the water tracks. Soil temperature, of course, influences the melting of the water that creates the water tracks. To measure soil temperature, sensors are buried in the soil. They are attached to a data logger above ground, which records the temperature on a regular basis all year. A solar panel provides enough power to keep it running most of the year. Each year, we have to stop by and download the data. Here is Joe downloading the data from one of those loggers and replacing it with a fresh logger.

We've also been mapping the topography of the water tracks. The shape of the land surface influences how the water flows, so it's important to record each bump and turn in the land. To map the topography, we use a process called LIDAR. There is a special laser that shoots out an infrared beam. That infrared beam bounces off the land surface back to the source, and the speed at which the beam is returned will be influenced by the shape of the land surface. (Just think: The beam hitting a hill will come back sooner than the beam hitting the land farther away below it.) This way you can create a model of the surface in a computer using millions and millions of data points! Using this modern technology, we can determine the shape of the surface down to the scale of centimeters, and we can see how water is flowing through the soil in Antarctica and providing nutrients to the delicate ecosystems that exist here.

One new piece of equipment that we're using this year is an induction sounder. It measures how salty the soil is as you walk along! It does this by using a metal coil (inside the orange thing Joe is carrying), which creates a magnetic field. (That's called "inducing" a magnetic field, which is why it's called an induction sounder.) That magnetic field shoots into the soil, which bounces back as an electric field. Saltier soil bounces the electric field back differently than less salty soil, which is why we're able to measure how salty the soil is as we walk. The reason for measuring soil salinity is because water tracks tend to be very salty. Even if we can't see the water track on the surface, we can find them based on how salty the soil is.

Today was my last official day of field work. Tomorrow, I head back to McMurdo Station to finish up my work, pack my gear, and get ready to head back to the U.S. A short, but productive, field season!