Friday, June 28, 2013

A Season of Living and Working in Antarctica - Part III

This last winter, AAI Guide Alasdair Turner spent the winter working and living in Antarctica. This week our blog will feature a special three-part series on Alasdair's experiences...

Click on any of the photos to enlarge them.


Emperor Penguins are just one of the many things being researched around McMurdo Station.

There are several reasons for the United States to have permanent stations in Antarctica. The first and most commonly mentioned is that they are a station for science to take place. This is true, and yes lots of science does take place at these stations. There are other reasons for the United States to have such a large presence in Antarctica also. One is that the United States and every other nation who has a presence wants to have a presence. It should be looked at as a bird in the hand scenario. To be building stations in Antarctica is to stake a claim of part of the continent if the Antarctic treaty were to ever collapse. Having the biggest presence on the continent, the United States sees itself as a defacto enforcer of the Antarctic treaty. The Antarctic Treaty says that a countries presence on the continent must have a scientific purpose, so the United States throws a lot of money at science in order to keep its presence in Antarctica, or the United States has a large presence in Antarctica because the believe that scientific research on the southern most continent is very important. As far as I am concerned the reasons don't matter. What matters is the United States and the National Science Foundation is a leading the way in funding some amazing scientific projects and living and working along side the people doing this research is one of the best things about being in McMurdo. I could not possibly do most of these projects justice by trying to describe them on this blog, but what I have done is posted some links to information about some of the groups I know about some of whom I worked with, some whom I talked with and some whom I never met at all. This is a very brief list. There were many more projects last season.

Sampling deep inside a steam cave on Mt. Erebus, Antarctica.

Thermal imaging is used to find the hottest areas of soil.

WISSARD Project:
Wissard is a project that is drilling 800 meters through the Antarctic ice to investigate and sample water and sediments underneath.

Long Duration Balloon:

B-009 - Weddell Seal Science

Exploring the bottom of Antarctica food chain

Penguin Research:

Antarctica is cold, but you probably already knew that. What surprised me was just how cold it can be. After doing seven climbing trips to the Denali area I did not think the cold would be that much of an issue. It is. It can be an issue for everyone and everything we do. It is so much colder than anywhere else I have ever been that I was a little surprised by it. I arrived in McMurdo on October 1st. October is a pretty cold month, but it starts to warm up quite fast as the 24-hour day light gets closer. December can actually be quite warm and I found myself walking around McMurdo in a t-shirt on numerous occasions. Keep in mind by warm I mean close to freezing. Due to the dry air and the solar radiation a temperature close to 0 degrees C can feel quite warm if the wind is not blowing.

There is a daily weather forecast at McMurdo which is about as accurate as one might think(not really).
Unlike the US, Antarctica does not have that many weather monitoring stations so figuring out what is happening with weather a day or two out can be difficult. If stationed at a field camp it is possible to call into McMurdo to get the forecast for your camp but the inevitable answer from the weather folks comes in the form of the question "well, what is it like there now?"
There are three categories of weather in and around McMurdo:

Condition 1Windspeed over 55 knots (60 miles per hour)Visibility less than 100 feet (30 meters)Wind chill below −100 °F (−73 °C)Description: Dangerous conditions; outside travel is not permitted.

Condition 2Windspeed of 48 to 55 knots (55 to 63 miles per hour)Visibility 1/4 of a mile to 100 feet (402 to 30 meters)Wind chill of −75 °F (−60 °C) to −100 °F (−73 °C)Description: Unpleasant conditions; outside travel is permitted but not recommended.

Condition 3Windspeed below 48 knots (55 miles per hour)Visibility greater than 1/4 of a mile (402 meters)Wind chill above −75 °F (−60 °C)Description: Pleasant conditions; all outside travel is permitted.

At no time in my five months on station did I experience a condition 1 at McMurdo. I did experience weather that would fit into that category while on Mt. Erebus however.

Antarctica is dry. Very dry. Most people think because there is a lot of snow and ice that it must snow a lot. It does not. Most of antarctica is considered a desert. Most of the snow McMurdo Station gets is from ocean moisture. The air is very dry and sleeping with a humidifier in dorm rooms is very common.

Antarctica is pretty windy. It is notorious for its winds, however winds in McMurdo are often not too bad. McMurdo does not get the catabatic winds that many other places do. Winds are fairly common out on the ice shelf where we teach our happy camper courses. Wind makes it feel colder, and makes it more likely you will get frostbite.

I was lucky enough to be out at the Scott Base pressure ridges when a storm was rolling in. Major storms usually come from the south.

A storm rolls across the ross sea toward McMurdo Station.

Fata Morgana stretches the base of the Royal Society Mountains.

Ice Cave

The Erebus glacier tongue is the end of the Erebus glacier that comes off Mt. Erebus. The glacier tongue floats on the ocean and extends a couple of kilometers from land. Due to the constant glacial movement of the tongue pushing out to sea, the sea ice around it contains several cracks that are often challenging to deal with. This makes it a perfect place to teach the field sections of sea ice courses. It was during one of these courses that we noticed a small hole in the wall of the glacier. The next day while conducting some sea ice monitoring we dug out the hole to find an incredible cave. This cave and others like it, are formed when crevasses in the glacier become covered by snow bridges. The surface melt water then percolates through the roof creating icicles. These caves are often used as a recreational outing for the people in McMurdo Station, but this year a lack of suitable vehicles to transport people, in addition to other things meant that very few people would be allowed to see this amazing natural wonder.

Entering the ice cave for the first time.

Some features are beyond explanation. I would love to know the dynamics behind the formation of this icicle.

Looking up at the roof.

This photo was featured on National Geographic Travelers Photos 365.

Exiting the cave.

Me enjoying the inside.

Alasdair Turner, AAI Instructor and Guide

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Season of Living and Working in Antarctica - Part II

This last winter, AAI Guide Alasdair Turner spent the winter working and living in Antarctica. This week our blog will feature a special three-part series on Alasdair's experiences...

Click on any of the photos to enlarge them.

Life at McMurdo is much like life on a small college campus, but rather than a whole bunch of kids who just left home for the first time, it is a whole bunch of adults who just left home for the first time since graduating college. Everyone works 9 hour days, 6 days a week. The station operates 24-hours so many people are working night shifts.

 There is a large cafeteria capable of serving over 1200 people food that has been buried in storage containers under the Kiwis rugby field in the MuMurdo Ice Shelf for the past several years. There is a gym, a weight room and a building I never entered that is purported to have treadmills and other exercise equipment that I refuse to use (Observation hill hike is much more mentally stimulating for me). In addition, the roads on the sea ice and ice shelf are continuously groomed so that we can drive wheeled vehicles on them. These make for a very convenient place for people to skate ski, and probably make for the most expensive skate ski trails in the world.

Two bars are conveniently located within 20 or so yards of the exercise building that I never entered. This is another reason I never entered as I am sure any attempt to step on a tread mill would have had me bored within ten minutes and playing foosball at the bar with a beer in my hand soon after. I will stick to quick hikes up the closest hill. A coffee shop is staffed by volunteers and has internet plugins (there is no wireless available for the support staff on station). There is also a church which as far as I can tell is only used for yoga. I stuck my head in once, but much like every other church in my life it was only to see if it was pretty inside(it's not). A library which is staffed by volunteers is open most nights of the week and video rental is available at the store. 

The store contains all manor of poorly designed gifts with either "McMurdo Station" or "Antarctica" printed on them. There is also a hefty amount of penguin gifts of course. Also available are some basic toiletries, but most people only use the store to buy beer or wine. Other entertainment available includes a craft room and a recreational gear checkout. There is a small hiking trail system on station and a slightly larger loop trail of about 8 miles that goes to Castle Rock and then down and across the McMurdo Ice Shelf back to Station. Since this loop trail is located on glaciated terrain it must be periodically checked for crevasses and wandering off trail could and has in the past led to fatal accidents. Checking for crevasses is done with a ground penetrating radar which is another one of the tools FSTP has to use.

Weekends consist of Saturday night and Sunday. Saturday night is a great time to socialize with the other folks on station. Sunday is a time to recover from the week and the things people do to themselves Saturday night. 

 There is an incredible number of talented musicians at McMurdo and luckily for those of us who enjoy music, they often play at one of the bars on Saturday nights. There are several fun events throughout the season. These are mostly music based and usually take place on typical holidays. 

Like most places of employment there is an awkward Christmas party that consists of standing around having forced conversations with people you would not normally feel comfortable drinking around. The party takes place in the heavy machinery repair shop which is cleaned up and decorated with a few random christmas decorations. On Christmas day, MAAG (McMurdo Alternative Art Gallery) consists of art projects and stage performances of all types from the support staff on station. This really was a fun night and I was really amazed by some of the talents of the people around station. Ice Stock is an all day live music festival and chili cook off that is the highlight of the local skua populations year. It is also one of the more fun events that takes place all season. It is held on New year's eve and music continues until sometime after the new year has been brought in. 

 I brought in the new year on my own atop Observation Hill where I was positioned perfectly to hear the Kiwi base bring in the new year on time 3 minutes before the US. Scott Base is the Kiwi Station located 2 miles from McMurdo. They have a well stocked bar and lots of very friendly people. Once a week the Kiwi bar is open for "American Night". American night is an opportunity for Americans to see other Americans in a different bar, since most of the Kiwis hide in there dorm rooms due to the mass of Americans crowding their bar. The Kiwis also have a ski hill complete with a rope tow. This is not available for Americans to use unless invited. 

My non-work time was mostly taken up by playing board games at the coffee shop, fooseball at the bar and wandering around the station with a camera. Many nights were spent reading or recovering from being outside all day in cold temps. 

McMurdo Station. Dorms are in the lower right of the photo, machinery shops in the lower left. The big blue building is the cafeteria and to the right and behind that are the bars, a NASA building and some communications buildings, with the Helicopter hanger behind that. In the top left are many fuel storage tanks and the road to Scott Base. 

The Chalet where station management are located. Observation hill is located behind.

Antarctic polar bear at MAAG. I knew there were polar bears in Antarctica. 
 Now if only I would have seen an eskimo.

MAAG art project and some antics.

The Kiwi Ski hill on a powder day(5cm of new).

Skua enjoying the music at Icestock while occasionally dive 
bombing unsuspecting concert goers with food in their hands.

Bringing in the new year atop Observation Hill. Out of view to the left is a memorial cross to Robert Scott and his men who perished on their return from the south pole several hundred miles behind me.

Pressure Ridges

There is a recreation department in McMurdo. Their full time job is to attempt to keep the general public from going insane because they can't just leave base whenever they choose (mostly for their own safety). Recreational outings this year were very limited due to sea ice conditions not allowing some of the larger vehicles to travel across some large cracks. In normal years the outings could include trips to Cape Royds(Shackleton's hut and penguin colony), Cape Evans (Scott's Terra Nova Hut), or a visit to ice caves that form in the Erebus Glacier Tongue. This year none of that was possible. There are however pressure ridges that form each year near just outside Scott Base. These ridges are formed by the movement of the McMurdo Ice Shelf crushing the sea ice into the land causing it to crack and deform. Tours of the ridges are performed by volunteer staff who take groups out on a previously flagged trail through the ridges.

Scott Base pressure ridges.

Scott Base pressure ridges.

Ice thrust into the air in the Scott Base pressure ridges.

Melt pool with Mount Erebus in the background.

Ice in the pressure ridges.

Another recreational outing is the room with a view. Participants take a snow mobile across the ice shelf and up a hill to the base of Mt. Erebus. From this spot there are amazing views across McMurdo Sound to the glaciers that block the views of the dry valleys.

Mount Erebus from the Room With A View.

Returning to McMurdo. Mt. Discovery in the distance.

One question many people have asked is how is the food. My best answer to that question is that the baked goods are amazing. Bakery items are made fresh each day by some very talented bakers. Fresh fruit and vegetables are flown in on daily flights early in the season while the C-17 is still flying back and fourth from New Zealand. After that flight stops however everything except the baked items is from the freezer. Yes there are actually freezers in the Antarctic. Meals are fairly varied and can be pretty hit or miss. Early in the season the head of the kitchen (who was soon fired) decided that anyone who did not eat red meat was pretty much an after though. He also gave the staff no flexibility to be creative which made for some incredibly bad non meat options and left me eating bread and butter, really good bread, and butter. Later in the season, with a new head chef at the helm, and the kitchen staff free to come up with their own ideas, dinners got better. Over all given the fact we are in Antarctica they do a pretty good job. As you might imagine complaints about food is always a staff favorite. Lunches were always good due to a very creative person who was very good at her job making the sandwiches. If only there had been sandwiches for every meal.

If you ask the people who go back year after year why they do it, the most common answer seems to be that they like the people down there. McMurdo is an amazing community of talented and adventurous people all of whom have a story worth sharing. It is possibly the most over educated community in the world. Amoung the support staff everyone seems to have some sort of college degree that they no longer use and even if they don't have one they are so well traveled that you can talk to them about almost anything. Of course there is also the scientists who are the reason that we are all there in the first place. The large number of scientists also makes cafeteria conversations enjoyable and interesting. Where else in the world can you sit at a table with one of the most respected scientists in their field, a mountain guide, an equipment mechanic, a carpenter, a cook and janitor for example. Assumptions about anyones background at McMurdo are a huge mistake, because just about anyone could have a Phd in physics or any other subject. People are there for the experience or the ability to have the summers off to travel or any number of other reasons that assumptions would get wrong.

Jen modeling her favorite part of the meal.

Ned in his typical Antarctic outdoor wear.

Alasdair Turner, Instructor and Guide

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Season of Working and Living in Antarctica - Part I

This last winter, AAI Guide Alasdair Turner spent the winter working and living in Antarctica. This week our blog will feature a special three-part series on Alasdair's experiences...

Click on any of the photos to enlarge them.

It had always been a dream of mine to visit Antarctica. The reality of that dream was often realised by looking at the cost of travel to Antarctica and the knowledge that even if I could afford it, I would likely end up stuck on a boat unable to do the types of things I really wanted to do. Last year I was offered an opportunity that I could not refuse--to work as a field trainer for the US Antarctic Program. This would allow me a trip to Antarctica, and the ability to get paid for it.

It was not until I got my first glimpse of the Antarctic continent that I truly believed I would get to Antarctica. The Antarctic Program had not sent me my ticketing information to New Zealand, a required stopover, until less than 24 hours before my scheduled departure time. Thus, even once we were in the air, leaving New Zealand behind, I still believed it was entirely possible this last flight might actually take me somewhere other than Antarctica.

Flights to Antarctica are done mostly with US Air Force C-17s. New Zealand and Australia also help out by adding couple of additional passenger aircraft in early and late season when large amount of people are moving back and fourth. We flew down in a chartered Australian Airbus A-319.

Landing on the ice runway.

We landed at McMurdo Station or, more specifically, on the sea ice about 2 miles outside of McMurdo Station. McMurdo is the main US research station in Antarctica and also the biggest. It is located on Ross Island very close to where Robert Scott built his first hut in 1902. The station is so close and now so large, outward sprawling like every other American city, that the Scott hut almost feels like a part of the station. It was originally built by the US Navy. The US Antarctic Program (part of the National Science Foundation) now runs the station since its sole purpose under the International Antarctic Treaty is scientific research. Although I do poke a little bit of fun at the expense of large government entities, I do truly respect the science that takes place in Antarctica and believe that it is invaluable to this and future generations.

Robert Scott's Discovery Hut

The sprawling metropolis of McMurdo Station.

McMurdo houses somewhere between 150 and 1,200 people depending on the time of year. When I arrived, there were about 300 people on station. Within several weeks that number grew close to 800 people including support staff and scientists. During the winter a core group of about 150 people keep the station running, but there is very little science underway. The support staff at McMurdo consist of everyone from janitors and mechanics, to fuel handlers and IT people. Imagine a totally isolated city with lots of heavy equipment, an airport (or two), a sewer treatment facility, a garbage sorting facility, a fire department, a cafeteria, gym, helicopter hangers, an amazing scientific laboratory, and even two bars. For each part of this small town there has to be a person to keep it running. Housing is another story. Everyone is housed in dorms, two to a room much like college.

Fuels employee refueling an LC-130.

My job, "Field Instructor," in the Field Safety Training Program (FSTP) consists mostly of teaching survival courses to every person who is going to leave the station for field work. Much like a cold weather camping class we teach setting up tents, lighting stoves, and digging survival trenches. Survival trenches are basically a shallow grave dug in the snow in which to die in if all else is lost. They will, however, allow you to live slightly longer than if you did not know how to dig one so they remain part of the curriculum. In addition, we put the students through some scenarios, one of which we call bucket head, where the students attempt to find a missing person with buckets on their heads to simulate a whiteout. So as not to forget that this is a government-sponsored entity we also cover many of the protocols of McMurdo Station which take about as much time as the survival training. The course is a two-day course affectionately referred to as Happy Camper. Each participant gets to spend the night camping outside in Antarctica on the McMurdo Ice Shelf while we, the instructors, sleep several hundred yards away in a hut warmed with a diesel burning stove that even on the lowest settings makes us wish we were sleeping outside also.

Setting up a Scott Tent on the McMurdo Ice Shelf.

A well-built happy campers camp with Mt. Erebus in the background.

Bucket head

Sun dog over Mt. Erebus as seen from happy camper on the McMurdo Ice Shelf.

Happy campers are not the only course we teach. Trainings are a key part of the US Antarctic experience, and anyone who has to do anything must take a training in order to do it. If you are going out on the sea ice you must take sea ice training. If you are going to altitude, and most of Antarctica is at high altitude, you must take altitude training. FSTP teaches both of these. In addition we provide specialized technical trainings for science groups going to glaciated areas of the continent. Other required trainings include driving snowmobiles (basic and advanced class), Hagglunds training, Piston Bully training, chainsaw training, and light vehicle training. Light vehicle training is a two-hour class that explains how to drive a pickup truck at less than 5 mph, check the oil, and place a wheel chock any time you park it. This is all done via a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation while the trucks are parked safely outside with their wheels chocked.

In addition to trainings FSTP is also responsible for establishing travel routes on the sea ice for science teams to travel to and from dive huts and Weddell Seal breeding areas. This is amongst other things that I will get to later. Route work consists of flagging routes, and monitoring the sea ice and known crack crossings for safety. This sea ice work is conducted in the early season when it is cold. Working on the sea ice can result in some of the most fun days and also some of the worst. Overall enjoyment of sea ice work depends on weather, and, as most people probably know, Antarctic weather can be fairly bad. Antarctica may not have a lot of wildlife outside the water, but what it does have is most likely to be found while working on the sea ice. Weddell seals are often laying on the ice near the cracks that FSTP monitors, and occasionally penguins wander over during the work. Penguins are drawn to pretty much anything else that is moving on the ice so if they see you they almost always come to investigate. More on penguins and seals later...

A not so good day of sea ice work.

Drilling holes to measure ice thickness.

Lunch break.

FSTP and members of our Kiwi (New Zealand) equivalent are also responsible for search and rescue. Each Thursday the team trains together. Training days consist of whatever we deem necessary to become a more effective search and rescue team. Throughout the course of a season, we step in and out of helicopters while they are hovering under full power, we set up pulley systems for an entire day, and climb around Castle Rock (one of the few recreational outings available to staff). One of the more interesting parts of search and rescue in Antarctica is the tools available to us. A lost person in an Antarctic storm would be next to impossible to find using standard search and rescue techniques. FSTP uses three Hagglands amphibious vehicles. These vehicles are meant to float if we drive them on to ice too thin, but due to a lack of spare parts neither the door seals or the pumps work in any of them, dooming them to the bottom of the Ross Sea if we were to ever drive them into the water through thin ice. Roof hatches will allow us to escape out the top as the Hagglunds slowly sinks. The Hagglunds are equipped with marine radar, Radio Direction finder, and infra-red video that allow us to drive around in zero visibility to find lost people or vehicles. All this equipment would be useless if we did not know how to use it, so we spend several days working with that also. In past years it has been used several times in real situations to find and return lost people to McMurdo safely.

In the 2012-13 season, FSTP participated in a real search and rescue involving a downed aircraft with a Canadian crew. It turned out to be a major mission involving many resources and almost all of the members from both the American and Kiwi teams. Six of us were transported approximately 800 miles by helicopter and dropped near the summit of Mt. Elizabeth in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. At this time I will not go into any more details about this tragic accident.


SAR training on Castle Rock

Traversing a snow slope on Castle Rock with Mt. Erebus in the background.

The Hagglunds early in the season when the sun still sets.

Driving a Hagglunds using radar only.

Even with radar navigation some route marking flags become casualties.

Testing the roof hatch of the Hagglunds.

Mt. Erebus Work

One of the best parts of our job is field support of science projects. Science grantees can request the help of FSTP for field work. In the 2012-2013 season, FSTP supported several field projects ranging from seal tagging, to placing very precise sensors at over 10,000 ft on the polar plateau. The job of FSTP is to ensure the safety of the scientists. The field project to which I was assigned was investigating micobiological life around the volcanic vents near the summit of Mt. Erebus. Mt. Erebus is a large active volcano that makes up a huge amount of the total area of Ross Island. It is also the most southern active volcano on earth and the second highest in Antarctica. Mt. Erebus is also home to one of the only permanent lava lakes on earth. Because Mt. Erebus is an active volcano it has many vents near the summit, many of which are located underneath the glaciers and snowfields. These vents melt the glaciers from the bottom up and create large cave systems all over the mountain. There are at least 50 known caves, some of which have never been entered. Access to these caves is highly restricted due to the sensitivity of life forms that could be in them. The goal for our group was to look for microbial life in the darkest parts of these caves. More information on this work can be found here. My job was to get them in and out of the caves safely, and, in some cases, to look for pristine, previously unentered caves from which to collect samples. This work involved finding the safest entrances, building anchors on the outside, belaying or lowering the scientists, ensuring they could climb back out, and monitoring the air for dangerously high levels of CO2.

Weather on Mt. Erebus can be exceptionally bad. Our first few days had us stuck inside a small hut while the temperatures dropped to -35F with winds up to 60 mph.

My evening accommodations on a windy day.

...and on an even windier day.

Inside the Lower Erebus Hut, desperation called for the use 
of a human waste bucket for the Thanksgiving turkey brine.

Many of the cave entrances are marked by large towers of ice. These are formed by steam freezing as it escapes into the incredibly cold Antarctic air. There are hundreds of these on the mountain and each is truly unique.

The large ice tower at the entrance to Sauna Cave.

Looking strait up inside one of the ice towers.

Ice towers near the Erebus hut.

Exploring the ice towers.

This tower, located above a small cave (haggis hole) with no recorded entries, 
was one of the sampling caves for the project.

In the past few years both BBC and National Geographic have spent time photographing inside the Erebus caves. There is no doubt that these caves are one of the most incredible places on the planet, and I feel truly lucky to have been able to work inside of many of them.

Exiting Warren Cave, the same cave captured in both the National Geographic and BBC visits.

Some caves are covered in crystals so fragile that even the lightest breath causes them to collapse.

Deep inside Warren Cave.

The one and only thing I truly have problems with is small spaces. I had to talk myself through this.

Exiting Mammoth Cave.

Light shines through the thin walls of Heroine Tower.

Warren Cave.

Crystal found in one of the caves.

The aptly named Imax room.

Inside Mammoth Cave, one of the largest on the mountain.

Inside Worm-tounge Cave

Not all of the work was inside the caves. One area of the mountain has surface temperatures so hot that any ice on it is melted off. This area also has unique biological life. We spent some time here locating and removing experiments that were left last season.

Sampling on Tramway Ridge.

The summit crater of Mt. Erebus is huge and active with a large lake of lava in the bottom. I was able to hike around the summit on two different occasions during my trip. There is something truly amazing about visiting active volcanos. It is difficult to give a sense of place in photos since because of the incredible sounds that were present when the images were taken.

Mt. Erebus summit crater.

The lava lake at the bottom of the crater.

Looking into the earth.

Alasdair Turner, Instructor and Guide