Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Andrea Balbas Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Mining Ice Mon, 12 Jan 2009 21:23:12 +0000 Andrea Balbas OFFSHORE NEW HARBOR CAMP, ANTARCTICA– You might be surprised to know that water is one of the most scarce resources in Antarctica. It makes Antarctic camping very difficult especially when you are on the sea ice or in the dry valleys. We were lucky and located only a snowmobile’s ride away from an iceberg caught in the sea ice.

Check out the video below to see how we collect ice from the iceberg for our camp’s drinking water. (Music: “Ethereal Void,” courtesy of Project Divinity.)

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The Courage to Question Fri, 12 Dec 2008 20:04:09 +0000 Andrea Balbas OFFSHORE NEW HARBOR CAMP, ANTARCTICA– There’s something weird about staking bamboo flags into Antarctic sea ice. Plunging the remnants of a regal plant into an environment so different from its own rings untrue. The natural wonder of bamboo’s fortitude against majestic Antarctic landscapes gives me pause. It’s only then that the reality of my situation strikes me.

My task for the day is to set stakes at every 100 meters in a straight line in a distinct orientation atop the sea ice over McMurdo Sound. Each flag represents a location for data collection about the sediments below the sea floor. Our goal of 8 kilometers a day is doable for our three-person team but not always pleasant in the Antarctic cold. My job of sighting each flag through a scope is tedious and requires stillness. In Antarctica stillness is not your friend. It is only in movement that you can find warmth at temperatures of -15 degrees Fahrenheit.

Me, completely bundled up. (This is my usual fashion out on the ice).

I bundle all the way up. Face mask, goggles, hat, glove liners, and gloves are all required on days full of stillness. The waiting and stillness required for this job make it my least favorite. So, I lose myself in the landscapes. As my two team mates chat between flags leaving me in limbo, I consider the millions of years it took for glaciers to carve out Ferrar Valley. I wonder what is causing Mt. Erebus to throw out plumes of smoke today as compared to only sputtering yesterday. I imagine all of the various sea critters nestled in grooves in the ice below my feet. I am struck by the daily realization that I stand and live atop the frozen ocean surface.

In the distance you can see icebergs that have been frozen within the sea ice.

The ice I live on moves like the crust of our planet. Our amazing planet spins as it zooms around the sun. All of this movement, yet I am still cold? These are the things you consider while trying to pass the time in Antarctica.

Mt. Erebus and our straight line of flags.

This is why I love science. Because it is about the value of perpetual questioning. Because at its core it is about considering and then reconsidering the facts. It is a constant and unyielding effort to find and reveal something that is more true. Even in science there are few truths but many partial ones. So, we hunt and we dig. We travel to the bottom of the world to gain more facts that we can consider and then reconsider. The power of science resides not in its answers but in the questions it provokes. Legendary scientists are remembered less for the answers they’ve given us and more for the questions they had the courage to ask. As I gaze out over the sharp shapes of white and blue and hear the buzzing of my radio calling me back to duty, I make note of these realizations. Walking back to my scope, I make a small promise to myself. “I promise to never lose sight of the power and potential of questions.”

Flags and my team mates as they travel to the next flag location.
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Two Kiwi Drillers Mon, 08 Dec 2008 22:39:29 +0000 Andrea Balbas OFFSHORE NEW HARBOR CAMP, ANTARCTICA– To me the cornerstone of any true friendship is the belief in someone’s integrity. Sometimes I will go years without gaining a true friend. Other times, I’ll just get lucky and stumble upon a few God-sent souls that say what they mean, mean what they say, and do what they’ve said they’re gonna. Of all the wonderful things I’ve gained from this trip, I can say that it’s a handful of new wonderful friends that I find most valuable. You never know who might show you kindness and sincerity. You can never tell who might laugh at one of your own twisted jokes.

I’d never have guessed that two Kiwi drillers might befriend an opinionated American geologist like myself. Sure they talk funny. Some may say they’re rough around the edges. But, they suit me just fine. As a matter of fact, I quite adore them.

Steffan Colls on the sea ice.

Steffan Colls seems acutely aware of the power of his smile. He uses it often. He tried it out on me in our first meeting. I’m not easily wooed by such things. It was his frankness that caught my attention and has held it ever since. Communication with Steffan is rather easy. You don’t even have to ask him what he thinks. He is keen to tell you and does so at will. He is astute in his observations of others and keen to tell them as well. Ultimately, he is a family man. He is a wonderful listener and loyal friend with a heart of gold.

Kyle washing his laundry Antarctica field camp style.

Kyle Webster tries desperately to remain expressionless but ultimately always fails. It’s his eyes that tell the details of his every thought and betray his every emotion. He hides his shyness behind a rugged driller’s exterior decorated with random colorful profanities and a love of rum. But, his kindness is blaringly apparent and his consideration of others is ever present. Kyle is a thinker, a reader, a doer. He is always up for a good challenge of all sorts, be it mental, physical, or, preferably, both.

A backgammon game Kyle made because I said I was bored (and kept beating him at the computerized version).

Both men can tell a good joke and laugh at one too. They are mechanically savvy and hardworking. I always wonder about people with the mechanical skills they have. Did they take things apart as children? Somehow they are able to take apart, reassemble, and operate all that is required to keep their drill operating. They are pivotal to the success of our team when out on the line drilling into the ice or here in camp keeping spirits high.

The drill rig in front of the Ferrar Valley.
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Nights in Antarctica Tue, 11 Nov 2008 20:05:49 +0000 Andrea Balbas OFFSHORE NEW HARBOR CAMP, ANTARCTICA– The sea ice pops and cracks beneath our camp. They said the cold would make me sleep. But the sound is eerie entertainment that keeps my mind from slumber. My eyes search the tee-peed ceiling of my Scott tent for the faintest flaw. The sun refuses to set but lingers instead in variations of dusk. There is a rhythm here my body will take days to get used to. I’m so familiar with the sounds darkness brings that I only notice them here where darkness never comes. There is no hush, no stillness, no shift of energy and sound between night and day.

Sea ice over McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

The rattle of my tent varies with the wind. One manmade sound comes and goes. The generator rages only when the solar panels cannot feed our computers and technical equipment with enough energy. Some in our party claim to have heard penguins last night, I did not.

Sea ice over McMurdo Sound.

The lack of darkness brings one perk for an insomniac. No flashlight is needed and fear of the dark does not keep you from roaming the ice at night. It’s not the dark but the cold we fear here. I bundle up and wander through our small camp and count, then recount the tents. I analyze the subtle differences in their shades of yellow.

Our tents and the sea ice.

My thoughts travel home to red ants on oak trees and mustard greens in the breeze. I am a long way from home. There is nothing green here, nothing grows toward the sun. I wonder when I might feel sand between my toes or here crickets in the darkness.

Tomorrow the work we came here for begins. Data collection is only hours away. I plan on leaving nothing of myself. I will work till my body aches. I will have peace of mind and body once the day is done. Tomorrow night I will defy the sun and make my own night as I sleep.

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Sizing Up the Dragon Sun, 09 Nov 2008 00:08:26 +0000 Andrea Balbas MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– “Have your bags ready.” Everyday it seems we are on hold to leave for the sea ice. Our team is anxious to set up field camp. We are days behind schedule in our expedition. We’ve had set back after set back.

Yesterday a storm was expected. At our morning meeting we were informed of poor weather conditions. The winds were expected to send up snow like a sand storm and drive temperatures into the negative twenties. Six of the men on our team were poised to leave. They required one additional volunteer. This would leave over ten of our team members behind. “I’ll do it,” I said. I figured it’d probably be easier on me than most. Plus, I’m in Antarctica, might as well see what I’m made of.

Large fuel tank and sled of gear being stage for departure.

Later that afternoon we were informed we weren’t allowed to leave under such poor weather conditions. More waiting. How can the simple act of waiting be so exhausting?

[To see pictures from the storm, read my last dispatch here.]

Today in our morning meeting, we are again scheduled to leave. The weather is supposed to be better today. I’m ready. In mind and body, I am eager to see what this continent has in store. Not under the roof of a reinforced building but in the wide open spaces of the extreme environment. I want to see what I can do. Will I crumble? Maybe I’ve been fooling myself. Maybe I don’t have what it takes.

Piston Bully with fuel container and
drill rig sleds as we stage for departure.

My bags are packed and my last shower taken. It’s sink or swim now. I wonder why I’m not afraid. I think back to all the obstacles I’ve met throughout my life and compare them to my image of field camp in Antarctica. I realize this won’t be the most difficult thing I’ve done. I’ve slain bigger dragons than this. And, imagine all of the amazing things I’ll see. Imagine all the science to be done.

Getting refueled before we leave for the sea ice.

Delta driving down to staging to join our convoy.

The sleds are packed to the brim. Piston Bully, giant fuel tanks, skidoos and enough food for over a month sit poised for our final leg to field camp. As we set off, I’m struck with a rush of excitement. All I can say is “Yeeeeeeehhhaaaa!” Let the adventure begin.

My view from the Piston Bully as we set out over the ice.
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Hurry Up and Wait Fri, 07 Nov 2008 22:40:38 +0000 Andrea Balbas MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– It’s hurry up and wait around here. We’ve had one set back after another. Our science sled wasn’t ready when we arrived. We’ve overcome obstacle after obstacle struggling to get it fit for the field.

Building the science sled, known as the “Thunder Sled.”

On National Geographic or the Discovery Channel it always seems so easy. On TV it goes something like this: a scientist has an idea, no one agrees with him, he builds an experiment in his lab and toils away at mathematical equations until ultimately proving himself correct and sending the scientific community into a tailspin.

When, in fact, it is far more complicated. The Science Channel never tells you about dozens of meetings, hundreds of relationships and the never-ending logistics behind harvesting scientific data. There are proposals to be written, documents to be filed, signatures required, wrenches to be turned, personalities to pacify, schedules to be made and lists to be filled. Murphy’s Law dominates. A successful scientific expedition requires a well-equipped diverse team and a lead scientist morphed into a project manager. We are still in McMurdo Station when we should be in the field. Fortunately our lead scientist has scheduled enough down time into our expedition schedule. We are still confident we can reach all of the scientific goals.

More work to be done on the Thunder Sled.

Antarctica is harsh. Trying to harvest scientific data from Antarctica is excruciating. This continent does not give up her secrets easily, not even to the most tenacious of scientists. I am inspired by the knowledge, tenacity and problem solving skills of my teammates. If I had to describe them with one word, it would be: capable. These people know how to take care of some serious business and I am proud to be one of them.

The storm that kept us grounded at McMurdo Station.

The bad weather prevented us from leaving for our field site.
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Journey Fri, 24 Oct 2008 21:30:03 +0000 Andrea Balbas MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– If you think all scientists are confined to the sterile environment of a lab, you’d be ill-informed. Science can take you around the world, to see places and things unimaginable.

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Believers Fri, 24 Oct 2008 17:54:36 +0000 Andrea Balbas MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– They keep asking, “Are you with the group that’s traversing the sea ice?” When they ask, they have this look — a look that says, “ouch.” These are the old school Antarctic guys, the “winter over” people — the ones that stay here when the sun defies all things natural and refuses to shine for months on end. To them, we might be a bunch of less hearty scientists. They don’t know us very well. We have a secret weapon.

Scott tents at Happy Camper School.

We believe. When the winds blow, the snow flies, and the temperatures drop we hold tight to one thing: our purpose. All scientists seek data, a particular set of data that may allow for a better understanding of our world and universe. They seek an understanding beyond the textbooks they were taught from. Geologists have a particular reputation for unyielding determination and enthusiasm. I’ve been told by more than one biologist, “Yeah, you geologists like your stuff.” That’s right, we do.

Humans have lived on our planet only a short while. The processes that affect our planet and all living things on it may repeat only in cycles longer than our existence. It is only by looking deep into our planet’s past that we have a chance of understanding all of the complex processes that have lead to its development. That’s why geologists love their rocks. Each rock or sequence of rocks allow us the potential to look back in time. Rocks help us understand ancient ice ages, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, earthquakes, climate changes, biological evolution, ocean chemistry evolution, asteroid impacts and much more. Rocks yield clues to our past so we can define processes that may affect our future. We liken them to geologic time machines with the ability to transcribe earth’s past and shed light on its future.

A Piston Bully.

So when we set out for our five-hour journey over the ice of Antarctica in a convoy of five snowmobiles, one Piston Bully, a Challenger and multiple sleds, do not fear. No need to worry about us as we chisel away at 40 below in unheated Scott tents and no showers. Our beliefs will keep us warm. We are revealing earth’s past to define its future. What could be finer than that?

Me in skidoo training.
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Ice Town: Monument to the Human Spirit Wed, 22 Oct 2008 19:29:35 +0000 Andrea Balbas MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– The tiny stairs of the military transport airplane were difficult to descend in my giant plastic boots. The jet engines groaned and my goggles fogged with the first blast of Antarctic air. I feared my first experience of this icy continent might be a painful and embarrassing tumble down the steep metal stairs. I imagined myself as one big red bouncing blur coming to an abrupt stop as fellow passengers gawked. So the crunch of the ice below my feet was a welcome relief. I ripped off my goggles and adjusted the stinging shoulder strap of my overstuffed bag.

Buckled ice: Sea ice meets ice shelf off McMurdo Station.

The vastness of this place is shocking. It continues like a sparkling white desert. Yet, it is different from the deserts of the world in one profound way; the horizon is lifeless. Unlike a desert, there is no lone dry bush or defiant cactus. There are no crickets, no beetles, and no fluttering butterflies.

As a scientist it gives me pause. Our web of life has existed for billions of generations, yielding billions of mutations. At least hundreds of millions of chances for one mutation to get it right and one defiant plant or insect to stake claim to the ice of this vast continent. But, nothing thrives here in this ecosystem seemingly without competition or predators. Life as we know it cringes from this cold. Scientists know the waters below the ice are rich with bio-diversity because temperatures are less extreme. Still, I am struck by the profound lack of life atop the ice. Is the window for existence so minute? Is our biosphere confined even within the pristine conditions of our miraculous planet?

Ice road leaving McMurdo.

Then it strikes me, as I struggle for a photo of a mammoth yellow tractor cutting an ice road, “I am here. I live atop the ice.” We are here, humans. We are the result of millions of mutations comprising a complex balance allowing for our survival in such a place. We construct buildings, cut roads, and engineer machinery fit for this environment. As I approach the small scientific town of McMurdo perched on the permafrost below a cross-bearing hill, I realize the magnitude of this accomplishment. Like the Pyramids of Egypt, Sistine Chapel, Golden Gate Bridge, and the Empire State Building, McMurdo Station exists as a monument to the human spirit. It illustrates that in all efforts to explore and learn, the human race is at its best.

View of McMurdo Station from Observation Hill.
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Refusing to Call It Fear Fri, 17 Oct 2008 22:19:32 +0000 Andrea Balbas SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA– It’s not surprising that a trip to the bottom of the world might provoke thoughts of death. It’s true the risks we face as scientists in Antarctica today are fewer than those faced by Antarctic explorers of the past. A century ago many of these explorers lost their lives. With this exploration I am acutely aware of being first a human being and second a scientist. There are finite conditions in which my body can continue to function. I’ve never been afraid of death but am somewhat concerned about the process of dying. Freezing to death sounds less than ideal.

Sea ice on McMurdo Sound.

Our field location on the ice shelf, tens of miles from the closest station (McMurdo Station) is indeed remote. However, it is not the isolation that concerns me, but the physical conditions of the location that dance along the bounds of human survival. I will be living and working atop a shifting, melting, buckling ice sheet in temperatures of -25F with a -60F wind chill. Is it possible the ice will crack? Will there be white out conditions? Yes. However, it’s the questions I’ve yet to imagine that concern me more. So, I’ve kept it inside. I’ve swallowed the desire to say, “Good bye.” Instead, I use, “see you later.”

A crack in the ice.

I haven’t told my family. When they talk about the extremes I throw out terms I’ve heard but have yet to understand. Technological terms that make life in Antarctica survivable if not comfortable. Have I spared them by not sharing these thoughts?

I leave North America in three days. We received an email last night from a team member that left before us. “The weather at McMurdo Station has been horrendous,” I can’t help but wonder what horrendous weather in Antarctica may comprise. Many teams of scientists are backed up in New Zealand unable to complete the final portion of their journey. The email made me pause. But, I refuse to call it fear. I will refer to it instead as anxiety.

I am certain of one thing: No matter how powerful this anxiety becomes, it will never overwhelm my desire to answer burning scientific questions. So no matter what happens along my journey, I know it will happen while chasing answers to scientific questions I am compelled to answer. This to me is a good way to live.

A road on the ice sheet.
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