Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Doug Kowalewski Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Greywater and Waste Tue, 05 Jan 2010 18:02:24 +0000 Doug Kowalewski Everything must be contained and returned to McMurdo...]]> BEACON VALLEY, ANTARCTICA- One of the more common questions that I am asked regarding the field camping experience is how do we dispose of our waste in such an environmentally protected region of the world? Nothing can be released into the soil. Everything must be contained and returned to McMurdo.

Our camp consists of nothing more than three Scott Tents, one Endurance Tent, scientific equipment, and the bare minimum of supplies to comfortably survive… or at least survive mildly comfortably. To minimize our camp footprint and lessen the use of helicopter dependency we decided on a greywater-free camp. Greywater is any sort of wastewater resulting from cleaning, cooking, or bathing. A few weeks in the field can lead to well over 100 gallons (or >1000 lbs) of wastewater which must then be helicoptered back to McMurdo and treated. My opinion is that it is much more environmental friendly (and saves us valuable helo hours) to not create greywater to begin with.

For the duration of the 5-6 week field season we do not have running water, shower, or wash with a nice warm wash cloth. If we feel dirty under our multiple layers of clothes we will simply wash ourselves with wet-wipes. Washing our hands is accomplished through instant hand sanitizer (i.e. Purell).

Mealtime can be a challenge in itself. Since wastewater cannot be produced we do not allow for excess water after cooking our pasta meals. (Thankfully we bring out dehydrated green peppers and onions just in case we added too much water to the pot). Cleaning pans, utensils, plates, and mugs consists of a quick wipe down with a dry paper towel. I like to think that the cold conditions that we live in keeps the dishes somewhat sanitary.

Tanner “Dishwashing” in Beacon Valley.

Urine is not considered greywater and is disposed of in 55 gallon drums (or “U-barrels”) at field camps. We are given 1-liter “pee bottles” to use during the day when we are away from camp. We carry these in our backpacks until we return to camp and deposit the urine into the U-barrel. Every year, someone will inevitably let their bottle freeze.

Two liters of urine brought back to camp to be poured into the 55 gallon urine barrels.

The Antarctic field experience would not be complete without the use of our camp toilet which is nothing more than a box with a trash bag lined 5 gallon bucket beneath it. As the bucket fills (weekly basis) the bag is tied, the bucket is sealed, and it returns to McMurdo on the next helicopter flight. For obvious reasons we search long and hard during camp put-in for a windless, private place for the box; but usually the view from the box is spectacular!

A typical field camp restroom in the Dry Valleys protected nicely from wind behind a huge rock.

The gorgeous view from our bathroom looking north towards the Taylor Glacier.
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Beacon Valley Timelapse Sat, 28 Nov 2009 01:02:35 +0000 Doug Kowalewski BEACON VALLEY, ANTARCTICA– There are two things that I never get accustomed to while in Antarctica: the beauty of the landscape and the rapid changes in weather. This was best captured with help from Gareth Morgan who is a post-doctoral scholar at Brown University and currently enjoying his third trip down to Antarctica. (Thanks Gareth for exposing your new SLR camera to 14 hours of intense cold, wind, and UV bombardment). The time lapse begins at 10:00 am on November 14th and ends at midnight. The images are taken every 3 minutes from our drill site (yes, we have an amazing view from our “office”) looking down Beacon Valley towards Taylor Glacier and the Asgard Mountain Range in the background.

A small storm came in during the late afternoon and left a minor dusting of snow further down valley. Visibility quickly diminishes with the storm. Typically bad visibility in Antarctica is due to ground snow being blown around by the wind which can cause for a complete “white-out”. However this seems less common in the Dry Valleys where we work on a terrestrial landscape opposed to working on exposed ice which is often covered by a thin layer of snow. Finally, the camp experienced a beautiful late evening; one of many thus far in Beacon Valley this year!

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Bad Weather Day Fri, 13 Nov 2009 00:30:58 +0000 Doug Kowalewski BEACON VALLEY, ANTARCTICA– The early morning started out with blustery winds and soon snow from the polar plateau started blowing in; it was by far the worst weather we have experienced during this field season. So what do we do on a bad weather day… work. I took the video camera out in the field to capture the harsh working environment.

We began drilling the glacier ice and despite the weather conditions the day started well as we were recovering beautiful, clean, bubbly glacier ice. But soon the borehole reached a small sandy-pebbly layer within the ice and the pace of drilling came to a crawl. Drilling sediment rich ice releases enough heat to melt the ice between the sand grains. When the drill slows down the ice quickly refreezes and makes a sand ice slurry (yes, I referred to it as “crap” in the video) which adheres to the auger like cement making cleaning an arduous process.

The round depression on the top of the recovered slurry core was caused by the down-hole vacuum which assists in removing broken up rock and ice cemented debris created during drilling. Material not removed by the vacuum is hopefully recovered via use of the core barrel as shown in this video. After a few more cleaning runs with the vacuum and core barrel, we were back into clean ice once again!

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Welcome to Beacon Valley Thu, 05 Nov 2009 21:02:47 +0000 Doug Kowalewski BEACON VALLEY, ANTARCTICA– On November 3rd the field team arrived into Beacon Valley where we will spend the next six weeks working, sleeping, and enjoying life in sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures (mean summertime temperature is approximately -13°C and the maximum summertime temperature is typically around -5°C). Our helicopter flight en-route to Beacon Valley crossed the McMurdo Sound and I was surprised to see the ice edge (where the sea ice meets with open water). It usually isn’t visible this far south until my return trip late in the summer.

The edge of the sea ice viewed north from the helicopter just 30 minutes outside of McMurdo.

View from the helicopter during our trip up the Ferrar Valley.

The 90 minute helicopter flight to Beacon Valley allowed me to reflect on the conveniences one takes for granted such as running water, warm showers, and simple means of communicating back to one’s family and friends. I will miss that. I won’t have such niceties until I return to McMurdo but at the same time the thought of my science objectives and potential for discovery that will occur between now and the next time I set foot in McMurdo has me excited to begin the field season!

Helicopter “zero-eight-hotel” leaving our Beacon Valley camp after dropping us off at the start of the field season.

We arrived into Beacon Valley to one of the most eerie / thrilling experiences of the entire Antarctic adventure. After the helicopter drops you and your camp gear off and fades away in the distance you are left in a totally foreign and cold environment.

Total silence.

You realize you are very much isolated from what we call the “real world”.

Lead driller Tanner (blue jacket) and others looking for clean glacier ice for our initial drill site.

Initial drill site. Excavation down 20-30cm to the buried glacier ice. Note the unweathered rocks “coming out” of the ice surface. As the ice sublimates (evaporates) the material in the ice moves towards the surface.

The following day the field team excavated glacial sediment to expose buried iced in search for good drilling locations (i.e. regions of clean ice). Today the helicopter transported the drilling equipment to the site, we set up the drill, and we took our first core of beautiful glacial ice this afternoon. The drill is working perfectly and we are all in good spirits.

Drilling operations.

Field freezer. Our temporary repository for ice cores before being shipped back to McMurdo.
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Age Matters Tue, 03 Nov 2009 00:36:46 +0000 Doug Kowalewski MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– The primary science objective for our field team this season is to core buried glacier ice to depths of 40+ meters. Previous efforts have successfully drilled and recovered ice at depths of 28 m but the ice still appears contaminated with lenses of sand size sediment trickling down into the ice from the overlying till due to the natural thermal fracturing of the glacier.

Early drill and recovery attempts of the buried glacier ice.

Sediment lenses cross cutting through a 30 cm ice core.

The outstanding question is how old is the ice? Ash deposits overlying the ice are dated to as old as 8.1 Ma (million years ago) which would make the underlying glacier the oldest ice yet discovered on our planet. To further convince skeptics that the ice is indeed old, the principal investigators of the grant (David Marchant, Boston University, and Michael Bender, Princeton University) are attempting to date the age of the ice directly.

An in-situ ash wedge in debris overlying buried ice. The wedge is approximately 30 cm across and 40 cm tall. Such deposits can be dated to give a minimum age for the overlying glacial debris.

To understand how this is done we need to go back to when the planet was forming 4.6 billion years ago. Since the formation of the earth, there has been a slow release of gas from the interior of the planet to the atmosphere (i.e. degassing via volcanic activity). One gas in particular is an isotope of Argon. This isotope does not decay thus its concentration is slowly building up in the earth’s atmosphere over time. Atmospheric gas trapped in old ice would have less Argon isotope compared to recently formed glacier ice. The principal investigators will use this technique to analyze the gases trapped within the glacier ice we collect during this field season and determine an age of the ice. If indeed it is the oldest ice yet found on earth, we will have the opportunity to directly measure important greenhouse gases such as CO2 at timescale millions of years back into earth’s history.

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It Has Begun! Sun, 25 Oct 2009 17:18:56 +0000 Doug Kowalewski CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND– On October 23rd I departed for Antarctica from Boston Logan Airport with three of our team members: Jen Lamp (Boston University graduate student), Gareth Morgan (Brown University postdoctoral scholar) and Brandon Boldt (Brown University graduate student). The team met up with the remaining two field team members Kate Swanger (Colgate postdoctoral scholar) and our driller/engineer (Tanner Kuhl) in LAX.

Gareth Morgan and Kate Swanger passing time at LAX.

Twenty-four hours after leaving Boston we were eating breakfast in Sydney and we finally arrived in Christchurch; the total travel time from Boston to New Zealand lasted 29 hours 32 minutes. A full day to say the least!

Flying from Sydney to Christchurch over the southern alps, New Zealand.

Tonight we will rest up at the hotel, enjoy a good meal in this beautiful city, and begin reorganizing the gear for the trip to Antarctica. Tomorrow we will head to the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) located just a few blocks from the Christchurch International Airport to collect (and test out) our Extreme Cold Weather Gear (ECW). It has been a hectic 36 hours but the team is getting along great and I am very excited to be headed south on Tuesday if the weather holds out.

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