Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Mary Miller Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Where in the World Is Ice Stories? Tue, 23 Jun 2009 18:05:12 +0000 Mary Miller
Browse the new Ice Stories layer on Google Earth to follow the locations of polar expeditions and research in the Arctic and in Antarctica. You’ll need to have the latest Google Earth browser (a separate Web application) to view the locations on this Earth globe simulator. Download it here.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA– For those who have never been to the world’s polar regions, and even for those who have, one of the difficult things to imagine is the sheer size and geography of Antarctica and the Arctic. From the beginning, as we started working on Ice Stories with our scientist-correspondents, we hung large maps on the wall to orient us to all the field sites and journeys where this research happens. These maps helped us comprehend how far-flung these field camps are.

Just getting from San Francisco to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, is a three-day journey: 14 hours to New Zealand, a day-and-a-half layover in Christchurch to get outfitted with cold weather gear, and a five- to eight-hour southbound flight (depending on the plane) to get to McMurdo Station on the continent’s southern coast. Our trip to the South Pole, in the center of the continent, was another five-hour flight on a ski-equipped C-130 military plane.

Maria Vernet and Cassandra Brooks’s journeys were even more arduous: They each flew to South America and boarded a ship, then sailed south from Punta Arenas. The Exploratorium’s trip to Barrow, Alaska, was a little more straightforward: a mere three commercial flights from San Francisco. Greenland took a bit longer: a cross-country flight to Albany, New York, a two-night layover, then a predawn hop on an Air National Guard flight to Kangerlussuaq. These just describe the first part of the journeys: Maria ended up traversing thousands of miles of the Southern Ocean and Weddell Sea; Zoe Courville and the Exploratorium’s Lisa Strong flew up to Summit Camp at the top of the Greenland Ice Sheet from Kangerlussuaq, a five-hour plane trip. Phil McGillivary and Kevin Fall boarded a Coast Guard Ice Breaker in Barrow, Alaska, and cruised north to the Beaufort Sea. This summer Billy D’Andrea is doing field work in the Lofoten Islands off NW Norway, and Zoe Courville is reporting from NEEM, a Danish ice-coring camp on the top of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

It’s a lot to keep track of, so the Ice Stories Web team is launching a new layer in Google Earth/Ocean to help you follow along on these scientific journeys. We’ve embedded blogs and photos into this handy map-based tool so you can see exactly where our scientists have been and what they did when they were so far away from home. If you don’t already have Google Earth, you’ll need to download the software, but then you can do some virtual science trips to the farthest reaches of our planet. Happy travels!

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Update on Greenland’s Glaciers Wed, 01 Apr 2009 19:19:54 +0000 Mary Miller CHICAGO, ILLINOIS– Last time we saw Mark Fahnestock was in Greenland, as he was wrapping up his season’s field work on the Jakobshavn Isbræ, one of the most productive and fastest-moving glaciers in the world. During this year’s annual AAAS meeting in Chicago, we caught up with Mark again for an update. We asked him: What is causing the Jakobshavn and glaciers across Greenland to accelerate? (Video by Lisa Strong-Aufhauser.)

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Glaciers and the Simple Life in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys Mon, 30 Mar 2009 17:30:53 +0000 Mary Miller TAYLOR VALLEY, DRY VALLEYS, ANTARCTICA– In this interview from in front of the Canada Glacier in Antarctica’s Taylor Valley, Hassan Basagic from Portland State University describes the essential role of polar glaciers in supporting the bare-bones ecosystems in the Dry Valleys. In addition to studying the Canada Glacier in Antarctica, where a typical field season lasts three months, Hassan has studied glaciers in the Sierra Nevada of California. Polar glaciers in the Dry Valleys are unique among the world’s alpine glaciers in having steep, high faces. Hassan explains that their unique shapes arise because the glaciers are frozen at their base and flow from the top rather than the bottom of the glacier.

Hassan is part of the glaciology team for the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research site (LTER for short), which is led by Andrew Fountain of Portland State. The LTER Network includes 26 sites mostly in the US, and includes ecosystems from the poles to the tropics. Scientists study the areas from many angles, combining their research to give a broad view of how ecosystems work. (Video by Lisa Strong-Aufhauser)

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The Train from Pole to Troll Wed, 25 Feb 2009 20:16:39 +0000 Mary Miller SOUTH POLE, ANTARCTICA– At the South Pole, we met up with Ice Stories correspondent Zoe Courville just before she and her team embarked on their 3,000 km traverse across the desolate and frigid East Antarctic Ice Sheet. In this video, Zoe gives us a tour of the vehicles they are taking on their cross-continent journey, including their living module, sleeping quarters, and science sled. (Video by Lisa Strong-Aufhauser.)

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Mapping East Antarctica’s Uncharted Territory Fri, 06 Feb 2009 18:55:10 +0000 Mary Miller WILLIAMS FIELD, NEAR MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– East Antarctica contains nearly all the world’s supply of fresh water and could contribute hundreds of feet of sea level rise, yet little is known about the stability of this vast ice sheet. In our interview with Jack Holt of the University of Texas at Austin, we learn about a project to chart a glacier in East Antarctica that scientists believe is losing mass. (Video by Lisa Strong-Aufhauser.)

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Dry Valleys: Looking for Life on Mars Fri, 02 Jan 2009 18:26:10 +0000 Mary Miller LAKE HOARE, DRY VALLEYS, ANTARCTICA– After spending time at the South Pole, flying to Cape Royds and Black Island, and otherwise keeping ourselves busy with webcasts and scientist interviews in McMurdo, Lisa and I hopped on a helicopter out to the Dry Valleys for a couple of days of hiking and camping in the coldest, driest desert on Earth. Our base was the Lake Hoare field camp nestled next to the Canada Glacier.

Canada Glacier with frozen Lake Hoare in the background.

Summer melting from the Canada Glacier feeds a stream that flows into Lake Hoare.

The Dry Valleys are dry because very little snow falls here, the average water content is less than a centimeter. Yet a fully functioning ecosystem exists here, in the ice-covered lakes and the soils of the valley floor. Even though the ecosystem is all but invisible to the naked eye, it still has a basic food web: primary producers (mats of moss and algae in the lakes, bacteria, yeast, fungi and other microbial life in the soils ), grazers (microscopic invertebrates called rotifers and tardigrades), with the top of the food chain consisting of tiny nematode worms. Curiously, there are no known predators in the Dry Valleys soils. These valleys constitute a Long-Range Ecological Research (LTER) study site and represent what scientists believe might be a model for life on Mars if it exists.

Lisa Strong on a hike with Canada Glacier behind her.

The origins of Seuss Glacier pouring through a mountain pass in the Dry Valleys.

Lisa and I went for a walk up the Taylor Valley to see whether we could uncover any evidence of life and saw little, except for a couple of long-dead seal mummies (why they traveled so far from the sea ice is anyone’s guess) and some algae-covered rocks and brown floating scum, looking for all the world like whipped chocolate mousse. We did see plenty of wind-scoured rocks and glaciers pouring through gaps in the surrounding mountains.

Bones and skin of a seal mummy that perished hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Biological scum on Lake Chad.

For easier walking, I tried to cross the moat between land and solid (white) lake ice. What I thought was thick ice wasn’t and I broke through up to my knees for my own version of the polar plunge. After changing into dry pants and socks, we continued on our walk but the only macroscopic life we saw was a lone skua winging up the valley.

Mary after breaking through lake ice.

I knew I needed to dig deeper, so I’ll turn to the LTER scientists studying the different parts of this ecosystem from the glaciers that feed life-giving water to the lakes and soils, to the ice-covered lake waters that support microbial life, to the soils that provide habitat to bacteria, yeast and fungi, and invertebrate creatures that make up “charasmatic megafauna” of the Dry Valleys. Look for upcoming video interviews with these LTER scientists.

Glaciologist Hassan Basagic of Portland State University explaining the dynamic of Canada Glacier to Lisa.
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Stars of the Ross Sea Sat, 27 Dec 2008 18:48:18 +0000 Mary Miller Photos by John Weller

MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– In our webcast with John Weller recently, he showed some photos of a group of bat stars and close-up of the top of one of them. Bat stars are common sights on the bottom of Antarctic seas, clustering under holes and cracks in the ice where seals congregate. They scavenge seal droppings or bits of food left over from the seal’s fishy meals; nothing in the ocean goes to waste.

Photo (c) John Weller.

We were curious about the structures on the back of the little bat star (also known as a cushion star) so I wrote to my former advisor at U.C. Santa Cruz, John Pearse. Dr. Pearse did his doctorate scientific research in Antarctica on these invertebrate creatures whose scientific name is Odontaster validus. He emailed me back the other day and explained what was on the upper surface of the cushion star.

Photo (c) John Weller.

The pink flower-like structures are called paxillae and they create a space for water to circulate across the surface of the stars making it easier to absorb oxygen from the water. The purplish bud-like structures are called papulae, or “skin gills.” They extend from the inside of the star’s body cavity and have lots of tiny beating hairs, called cilia, that also help the animal absorb oxygen and get rid of waste products.

It’s curious that in such richly oxygenated water as found in the Ross Sea, these animals need two structures to aid their respiration. Dr. Pearse notes that there’s probably an interesting story there for some future invertebrate zoologist in Antarctica to investigate.

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Glaciers from the Air Tue, 23 Dec 2008 04:18:50 +0000 Mary Miller SOUTH POLE STATION, ANTARCTICA– On our flight to the South Pole, the view out the tiny windows on the LC-130 are mostly of a flat, white, vast ice scape. But there are some interesting features on the polar plateau; alerted by a fellow passenger I caught a glimpse of the Byrd Glacier. Named after American Antarctic explorer Richard Byrd, this fast-moving river of ice flows through the valleys of the Transantarctic Mountains. At 15 miles wide, it’s one of the largest outlet glaciers that drain ice from East Antarctica to the Ross Ice Shelf.

A little later in the flight, I took this short video of the Beardmore glacier, flowing through the snow covered mountains. The glacier was discovered by Ernest Shackleton in 1908 during his failed attempt to reach the pole. The mountains on either side of the Beardmore contain a treasure-trove of dinosaur fossils and was one of the earlier study sites for paleoecologist Allan Ashworth who uncovered fossils in ancient lake sediments there.

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Diving by Proxy Wed, 17 Dec 2008 02:49:02 +0000 Mary Miller MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Last week, we shot footage of our colleague John Weller preparing to SCUBA dive under the ice. I felt a definite pang of regret that I wasn’t joining him in the 28 degree water. On my first visit to Antarctica in 2001 for our Origins project, I had the rare privilege of diving in the clear cold water of McMurdo Sound. It was an incredible experience, the best visibility I’ve ever seen underwater and a polar sea teeming with invertebrates, fish, and giant sponges. I was diving with guitarist Henry Kaiser who has returned many times since to dive with Sam Bowser’s team studying giant foraminifera. Back in 2001, Henry shot some footage of me on my check-out dive that even made it into a film by Werner Herzog called The Wild Blue Yonder (but in my blue dry suit, only I and my mother can recognize it’s me).

John Weller prepares for a dive in McMurdo Sound.

Alas, on this trip to Antarctica all my underwater exploration has been by proxy through John’s photos and footage, but also through the unique under-ice vehicles SCINI and Endurance. SCINI (Submersible Capable of Under Ice Navigation) is a remote operated vehicle, or ROV, designed and operated by the team of Dr. Stacy Kim and Bob Zook of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. We dropped in on a SCINI demonstration the first week we were in McMurdo, an event Bob and Stacy hosted for the community here.

Stacy Kim and Cameo Slaybaugh drilling a hole for SCINI to dive through.

Stacy Kim with SCINI, the ROV that lets her explore under-ice marine ecosystems.

Here’s video of SCINI being deployed through her dive hole:

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This slender little ROV, only six inches in diameter, can fit through an eight-inch hole drilled into the sea ice. SCINI is portable (Bob calls it a backpack ROV) so it only needs two or three people to launch and operate it. SCINI’s flexibility allows the science and engineering team to explore very remote places in waters up to 1000 feet (300 meters) deep and inaccessible to SCUBA divers. The ROV is being used by Stacy, who is a benthic ecologist, to study the creatures that live on the bottom (“benthos”) of the ocean. But it’s also a tool that can be used by lots of other scientists in many disciplines. SCINI can provide underwater eyes to ocean sediment coring operations, like ANDRILL, that let scientists see the drill core and properly adjust their setting. It can be also used to map krill distribution for David Ainley’s whale and penguin studies and to map the ocean floor.

SCINI engineer Bob Zook driving the ROV with a game controller.

SCINI being prepared for a dive by Francois Cazenave.

In this video, Stacy explains how SCINI navigation works underwater:

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Last year, Bob and Stacy used SCINI to explore some “lost” experiments in McMurdo Sound placed there in the 1960s by benthic ecologists John Oliver and Paul Dayton. Searching the sea floor with SCINI, they were able to locate these tethered experiments and hope to come back next year to collect samples from the sites. This season they took SCINI to three different locations near McMurdo station to study communities of sponges under sea ice and permanent ice shelves and also to explore areas where icebergs have scoured the bottom. For more about Stacy’s research, watch the webcast we did with them in McMurdo.

SCINI with her underwater lights turned on.

I also got a wonderful opportunity to watch the deployment of an underwater bot much larger and more complex than SCINI. Called Endurance (or affectionately dubbed “phatty” by Stacy Kim) this autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, was developed by Stone Aerospace and funded by NASA. The research camp at Lake Bonney in the McMurdo Dry Valleys is being run by Peter Doran of the University of Illinois in Chicago with funding from the National Science Foundation.

Traveling by helicopter out to the site, I caught my first glimpse of Blood Falls, a famous feature on the Taylor Glacier first described by British Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott. The striking color comes from an iron-containing salt, ferrous hydroxide, that seeps out of the glacier and stains the water and ice a rusty red. After landing, I strapped ice stabilizers on my boots and headed out on my first walk on a frozen lake. The patterns of the ice were gorgeous.

On the helo trip out to Lake Bonney, we saw glaciers pouring out of the Dry Valleys.

Blood Falls gets its color from iron salts seeping out of Taylor Glacier in the Dry Valleys.

Arriving at a big canvas-covered “garage” on the lake ice, I watched as the roughly spherical-shaped Endurance was deployed. Endurance requires a much larger hole than SCINI and the use of a hoist and several people to guide it into and down the ice hole. Once through the ice, the bot is programmed to take measurements throughout the water column, map the bottom of Lake Bonney and probe for evidence of microbial life. For this experiment, the bot is tethered with a fiber-optic cable that can send photos back to the team in the tent and keep track of its whereabouts.

The Endurance command center on Lake Bonney.

Patterns of ice on Lake Bonney.

Patterns of ice on Lake Bonney.

Enurance is being used in the Dry Valleys LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) program to better understand the ecosystem of Lake Bonney. But a scaled-down version of Endurance could one day probe under the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa, perhaps the best candidate for finding water and alien microbial life in our solar system.

Endurance is being hoisted to its dive hole.
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Waylaid On Our Way to Antarctica Wed, 03 Dec 2008 04:16:14 +0000 Mary Miller CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND (EN ROUTE TO ANTARCTICA)– The Exploratorium Ice Stories team of Mary Miller, Lisa Strong-Aufhauser and Ron Hipschman are cooling our jets in Christchurch, New Zealand, and itching to get to the ice. We’re treading the same ground as thousands of other Antarctic-bound souls, trying to enjoy the last whiffs of green grass and humid air. Our nerves are slightly frayed after a few mishaps with (temporarily) lost luggage and lost sleep, but we’re trying to make good use of our time to plan the first few days of work and training we’ll be doing in McMurdo after we arrive.

Down at the Antarctic clothing issue office, we had the usual fun of getting our cold weather gear in order (Lisa was playing with her ninja alter ego) and got some good news: we’re leaving tomorrow morning on a C-17 USAF plane rather than the slower, smaller C-130 which means about a four-hour flight rather than almost eight. That makes a difference because these military planes are not built for comfort: they have little insulation on their skins so they are loud and cold close to the bulkhead.

Lisa trying on clothes in her best Ninja pose at the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center.)

The Clothing Distribution Center.

Lisa tests out her ‘bunny boots’.

After months of preparation filling out USAP (United States Antarctic Program) forms and travel requests, going to doctor and dentist appointments to become “physically qualified” for Antarctic travel, visiting Raytheon Polar Services in Denver to meet with support staff and plan our movements on the ice, and training Antarctic field correspondents, our time is finally at hand. In fact, I feel like we’ve already started our polar adventure; in addition to posting blogs from all of our Antarctic scientists, we’ve also been keeping up with Ice Stories correspondent Robin Bell’s Gambutserv Mountain (AGAP) project on her Twitter and the Xtreme South Facebook pages.

We’ve also met up on the plane to New Zealand and here in Christchurch a drilling engineer on his way down to the deep ice coring operation at WAIS-Divide. That’s one of those acronyms mysterious to an outsider but full of meaning for glaciologists and climate researchers. WAIS is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The ice divide, like a continental divide, refers to a region of the ice sheet where the snow falling on one side of the divide flows one way down to the ocean and snow on the other side flows in the opposite direction.

A map of the WAIS divide. Image courtesy of the WAIS Divide Ice Core Project.

The WAIS-Divide is an ideal place to drill ice cores because the movement of the ice there is downward rather than horizontal, leaving clear annual ice layers that can be counted to track the passage of time. Lots of snow falls in this region of the ice sheet, trapping gas bubbles between the snow grains that record the compositions of the atmosphere when the snow fell, preserving a climate record from 40,000 to 100,000 years ago. Lisa, Ron and I saw some ice cores when we visited the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver last spring, some of them dating back to the original International Geophysical Year in 1957-8.

Bubbles in an ice core. Photo by John Weller.

Ron and Lisa filming in the ice core storage room of the National Ice Core Laboratory. Photo by John Weller.

We won’t have a chance to go out to the WAIS-Divide ice drilling camp as it’s an additional plane flight from McMurdo and we already have a pretty full work and travel schedule once we do get to McMurdo. We hope to travel out by helicopter to some fields camps to see penguins, the communications station at Black Island, McMurdo Dry Valleys, and, the biggest prize of all: the South Pole.

In the meantime, the Ice Stories crew enjoys green New Zealand.
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