Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Stacy Kim Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Becker Point Thu, 21 Jan 2010 18:52:06 +0000 Stacy Kim BECKER POINT, ANTARCTICA– Our second field camp was on the continent itself – dirt! I have to say that I prefer camping on the sea ice, but this late in the season, the likelihood of warm days and slushy surfaces would make that a distinctly wet possibility. And wet = cold, which can be dangerous in Antarctica.

Dirt and liquid water, unusual problems in Antarctica.

As is becoming the norm for us, camp put in did not go smoothly. High winds meant that only our high priority cargo got to us but the rest was delayed for a few days until the winds dropped enough for the helicopters to fly with external loads. So for the first few nights, we all slept in one tent. It was a large tent, so we were pretty comfortable. But I had forgotten to include cooking pots in the high priority cargo, so we had nothing to boil water in until we broke open the survival bags. We felt a little silly opening the survival bags just for pans, but making hot meals was much better than eating yet another bag of gorp.

Maybe if the rest of our tents don’t ever get here we could sleep in an ice cave?

Becker camp. The big multicolored tent was all we had for the first few days.

Of course, the high priority cargo did include enough of our science gear that we could work, so despite the winds we started ROV missions immediately. The ice in the crack, which we had hoped would provide easier access to the ocean, was very hard and not as thin as we might have wished. Drilling took hours every day, and lots of muscle. Combined with the hard ice were pockets of thin crust, which led to wet feet for everyone on the team at one time or another. But, the crack did provide a smooth, and nearly continuous, pathway for hauling our gear.

Everything we need to operate SCINI fits in two sledges.

And those two sledges can be hauled by the support team of 5 people.

After finding such unexpectedly rich communities at Heald Island last year, I was not sure what to expect at this site. Even with that, I was surprised – this time, at how little life there was. Anemones were the dominant taxa, with a smattering of brittle stars, sponges, and these mysterious white sprinkles that, at a diameter of 1 mm, we could not resolve the finer details of. We profiled extensively from 130 to 30 m, where the seafloor contacted the shore ice. At 40 m, there was a thick benthic diatom layer, but nobody consuming the plethora of productivity. And oddly enough, the ice was no thicker than 11 m even off the crack, much thinner than an Ice Shelf should be.

Isabelle on the right and Bob on the left give a sense of scale to the McMurdo Ice Shelf. Heald Island is behind Bob on the left.

So, as is also becoming usual for us, our field time led to more questions than answers. Why is the ice shelf ice so thin here? With the thin ice and consequent high light levels, why are there so few grazers utilizing the high productivity? Are the sprinkles biological, geological or chemical in origin? And finally, what caused the salt outcroppings we found on the slopes near our camp?

Isabelle next to a mysterious salt outcropping. We later read that these are mirabilite chunks that have been pushed around by glacier action.

We were very happy that camp pull out was more efficient than put in, allowing us to return to McMurdo in time for Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday night. Though we did have one triwall slingload self-destruct on the return, nothing was lost. And turkey day dinner was a decadent extravaganza of crab legs and chocolate truffles, in addition to the ALL the traditional Thanksgiving fare. We are so spoiled here. Perhaps the contrast to cold gorp dinners enhanced our appreciation, and the presence of good friends certainly added to our pleasure, but I think the meal was a gourmet a treat as any I have ever had. We owe so much to the wonderful folks here who keep us going in so many ways. I hope that you recognize as much to be thankful for in your lives as we do on the frozen continent.

Packing up the triwall prior to it self-destructing on the flight home. We did let Isabelle out before we sealed it.

The helo ready to take the last of our camp gear. Fortunately this time the last flight (for us people) went off as planned.

Farewell to Becker Point.
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Bay of Sails Wed, 18 Nov 2009 21:49:28 +0000 Stacy Kim BAY OF SAILS, ANTARCTICA– One of the main goals of SCINI is to explore new areas. Our first target this year is Bay of Sails. I selected this general location because it is an “iceberg graveyard” – a place where icebergs collect due to winds and bathymetry. Located across McMurdo Sound on the Antarctic continent, it will be an ideal comparison site to Cape Evans on the Ross Island side of the sound, where we looked at iceberg impacts last year.

A few of our several iceberg choices in Bay of Sails.

Icebergs are moved by wind and currents, and when they come in contact with the seafloor, plough across it leaving a swath of destruction. Cape Evans, on the eastern side of McMurdo Sound, is bathed by plankton-rich water from the open Ross Sea, providing a good food resource to benthic communities during the summer months. But at Bay of Sails, on the western side of the sound, the water has spent a long time circulating in darkness under the thick ice of the permanent Ross Ice Shelf, so it is very oligotrophic, or food-poor. I am interested in the differences between how these two communities recover from iceberg disturbances.

Though the benthic communities locally are not eating well, we are!

To start this effort, we did a reconnaissance helicopter flight. Scottie, our pilot for the day, flew us in beautiful loops and spirals over the dozen icebergs scattered in the bay. We were looking for a berg that was grounded on the seafloor, was in about 50 m water depth, and was close enough to other icebergs that we had alternate target options. Since the bathymetry in this area is poorly known, I had to guess at depths based on distance from shore and iceberg height. I selected a moderate-size, tabular-looking berg about 2 km from shore. It was a good choice, but a better one was about a km further offshore, as we discovered from our initial survey with an extremely high tech weight on a tape measure.

Marco and Henry think a better iceberg is that way.

However, the helo landing site is that way.

Okay, I guess we’ll go home for now.

Parallel with selecting the camp location, we have been packing up camp gear. 335 pounds of food, 330 pounds of water, sleeping bags good to minus 40, tents, fuel for the stove and heaters, sleds, safety supplies, another 1485 pounds of stuff. And then there is the science equipment – drills, electronic gear, the ROV itself, power supplies, batteries and generators, all in all 760 pounds of toys. Then there is the 1000 pounds of people. Not to say we are fat, but several of us are up to three desserts per night. Yow!

How much stuff will fit in one helicopter? 1200 lbs in an A-Star, and 2000 lbs in a Bell212.

All of this is sorted into classifications of Can Freeze, Do Not Freeze, and Keep Frozen (some of the food). Bags and boxes are weighed and tagged. Hazardous material is certified as safe to fly. Much of the Can Freeze camp gear has gone already in an overland (well, over-sea-ice) traverse to a fueling depot about 10 km from Bay of Sails. The helicopters will carry it the rest of the way to us.

Like an n-dimensional puzzle, it all unfolds to a full field camp, dwarfed by the landscape.

My bedroom.

It’s a little nerve-wracking, making sure we remember everything, and enough of it. I have lists, and lists of lists, and I wake up in the middle of the night to make more lists. Remembering to bring all the things we needed to Antarctica was bad enough, but the field camp list must be pared to a minimum yet not leave out anything. We will get a resupply flight after a week, to bring us more water, so we do have that opportunity to fix any bads, but it would be very unproductive, not to say embarrassing, to have forgotten the batteries to the joystick to drive the ROV.

Team SCINI at field camp I: Kamille, Dustin, Isabelle, Francois, Stacy and Bob. Doh, Dustin has forgotten his black Antarctic uniform pants!

Tonight as the sun dips to touch the horizon I think that we have all we need to survive. But I am worried about the engineers getting their stuff packed; they are still out doing tests at 10 pm, 12 hours from when it must be on the helo pad. I am beginning to think that procrastination and engineering must go hand in hand. I think a walk up Ob Hill is in order to reduce my stress!

The view of Erebus and Terror from the top of Ob Hill, colored by a midnight sun.
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Meet Kamille, Benthic Ecologist Wed, 11 Nov 2009 21:58:19 +0000 Stacy Kim MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Kamille Hammerstrom drove Antarctic teams to the airport four times before she finally got to go herself. When she got here, the names of places were familiar from countless GIS projects and samples processed. With all that build up, did McMurdo live up to her expectations, or hold any surprises?

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Meet Dustin, Our Software Engineer Mon, 09 Nov 2009 19:15:28 +0000 Stacy Kim MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Dustin Carroll, Software Engineer, tells us about his Antarctic experience and his work with the SCINI project. Dustin recently left McMurdo after 2.5 months of hard, cold work, and is now surfing and hiking in New Zealand on his way back to California. We miss his smile, his skill at getting computers to do what they are supposed to (e.g. whatever it is you want them to do) and his strange camel-like ability to never carry a water bottle.

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Field Camp Tue, 03 Nov 2009 23:45:59 +0000 Stacy Kim MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– We’ve just returned from 2 weeks at Bay of Sails, where we were deploying SCINI to look at iceberg scours on the seafloor and the destruction, and recovery, of benthic communities there. All our high-tech science and engineering was supported out of the most primitive of camps. With just 6 of us, we had one shared operations and cooking tent, and 4 small backpacking tents for sleeping. These short vignettes of our activities give a sense of camp life outside of the intense work zone. (Music courtesy of Wayne Grim.)

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Lower map: The location of McMurdo Sound on the Antarctic Continent. Upper map: McMurdo Sound. McMurdo Station is the red placemarker on the right side of the map, and the Bay of Sails is the placemarker in the upper left.
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A Day Out the Window of the Lab Sun, 18 Oct 2009 19:06:07 +0000 Stacy Kim MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Our lab is way too busy and crowded to allow this, but the lab with the shared fume hood is not yet occupied, so I was able to set up the camera on a tripod and catch the changing light and activity in front of the station. On October 19th the sun will rise for the last time this year, after that it will be up for 24 hours a day. But for now we still get a little color!

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Drilling the Sea Ice Fri, 09 Oct 2009 19:39:21 +0000 Stacy Kim MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Drilling a hole through 7 m (21 ft) of sea ice is the first step in Antarctic diving. Check out the video below to see how it’s done.

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Tomorrow the Journey Starts Thu, 08 Oct 2009 22:55:43 +0000 Stacy Kim MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Last Wednesday the Main Team left Moss Landing, bound for Antarctica. But before leaving, I played one last morning of beach volleyball – as I won’t get much beach in my volleyball down south! Here is a short video of what my friends think of Antarctica.

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WinFly Thu, 17 Sep 2009 20:00:44 +0000 Stacy Kim MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA– To introduce you to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, let’s get right into the jargon. There are abbreviations and acronyms for everything, and the new language adds to the disorientation of being in a new, strange, and extreme place. The OAEs (Old Antarctic Explorers) love confusing the FinNGees (F*** New Guys).

Deplaning at McMurdo during WinFly 2009. Photo by Dustin Carroll.

What is WinFly? It is the Winter Flight. When the sun first peeks above the horizon, a flight attempts to land in the small window of daylight. Originally, it was a single flight, but this year, it was 4 flights. Within a week the population went from the 153 people who have been there all winter, to a bustling 476. It is a time of change, and that can be uncomfortable for everyone.

That cup of tea is a mite cold! Photo by Holly Troy.

For the SCINI project, WinFly was three of our engineers leaving sunny California for the dark of the austral winter. Things have been much quieter in the home lab since then. And the reports from McMurdo have been excellent. First, they are overeating successfully, increasing their calorie intake to deal with the extreme cold, which got down to a chilling minus 90 degrees C. At that temperature, the classic cup of boiling water thrown in the air creates a cloud of finest ice crystals as it instantaneously freezes. Second, they are taking a lot of pictures of the gorgeous atmospheric phemonena, so that they can make me extremely jealous because I have never seen them. And most importantly, SCINI is working very well as they refine the software and firmware. Marco, our navigator, been working on the wireless navigation system that should allow us to go deeper and in more rugged terrain, yet know SCINI’s location more accurately. We will need very precise position data later when we attempt to mosaic multiple images together to create small maps of the seafloor and animal distributions. Bob, the chief engineer, is perfecting the tether system for neutral buoyancy, so that it does not pull the vehicle to the surface nor sink her to the depths. With SCINI’s depth capability of 300 m, and a tether that is 8 mm in diameter, tether drag and steering can become significant issues. Dustin, our software engineer, has been working to integrate a heading indicator into the piloting system, a challenge when you are so close to the pole that traditional compasses do not work very well.

Nacreous clouds form in the stratosphere at very low temperatures. Photo by Marco Flagg.

Back home in Monterey Bay the team that will deploy at MainBody – when the population of McMurdo will double – continues to build extra hardware, plan the field work, and tie up loose ends. We leave on September 30th!

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Meet SCINI Tue, 15 Sep 2009 21:17:09 +0000 Stacy Kim MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA– Last austral summer, SCINI engineer (also my husband) Bob Zook and I met up with the Exploratorium’s Ice Stories team at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, for a live webcast about the SCINI project. Watch and learn what is unique about this Remotely Operated Vehicle and the discoveries she is making in Antarctica.

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