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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.