They haven’t got us yet

December 5th, 2006

So we saw our first polar bear tracks yesterday. I am a little shook up about it, but no harm came to us. We were travelling on Canada Glacier when I came across this track in the snow. None have been spotted so far this year, but this track confirms that they are still around, waiting for unsuspecting glaciologists to believe in their Antarctic existence.
Polar bear tracks

A day in the life

December 2nd, 2006

I thought about writing about our recent visit to Beacon Valley, the place closest to Mars on the planet, but I sense there is a lot of interest in what day to day life is like down here, so I have decided to write about what I eat instead. So life down here is nice in that you don’t really have to change clothes or wash up very often. So when my alarm goes off at 6:45, if I don’t sleep in, I will pop out of my sleeping bag put on my jacket and some pants (in that order), throw on my shoes, and out the tent I go. When I reach the main hut I have a bowl of cereal (usually that brown box of granola, sometimes I have the Aussie Sanitarium Muesli instead) while I put a kettle on for tea and toast a bagel. By the time I finish cereal I make a PBJ on bagel and some tea (usually English Breakfast with milk and sugar, but lately Earl Grey black). I drink my tea while I check my email, and then go to the lab to get dressed (after I brush my teeth).

About mid-morning when we are out on some glacier I eat a bag of peanut M&Ms and maybe a Cadbury chocolate bar (usually Mint or Energy). Lately I have been skipping this step as it has been much warmer and I don’t need the extra calories so much. At lunch we have some sandwiches. If there was leftover meat, we have glacier meat sandwiches, which are the best (steak, pork tenderloin, lamb, etc.). But when there is no supply of that, we just have lunch meat and cheese with some of that chili sauce that comes in the bottle with the rooster on it.

Dinner is a much finer affair with some amazing meal created by Rae and Sandra. Do not fear, for we eat better here than most people do at home. And there always is ample dessert, including cookies, brownies, and cakes, all from scratch. Lately we have been having a lot of fruit pies.

The one thing I forgot to mention was midday tea. You’ll notice the food schedule I described is very formulaic and does not change significantly from day to day. Midday tea is the one thing that does seem to vary for some reason. It ranges from none, to full-on milk tea with biscuits, to milky chai, to the perennial favorite black Earl Grey (also referred to as Hot Beef for no particular reason). The time we take tea seems to vary a lot as well, but we drink a lot of it. There is nothing better than crossing a glacier on a cold windy day, and sitting down for a nice cup of tea.

I saw a bird.

November 27th, 2006

So the other day I was sitting in the hut and I said “Hey I just saw a bird.” My peripheral vision had identified a shadow passing overhead (all the buildings here have skylights) that my brain interpreted as a bird based on a lifetime of experience. However, my initial thought was “that can’t be a bird, I’m in Antarctica.” On closer inspection, it turned out it was a bird and my brain was right after all. Apparently there is a skua that comes around now and then to pick at the leathered remains of a dead seal near camp. It’s already gotten the soft stuff (eyes) but hasn’t given up that there is something else edible. It made me realize that it was the first living thing I’d seen besides humans in about 4 weeks. Strange.

The difference between meters and centimeters is $900

November 26th, 2006

So the fruits of my labors are starting to pay off. I’ve started to prefect the projects I’ve been experimenting with, and they all seem to be working. The latest triumph has been my exploration of PhotoModeler. The goal is to take a bunch of photos of an ice cliff from different angles and generate a 3-D model of the surface. If the model is of sufficient accuracy, then a second model created from photos at the end of the summer can be used to measure ablation across the entire cliff. (Measuring stakes drilled into the ice is easier, but only gives you information at a single point.)

My concern was that the accuracy of the method would be to low since the cliffs only ablate by about 10-30 cm in a season. My first attempt yielded point location accuracy on the order of 50 cm, so that was no good. I am improved my photography technique on a second visit, and just finished analyzing them. After an hour of staring at photos, I ended up with an accuracy of about 2 meters. That seemed ridiculously high, but I couldn’t find any problems with my analysis, so I was ready to accept that we’d purchased a really expensive useless toy.

As I was ready to give up and take a shower, I took another look at the project setup and noticed that the distance used to scale the whole model (the distance between the 2 stakes we had installed as reference points) was set to 502 meters, rather than 502 centimeters. After correcting that little mistake, the error in individual points magically became about 3 cm! It’s funny how units will do that.

Take a look at the nifty model I have started:

Photos with point network3-D Model of cliff (stakes are red lines)

Happy Turkey Food Day!

November 23rd, 2006

Today we celebrated Thanksgiving at Lake Hoare which consisted of 30 people coming in from all over Taylor Valley for the day and eating an amazing spread of mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, turkey, asparagus, sweet potato casserole thing, roasted yams, rolls, whole wheat rolls, bread, cranberry sauce, and 8 pies. It is really an amazing thing. There are probably some food items I’ve forgotten about too. Many people fall into comas for awhile, but most have helos to catch home at the end of the day, so they have to wake up before the helo pilots finish their pie.

The weather was beautiful with clear skies and a temperature of 0 C – the warmest so far of the season. Short sleeve weather.

Last year I found this extravaganza very disorienting because it was my first time leaving 1 square mile and being with more than 6 people in 3 weeks. This year I was much better prepared having already been living here. It felt like a big family reunion. It did make me feel more homesick to have time away from working and to be celebrating a holiday.

Well we finished the Blood Falls work successfully yesterday and will go back to doing our work tomorrow. Population goes down to 7 over the weekend!

Snow Day!

November 20th, 2006

Today was the first day cancelled on account of weather. We had been really lucky so far , but it’s bound to happen sooner or later. The weather here was actually ok (low clouds, moderate temperatures, moderate wind), but the helos were grounded for the day because weather in McMurdo was worse (as is typical). While this sucked for schedule and I was looking forward to getting back up to Blood Falls, there always is a certain level of excitement on a weather day, like a snow day in grade school.

That said, we still kept plenty busy catching up on some data analysis and we spent a cold afternoon up on Canada Glacier testing various methods of extracting a 3 m piece of conduit that is frozen into the ice. Hassan is faced with a special project in December after I leave removing many ablation stakes from another project that are still 1-2 meters in the ice. It is a daunting task he faces, but we had fun devising ways to bash, bend, ram, and pull some old metal stakes out of Canada, despite a stiff sea breeze.

We rewarded ourselves with a wonderful meal of Puttanesca and fresh olive bread that Rae and Sandra made, and with a couple episodes of the Office that Hassan brought down. The forecast for tomorrow does not look any better, but the sun keeps peaking through the clouds upvalley, creating very neat golden light. There are 32 people expected for Thanksgiving, and if the weather does not improve, turkey logistics could get very complicated.

Regardless of the helos, we have plenty of work to keep us busy here, so don’t worry, Andrew. The worst would be if they fly in the morning but call it off later which would leave us stranded at Blood Falls and forced to either spend the night at Bonney Camp or hike back. I’m sure I’ve just jinxed us by acknowledging the slim possibility, but it’s not the end of the world.

Well if we do get to fly tomorrow I need to be in bed by now!

BFF (Blood Falls Forever!)

November 18th, 2006

Today we are heading up to Blood Falls to clean up the mess last year’s project made. That project ended, but the seismic stations and some other equipment have still been collecting data all winter. With the help of Thomas and CeCe we are going to remove about 4000 pounds of equipment spread across the glacier and valley around it. Hopefully most stuff has already melted out of the ice so we don’t have to chip it out. Over the next few days we will make bundles of like items so they can be slung out and sent back to town. It will be fun to be back at Blood Falls, but it will also be a lot of work.

There is a decent katabatic wind coming down valley today (the strongest yet since I’ve been here), so it will be interesting to see how windy it is upvalley at Taylor Glacier (it is often stronger there). The katabatics bring strong winds but warm temperatures so we’ll either be really cold or really hot. It’s always hard to know how to dress on these days. Ahh, the fashion dilemnas of Antarctica.

Core dog tired

November 15th, 2006

Now that the excitement of mass balance season has ended, we’ve been doing some miscellaneous projects and recovering from all the walking. I’ve spent a great deal of time getting intimate with some core dogs. These are 2 ‘teeth’ on the inside of the core barrel that grab the core and keep it from sliding out as you pull it out of the hole. An instruction manual for the Kovacs coring kit does not exist (that I am aware of), so in order to make adjustments to the way the corer works you either have to find someone who really knows how to use it, or spend an evening with the core barrel and a set of hex wrenches. I chose the latter.

I am starting to feel like I could successfully run a coring campaign. Luckily I am only interested in pulling 50 cm cores, so it isn’t particularly complicated. I managed 2 this week on Canada Glacier near the met station, and have been perfecting analysis techniques in camp. At this point I am only aiming for elementary core processing, so again, it isn’t particularly complicated. That said, it has taken a number of attempts with different equipment to get it right. A hacksaw has teeth that are too small and gum up with shavings, so you need a more dangerous looking saw; an MSR stove burns too hot and melts the sample too quickly, melting the sample on the stove in the hut subjects it to high air temps – a hotplate plugged in outside works perfectly. The goal is to melt the sample thin enough so that you are only looking through a single crystal (which you need cross-polarizers to see). I’ve started to get decent photos and hope to process the rest of the cores I already have this weekend. My goal is to measure grain size and bubble content only at this point and look for large differences within the upper 50 cm of ice, between glaciers, and over the course of the summer.

Besides this, we’ve installed Sensit (measures the quantity of windblown particles) at 2 met stations, changed the antifreeze out of a precipitation gage, photographed a cliff for terrestrial photogrammetry, and developed our design for conducting subsurface solar radiation measurements (this will be really cool if we get it to work).

I’ve seen the future, and it involves drilling a horizontal 10″ hole about 1 m deep in the side of a terrace on the glacier, about 10-50 cm below the flat top of the terrace. We can feed a pyranometer mounted on a met arm into the hole and measure how much solar radiation penetrates through the ice to the subsurface (both with and without snow on the surface). After we remove the pyranometer we can core down to its previous location. We will measure grain size and bubble content at various depths of the core. Then I can calibrate the model with direct measurements of grain size and subsurface radiation at the same location. If we can pull this off close to a met station, I will also have data on meteorological conditions and ice temperatures at the time. The coup de grace would be to pop into a cryoconite hole from the side and repeat the measurements from inside of an undisturbed cryoconite hole in situ. This plan sounds ambitious, but after dinking around this week, I don’t think it’s unreasonable.

If you’re still with me at this point, peruse some photos from the last few days – ice core drilling, Sensit install, cliff photography, ice core analysis.

My personal photographer

November 12th, 2006

Wow, Hassan has way better photos than I do. (His photo site has the larger photos, plus some cool ones of Hassan’s love affair with a pyranometer.)
For example, here is me with a white nose.
me with a white nose

Here is me eating Taylor Glacier (I’m on the right):

Here is me eating a Lasagnwich (leftover lasagna sandwich):

This next one is a tricky one. It looks like I am taking scientific measurements. But really I am freezing my balls off.


And lastly, Hassan’s greatest work: Me with a board on my head, surrounded by a bunch of sticks. This post-modern work of genius should hang in the Centre Pompidou.

Saturday Night Fever

November 12th, 2006

Finally, a post that isn’t about glaciers! Saturday nights at Lake Hoare can get a little crazy after a long week of work. Tonight had a carnival atmosphere with all the shades drawn and a series of feats of athletic prowess – longstanding Lake Hoare traditions: the Table Traverse and Fitting into the Orange Bag. Rather than explain the rules, just look at the photos. I will try to get some more photos from other cameras at some point. I succeeded at both tests and may have entered Lake Hoare lore with my Orange Bag performance…

Photos start here:

Oh, and tomorrow is shower day!