…Ok, bad pun reference to Meghan Trainor’s song, but I need ways to amuse myself here on the Ice, right? We had a seemingly neverending series of storms from late December through January that made it hard for me to connect to the internet, but now that things have calmed down a bit I can get back to writing about life in the field. And today I’m talking about weddell seal pups, how amazingly fast they grow, and the purpose of blubber in polar animals.
In the end of November I hiked out onto the sea ice towards the pressure ridges that I explored last year, and on my way I passed a baby weddell seal pup with its mother on the ice. I’ll admit I’m a total sucker for baby animals, particularly chance sightings of wildlife in their natural habitat, but I still stayed a fair distance away from the seals so that I wouldn’t disturb the pair or make the mother feel too defensive for her pup. Luckily I had a zoom lens on my camera that let me take a few decent photos from farther away on the ice, and I’m pretty pleased with a few of the shots I was able to take.
The weddell pup was very cute but I was surprised by how *large* it was- at only two weeks old, this seal was already around 80 pounds. I spoke to a few of the seal biologists at McMurdo station after my sea ice hike and learned that this pup was 4ft long and weighed ~58 pounds when it was born, and continued to gain 4 pounds per DAY for the first six weeks of its life. In order to help the seals grow quickly, the milk produced by weddell mothers is so extremely fatty (60% pure fat) that it has the consistency of melted wax. This helps the pups gain enough blubber to keep warm in the Antarctic cold, and after six or so weeks, when the pups have quadrupled in weight (now approximately 240 pounds), they begin hunting and eating small fish and krill.
They continue to grow until they reach an average of 1200 pounds and are 11ft long, and as active adults they eat an average of 110 pounds of food per DAY. It’s hard for me to imagine that massive amount of food; a seal eating a pile of krill approximately the weight of my entire body on a daily basis. Even when compared to their total body mass, that appetite would be proportional to if I ate 11.4 pounds of food per day (compared to the 3-4 pounds of food eaten/day by the average healthy American adult). Needless to say, these seals are enormous. Even when I’ve been closer to them when adult weddells have approached near me in the past, I wouldn’t have imagined they were 1200 pounds just because they don’t stand up or tower over us in any way, so somehow I think it’s harder to envision their true size when they’re laying down. They remind me a bit of water balloons, sort of ‘spreading out’ their body mass when they lie on the ice, but that blubber is actually very dense and contributes 40% (nearly 500 pounds) of their weight.
In order to find out all of those facts I did a bit of research online, and while reading I learned a bit more about the purpose of having blubber- sure, it’s to keep warm, and it provides a source of energy when food is more scarce, but what’s the advantage of having more fat instead of having fur to keep warm? The answer, I learned, has to do with pressure. Sea otters have the thickest fur of any animal (one million strands of hair per square inch of skin!) which traps air in the fur layer and helps insulate the otters from cold water. Otters sometimes ‘roll’ in the water to introduce more air into their fur and help keep them warm.
Weddell seals, on the other hand, do not have a lot of fur. When weddells hunt, they can dive up to 2000ft below the surface in order to find food, but the deeper they dive, the greater the pressure of seawater pushing against their bodies. Thick fur wouldn’t help seals in that situation because fur is compressible– the large water pressure in deeper water would squeeze all ‘warming’ air out of fur. Blubber, on the other hand, is not very compressible, so it can provide a layer of insulation for seals even deep below the ocean surface.
Early explorers to Antarctica like Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton used the high fat content of seal blubber for fuel and food, and during a visit to Cape Evans this season I actually saw (and unfortunately, smelled!) the enormous 104-year old blubber pile stored by Captain Scott’s team in 1911, but that’s a blog article for another day.
Dec 21, 2014
I’ve been at my fieldcamp next to Canada Glacier for a few weeks now, waiting for the melt season to start. And… it hasn’t. Every week I’ve been hiking up the mountainside and onto the top of Canada to look for surface melt, but the surface pools (see my blog post on surface pool cryoconites here) are still frozen over, even on warmer days. Last year there was far more melting at this point in the season, which has led a few people to ask me “So is this year colder? Does that mean climate change has stopped or isn’t real?”
Not quite- this year isn’t actually any colder, it simply has far more intradial (‘within a day’) and transdiurnal (‘across a few days’) temperature variations than last year. In the summer time, temperatures in the Dry Valleys will fluctuate between well-below (-18C or 0F) to slightly above (3C or 37F) freezing. Last year these fluctuations tended to happen slowly, so that you’d have a few days of warmer weather, followed by a few days that were colder, then a few warmer again, slowly moving towards warmest days in early January but with a slight variation here and there. This year, instead of ‘multi-day’ weather patterns, we’ve been having ‘jumpier’ conditions where one day is very cold, then the next day is much warmer, then back to cold again. Overall if you were to compare the total number of ‘cold’ and ‘warm’ days between both summers the number would be the same, but the rapid speed of temperature jumps this year (rather than gradual changes like last season) has a few significant impacts on glacial melt and a process called the ‘ionic pulse’.
When I tell people I work in Antarctica studying the deposition of pollutants into glacial melt, some people ask why I have to stay here for the whole summer season– instead of waiting around for the melt season each year, why can’t I just carve a block of ice out of a glacier, melt it in a lab, and study it there? Why spend my time living in a tent, collecting water at different times during the summer? The answer is that glaciers aren’t made of ‘pure’ water and don’t melt evenly; different components within the ice will melt at different times and the composition of meltwater itself will change throughout the summer.
Like most natural water around the world, glacial ice has additional compounds dissolved within it such as sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, sulfate, and carbonate. These solutes decrease the freezing temperature of water so that if pure ice melts at 0C (32F), the impurities in glacial ice might instead melt at -2C (28F). (In other words, you need colder temperatures to freeze impure water, and those impurities will also melt out sooner than pure water.) So as temperatures warm up during the summer, if the average temperature in early December is -2C and the average temperature in early January is +1C, this means the impurities within the glacier will start to melt out earlier in December, leaving ‘purer’ ice behind to melt in January. This is called the ‘ionic pulse'; an initial burst of solutes and nutrients that preferentially melt out of a glacier at the beginning of the melt season before the temperatures are warm enough for the cleaner ice to start melting. In other areas of the world like the Colorado Rockies, the same type of ionic pulse releases nutrients from snowmelt during early spring and has significant impacts on plants and organisms that rely on those compounds for growth. Each spring you can see a spike in the nutrient load (concentration of solutes in the water) in rivers and streams that are fed by glaciers or snowmelt. So for my research, I can’t just carve out a bit of ice and take it back to a lab to study it because the environmental conditions of Antarctica itself will affect which parts of the ice melt at different times, which in turn affects the chemistry and composition of the meltwater that I study.
So even though I study glacial melt, I need to be here in the mountains BEFORE the initial ionic pulse of melting starts, in order to make sure I’m here when it happens and I don’t miss it. Then I’ll continue to take different samples during the whole season as the composition of the meltwater changes, to keep examining how atmospheric pollution reacts with and deposits into the different stages of melt. This year, though, the pulse hasn’t happened yet– we need to have a few nice, warmer days all in a row to get the process going. It’s like pushing a boulder down a hill- a few consistent shoves in the right direction will get the ball rolling and once that happens it will gain enough momentum that it can’t be stopped, and likewise a few warm days are enough to initiate glacial melt strong enough that the occasional colder day won’t stop it (until the end of the summer season when it is always below freezing again). Last year, we had a few warm days in a row that initiated that downhill ‘push’. This year, the cycle of ‘cold! warm! cold! warm!’ days hasn’t offered a long enough temperature consistency to start the process yet. And so I wait…
Dec 11, 2014
When I was at McMurdo Station, I had the opportunity to visit the ‘Observation Tube’, which is a narrow tube drilled through the sea ice surrounding McMurdo Sound that leads to a small, windowed seat where you can take in the scenery beneath the sea ice. I took my GoPro camera into the tube with me and was able to hear the sounds of a few different seals making their surreal, ‘sci-fi’ sounding squeaks under the ocean, as well as get my first view of brinicles.
Brinicles are concentrated columns where extra-salted seawater sinks to the ocean floor. When ice freezes, the purer water freezes first and pushes saltier water away from the ice structure. As more and more fresh water freezes, the liquid remaining behind gets increasingly concentrated (as well as increasingly cold-while-not-frozen), and eventually this salty brine, which is denser than the surrounding fresh water, sinks towards the bottom. Since the brine is still very cold, though, the low temperature causes nearby freshwater to freeze around it as it sinks, creating a tunnel of freshwater ice surrounding the column of deepening salty brine. The brinicles were distinctly visible as ‘ice tubes’ underneath the sea ice in the video, and it was beautiful to sit in the Observation Tube and take in the 360 degree view beneath the ocean surface.
Check out the video below! I included a little video section of the hike towards the Ob-Tube across the ice simply to show a little more of what it looks like to hike around near McMurdo Station, but the dialogue between my friends and I isn’t important, it’s just part of my experience taking a trip under the ice. (*To read the text within the video, make sure your youtube settings are set to a quality of at least 320p. Most faster internet connection speeds will use HD quality (720p) anyway, but if the text is blurry, check this setting.)
The BBC series ‘Frozen Planet’ also has an amazing segment where they filmed an extreme time-lapse of the formation of brinicles under the ice, part of which is available here-
Dec 3, 2014
I’ve arrived at my fieldsite in the mountains! I had a great week visiting McMurdo station before arriving at my final destination at Canada Glacier in the Dry Valleys of the Transantarctic mountains. I had a few opportunities to explore the area around McMurdo Station before I left, including a trip to an underwater observation station underneath the sea ice, a trip out to the historic explorer’s hut out at Cape Evans, and my first Thanksgiving at an American Antarctic station. (Since all my previous Antarctic station experience has been working for the French, Italians, and Swedes who don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.) I’d like to write a few more articles about those later, (don’t I always tend to say that??) but in the mean time I wanted to show you all a video clip of my helicopter trip from McMurdo Station on Ross Island, across the Sound to mainland Antarctica, and into the Transantarctic mountain range. In the video you’ll notice that the first mountains we pass are still covered by part of the Antarctic ice sheet, but the second valley range is dry on the bottom- that’s why it’s called the Dry Valleys.
What I like about this video in particular is that it’s often difficult to show the proper sense of *scale* for the size of mountains and glaciers here- people see pictures like these two,
which are taken from quite high up in a helicopter, and the glaciers look smoothly sloped and not all that tall, even though their downslope edges (called a ‘glacial tongue, the part that sticks farthest out from a glacier’s uphill origin) are often more than forty feet tall. This is simply a problem because the valleys and mountains themselves are so BIG that when a camera is zoomed out or a helicopter is high in the air, the glaciers look smaller than they really are. For instance, here are a few different photos of Canada Glacier again (seen in the second photo above) with people or buildings that add a sense of proportional perspective-
So it can be difficult to show both how WIDE the valleys are and how TALL the glaciers are within the same photograph, and that’s why I’m happy with this video below because it shows the valleys both from up high, and the eventual landing spot in front of Lake Hoare’s storage building (the green semi-circle dome at the end of the video) that gives the trip a sense of scale. I took this with a GoPro on a windy day inside a helicopter, which means it does get quite shaky, but I did my best from my tent in Antarctica to smooth out the video’s ‘camera shake’ with some editing software in places where it was possible to do so. Safety regulations prohibit attaching cameras to the outside of the NSF helicopters, so I had to let the camera shake around from inside the copter and then stabilize the images a little bit after the trip. I still have a lot to learn about video editing but I’m happy with my first attempt in a place like this, simply to be able to share the view of my commute into the mountains.
November 19, 2014
I’ve arrived back in Antarctica! It’s nice to see familiar faces at McMurdo Station, where I’ll spend the next week prepping and packing my gear for life out in the field. If you’re new to this blog, check out this video from last year (Season 3) to see what it’s like to fly to Antarctica. This blog article, ‘Scaling Giants’ describes the research I do in the field and why I’m here for the season. If you’re interested in reading more about life at McMurdo Station (the main base of operations for Antarctic science, located on Ross Island next to the Antarctic continent) check out my article about the Station here, or the short video tours of station here. I never spend very much time at the main station but since it’s where the vast majority of scientists work and live, a lot of people are curious about what it’s like there.
Despite the similar name, my field site in the ‘McMurdo Dry Valleys’ of the Transantarctic Mountain range is a completely different area from McMurdo Station and requires a helicopter to get out us out into the field across the sea ice from Ross Island to mainland Antarctica. The Dry Valleys are the largest ice-free area of Antarctica– approximately 97-98% of the continent is covered by the Antarctic Ice Sheet (which contains 70% of the planet’s fresh water as ice), while the Valleys consist of exposed earth and mountains mostly uncovered by ice, although there are plenty of glaciers between the mountains. The interesting thing about this area is that due to the ‘warmer’ temperatures that can rise above freezing during the austral summer months, seasonal rivers and streams are created by the glacial melt that run through the valleys and deposit meltwater into various lakes. Average temperatures in the Dry Valleys are approximately -20C (-5F) and the streams only flow when the weather is warm enough for glacial melt (0C or 32F), so from late November to the end of January (austral summer in Antarctica) when these temperatures are possible, water slowly melts out of the ice and I’ll be looking at the atmospheric contaminants that deposit into glacial melt here.
Since these mountains are farther away from the research stations, I’ll be living out of a tent at the base of Canada Glacier at a fieldsite called Lake Hoare, with 2-3 other people who will be working on other projects. I’ll arrive there next week but in the mean time I’m excited to spend Thanksgiving here at McMurdo Station, where there are currently 930 people living and working on base.
Nov. 8, 2014
After a few months of hectic and rushed fieldwork in different states, time zones, and continents, I’m getting ready for my fourth and possibly final season in Antarctica. It’s a strange feeling because I love working on this continent, but I have to remind myself that my work here is towards a degree (my PhD in environmental engineering), and I would like to graduate at some point soon, which unfortunately means I’ll have to face the reality of the adult world and ‘real’ jobs that don’t involve wearing a snowsuit and ski goggles to work. (But hey, if anyone out there is hiring a Transantarctic toxicologist, keep me in mind! ;)
This upcoming season, from mid-November to mid-February, will be unique in a few ways- I’m going to be working in the McMurdo Dry Valleys again like last year (Season 3) although at a different fieldcamp in the mountains, closer to the glaciers where I do my research. This is different because my first three seasons, on a Swedish Icebreaker, a French/ Italian Station on the High Plateau, and last year in the Dry Valleys were all so different from each other that I never had any idea what to pack. This year since I’ll be in the same general region as my beloved tent at F6 during 2013-14, it means that at least I have a good idea of what to bring without packing too much, and what sort of weather/ temperature conditions I can expect on the Ice. I’ll be living out of a tent again and working at a fieldcamp that has between one and four other people there, but my research examining global pollution deposition onto glaciers will be by myself. There is a policy in Antarctica that field scientists can’t live *completely* on their own; anyone who gets dropped off by a helicopter needs to be in a pair of at least two people for safety purposes, so since my work is by myself I’m living at a fieldcamp called Lake Hoare (named after Antarctic physicist Ray Hoare) with people conducting other research simply so that we’re (all 2-4 of us) together for meals, etc. It makes logistics like cooking, collecting glacial ice chunks to melt for drinking water, and charging our emergency radios with the solar panels we have all easier tasks when they’re split between a few people. I’ll find out more about the specific conditions of my life in the field once I arrive there next week, but in the mean time I wanted to update on the fact that I’m about to embark again on another season, hopefully with a lot of pictures and descriptions along the way, and I’m excited and a little bit nostalgic to be returning to Antarctica once again!
This post is a bit delayed, and because of an interesting story… it’s the adventures of my GoPro camera all around the world! During my 2013-14 Antarctic season, I took a bunch of video footage of various aspects of life in the field, and hoped to put that together into a series to show you guys back home. Unfortunately, when I shipped my equipment back to the US at the end of my season in February 2014 after the storms that delayed my departure, I mailed the GoPro back to my Colorado address but instead it decided to take a series of riveting detours through New Zealand, Hawaii, California, Florida, Washington DC, New York, and finally Colorado… in October 2014, nine months after I initially mailed it to myself. The one nice thing is that at least now I have it before I head back to Antarctica again this year, in precisely one week! So this season I’ll go through the videos I took last year and try to put something together (although it’s difficult to upload videos from the Ice) and see what I can show you from my third season. I should (hopefully) have somewhat more reliable internet during my 2014-15 year on the Ice, coming up quite shortly, so I’d like to be more thorough with this blog. (I also have more than 50 schools following along with my adventures this year, so I’ll try to answer questions as I can but it’s a lot of people to answer to!) In the mean time though, I’m excited to go through the pictures and video from my third season, since I kept promising to upload them during the last few months as I eagerly awaited my adventurous camera’s return.
My fourth season on the Ice should be from mid-November 2014 to mid-February 2015, and stay tuned for updates as I arrive next week!
Near the end of my season, the United States Coast Guard icebreaker ‘Polar Star’ arrived at McMurdo station on the coast of Antarctica and I was able to take a tour of the ship. I spent my first season in Antarctica working on a Swedish icebreaker, The Oden, and so it was interesting to visit the Polar Star to see the differences between the two icebreakers and compare my experiences.
Each austral summer an icebreaker travels down to Antarctica to break up the sea ice near the coast so that a larger transport vessel can travel through the path of broken ice and deliver large equipment and supplies to McMurdo station as part of ‘Operation Deep Freeze’ to support American equipment needs in Antarctica. (Essentially, an icebreaker clears the path for a larger ship to come in behind it.) The icebreaker chosen for this depends on a few factors, including shipping needs in the Arctic ocean and research expeditions at sea, and this year Polar Star was tasked with the job. The Polar Star is quite a lot larger than the Oden, with a population of 142 people working on board during Antarctic operations compared to Oden’s 53 (half of whom were scientists on the Oden). The coast guard ship is capable of breaking ice up to 21ft thick, and operates by ramming forward and slightly onto the ice with a rounded hull, then backing out, giving the ice time to move away before ramming forward again. When the ship is in full icebreaking mode we can see it from the coastal stations, moving forward and retreating numerous times to clear a path through the ice. The ship has an 18,000 diesel horsepower capacity, equivalent to that of approximately 90 cars.
On our tour, a coast guard sea ice diver guided us around the ship, showing us the bridge, control room, cafeteria, gym, movie room, and even a little coffee hut they have onboard.
Unfortunately my photo of their route from Seattle didn’t come out clearly, so I added notes. The Polar Star left Seattle in early December, crossing through the Pacific Ocean, and arrived at McMurdo in the second week of January.
Icebreaking ships have been in the news a bit recently because a Russian ship, the Akademik Shokalskiy, became stuck in thick sea ice near Antarctica. A Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (chinese for ‘Snow Dragon’) was sent to help break up the ice and pick up the people stranded onboard, but this ship *also* became stuck. Two additional ships, the Australian ‘Aurora Australis’ and the French Astrolab were unable to travel far enough towards the two trapped ships due to the thickness of sea ice, and so the Polar Star, already enroute to Antarctica from Seattle, was tasked to free the two vessels in early January before arriving at McMurdo station. Luckily changes in the flow of pack ice freed both ships before the Polar Star arrived so a rescue wasn’t necessary, but this event has highlighted the need for strong icebreakers if ships are going to continue traveling through areas that have thick, multi-year sea ice in either the Arctic or the Southern (Antarctic) oceans.
The Oden operated in a similar manner but was designed to slide slightly further onto the ice, then ‘rock’ on top of the ice in a method called heeling to help break the ice from underneath the ship. Heeling works by mechanically shifting ballast (weight) from one side of the ship to the other and back again and accentuates the force already exerted on the ice by the ship. It creates a loud, vibrating and ‘jutting’ feeling on the ship, which was interesting to experience because you can feel the power of the engines as you walk around on board. I’ve included a short video I took in 2008 when I worked onboard the Oden, but it’s a little difficult to see the action of the ship tilting from side to side because since I’m standing onboard, myself and my camera are moving along with the ship.
Jan 28, 2014 (weather delay; posted Feb 23)
It starts with a beautiful 1.5hr hike up the mountains and alongside the glacial fan. This is the part of a glacier that ‘spills over’ the mountains and spreads out into the valley below. Every glacier is different, but today’s trip onto Canada Glacier is the one I’ve decided to write about, and has one of my favorite views within the Asgard mountains. The melt season is starting to ebb as the austral summer season ends and colder temperatures prevent the glacier from melting, but there are still streams of water that pour out of the glacier, both beneath it when water flows down and pools under the surface, and spouting out of waterfalls that channel the meltwater from the top of the glacier along to the upper edge.
This is actually a view of Commonwealth glacier, but is a good example of what a ‘glacial fan’ looks like as the enormous mass of ice spills into the valley below. To hike onto a glacier we usually hike up the mountainside to the ‘waist’ of the ice, where it is easier to hike onto the surface than the steep downslope edge.
Even though the sun shines 24hrs a day in Antarctic summer, the actual location of the sun makes a big difference when we’re hiking– when the sun faces the mountainside we’re on, the snow melts a little bit along our path and it’s a slippery journey through patches of soft snow. Today our job is to measure the distribution of cryoconites (melt pools; see last post) on the surface of the glacier- we’ll pick locations to set up flags, measure the size and location of cryoconites in a grid around each flag, and then revisit the flags next year to see if the number of melt pools, or their size, has changed over time. Are the melt pools growing? Will some of those that freeze during the winter melt in the same location next summer? Does the slow downhill movement of the glacier mean they’ll be squished into different locations next year? Many glaciers move downhill very (very) slowly, and push ice as they go– this means the actual locations of features within the glacier are also bound to change over time. These are some of the questions we’ll try to address with this study.
Using large flags to mark the locations we’re measuring means that today I hiked up to the ridge of Canada with a number of flags sticking out of my pack, reminding me of little bit of the character Russel from the pixar film ‘Up’.
Once we reach the ridgeline of the glacier where we’re high enough up on the mountainside to hike onto the ice (the “waist” of the glacier where it starts to spill out into the valley below), we stop to attach stabilizers to our boots (like little attachable metal soccer cleats that prevent us from slipping on the glacier) and hike onto the ice.
Now on the glacier, we pick a few locations to study and other members of my group drill into the ice with a manual auger (like a hand-crank drill) to make holes for the flags while I measured the amount of sunlight penetrating through the water in the melt pools.
Hiking up the glacier. The higher parts had very patchy snow and was easier to hike in snowshoes, which distribute our weight over a wider surface and help prevent us from slipping into holes or sinking through softer parts of the ice.
One of our ‘flags’ was missing the fabric, and had been reconstructed into a duct-tape battle axe by whoever used it before us. Corey and I had fun taking turns posing with it on the glacier, with volcanic Mt. Erebus in the background behind us. It’s the little things in Antarctica that keep us entertained.
This is a close-up of the texture of the ice on top of the glacier. The angle of the snow/ice here is created by strong winds and a freeze/thaw cycle– warmer weather softens the top layer of ice, and winds during the re-freezing process create the layered, angular juts seen here.
After setting up five different flags and measuring the location of the meltpools and the amount of sunlight penetrating through the water to the bottom of each hole (which will help to describe how the water melts over time), we made our way back across the glacier and back to camp. The flags will stay (hopefully!) in the locations we drilled until we come back next year to compare the data. Since the sun rotates around the sky in a large circle in Antarctica, by the time we left the sun had rotated behind the mountains, casting our hiking trail into shadow and re-freezing the soft snow we’d hiked over when we first arrived. It’s much easier to hike across hard-frozen snow and we had a beautiful view of the mountains in shadow, the sun across the other side of the valley, and the water still streaming from waterfalls off of Canada glacier on our way back to camp.
Quick view of our hike back
General blog update- A few storms hit Antarctica towards the end of my season, and I just arrived back in the US this week [Feb 13]. Before I left I had the opportunity to visit the Coast Guard icebreaker, measure rising lake levels, and see a group of emperor penguins, but a rush of work meant I didn’t get a chance to write those stories yet, so I’ll get to those now that I’m back home!
Feb 10, 2014
My season is coming to an end soon and there are a few more articles I’d like to write before I wrap up this year’s blog, but a storm has hit the coast of Antarctica and I’ve been delayed in McMurdo for a few days. I have a few video clips and other material I’d like to add to the blog when I’m able to access faster internet, so in the mean time, stay tuned! I’ll write a bit more about the glaciers, the arrival of the Coast Guard Icebreaker, and finally the videos I haven’t been able to upload from our internet connection in the field.