Category Archives: *Season 3: Life in the Dry Valleys

Season 3 Comes to an End

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!


The Polar Star

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.

20140130_190354bView of the USCG Polar Star on the ice dock at McMurdo station

20140130_190107bGathering for a tour

20140130_183528View of the life boats, with the Royal Society mountain range of Antarctica in the background

20140130_181234bOn the Bridge

20140130_184415bOne of the control rooms on the ship

20140130_184444bUnfortunately 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.

Hiking to Canada (Glacier)

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.

IMG_7802This 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’.

IMG_8360dHiking on the surface of Canada glacier, with volcanic Mt. Erebus far in the distance ahead

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.

IMG_8354bStopping at the ridgeline to take in the view and attach my stabilizers.
Up this high, the glacier is smooth enough to hike up and onto its surface.

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.

IMG_8370cDrilling into the glacier

IMG_8366cInstalling the flags to mark the location of our cryoconite grids

IMG_8403bMeasuring the size and location of small melt holes around each of the flags we drilled into the glacier

IMG_8362cMarking the location of our flaglines with GPS

IMG_4678bHiking 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.

IMG_8376cOne 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.

IMG_8392c    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.

Scaling Giants

Jan. 23, 2014

While I spent the first two months of my time here helping the Stream Team collect samples and measure flow levels of the creeks around Antarctica (and I’m working on a quick video to show what that’s like and our spectacular views from the field), in recent weeks I’ve been able to focus more on my own research, which takes place on glaciers.

IMG_8279dOne of my fieldsites; Canada Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys

I’m researching the deposition of atmospheric halocarbon pollutants and a few other chemicals into glacial meltwater. Many halocarbons (compounds that contain chlorine, bromine, flourine, or iodine attached to carbon) are semi-volatile, which means that they are a gas when conditions are warm, but fall out of the atmosphere as a liquid or solid when temperatures are colder. This leads to a phenomenon called the ‘grasshopper effect‘ that leads to higher concentrations of these chemicals at the poles. In simple terms, what happens is this: gases like to spread out evenly in all directions. Think of it like filling a really large balloon with gas- the concentration of that gas will spread out everywhere in the balloon. But, unlike a balloon, Earth has different temperature conditions in different places, so when pollutants that are created in a place like the tropics start to spread out and reach a cold environment like a glacier, they condense into a liquid or solid form and fall out of the atmosphere, depositing onto the ice. However, the gas left IN the air will still continue to spread out and fill the ’empty’ space, causing even more of it to spread to the air above a glacier, condense into more liquid, and fall down to Earth’s surface. If that surface warmed up quite a lot during the summer, the gases could re-volatilize and phase back into gases to continue traveling around the world, but if the surface is always cold, it will act as a sink that causes more and more of a compound to ‘fall out’ of the atmosphere and pile up onto the icy surface. Thus around the world these chemicals ‘hop’ their way to colder and colder climates until they reach a place where they can’t get warm enough to ever hop back into a gaseous state again, becoming stuck in a cold place like Antarctica. (This is a simplification and only applies to certain chemicals, but is relevant for what I study.)

What this ultimately means is that many semi-volatile pollutants with long half-lives (chemicals that don’t degrade quickly) end up in cold regions very far away from the anthropogenic (man-made) sources that produced them. This also means that having chemicals reach cold climates and glaciers may have significant impacts on the quality of water in these regions. Since more than seventy percent of the world’s population gets their drinking water from glaciers and snowmelt (which contribute source water to rivers and streams), studying the types of contaminants that are attracted to and deposited in glacial areas is important to human health worldwide. Although Antarctica doesn’t have a large population of people drinking the glacial water, it’s a good place to study these chemicals and risks because I can get a  clearer idea of where the chemicals came from (long-range chemical transport rather than local industry that pollutes an area), and from this information I can get a better idea of how the chemicals travel, deposit into water, and break down over time.

canadacomposite3bMeltwater channels running through one of my fieldsites

In order to start my work, I’ve been hiking onto glaciers to get samples of the meltwater that collects in small pools on the glacial surface. I have to use very sensitive equipment in order to avoid contaminating the samples, since touching the water with my hands, clothing, or plastic would alter the results I’m able to measure.

CC-13c2One of the melt holes I sampled on the glaciers, which is called a cryoconite

CC-14e2Removing the tubing from another cryoconite

Cryoconites form when dust and dirt fall onto a particular place the surface of the glacier, which lowers the albedo of the snow. Dirty (darker) snow absorbs more heat than white snow, so dirt that the wind blows onto a particular small area causes the snow around it to melt into a small hole like the ones pictured above. Once the hole has melted to 1-2ft deep, the dirt at the bottom no longer receives as much sunlight as the surrounding snow (because it is now under water), so it prevents the hole from growing any larger and you’re left with a series of small, shallow cryoconite holes of icy water that are spread out across a glacier in places where dirt once fell. These little holes are a good source to study how atmospheric chemicals deposit into exposed meltwater pools.

One of my favorite parts to this work is the ability to hike up the glaciers, getting phenomenal views of the Dry Valleys and Transantarctic mountains along the way. Granted, the hike up is a lot easier than the hike back when I’m carrying an extra 12 liters of sample water back with me to the lab.

Canada Glacier-1eA few of the views while hiking towards the glaciers…



IMG_8347bFor other glaciers, such as this trip to Taylor Glacier (the lower part of which contains Blood Falls, from my previous post), it’s too far to hike and instead we get dropped off on the top by helicopter

IMG_8343bCarrying posts across the glacier

20140107_132440cThe helicopter trips offer incredible views of the Transantarctic mountains from above

On these first few trips I focused mostly on collecting meltwater samples from pockets on the various glaciers, but afterwards we went back to map out transects of the glacial surface. I’ll post about that next week.

Blood Falls

January 18, 2014

Blood falls is a bright red waterfall of iron oxide-rich water that streams through Taylor glacier into Lake Bonnie in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Two of the streams that we measure empty into Lake Bonnie, so we’re able to visit Blood Falls every two weeks or so, and the view of the color red in the otherwise brown, blue, and white Dry Valleys is a surprising sight.

IMG_7958bView of Blood Falls from a helicopter

While a lot of the glaciers in the Dry Valleys have waterfalls that release meltwater through channels along and under the glaciers, Blood Falls is unique because the water comes from an iron-rich hypersaline (extra-salty) subglacial lake underneath Taylor glacier; a lake of ancient seawater that became trapped under the glacier approximately two million years ago. Meltwater pushes some of the hyper-saline lake water through the side of the glacier and mixes with oxygen in the air to develop the rusty color of the water and ice.

20131216_100417bFrozen ‘rusty’ snow from the water streaming out of the glacier

This waterfall was first described by Thomas Griffith Taylor, the expedition geologist on Robert Scott’s 1911 expedition in the Antarctic. Scott named both the glacier and the entire valley between the Asgard mountains and Kukri Hills (where I live and where my photos of F6 camp come from) after Taylor, and it is the most Southern of the three large McMurdo Dry Valleys. The Taylor glacier once carved the entire valley in between these mountains and reached out towards the ocean, but it has been receding and its edge is now 18 miles away from the Antarctic coast.

IMG_7968cThe fieldcamp for scientists studying Blood Falls, with the iron-rich water visible towards the left in the 34-mile long Taylor Glacier

More than 17 types of microbes have been discovered living in the subglacial anoxic lake (anoxic water contains no free oxygen), and a team of scientists this season have been devising an experiment to drill into the glacier and see what sort of other organisms might be able to survive in those conditions. It’s a difficult job to study anoxic systems because as soon as you drill through the glacier, you would be exposing the environment to oxygen that it has never seen before, instantly changing the conditions you wanted to study. Research on anoxic systems is important in the field of astrobiology, making comparisons between unique oxygen-deprived systems on Earth and the sorts of biological life that might be possible on other planets where oxygen is also absent and organisms need to develop other methods to survive.

800px-Blood_falls1_f_Low_Res_nsf.govMap of the subglacial lake below Taylor Glacier, that causes Blood Falls (courtesy of NSF/ McMurdo LTER)

In the past few weeks our team has been busy measuring and sampling the meltwater from all of the creeks and streams in the valleys. This season has officially been declared a ‘high flow’ year because water levels have reached unusually high levels, but now in the middle of January, we’re getting farther away from the peak of austral summer and the meltwater should slow down soon. I’ve been lucky enough to take a few trips up to different glaciers to collect meltwater for my research, so in addition to all of the ground-level views of mountains from the creeks that we study, now I’ve been able to see what the Transantarctic mountains look like from higher up on the glaciers and peaks. I’ll update with photos and more descriptions soon!

Cape Royds- The Adelie Colony

Jan 5, 2014

In addition to exploring the site of Shackleton’s hut, when we visited Cape Royds we were also able to check out the Adelie penguin colony nearby. The colony is actually very close to the hut, and before we even saw the penguins we were able to hear them squawking from over 100 meters away on the other side of a hill. The colony itself is an “ASPA”; an Antarctic Special Protected Area, so we weren’t allowed to get up close & personal with the penguins but we could watch them from above on the hill.

The Cape Royds colony is the southernmost penguin breeding colony on the planet, and has approximately 12,000 Adelie penguins and 2100 nests. We were lucky enough to arrive shortly after many of the season’s baby chicks had hatched from their eggs, so many of the penguins were busy sitting on the chicks in small rock nests to keep them warm.

IMG_8092dThe penguins on the left, mid-left, and far-center of this photo
are sitting on two newly hatched chicks each,
while a penguin on the right sits on an egg

IMG_8097cEach nest consists of an average of 200 small stones that the adelies collect and often steal from their neighbors

IMG_8199dgoofy-looking Adelies

IMG_8107dAn Adelie with two chicks

IMG_8169fTwo chicks nestled under an Adelie penguin

Adelies mate for life (keep the same breeding partner each season) and create nests of roughly 200 small stones where they sit on the egg, and later the chick, until it is almost half the size of an adult penguin 6-8 weeks later and starts to grow out of its fluffy brown down feathers into a warmer, more water-proof black & white feathered coat. This year’s penguins started to hatch in late November, but there were still a few parents sitting on late blooming, unhatched eggs during our visit in late December.

IMG_8080bHatched penguin egg

IMG_8078bFluffy penguin feathers scattered everywhere as the chicks lose their soft coats

IMG_6709ePenguins on floating sea ice near the coast

IMG_6743dPenguin tracks in the snow

IMG_6676dA lone penguin farther out on the ice

IMG_8211dGathered on the edge of floating ice

IMG_8196dDiving into the water…

IMG_8164d…and jumping back up on the ice

IMG_8156ePenguins gathered on floating ice while others swim towards the far shore

IMG_8250dRelaxing penguins

IMG_8242dTaking a nap on the ice edge

After visiting the penguin colony, my team hiked across the coast looking for ponds where one of my teammates collected algae for her research. We’re now in the warmest point of Antarctic summer, and you can actually see thick algal mats of various colors in many of the ponds.

IMG_8219bColorful algae in a small pond

IMG_8232bHiking across the volcanic rock of Cape Royds towards more ponds

On our way back towards our helicopter rendezvous point a few skuas (large, brown seagull-looking birds) started flying over us and squawking territorially. As we continued to pass by they began dive-bombing us, swooping down close to my teammates’ heads and trying to scare us away from their land. While we didn’t see any nests, we supposed that we must be in their nesting territory and they saw us as a threat, so we quickly hurried back across the bay to avoid getting smacked in the head by large, ornery wildlife.

IMG_8269cMy teammate getting dive-bombed by a skua

At the very least I’m glad I work in the Antarctic instead of the Arctic, so that the biggest animal threat I’ve really had to worry about is a group of angry brown glorified seagulls rather than polar bears and wolves.

Cape Royds- Shackleton’s Hut

Dec. 29, 2013

Last week one of my two teammates went on a sampling trip to collect pond algae for her research, so the three of us took a trip out to Cape Royds on the coast of Ross Island, Antarctica and were able to visit Shackleton’s ‘Nimrod Hut’ while we were there. Ernest Shackleton lead his first of three British expeditions to Antarctica in 1907-1909, overwintering with his crew at Cape Royds and building Nimrod Hut (named after his ship) at this coastal spot near McMurdo Sound. After Shackleton’s arrival at Cape Royds in February 1908, fifteen men spent nine months in the hut over the dark, harsh Antarctic winter until a four-man expedition to the South Pole was attempted in October 1908.While Shackleton’s initial goal had been to reach the South Pole, he never made it quite that far, reaching 97 miles from the pole before turning back. Nevertheless this attempt beat all previous records at the time until Amundsen claimed the South Pole in 1911.

IMG_8046bOutside of Nimrod Hut- the ‘boxed area’ served as a stable where the crew kept ponies, which they favored over sled dogs in their march towards the South Pole

IMG_8049bPlaque on the door of the hut

IMG_8051bThis hut served as nine-month living quarters for fifteen men

IMG_8076bStanding in to show scale

IMG_8052bCots and bedding

IMG_8062bSocks still left hanging on a clothesline

IMG_8069bThe other side of the hut

IMG_8056bAfter their expedition Shackleton left a note at the hut letting any future explorers know that they’d left enough supplies behind to last 15 men one winter season in case anyone needed to use their hut again

IMG_8072bAlthough no future expeditions stayed at Nimrod hut, the supplies are still in remarkable condition over 100 years later

IMG_8058bWhile it’s sunny out now during Austral summer, I can’t imagine how bleak it would have felt to spend nine months here, six of which would have been in total darkness

IMG_8079bNimrod hut and Cape Royds. Mount Erebus, an active volcano also located on Ross Island, is visible within the clouds behind the hut (on the right). Shackleton’s men were the first explorers to reach the summit of Mt. Erebus in 1908.

Last year I visited Discovery Hut, the location of Robert Falcon Scott’s storage depot in 1902 which is also located on Ross Island 23 miles away from Nimrod Hut. (The fact that Shackleton chose to build Nimrod Hut on the same island as Discovery Hut was a point of contention between the two explorers, who had previously agreed to stay away from each others’ landing sites.) I snapped a few photos of that site here, but unlike Shackleton, Scott’s men didn’t live at their hut, choosing instead to overwinter on their ship frozen within the ice and simply using Discovery Hut as a storage space/ emergency bunker in case anything were to happen to the ship itself. In my opinion this makes Nimrod hut more interesting because we were able to gain a much more vivid picture of life lived within the hut 105 years ago.

Cape Royds also has a penguin colony quite close to Nimrod Hut, and we were fortunate enough to visit right after the season’s new penguins have hatched. I’ll write another article about baby penguins and the rookery soon. Until then, happy New Year!

Mummified Seals

[This entry contains images of mummified seals]

Dec. 14, 2013

One of the more bizarre aspects of life in the Dry Valleys is the rare occasion on which you stumble upon a mummified seal when hiking in the mountains. Yup… a seal… a mummified one, at that… and in the mountains of a dry, barren landscape in Antarctica. The first time I saw one I was intrigued and took a few photos (at least I’d heard quite a bit about them before, since they’re an infamous enigma of the Dry Valleys), but now I’ve past so many more that it seems like just another quirk to the landscape here.

DSCN1487bMummified seal in the Asgard mountains

Seals aren’t uncommon in Antarctica, but they live in the ocean and generally only make landfall for shorter periods, very close to the coast. What brought them 45 miles inland and up to elevations of 5900 feet above sea level is the mystery. Scientists generally believe that this may occur if a seal beaches on land and becomes lost, traveling inland instead of back to the coast, and scooting up and into the mountains, astray and disoriented. Since there are no organisms in the Dry Valleys larger than miniscule algae, there is nothing for the seals to eat when they travel this far inland, and some seals end up starving in this landscape. Luckily this doesn’t happen too often, as a recent study analyzed the carbon of crabeater seal skeletons in this region and found many to be hundreds up to 2,600 years old, which suggests that only one seal gets lost here every 8 years. Considering the millions of of crabeater seals that inhabit the coast surrounding Antarctica (estimates range from 7 to 75 million seals, since they’re very hard to track when they’re not on land), this seal-march into the mountains isn’t too frequent of an ordeal, but the evidence of their journeys remains for a very long time. The Dry Valleys are one of the driest places on Earth and the lack of moisture in the air mummifies the seals that do die here, preserving them for much longer than other climates where things would biodegrade.

Since I can’t approach too close to living wildlife in Antarctica, the mummified seals are interesting because it’s the only time I can get close enough to see what the teeth and skeletal shape of a crabeater seal really looks like. Crabeater seals live around the coast of Antarctica in such high numbers that they have the highest population of any seal in the world. Despite their name, crabeaters don’t actually eat crabs, but krill; very small, shrimp-like crustaceans in the ocean. While their jaws look menacing with rows of sharp teeth, crabeaters actually use their teeth to sift food by chasing schools of krill, opening their mouths wide to catch them, then spitting the water back out, trapping krill in their closed mouths like a built-in strainer. This is very similar to the way that baleen whales eat, and one of the reasons for the very high population of crabeaters in recent decades is the lack of competition for krill from blue whales, which also feed on krill but have been overfished in the last 100 years.

780px-Lobodon_carcinophaga_teeth.svgDrawing of crabeater teeth by Dimitri Torterat

DSCN1529bAnother crabeater in the mountains

DSCN1526b Crabeater on a saddle pass between Suess and Lacroix glaciers

In other news, it snowed the other day. This may not seem like a big deal considering the fact that I’m living in Antarctica, but it’s incredibly unusual for it to snow much in the Dry Valleys. This region gets an average of 5cm of snowfall per year, and hasn’t seen significant rain in over two million years. (It’s the DRY Valleys, after all.) Much of the snow that does form sublimates before it reaches the ground because of the powerful sunlight and dry conditions, so snow on the ground is less common. I was visiting another camp on the other side of Canada Glacier when the snow fell, and it was beautiful how quiet it made an already underpopulated and empty landscape.

DSCN1539Snow dusting on the solar panels

DSCN1540 Snow up the valley towards Suess glacier

This weekend we’re taking a helicopter into Wright Valley to measure flow at the Onyx river; the largest river in Antarctica. It’s only 16-20 miles long, but nevertheless, since most of Antarctica consists of a frozen ice sheet, this one wins the title for the largest on the continent. More than half of the streams are flowing at this point so the season is picking up quite a bit.

Gauge Boxes and Trickling Streams

Dec. 9, 2013

The temperatures are slowly getting warmer as we near austral summer and a few of the streams have started to flow. Generally the melt season is late November- mid January, when it creeps just slightly above freezing temperatures and the glaciers release a pulse of meltwater down into the valleys through various stream channels that have formed over time, releasing the water into lakes that will refreeze in February towards austral autumn. We will track the volume and flow of the meltwater and measure various aspects of the water chemistry of these streams throughout the summer season. The melt happened quite quickly; one week everything was frozen and quiet and the next week I could hear rushing water within the glaciers, as melt water rushed down the cracks and under the surface of the snow.

While the sound of the water near the glaciers is actually surprisingly loud, that water is still taking a bit of time to actually flow down the valley and the amount of water entering the steams is still low at the moment. Within another week though, considering how fast the melt season started, it should start to surge even more quickly.

DSCN1444The melt season has begun!

This past week was spent replacing some of the 10+ year old gauge boxes that monitor steam flow of the different creeks that flow from glaciers into Lake Fryxell. Each of the gauge boxes is a large wooden box with wiring and probes that extend to a nearby stream to measure temperature and conductivity, along with a conoflow that measures the depth of the stream.

DSCN1476bHiking out to one of the gauge boxes.

IMG_7962bOne of the old gauge boxes with a small stream starting to flow behind it

I think the concept behind the conoflow depth measurements are pretty cool- in order to measure the depth of the stream automatically (every 1-15 minutes), a nitrogen tank inside the gauge box releases a bubble of nitrogen through a long tube that extends to the bottom of the streambed. Since pressure increases with water depth, there is less resistance to ‘pushing’ the bubble out of the tube when the tube only has 5 centimeters of water flowing over it than when there is 30 centimeters of water flowing over it, and so that measure of pressure/resistance can be converted into an estimate of the actual depth of the stream at that point and recorded on a computer chip. Many other methods of measuring stream depth involve instruments with liquids that aren’t practical to a cold environment like Antarctica, but the constant flow of nitrogen gas being released through the tube helps to keep the tubing free from ice that might otherwise build up inside.

Since the gauge boxes are made of wood, we replaced some of the older ones this week to ensure that they don’t get too weathered (it’s quite windy here) and break down over the winter season. We broke down the old boxes, set up new, sturdier ones, and carted all of the old pieces back to our fieldcamp F6 where they’ll be piled together and picked up by a helicopter at the end of the summer season. Once the streams start flowing at a higher level later in the season we’ll be busy sampling the water quality at each stream (may of them take a while to hike to, while we will take a helicopter to travel to the streams farther away from our valley) so it was good to get all of these new boxes set up ahead of the busy season.

8750_10101633994843121_1375042920_nTaking apart the old boxes

Attempting to be a Spartan from 300 whilst taking apart the old boxes…

1476455_10101628313862851_19862357_nThe new gauge boxes we assembled. All of the instrumentation is inside, while tubing leads down to the stream, which isn’t yet flowing at this snow-covered site.

1459342_10101634000456871_911566064_nVictory pose at the site of the last gauge box we built

This upcoming week we’re flying to a few different valleys to start measuring the streams, so I’ll update on what it is we do exactly at each stream sometime next week. Stay warm!