And: Lift off! – Really.

Nearly three weeks at McMurdo gave us a good chill about weather in Antarctica and its predictability. The last days partly felt like never ending SIO coffee hours with all the project Scripps partitioned that  this season (see San Diego Union Tribune).
Today is the day of take off to camp: They day when we say good by to frosty boy, heated buildings, US TV and a lot of comfort you really wouldn’t expect down here. We will exchange the spectacular view on on the trans-antarctic mountains with a 360 deg view of nothing else than a horizontal line. Our days will be filled with searching for solar panels and then digging holes in the snow. Not beautiful, but fast. We will leave nothing behind the nature itself, but will know the shelf’s movement, measured continuous and accurate as never before.

We are done, when we are done. See you in about 3 to 5 weeks!aa16_mhell_6_20161108_0002-5aa16_mhell_5_20161104_0099-3 aa16_mhell_5_20161104_0096-2aa16_mhell_4_20161106_0042-4

Fight cancellations and frosty boy

Here in the Antarctic, unlike at home, we are continuously reminded of the immensity of nature and its ever-present hostility to human life and activity. As we await the “put-in” of our campsite on the Ross Ice Shelf (RIS), each morning we check the TV screens outside the galley (food hall) before breakfast for an update on the day’s scheduled flight from McMurdo to RIS. Each of the last two days, the flight has been cancelled due to weather and/or visibility, effectively pushing our work back a day and gently reminding us of nature’s superiority.

There are many ways to process news of a setback. Hiking and enjoying the raw beauty of McMurdo Sound (and its topography, which our campsite in RIS will distinctly lack over the next three weeks) is one reasonable approach. Computer-based work from inside our offices in the Crary building is another way to spend these unplanned extra days at McMurdo, although the intermittent internet connectivity further tests our patience. One cathartic response to a weather-cancelled flight is to take advantage of the free soft serve “Frosty Boy” ice cream in the galley. When one considers the full context of consuming a cold dessert from inside a large, heated dining hall on an inhospitably cold continent, it’s possible to convince ourselves otherwise of nature’s superiority, at least for a few scoops.


The flight cancellation status screen outside the galley. Adds excitement to breakfast every morning.


Good ol’ Frosty Boy, provider of unlimited soft serve ice cream. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about the “Frosty Boy challenge” which includes creative applications of soft serve ice cream to enhance every meal of the day.


Some quality entertainment options (7 of them!) to keep us occupied while we’re delayed.


P.S. In other news, today we learned from Momme that “pickle” means “ice axe” in German.

Update: No flights for us yet, but we are on weather delay (not cancelled yet!) for a potential flight to take out two stations today. In celebration of the possibility of good news, here’s a picture of a cat Momme used to live with, named Pickle.


Crevasses – or: Mind the Gap!

Our training is starting to get more serious. In addition to packing smaller boxes in big boxes or even unboxing boxes for the cargo stream, we also spend our preparatory time here at McMurdo in field training courses for all kinds of hazards we may face. One of the more enjoyable trainings so far has been the Crevasse Training, which prepared us for one of the most critical dangers traveling on ice shelves. Even though it is very unlikely that we’d encounter crevasses in the areas of the Ross Ice Shelf we’ll be visiting (there haven’t been any within the last 2 years), it’s essential that we’re prepared for any situation.
Crevasses are ridges in the ice that occur due to bending forces. They can be anywhere from a few feet to several tens of meters deep. Since the Ross Ice Shelf is about 400 meters thick, very long and deep crevasses can easily occur. Winds can blow them full with snow or produce overhangs, making them difficult to spot when traveling on the shelf.
The occurrence of crevasses is poorly understood and, in fact, one aim of this project is to gain a better understanding of their occurrence in floating planer ice shelves. The shelf floats on the ocean and has to adjust to changes of the sea surface height following the principle of Archimedes. Further, the thicker the ice the more inertia you need to induce measurable motion. Since the Ross Ice Shelf is grounded to the Antarctic continent in the South, the buoyancy force from sea surface height variations (due to storms, tides, and other processes) induces stress leading to bending in the ice. Just like bending a piece of wood, if you keep bending for long enough and with sufficient force, cracks will begin to form. In an ice shelf, the permanent small bending forces from ocean tides and waves may be enough to produce ridges that propagate and extend in time.
The first (and indoor) part of the crevasse training included climbing up a short section of rope (with Prusik hitches) that was being constantly lowered, as Sisyphus would have had experienced it. We also learned how to use mechanical advantage to establish 3:1 and 6:1 (two people) pulleys to drag grad students along the floor. Tying knots and organizing rope inside a heated building is one thing, but doing it outside on day two of our training in full extreme cold weather (ECW) gear was another story. We headed outside to the McMurdo Ice Shelf just beyond Scott Base on Tuesday to practice anchor building and crevasse rescues in a ~25ft “simulated” crevasse created by our USAP mountaineer guides. Although the day of practice outside was good fun, we hope we’ll never be required to use the crevasse rescue skills we’ve learned. Stay tuned for our next post!

Scotts Hut

Being in Antarctica is an exclusive experience and we can barely imagine how the first discoverers felt in their early expeditions. Many of these early voyages to Antarctica, around the turn of the 20th century, found a safe harbor in the McMurdo Sound, landing on Ross Island where McMurdo station stands today. One of the few remnants of early Antarctic exploration near McMurdo is “Scott’s Hut,” which we fortunate to visit during its brief opening to the McMurdo community for several hours last Sunday. A few minutes by foot along the coast beyond McMurdo station, this wooden hut stands well preserved from the days when it was used by the British Captain Robert Scott and his men. Many artifacts inside the hut remain intact, ranging from a box of dog biscuits to a dried out seal body! During its periodic public openings, Scott’s Hut is popular among the McMurdo population, who trek out in “Big Red” to have a look inside this historical place.
Upon entering the hut, we were informed that anything that might be moved, scratched or even viewed from the wrong angle would be recorded and reported to the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust  with the potential for further consequences. With this in mind, have a look at our pictures of Scott’s Hut which we visited in today’s physical Antarctic climate – much like Scott’s – and today’s bureaucratic climate, put in place to conserve this important historical site.

Safety training and life in McMurdo town

Sorry for the delayed posts!…we arrived Thursday last week and have been busy with meetings, training, packing our gear for camp, learning the ins-and-outs of McMurdo town life, and wait, there’s more training! Indoor field safety training and now outdoor training. I have begun to realize that 80% of research in Antartica is preparing and surviving the environment while 20% is direct research…this may not be entirely true but it’s a reality in this harsh environment. This week starts the more intense outdoor training, crevasse training, deep field camp survival, and snowmobile training.  Here’s some pictures from the training sessions and a couple of fun pics too.

Tour around McMurdo town
Outdoor crevasse training in the man made crevasse…hard work to get up that wall and fun too!

We’re here!

We’ve safely landed at Pegasus field and are getting settled (and trained) here at McMurdo before heading out to our field camp in a few days. (Note: we’re a few days behind with this post, but stay tuned for more pictures and updates on our last few days of Antarctic activities.)


A stellar first glimpse of sea ice from the luxurious and unexpected B757 flight from Christchurch.

Treated like royalty

Our royal transport to Antarctica
Our royal transport to Antarctica

I’m learning the USAP is well polished machine but this takes it to new levels…royalty!  When I heard we might take a commercial style jet instead of the standard cargo planes C17, I was somewhat disappointed for not getting the real experience. Now that I’m on the plane with a window seat, I’m ecstatic!! Now all we have to do is wait and see if we get to take off. There’s always the possibility flights are delayed or even returned before landing, called boomeranging, but hopefully we will get lucky.

Preparations for Antarctica – Field Team 2016

Today was our first full day in Christchurch, New Zealand and most of it was spent preparing for our field work in Antarctica.  We arrived at the United States Antarctic Research Program station to learn the details of our upcoming trip and get outfitted for the coldest place on earth!

Clothing options at the Clothing Distribution Center
Clothing options at the Clothing Distribution Center
Fully outfitted in polar field gear, Mel Carter is ready to go!
Fully outfitted in polar field gear, Mel Carter is ready to go!
Ready to get there, Laura Stevens is looking for alternate transportation methods.
Ready to get there, Laura Stevens is looking for alternate transportation methods.

If all goes well, we will depart tomorrow morning for Antarctica. Keep posted!

A day at the office

We were  backup on the Basler today and didn’t fly.

We are backup on MKB, the Basler air plane.
We are backup on MKB, the Basler air plane.

Ever wondered what we do when we don’t fly?

Well, we get up between 5:30 and 6:00. Go and have breakfast to be ready to receive news between 6:45 and 7:00. That’s when they tell us we are staying:

We are not flying! - Ahhhh
We are not flying! – Ahhhh

So we have to find some other tasks around the office and there is always something to do!

Lots of work
Lots of work

As non native speaker Zhao and Anja get the chance to learn many colorful englisch sayings:

Hurry up and wait!

When in trouble when in doubt run in circles scream and shout!

You don’t ever know ‘cuz you never can tell!

Can’t get there from here!

By then it’s time for lunch.

Meal time comes around more quickly than we’d like sometimes.

After lunch we  check the news and brows the internet. Lots of patience is needed for this task:

Sitting in front of a white screen!
Sitting in front of a white screen!

Or we walk over to the library and read books about the first Antarctic explorers like Scott, Shakelton and Amundsen.

The Library is small but has a nice collection with plenty of comfortable couches and nooks to sit and read.

Such a long day. It’s almost time for dinner and to go back to sleep!

Seems as though our lives here revolve around eating.

Cross your fingers, that we can fly to Yesterday Camp tomorrow morning.


Flight stations serviced

We have a map in our office with all the stations that we have to service.

Station map, already serviced stations are marked yellow.
Station map, already serviced stations are marked yellow.

The weather within the last few days was quite good. So we had the chance to reach some more of our stations by plane. This leaves our group with seven more stations. These stations are close together, within a 20 km radius. On Friday we will go out to a camp they are putting in for us right now and service the last stations from the camp by snowmobile.

Three of the stations we reached last week are about 2 km away from the ice shelf front, offering spectacular views flying there.

ce shelf front near station DR02
Ice shelf front near station DR02
Flying over the ice shelf front
Flying over the ice shelf front
Servicing station DR02
Servicing station DR02
Setting up a GPS station north of the seismic station
Setting up a GPS station north of the seismic station
Nascent iceberg, not yet a real iceberg.
Nascent iceberg, not yet a real iceberg.
Rob prepares the landing close to the ice shelf front.
Rob prepares the landing close to the ice shelf front.

A portion of the largest rift on the Ross Ice Shelf seen from the Twin Otter while flying back to McMurdo after servicing station DR15, about 200 km from the shelf front. The rift, a through-going fracture thought to penetrate the entire shelf to the water below, extends for over 100 km roughly parallel to the shelf front, and is over 1 km wide at its widest.

Rift on the Ross Ice Shelf

Returning to McMurdo after servicing seismic station DR15, we flew over and along the largest rift on the Ross Ice Shelf. The width of the rift increases towards the center of its length, suggesting the width is increasing there. GPS stations were installed at several stations perpendicular to the shelf front to see if we can detect differential episodic motions across the rifts.


Transantarctic Mountains
Transantarctic Mountains

We had great views of the Transantarctic Mountains on our way to station DR16.

Luckily no one got sick on the plane so far!

Sickness Bag
Sickness Bag
scripps oceanography uc san diego