Thursday, December 24, 2015

Changing of the Guards & Homeward Bound

Emma, Drew and I pulled in camp from Black Island last Monday in time to meet Professor Marchant and our fellow Antarctic Ambassador Dan upon their arrival in McMurdo.

We had a successful time at Black Island, collecting 20 erratic rock samples which will undergo cosmogenic nuclide dating once they are shipped back to Boston in April. Other than the 3 day snow storm which kept us bundled in our tents, and the occasional fog which created very low visibility, we experienced fairly good weather as the heat of the summer season rolled in.
Emma and I sunbathing for a few minutes in the "hot" weather.
Drew making us pancakes one morning for breakfast, as we couldn't work in the heavy fog. If we strayed more than a few meters from camp we would risk the possibility of getting lost.
During one of our final work days we came across a mummified seal near Mount Aurora -- a big treat for a group who never gets to see live animals out in the field! Since we don't have permission to date this mummy, we have no real way of knowing its age, though it has likely been laying dead in this same spot for thousands of years. It stays preserved because of the cold, dry air, and isn't exposed to other wildlife that would normally eat it. Mummified seals remain a mystery to scientists, but for some reason they climb up onto land, and eventually die from starvation. They are found all throughout the Dry Valleys, very far inland, and high above sea level. We actually met a group of researchers living in McMurdo who go out to study these mummies and date them using carbon dating techniques. Without the permit to study them, everyone else is prohibited from disturbing these mummies in any way.
A mummified seal we named Lucile/Cecilia
Exposed bone and skin 
This mummy is so well preserved that even part of the eyeball is still intact.
On our final helo flight from Black Island back to McMurdo our pilot, Harlan, treated us to a viewing of the Pegasus Crash Site. This C-121 jet, named Pegasus, crashed due to bad weather in the summer of 1970, on McMurdo Sound. Fortunately, no one on board was injured. The modern landing site is now named Pegasus Field in its memory. The wrecked plane remains in the same spot, and since the crash has become partially embedded in the ice.
The Pegasus cargo jet which crashed near McMurdo Station

Pegasus on the McMurdo ice shelf with White Island in the background

The modern landing site, Pegasus Field.

With some extra time in town this past week, we have been able to explore more of what McMurdo has to offer. With the heat of the summer comes birthing season and the melting of sea ice, allowing for many seal-sighting opportunities.
Lots of seals enjoy lounging on the sea ice at the edge of Hut Point, at the edge of McMurdo 

Another popular summertime activity is the "Ob Tube," short for Observation Tube. After a special outdoors training, we were allowed to climb down a ladder in to this tube which is installed each year. It only fits one person at a time, and from the base of the tube you can see the bottom of the sea ice and various animals in the water, if you are lucky. It took our eyes a few minutes to adjust to the darkness, but eventually we could see some zooplankton and a jellyfish. It was very difficult to take pictures that looked like much of anything because it was so dark down there.
Close-up of ice crystals at the base of the frozen sea surface (photo by Drew)
A tight squeeze to the bottom.
Taken from the bottom of the tube, looking up.
Another night we went on a pressure ridge tour at the Kiwi's Scott Base. Pressure ridges are ice structures that form when the McMurdo Ice Shelf pushes sea ice from the Ross Sea up against Hut Point Peninsula (where McMurdo Station and Scott Base are located). The sea ice gets lifted up and pressed between the ice shelf and land. Under all this pressure, the ice fractures at the top, and can raise up to 30 feet in the air. Our tour guide told us that these structures are constantly moving, so quickly that you can see them change shape even within 24 hours. The fracturing of the ice, along with the warmer temperatures can cause big cracks on the ground, so we had to practice lots of caution while walking through the ridges.
Pressure ridges outside of Scott Base

Here you can see Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano.

Mount Discovery and the Royal Society Range peek through the background.
A frozen pond that formed within one of the structures

Close-up of some icicles falling off a ridge
Emma and Drew conquer the pressure ridges!
We saw five Weddell seals while we were walking through, one of which had a suckling newborn pup. Typically, the male seals stay underwater and defend territory, while the females and pups lay out on the ice during the day. Most females gave birth about 2 months ago,  though some give birth in a "late phase" further into the summer months. The Antarctic Treaty, agreed upon by 53 countries, prohibits any sort of interference with Antarctic wildlife. Interference includes disturbing these seals, getting too close to them, being too loud, or making them travel anywhere they wouldn't normally go on their own. In order to respect this, our tour guide gave us strict instructions on how close we could get to see the seals and take pictures.
Some seals were very content

Some were very vocal
Some were very tired
And some were very poised.

Saturday morning Emma and I drove out to Williams Air Field, a few miles outside McMurdo, and flew back to Christchurch on a C-130 jet. This plane is smaller than the one we came in on, and lands with skis rather than wheels, because the sea ice is much thinner on the landing field than when we first arrived in the early summer. We flew with only three other USAP participants and a unit of Air Force members.

We arrived in Christchurch 8 hours later, where we returned our ECW, adjusted to the warm temperatures, and saw darkness at night for the first time in two months! I was also excited by our first tree sighting. The next morning we left Christchurch and traveled north to Auckland, with a beautiful view of the Southern Alps during the short flight. From there we re-checked our baggage and flew to Tahiti in French Polynesia. We were greeted with flowers for our hair and serenaded by a man in shell necklaces, singing and playing ukulele, accompanied by two woman dancing in floral-print dresses. Our next flight got delayed so we spent 5 hours in the one room, one bathroom, two terminal, technology-free airport, trying to keep cool in the 90 degree weather. We eventually boarded the plane again, flew to Los Angeles, then to Boston.
We left New Zealand at the summer solstice, and lucky for us, with the crossing of the international date line during our flight, arrived back in the U.S. just in time for the winter solstice.

The following morning I flew home to Philadelphia while Emma traveled with her family to Quebec.

Our view of Mount Discovery nearby our campsite on Black Island
Now that I am home, I have had ample time to reflect on my experiences in Antarctica. I have a new-found confidence in my ability to understand scientific research and convey it to others. I have challenged my self in more ways than I would have ever imagined prior. I realized I am strong both physically (rocks are heavy) and mentally (Antarctica is scary!). I have learned to pitch tents, tie knots, drill rocks, climb mountains, and survive on an inhospitable continent. I am proud of what I have done and I am infinitely grateful for the opportunity that I was given. I am thankful for Emma who experienced this journey alongside me, and Drew who fearlessly and happily led us both. I am also thankful for the endless support I received both in McMurdo and back at home. It is with great excitement that I now share my story with family, friends, and the lucky students who will get to travel with Professor Marchant next year. 

Sad to be leaving Antarctica
I wish luck to the rest of the research team, as Dave and Drew continue with their research and Dan discovers for the first time what an incredible place Antarctica is. 
They have now made it out to Mackay Glacier and will continue research there for the next week. After that they will travel through the Dry Valleys until mid-January.

-Natalie Robinson

No comments:

Post a Comment