Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher, Part 4

Thriving, Moving, and Leaving 

Although long overdue, I have finally finished my blog about my trip to Antarctica. It’s impossible to accurately describe the incredible things that I experienced and the powerful lessons that I learned in the world’s coldest, highest, driest, and windiest desert, so I have instead opted to provide a day-by-day synopsis of my expedition with Professor David Marchant and graduate student Andrew Christ.

In the future I will write more about particular experiences, but for now, here is the 4th and final entry in a 4 part “Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher” series.

This was another long, arduous, but very fun day. Professor Marchant, Drew, and I hiked down to the bottom of the valley, to the modern glacier and moraine. There we sampled and collected several rock samples for cosmogenic nuclide dating.
On the right-hand side of the picture are the base of the valley and the modern
 moraine where we hiked. 
Looking down to the bottom of the valley. The bright blue color is glacial ice,
located where we hiked. The descent is much steeper than it looks in this picture.
Looking out onto the glacier from the modern moraine.

We also collected ice samples. In the middle of the moraine, we saw our second mummified seal of the trip. It was as interesting and disturbing as the first.

Mummified seal from modern moraine.
The hike down to the glacier had been difficult, but the hike back to camp was exceptionally difficult. We had to walk over boulders on a steep slope, often without stable footing. It took over an hour to get back to camp—it was one of the most difficult hours of the expedition.

After hiking to the bottom of the valley the previous day, we hiked to the top of the valley on this day. It was another steep and difficult hike, though not quite as difficult as the previous day’s. From the top of a ridge we were able to see the edge of the ice sheet that extended inland for hundreds of miles in one direction, and in the other direction we had a fantastic view of the entire valley.
The edge of Antarctica's massive ice sheet.
A view of the valley. On the lower left-hand side are many of the moraines
from which we sampled.
From this vantage point, we took several GigaPan shots—panoramic images composed of tens or hundreds of individual shots. These GigaPans will later be used to perform virtual field observations in the comfort and warmth of Boston University’s Digital Image Analysis Lab (DIAL).

The GigaPan mount. We took hundreds of shots from this vantage point. These
 images will later be stitched together to form a large panorama of the valley.
 The panoramas generated are so high-quality that Professor Marchant and Drew will be able zoom in from a panorama of the entire valley to observe individual rocks and boulders (including those we sampled and collected!).
We also finalized our plans for a camp move on 1/6/2016 to Mount Boreas in the Olympus Range where we would collect rock samples for cosmogenic nuclide dating. Professor Marchant and his colleagues have already determined how long this environment has been stable and therefore how long ago rocks were deposited by glaciers. Comparing these dates with the dates given by measuring the ratios of cosmogenic nuclides would demonstrate how well the technique of cosmogenic nuclide dating works, especially over long time scales.

Our last day of sampling at our Mackay Glacier camp! Drew, Professor Marchant, and I collected our last few rock and soil samples from near our camp. It was a relatively relaxing day compared to our last 3 days of intense hiking.

Our second-to-last day at the Mackay Glacier site was, unfortunately, a snow day. With heavy snowfall and low visibility, we were forced to stay in our tents for the day. Our flight to Mount Boreas was also delayed one day due to weather.

We spent most of this day taking GigaPans of the region that we hadn’t already shot on the 4th. We took as many pictures of the area as possible since it was our last day and we might never have the opportunity to revisit.
The view of Sperm Bluff from where we took our GigaPans. It is so named
because it resembles the body of a whale. Do you see the tail? 
We woke up early to pack up our camp in preparation for our 12:15 flight to Mount Boreas. It took a few hours to pack up our tents, food, rock samples, and scientific equipment for the helicopters to either bring with us to Mount Boreas or take back to McMurdo. Packing up camp was about as difficult as setting it up because we had to remove all of the heavy rocks weighing down our tent and then tie up the tents and all of our equipment. It was nice to see the helicopter pilots and crew because at that point we hadn’t seen any other humans in over 2 weeks!
The hour-long flight to Mount Boreas was one of the most incredible hours of my life. We flew though the Dry Valleys and saw some of the largest, most breathtaking natural wonders in the world. I took over 700 pictures, but none of them seemed to accurately capture the enormity of the mountains, valleys, and lakes we saw.
A view from the helicopter ride to Boreas.
This shot shows the depth of the valleys (but doesn't accurately capture
the enormity of the place).
A modern glacier and modern lake as seen from our helicopter to Mount Boreas.
Our first view of Mount Boreas. The looming snow clouds worried us, but
actually led to no snow at our camp site.
The helicopter that brought us from Mackay Glacier to Mount Boreas. Photo
Credit: Andrew Christ
Once we landed at our camp location, in the shadow of Mount Boreas, we began the process of, once again, setting up our tents and equipment. Without the ubiquitous boulders of our Mackay Glacier camp, it was much easier to walk around and find a suitably flat area to set up camp. Professor Marchant, Dave, and I took a brief reconnaissance hike to determine where we would collect our rock samples for the next few days.

Our new home, with Mount Boreas in the background.

This was undoubtedly the best day of my entire Antarctic experience. In fact, it was one of the most incredible and memorable days of my life. After collecting a few samples near our camp, Drew and I took a hike to explore the area more while Professor Marchant continued surveying our campsite for rock samples. After a fairly long but easy hike (compared to the difficult hiking at the Mackay Glacier Camp) we came across some of the most amazing natural wonders I have ever seen. We saw the Asgard Mountains, The Labyrinth, and Ice Falls. The Asgards are some of Antarctica’s most impressive mountains. The Labyrinth is a long region running through the Transantarctic Mountains that gets its name because of the extensive network of channels that have been eroded into the bedrock. Ice Falls (its full name is actually Airdevronsix Icefalls) is a line of ice falls that meets the Labyrinth.
The Labyrinth.

Me, with Airdevronsix Icefalls in the background.
It was probably the most incredible thing I saw on our trip. At several hundred meters high, it reminded me of a frozen Niagara Falls. Drew and I took hundreds of pictures, but we can never forget how amazing and awe-inspiring this experience was.
A closer view of Airdevronsix Icefalls.

As we returned to camp, large storm clouds loomed overhead. We could see snow over the nearby Apocalypse Peaks, which spelled bad news for us. Thankfully, though, we had managed to collect a few important samples, and would not need much more time to collect all of the samples we thought were necessary.

The storm clouds that we saw the previous day did indeed bring us much undesired snow. Over an inch of snow fell overnight, leaving us in our tents for the day. We decided that the next afternoon would be our best chance to find the remaining samples we needed. We also finalized our departure date—our last day in the field—for 1/11.

Our camp after the snowfall. Compare to the image above, and note that almost
no rocks can be seen on the ground. This prohibits geological field work. Photo
Credit: Andrew Christ.
As we had planned the day before, we collected rock samples in the afternoon of what was to be our last day in the field (or so we thought). Although it was one of our shortest working days, it was perhaps the coldest day of the trip. With high winds and some blowing snow, the short work day was very painful and seemed to last much longer than the few short hours we were outside.

Our flight back to McMurdo was delayed and then cancelled early in the morning. Severe weather conditions at McMurdo along with suboptimal flying conditions near our camp made it impossible for any helicopters to safely bring us back. We rescheduled our flight out for 1/12 in hopes that the bad weather would clear up and we could make it safely back to McMurdo.

We made it to McMurdo! After waking up very early, we packed up all of our gear and flew back on a 9:30am helicopter flight. Our flight back lasted about an hour, and was another amazing, scenic ride.
Looking out over Boreas as we took off (the blurry black line at the top of
the picture is a whirring helicopter blade).

We flew through more of the Dry Valleys where we saw many more enormous mountains, deep valleys, and many glaciers.
A modern lake, mostly frozen over, as seen from our helicopter.
A helicopter with a view.
A typical look at the ubiquitous brown and white mountains and valleys.
A world of ice and rock.
The glaciers were quite spectacular. Some looked like slowly oozing pancake batter while others seemed to defy gravity.

Glaciers slowly flowing into a valley.
I thought this one looked like pancake batter.
Gravity defying ice, flowing over a ledge. 

We also flew over the Ross Ice Shelf where we saw vast expanses of ice extending all the way to the ocean. It was a breathtaking exit from the field; it made our trip all the more memorable.
A mosaic in the ice.
This was also the first time in 2016, and actually the first time in over three weeks, that I got to shower! It was the cleanest, the warmest, and the most comfortable I had been in a long time. Although I was sad to be leaving an environment like no other, it was also a relief to once again have access to even the simplest luxuries of the modern world.

We spent the entire day in McMurdo but we did a lot of work. Most of the day was spent packaging all 110 of our rock samples for transport back to the United States. This required a lot of heavy lifting—not as much as our collection day at Mackay Glacier camp (see 1/1/2016 entry), but still very difficult. We also began packing our other supplies for storage, for shipment back to the United States, or for another day trip. Because Professor Marchant and Drew thought that it would help to have more algae samples for Carbon dating, we scheduled one final day trip to Black Island for the next day, 1/14.

Most of McMurdo (with some buildings cut off on either side).

Professor Marchant, Drew, and I woke early and dressed for our flight to Black Island that left McMurdo around 9:45am. After the short flight, we spent around 6 hours searching for buried algae. We found several independent samples, making it a successful last day in the field!
Fun Meter set to Max! Our pilot's helmet was a good indication of how our last
day at Black Island, and really our entire trip, would pan out.
On the flight back to Black Island—perhaps my last flight ever in a helicopter– I sat in the front the helicopter, next to the pilot. It was a great chance to get some last-minute photographs of McMurdo, Black Island, and other nearby features.  After our helicopter landed, our field season was officially over.
Mt. Erebus over McMurdo. This was my view from the front seat of the helicopter.
It is one of the last pictures I took in Antarctica. In the center of the picture,
beneath the snow covered volcano, you can see the town McMurdo, where we
would return from our last outing about a minute after this shot was taken.
The feeling of returning forever was one of both sadness and relief; I would never forget the incredible experiences that I had on the expedition, but I was glad to be returning back to my family and friends whom I hadn’t seen or been in contact with for over a month.

Snow or sun, we were always smiling.
Although it was our last day on the continent, this was one of our busiest days. We had to finish packing all of our equipment and samples for shipment back to the United States since we had been on our day trip to Black Island the previous day and we would be leaving for New Zealand the following day. We also had to return all of the medical supplies, scientific instruments, and camping equipment that had been loaned to us by different facilities and agencies in McMurdo.   
We went to bed early since we would have to be up for a 8am flight off the continent the next morning. This marked my last night living on the most austere and inhospitable continent on earth. It was the end of the greatest journey I have ever taken, and likely ever will take.
 As a 19-year-old, I got to go on a priceless, once-in-a-lifetime expedition to participate in some of the most interesting and important scientific research on earth. I was, and forever will be, incredibly grateful to Boston University, and the BURECS program. None of this would have been possible without their never-ending effort and dedication. But even more than that, I am thankful to have been able to do this with Professor Marchant and Drew, whose kindness, humor, intelligence, and selflessness made my month in Antarctica, however difficult, one of the most enjoyable and fraternal of my life.
Professor Marchant and me, ready for a day of work. Photo Credit: Andrew Christ.

Drew and me on a sunny day at Mackay Glacier. Photo Credit: David Marchant.

-Daniel Rybarczyk

Click here for Part 1: Preparations
Click here for Part 2: Entering the Field
Click here for Part 3: The Intense Life in Tents

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