Monday, March 21, 2016

A Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher, Part 2

Entering the Field 

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 part 2 of a 4 part “Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher” series.

Happy to be on my first helicopter ride!
Photo Credit: Andrew Christ
My first day in the field! After an early breakfast, Drew, Professor Marchant, and I put on our ECW gear and walked to the Berg Field Center (BFC). We took all of the equipment that we would need for our day trip, including our backpacks with handheld tools and other instruments that were important to have easy access to.
We walked to the helicopter pad where we sat through a brief primer on helicopter safety. Shortly after that, I was on my first helicopter flight ever! The 10-minute flight was surprisingly smooth but very loud.  We were dropped off with our equipment at around 9:45am.

Me standing beside our gear after the helicopter had
left Black Island. Photo Credit: Andrew Christ.
Being my first time in the field, I was quite taken aback by the sights and sounds. Black Island offers magnificent views of Mount Discovery, the volcano Mount Erebus, the Royal Society Range mountains, and an up-close view of Mount Aurora. Just as striking as the scenery was the silence. Especially after living Boston for over a year, I had become accustomed to background noise (traffic, electronics, voices, phones, etc.). But the only noise we heard other than our own voices was the blowing of wind, without even the rustling of leaves and twigs that would be expected almost anywhere else. And at some moments, when the wind died down, we experienced perfect silence. It was something that I never really got used to on the expedition, and something that I haven't experienced since. The whole place was pristine: other than our equipment, there was no sign that any humans had ever been here. Black Island is one of the more-frequently visited locations in Antarctica, but it is still so well preserved (both by the cold, dry climate and by the environmentally responsible practices of Antarctic researchers) that it was impossible to tell that anyone had ever been there.
A view of Brown Peninsula and the Royal Society Range from Black Island.
Drew and I walked along a moraine ridge, using GPS to measure and record the location and elevation of rock samples. We then collected the rocks and carried them back to where the helicopter would land when it came to bring us back to McMurdo. Drew also showed me the mummified seal that he, Emma, and Natalie had found during their time on Black Island. Meanwhile, Professor Marchant searched for algae that could be used to provide a minimum age for the moraine. We returned to McMurdo at about 3pm due to incoming clouds that the helicopter pilots feared might disrupt safe travel later in the day.

This was mostly a day of preparation and rest. We had packed most of our gear by this point and we'd had a successful day trip the day before. We did some accounting of food and equipment to ensure we were fully prepared, and Professor Marchant and Drew told me what I could expect for the rest of my trip. We would not be back in McMurdo for another 3 weeks so I needed to be prepared. We went to bed early with high expectations for the next day.

After an early breakfast, Professor Marchant, Drew, and I put on our ECW gear and made our way down to the helicopter pad. We left McMurdo at approximately 11:45am and we would not return for another three weeks! An hour-long helicopter flight brought us to our camp’s location at Mackay Glacier. Along the way, we saw breathtaking views of the Dry Valleys, Antarctica's most impressive features. It was the first I would see of the Dry Valleys, and I was extremely impressed by the introduction. Once we reached our destination, we took about 10 minutes just to land because the terrain was very bouldery and our helicopter pilot had difficulty finding a suitably flat piece of ground to land the large helicopter.

A shot from the helicopter ride to Mackay Glacier.
Another shot from the flight to Mackay Glacier, this one showing snow clouds
 over the Dry Valleys.  
Our first look at the valley that would become our home for over two weeks.
After the helicopter dropped us off and left, we were on our own—there were no human beings for 50 miles in any direction.
We spent the next 4 hours setting up our campsite. We had to first find flat pieces of ground that would serve as the floors of our tents. This required us to shovel or carry away rocks and dirt because there weren’t any pre-existing flat surfaces the size of our tents. Next, we had to set up our tents-- a long and arduous process in Antarctica. Because of the continent’s unpredictable and extremely strong winds, tents must be weighed down by the heaviest rocks available; Drew, Professor Marchant, and I transported several hundred pounds of rock and dirt to ensure our safety inside these tents.
In the foreground, the tent that Drew and I shared. In the
background, Professor Marchant's tent.
Once that was done, we each set up our sleep kits—a cot topped with a thin inflatable mattress and sleeping bag. Drew and I shared one tent, and Professor Marchant’s tent was used as the cook tent. The cook tent was where our stove, water, cooking supplies, and some food were stored. Our large yellow “Scott” tents (named after Robert Falcon Scott, an early Antarctic explorer) were not extremely large inside. There was only about 2 to 3 feet separating mine and Drew’s cots, and there was only slightly more room between Professor Marchant’s cot and the stove.
We were quite tired and hungry from setting up camp, so we ate dinner shortly after finishing, around 6:30. It was my first taste of textured vegetable protein (TVP)—a vegetarian ground beef substitute. I didn’t love the total lack of meat during the trip, but Drew and Professor Marchant are not only excellent geologists but also very talented chefs! Our meals, though not luxurious, always managed to satisfy.
After dinner, Drew and I decided to take a reconnaissance hike to familiarize ourselves with the area before we really began our field work. Professor Marchant didn’t join us because he was not feeling well. Since it was a very clear night, we were able to see out the ocean.
A picture from our first night's hike.
Proud to be on my first hike in Antarctica. Photo
Credit: Andrew Christ. 

Another image from our first night's hike, looking to the coast.

Our first full day in the field was both exciting and productive. Unfortunately, Professor Marchant had to stay in his tent—his feeling of illness from the previous day was actually the beginning of a bad cold which would last for about 3 days. Drew and I hiked across most of the valley, observing the moraines from which we would later collect our rock samples. 
Walking along a bouldery moraine. Photo Credit: Andrew Christ.
Walking across the rocky terrain was great exercise and a good way to keep warm. We later returned to the cook tent to have dinner and visit Professor Marchant, who was still sick but feeling slightly better.

An image of yours truly, bathed in the
yellow light of a Scott tent.
This was our first of several snow days. Drew and Professor Marchant use in situ rock and soil samples to date the advancement and recession of ancient Antarctic glaciers, so being able to actually see the ground is a necessary precursor to their work in the field. Although only about 1” to 1.5” of snow fell, it would have been impossible to properly observe the surface features of the valley. The snow also made the surfaces of rocks very slippery which meant that hiking would be dangerous.  We reluctantly accepted that we would have to stay in the tents for the day. Without internet, cell phones, or any other time-wasting gadgets, we could only read, listen to music, eat, or sleep. It was honestly very boring, but with Antarctica’s unpredictable and sometimes dangerous weather, it was simply a fact of life that we would be almost entirely at the whim of nature when it came to what we could and couldn’t do.

Another snow day. Thankfully, though, the temperature rose and most of the snow began to sublimate. And Professor Marchant had returned to full health, leaving us optimistic about being able to do field work the next day—which happened to be Christmas!

My first Christmas away from home was extremely different from any of my previous ones.  After listening to all of our favorite Christmas songs at breakfast, Drew and I spent the next 9 hours sampling and bagging rock samples for cosmogenic nuclide dating. Some samples had to be drilled off large boulders, while others simply could be taken as we found them.
An image of the valley, with a moraine ridge in the foreground and others in the middleground.
The process was quite long and meticulous, but it is the only way to accurately and thoroughly understand the geomorphological processes that left the rock samples where we found them. We recorded each rock’s geological description, latitude, longitude, elevation, and relationship to other nearby features. Doing so allows us to better understand how and when a rock was deposited by a glacier, thus enabling us to determine the temporal and spatial evolution of Antarctica’s glaciers. These details are used in collaboration with cosmogenic nuclide dates to determine the precise age and significance of each sample we collect (see the Boston University Antarctic Research Group field blog for more details). 
After this sampling was done, we would put the rocks in canvas bags and leave them where we found them. Once we had sampled and bagged all of the rocks we felt we needed, we would use high-precision GPS (with accuracy on the order of a few centimeters) to get an even more accurate measurement of the rocks’ locations. We would then transport all of our samples back to camp to be brought back to McMurdo via helicopter.
After a long day of work, we returned to the cook tent to enjoy dinner, listen to more classic Christmas music (Elton John's "Step into Christmas" was a group favorite), and reminisce about being home for the holidays.

-Daniel Rybarczyk

Click here for Part 1: Preparations
Click here for Part 3: The Intense Life in Tents
Click here for Part 4: Thriving, Moving, and Leaving

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