Helicopter Ride!

Helicopters! They are so cool! They are fast, and little, and they fly close enough to the ground to see geology close-up.

The winds at McMurdo Station were unnervingly gusty this morning, so we waited to depart, then waited again, and then went down to the helo pad and waited there. They put us in the helicopter, but an approaching helo pilot could barely land for the thick cloud cover, so they pulled us back out of the helicopter. Finally, back in we went, and this time had a successful departure.

Jay, Kate, and Rachel organizing our cargo loads for the helos.

Jay, Kate, and Rachel organizing our cargo loads for the helos.

Mari in the helo.

Mari in the helo.

Because of the weather, the helo operators didn’t want to wait for our helo to return to reload it and send our cargo (read, tents, stoves, and sleeping bags). We didn’t really want to spend a full night in Antarctica without any shelter or heat either. So, they sent a cargo helo to follow our passenger helo to the campsite at Rhone Glacier.

Our pilot was Ryan, a friendly geologist-turned-pilot, with probably a job or several in between. He flew Jay, Mari, and I up over Ross Island, across the Ross Ice Shelf, and into the McMurdo Dry Valleys. A few lone seals lounged on the ice shelf, with some mothers and babies closer to land. I’m 80% sure that I saw a baby seal suckling. Oh yes.

At the landward edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, glaciers push out into the sea. You can see the sutures where the thick glacier ice intersects with the thinner, floating ice shelf. And inland of that…the Dry Valleys.

We passed over Ferrar Glacier and into the Kukri Hills. The high, steep Kukri slopes are patterned with an almost feathered icy snow. North of the Kukris, the brown bare ground of Taylor Valley stretches east to west. The northern cliffs are riddled with ventifacts—curvy pocked rock scoured by the wind. Frozen Lake Bonney sprawls out from the toe of Taylor Glacier, which happens to be the location of Blood Falls and just down the hill from our campsite!

On the way from McMurdo to Taylor Valley.

On the way from McMurdo to Taylor Valley.

Feathery snow in the Kukri Hills.

Feathery snow in the Kukri Hills.

Fata Morgana

McMurdo research station is on a rocky jut of Ross Island, surrounded by the ice-covered Ross Sea. Visible in the distance are the mountains and glaciers of the mainland. Upon arriving in McMurdo, us newbies looked at the mainland and were like, “what are those cliffs?” They were HUGE. I would have guessed them to be 100 m tall. And they were simply a mirage. It was a little magical declaration of how otherworldly Antarctica is.

Fata Morgana viewed from McMurdo

Fata Morgana viewed from McMurdo

Approximately the same location as the photo above, but with no Fata Morgana

Approximately the same location as the photo above, but with no Fata Morgana

The mirages are common here, and they are called Fata Morgana. They only form when warmer air is above colder air, which is not the normal setup. They also require something called an ‘atmospheric duct’, which I definitely had to Wikipedia. In an atmospheric duct, light waves bounce around (refract) in the higher altitude warmer air, trapped by the optical differences between the cold, dry air and the warmer, moister air. This makes kind of a guide, which directs the light forward and prevents it from dispersing upwards or downwards.

The result is a stretched, distorted image that can appear to originate well above the actual object. Sometimes, it can make boats or islands look like they’re hovering in mid-air. And they change quickly. A couple days ago, Kate said that the Fata Morgana was at its largest she’d ever seen, and she’s been to Antarctica seven times. But then, an hour later, it was completely gone.

Food Pull

Today was the day that we went food shopping. McMurdo is set up so that field parties can raid an enormous pantry for all required food. There were WAY more options for food than I was expecting. Granted, I was expecting dried beans, rice, pasta, and dehydrated vegetables. But, no. Eight different kinds of dehydrated vegetables. Oreos. Multiple kinds of tomato sauce. Pringles. Licorice spice tea! I mean, I thought no one else even drank licorice spice tea. And, the best part: hickory-smoked soy jerky. LLLLLAAAAAAHHHHHH. That’s my heavenly sound, if you couldn’t tell.

Kate and Mari cataloguing food in each box.

Kate and Mari cataloguing food in each box.

Once we pulled all our food out, we packed it up into wooden boxes. We ended up with 20 or so. Most will go out into the field with us, and a few will stay behind for resupply via helicopter in a few weeks.

Jay and Rachel prepping our gear for helo pick-up.

Jay and Rachel prepping our gear for helo pick-up.


I had thought that a week would be far too long to pack to go into the field. I was incorrect.

There are five of us, plus an occasional technician, and we’ll be gone for six weeks with minimal resupply via helicopter. That’s a lot of food. It’s also a lot of waste jugs, cooking supplies, fuel, and sleeping gear.

Jay inspecting his time-lapse photography gear

Jay inspecting his time-lapse photography gear

Kate, Jay, Esther, and Rachel on the way to test out our tent and radio.

Kate, Jay, and Rachel on the way to test out our tent and radio.

We’ve been going through all of our equipment to double check that it works properly and that it’s all accounted for. We don’t really want to end up in a remote field camp and find out that our stove doesn’t work. We did fail laughably at getting our radio to send calls today, so double checking is definitely a good idea.

The view from town is much nicer than I expected, but I’ve seen a lot more of the inside of the Berg Field Center (BFC) than I have of the Antarctic scenery. I figure we’ll all get a good dose of chilly sightseeing soon enough, though, and as far as buildings go, the BFC is an easy favorite.

Rachel, Esther, and Jay admiring the kitchen area of the BFC.

Admiring the kitchen area of the BFC.

It’s also incredibly instructive to listen to Kate and Jay direct our packing operations. They have tons of experience, both with the harsh environment and with the extreme weather polar gear. Setting up camp is a major operation, far more complex than the simple weeklong field camping I’ve done in the relative warmth of Greenland.

And we’re so close to actually getting to set up camp! Jay, a technician named Mari, and I are heading into the field on Friday (we hope!). Kate, Rachel, and Esther are hoping for a Saturday deployment. Pretty stoked.

Underwater Robots

There are a thousand or so scientists and support staff at McMurdo station during the summer months, so you might expect that there’re some pretty awesome projects going on. I’ve met ecologists who are studying lakes in the Dry Valleys, geologists mapping the crater of Mt. Erebus (an active volcano on Ross Island!), and glaciologists planning for work at the South Pole. Yesterday, Rachel and I met a planetary scientist who is developing a prototype for a robot that could explore beneath the ice of Europa.

Europa is an ice-coated moon of Jupiter, with a cracked surface and a little jiggle to its rotation suggestive of liquid water beneath a thick frozen layer. It’s a primary target for finding signatures of life in our solar system. I think it’s even more exciting than Mars in that respect, but I’m no planetary scientist.

The Europa team, led by Dr. Britney Schmidt, has done an absolutely incredible amount of engineering and field-testing to develop an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) capable of exploring beneath the ice. Antarctica—specifically the several-hundred-meter-thick ice shelves surrounding much of the coastline—is the closest thing we have to Europa on Earth. So, Schmidt is here, deploying her new instrument down a hole drilled right through the ice shelf and into the frigid water below.

The Artemis robot, hanging out with it's science hat up. Photo credit: Rachel Valletta.

The Artemis robot, hanging out with it’s science hat up. Photo credit: Rachel Valletta.

The AUV is so cool!! It’s got a little hat that pops up out of the main body to nestle up against the base of the ice shelf and determine if proteins are present. It maps out the seafloor topography, which we can’t do without robots like this. And it knows where it is, even without using GPS, through use of some fancy gyroscope that uses the planet’s axis of rotation as guidance. The robot (it’s named Artemis) has to do its thing without input from humans, so it needs to be able to navigate back to its entry hole. Once it’s close to the hole, it homes in on a cylindrical flashing blue LED beacon and slots into a cable attached to the cylinder. Then the cable pulls it up out of the drill hole so it can talk to whatever instrument will receive its data. It’s super awesome. Just getting to hang out with scientists working on these sorts of projects is a fabulous learning experience.

Arrival in McMurdo

Planes land on the snow-covered ice shelf at the McMurdo research station. It’s flat. In cooler weather, you can land a wheeled plane on the ice. Passengers prefer this because then you can fly on a C-17, which only takes five hours from Christchurch. Warmer December and January weather makes the ice shelf a little too mushy for wheels, requiring skis on the planes. In that case, you have to take the slower C-130.

We’re still early in the season now, just touching into spring, so we rode in on a giant, military matte-gray C-17. The interior of the C-17 is much rougher than a commercial plane, with plenty of space for cargo. Cargo like a shipping container and a…helicopter.

Helicopter on board the C-17

Helicopter on board the C-17

I must admit, when I stepped out of the C-17 and onto the ice shelf, I was grinning like a fool.

We boarded a long, red, bus-like snow vehicle with thick wheels and a max speed of 2 mph when going uphill. On the hour-long ride we passed rippled pressure ridges in the ice, which gets pushed towards the land and then pushed backwards by sea ice. Getting into McMurdo Station, we lucked out majorly with the weather. It was sunny, relatively warm (-23°C), and without wind. Nearly tropical, compared to what I’d been preparing myself for.

We were briefed as soon as we got into station, a strangely sprawling mass of warehouses, colorful cargo containers, and dormitories. I’d been told to prepare for ugliness, an army-base-like town. It’s not aesthetic, for sure, though it’s also undoubtedly less organized than a military establishment. Perhaps it’s just new eyes, but it looked…happy. Colors and business and purpose.

Being in a dorm gives a distinct college feeling to the place. Our dorm has two to a room, with very decent bathrooms across the hallway. And the mattresses are plush! Way better than what I sleep on at home. All in all, pretty impressed with the place, considering how difficult it is to get materials to the island.

Christchurch Check-In

I got up at 6:30 this morning, a very reasonable time considering the jet lag. No coffee shops were open, so to kill time I toured myself around an old cemetery. Judging from the stones, New Zealanders had access to marbles and gabbros, red granites and anorthosite. In the late 1800s, the people dying and receiving gravestones had very English names. Lots of Marys, Edwards, Daniels. Also, WWI soldiers were buried in France but given markers in Christchurch. Many things to be learned, in a graveyard.

We leave for the ice tomorrow. Today was preparation for that—watching safety and conduct videos, checking our computers for viruses, getting a (second, for me) flu shot, and trying on our issued cold weather gear. You put the gear on in the changing room and it feels impossible to be cold. I’m sure that’s false, but it’s kind of like wearing three snowsuits at once.

We’re issued:

A giant coat (Big Red)

A smaller coat

Insulated overalls

Fleece zip-up

Fleece pants

A neck gaiter

A balaclava (which I had kind of thought was a musical instrument?)

A little fleece hat

Two pairs of thin knit gloves

Work gloves

Giant puffy mittens

Snow goggles

Insulated waterproof boots (here-on referred to as bunny boots)

Rachel Valletta in full cold weather gear

It’s pretty good. And, I have all the warm socks and long underwear I brought with me.

We left Lowell in New England fall, with the locust trees bright yellow and the geese beginning to pass over. Christchurch is in spring, though, which for some reason I was unprepared for. The air smells like flowers. It was a glorious day today. Sunny and warm and all the plants wriggling with life. A lovely last hurrah before the cold.


My thermals are packed and I have a chocolate bar for each week I’ll be gone. Hush, don’t let my field mates know.

I’m in the Boston airport waiting for our flight to Dallas, where we’ll wait for our flight to Sydney, and then to Christchurch, New Zealand. My airline ticket reads a trip total of 31 hours and 54 minutes, including layovers. It’s ok, because I have 46 unheard podcast episodes of The Infinite Monkey Cage, and 18 unheard episodes of The Story Collider. Those, and a few naps, should get me into New Zealand with at least the remnants of sanity.

Kate and I will meet up with Rachel, Jay, and Esther at various stages of our flights. I’m always a little nervous to meet new people who I’ll very be close with in the field. It’s like getting new roommates, except they’ll be tentmates, coworkers, and bffs.

Next update will be from Christchurch!

What are viscous flow lobes…?

If you took a glacier, and buried it under a bunch of sand and pebbles, it would still flow. The ice deforms, slowly, bending and squishing downhill. You end up with a ground surface with curves and ridges, shaped like a rumpled tongue.

The trouble is, you can also get such a ground surface through an entirely different process. Instead of burying a glacier, you can just slowly pile up bits of rock and ice on steep valley walls, and eventually, voila, it’s heavy enough and has enough ice inside to deform and move.

We call the first type of rumpled tongue a “glacigenic rock glacier” and the second type a “permafrost rock glacier”. Actually, the community probably uses more terms for these things than you would imagine there are scientists working on them. Terminology causes a fair amount of confusion and occasionally angry arguments thinly veiled under precise scientific wording. Anywhoo. Because you can’t properly decide on a name without knowing the character of the buried ice, we’re just calling everything “viscous flow lobes” for now. That’s right, now you get to read the phrase “viscous flow lobes” over and over.

Here is a nice, distinct example of a viscous flow lobe next to Rhone Glacier, which is my new glacier baby. You can also explore around the area in Google Maps.

A lovely viscous flow lobe located just to the west of the snout of Rhone Glacier in Taylor Valley

A lovely viscous flow lobe located just to the west of the snout of Rhone Glacier in Taylor Valley

Viscous flow lobes are common in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, sometimes glooping down steep hillslopes, sometimes lumbering across the valley floors. Many look like sediment-covered margins of an earlier glacier, whereas others appear to have formed far from any glacier. Some of them, like the one in the photo above, appear to yield streams of liquid water when the weather warms. Others are old and desiccated, their ice lost to the dry air and their motion stalled.

We’ll be studying a bunch of viscous flow lobes this field season, and will hopefully come up with some answers about what they’re made of and how they formed!

PS: If you want a good review on viscous flow lobes in Antarctica, read this 1983 article by Hassinger and Mayewski.