We have been delayed getting out to the field for a week now because of weather. When the clouds are
low or air pressure is bad, helicopters can’t take off, which is what has happened this week. A big part
of getting ready for the field in Antarctica is hurry up and wait. We landed and were thrown into
classes, field safety, getting food and sleep kits, and gear organized. We had to retrofit the rock boxes
so they wouldn’t fall apart. You have to get all of this done in the few days before you are trying to
leave for field work. If you are delayed, there is a lot of sitting around reading papers and trying not to
get to antsy for the field. One of the nice things about McMurdo is the great hiking you can do to keep
you busy and see the area a bit. This is what we have been doing this week.
Adjacent to McMurdo is the hut Robert Falcon Scott built in 1902 for his 1901-1904 polar expedition.
It’s just a short hike to visit the hut.
Anne-Laure and Ignacio (Nacho) on our walk out to Scott’s Discovery Hut. Photo by Lauren Michel.
Scott’s Discovery Hut in the forground with McMurdo in the background. Photo by Lauren Michel.
The Discovery Hut is located right on the Ross Sea and there are usually seals nearby so there are some
good opportunities for some wildlife viewings. Photo by Lauren Michel.
Also right next to Scott’s hut is the start to the ridgeline hike. Photo by Lauren Michel.
Another outdoor adventure is going to the observation tube, which is out in the middle of the Ross Sea.
You can crawl down and see jellyfish and ocean wildlife. Here's Erik heading into the observation tube. Photo by Lauren Michel.
McMurdo Station and the New Zealand, Scott Base are situated on a volcanic island in the middle of the Ross Sea. The two stations are close together, separated by a road with a hill, so you can walk along the road to Scott Base if you want. The hike to Scott Base with Observation Hill in the background. Photo by Lauren Michel.
Nacho and me with Scott Base in the background. Photo by Anne-Laure Decombeix.
When we got to Scott Base we were greeted with the Ross Sea ice coming up on Ross Island. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Photo by Lauren Michel
On your way to Scott Base is the last of the hikes I’ve done, it’s called Observation Hill, or Ob Hill for short. This hill overlooks all of McMurdo and has a gigantic cross on top, that was erected in 1913 to commemorate Robert Falcon Scott’s party who died trying to reach the South Pole. The view from the top of Ob Hill looking down into McMurdo. Photo by Lauren Michel.
Here I am next to the cross at the top of Ob Hill with the Ross Sea and Black Island in the background. Photo by Anne-Laure Decombeix.
Before we even set off for Antarctica, 4 of us (Erik Gulbranson, Rudy Serbet, Ignacio Escapa and myself) made a reconnaissance trip to Curio Bay, New Zealand. Curio Bay is close to the southernmost part of the south island of New Zealand and is famous for the preservation of a 180 million year old fossil forest. Because what we are studying in Antarctica is roughly time equivalent, and Antarctica and New Zealand were close together in the southern part of Pangaea during this time, we thought it would be interestingto go study the forest of Curio Bay. Then we can compare what we are seeing in Curio Bay to what we are seeing in Antarctica.
What we found was quite interesting and a great start to the field season. Many papers have described forests at Curio Bay as being in situ with some of the logs may having been transported on a river. What we realized was that the forest of Curio Bay is actually 2 or 3 separate forests, with tree stumps now preserved in silica (or chert). Imagine a tree being dunked in epoxy and solidifying: this is the type of preservation process, except in stead of epoxy it is silica (quartz) that provides the cementing agent.
All of the knobs sticking up are fossilized tree stump casts. This area is a preserved area by the New Zealand government, which is similar to Petrified Forest National Park in the US; you can’t take any of the tree stumps casts, but you can study them! Erik is interested in what fossil trees record and can tell us about past climate changes. One of the ways he does this is through very carefully studying the tree rings that are now preserved in silica. He can take careful measurements of the widths of the tree rings using calipers and high-resolution digital images to a number of things: (1) cross date the trees to figure out which of the trees were growing together at the same time, (2) create a long (100 years or more) timeline of wood growth year-by-year for these trees that are ~180 million years old, and (3) interpret the variation in ring width over that long timescale (100 years or more) to interpret paleoclimate. Rudy and Ignacio (Nacho) are paleobotanists and are experts in plants of this time period and the evolution of plants over geologic time; they are also excellent field geologists/paleontologists. Lauren’s specialty is the study of fossil soils (paleosols) throughout geologic time.
Since Curio Bay is tidally influenced, time was an issue. We divided up the tasks with Rudy doing reconnaissance to find the best preserved stumps. Nacho would take careful photographs that Erik can study later, Erik would measure the rings he could get to with his calipers and I would take notes. We ended the day with the best discovery of all, a rare yellow-eyed penguin. A great end to the start of our field season! - Lauren Michel and Erik Gulbranson
Undergraduate herpetology collections assistants Rooney and Matt with two newly accessioned snakes from the Philippines. On the left is Rooney with a burmese python (the longest non-venemous snake in the world) and on the right is Matt with a king cobra (the longest venemous snake in the world).
Graduate student Scott Travers has just returned from a very successful expedition to the Solomon Islands. New material acquired during his trip includes two of the most spectacular lizards in the world: the prehensile tailed skink (Corucia zebrata) and a giant crocodile skink (Tribolonotus).
For people that are going into the ‘deep field,’ i.e., people like our field party that will go away from the station and camp out somewhere, there is a food warehouse where you pack the food you’ll need for your field stay. If you are not very far away from McMurdo Station, you can get resupplied with food if a helicopter is going that way (see note above about frozen food). Since we don’t hike into our camping sites, we can take frozen, canned, and dried food.
For people staying in McMurdo, there is a cafeteria where everyone eats and the food is plentiful and very good. They say you burn almost 3000 calories/day just keeping warm, so food is very important for your survival!
There is a food warehouse, where you pack food for the field (see photo at left). Because it’s so cold, usually around –30°F, it’s possible to take frozen food out into the field and leave it in boxes outside your tents. Since there are no land animals in Antarctica (except for a wingless fly on the Antarctic Peninsula), there’s no problem with leaving food outside! - Co-PI and Curator, Edith Taylor
The US National Science Foundation provides almost all the clothing, food, and camping gear you will need in Antarctica. There is a clothing warehouse in Christchurch, New Zealand (the place we fly from to reach continental Antarctica), where each field party member tries on the cold weather gear before they go to the field.
In McMurdo, your gear is waiting for you (put together by workers that are there during the winter) to check out and make sure it is what you need, e.g., you check your tents to make sure there are no holes (see below).
Why red coats? Maybe they chose red because it is easy to see whether you're on rocks or ice and snow. There is probably a safety factor of the "dumb beakers" (what the support people, especially the military folks, used to call us scientists!) getting lost somewhere! - Co-PI and Curator, Edith Taylor
Fieldwork takes place in what is fall in the Northern Hemisphere, but spring in the Southern. The fall in the Northern Hemisphere is spring in the Southern. In Antarctica, there are 24 hrs of light during the summer. The sun rises to only about 10 o’clock high and moves around in a circle during the 24 hrs. In the winter, it is too cold to do fieldwork and it is dark 24 hrs/day. In the summer in the Transantarctic Mountains, where we do fieldwork, it is usually around –30° F in the summer and can be –70-90° in the winter.
The U.S. has 3 permanent stations on the Ice (as it’s called): McMurdo, South Pole and Palmer (on Antarctic Peninsula). McMurdo has around 250 people that ‘winter over’ and around 1000 there in the summer.
Transportation: We fly commercial to Christchurch, NZ and then fly military cargo planes from there to Antarctica. The New York Air National Guard flies the transport planes, either jets early in the season when the runway is still frozen and hard, or ski-equipped LC-130 prop transport planes later in the season. The LC-130s also fly between McMurdo and South Pole, as well as taking field parties into field sites that are too remote for helicopters. This season, our team is relatively close to McMurdo, so they will be moved by helicopters and by Twin Otters, small planes that land on skis.
McMurdo is built on Ross Island in the Ross Sea – a volcanic island with an active volcano, Mt. Erebus.
After arriving in McMurdo, field party members who have not been there before must go through Field Safety Training. Here you learn how to travel across glaciers and usually you have to build a snow shelter (usually a snow cave) and stay in it overnight. You also learn how to rope yourselves together if you are traveling over crevassed areas. -Co-PI and Curator, Edith Taylor
Basically, there are three to four ways you can go to Antarctica: (1) as a tourist, (2) If you’re very wealthy, you can mount your own expedition!, (3) you can work for the contractor who manages the U.S. bases there for the National Science Foundation, or (4) you can go as an NSF-funded researcher.
You don’t need permits, but you must agree to abide by the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 during the first International Geophysical Year, and subsequently agreed to by 50 parties. Some of the provisions are that you cannot collect anything, unless you are a funded research project, and you must stay a certain distance away from the wildlife, unless again you are a researcher studying the wildlife. Another provision of the Treaty is that Antarctica cannot be claimed by any nation and that the continent is open for scientific investigation and cooperation—basically a scientific preserve.
It takes months to prepare for an expedition. The PI must fill out about 50 pp of forms stating what gear the team will need. Each team member provides their sizes of clothing and boots, and has to get extensive medical and dental exams. The only gear that we take are some collecting tools, e.g., geologic hammers, a gasoline-powered jackhammer, and some extra clothes, e.g., extra liner gloves and extra mittens, as collecting rocks tends to tear up your gloves and mittens. - Co-PI and curator, Edith Taylor
What most people don’t realize is how much work and preparation it takes to get ready for the field, particularly if that field is Antarctica. For me, getting ready to go to Antarctica is a bit different than doing fieldwork anywhere else in the world. Like most funded projects, the scientists are assembled in advance; however, unlike other fieldwork I’ve done, the group was determined and set in stone by March, but we didn’t leave until November.
In February I was invited to join my good friend Erik Gulbranson on a project he was co-leading this November to go to New Zealand and Antarctica. I am not one to ever say no to great scientific questions and awesome field work with friends. Our field crew was solidified between February and March, and then the paperwork started coming in from the government. This research (like most research down there) is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation. The U.S. government regulates everyone going to Antarctica.
Sometime in July I went to my doctor and dentist and got poked, prodded, vaccines checked, and had to pass a battery of tests to make sure I was fit enough to go to Antarctica.
Next, in July and August, packages of extreme cold weathering clothing and technical gear were purchased and often times mailed to me. Like other fieldwork, there is a lot of technical clothing and gear I need to do my work. However, unlike other projects, the government can outfit me with everything I need. Any gear that was purchased on my behalf or by me was purchased in July when it was 100 degrees out — nothing says field work like down jackets in the Dallas summer! I’m a 5’4” woman, and while the government outfits all polar scientists with clothing, most of what they make won’t really fit me. Luckily, grant money helped outfit me to make sure I am safe and warm. The last piece of clothing will come tomorrow here where we are in Christchurch, New Zealand, when we get big red parkas and any remaining clothing we don’t own. Then I’ll be ready (well, clothing wise) for what will be the most extreme cold I’ve ever known. It’s crazy to me to think it takes almost a year though to prepare for 4 weeks of work. I hope it was enough time!
Once the team was assembled, gear was purchased, dental and medical records were passed, then it was just a matter of getting there. That was a two-ish-day-long trip from wherever we started (the University of Kansas, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science) to Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Then Rudy Serbet from KU, Erik and I traveled from Dallas Fort-Worth to Los Angeles to Sydney. We had a long layover (9ish hours) where we left the airport and got to be tourists. Then our final leg: Sydney to Christchurch. That’s where we are now -- arriving from all over, getting to know each other (it’s my first time down here!) and tomorrow getting outfitted with clothing before our next leg to McMurdo Research Station, where we’ll getcloser to the deep field and fossil plants.
- Lauren A. Michel, Ph.D., King Family Fellow with the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas
Rafe, Robin and Matt at iDigBio Summit
The Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio; https://www.idigbio.org/) is the national resource for digitization of vouchered natural history collections and was established by the community strategic plan for the Network Integrated Biocollections Alliance (NIBA). iDigBio is supported through funds from the NSF’s Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) program. The vision of the ADBC is a permanent database of digitized information from all biological collections in the United States. It is anticipated that this effort will lead to new discoveries through research, a better understanding and appreciation of biodiversity through improved education and outreach, and subsequent improved environmental and economic policies. Key partners in this effort are the Thematic Collections Networks (TCNs), which form a national grid of institutions that are digitizing specimens and associated resources. Within this context, animal vocalizations (like that of birds and anurans) and electrical signals (such as by fishes), which also form vital specimen-associated resources for research, are currently being digitized and archived by the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (http://macaulaylibrary.org/) and other institutions around the country. Avian and anuran calls recorded by researchers at KU have been being digitized and contributed to this repository, with a substantial part of the collection already accessible to the public.
Exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History
The 2 day iDigBio IV summit, which was held in Gainsville between October 27–28, 2014 saw Rafe and I, along with Matthew Medler (who represented Mike Webster, Director of the Macaulay Library) as the attending members of the fledgling TCN devoted to digitizing animal vocalizations and electric signals. Eighty-four on-site attendees and nine remote attendees from TCNs, iDigBio, NSF, USGS and other biodiversity informatics initiatives convened for the summit. A series of brief presentations and demonstrations were made by representatives of the various TCNs and Matthew made a presentation of the basic components of our TCN and the progress made so far. One of the more inspired demonstrations was that of John La Salle, who showcased the Atlas of Living Australia portal (http://www.ala.org.au/), which was supported by a $45 million investment by the Australian Government. I guess I would be very inspired too, had I had that kind of money backing me. Another interesting demo was that of augmented reality for public outreach, education and research purposes, where digitized 3D images of specimens can be viewed through a device such as a mobile phone, iPad, or a desktop webcam; the following video illustrates the point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STc8Nsx36MI. Following the talks and demos, we then spread out between a set of four breakout discussion groups. The afternoon saw a poster session that was offered in a unique format, where posters were displayed on 55-inch high-definition flat screen televisions instead of the traditional posters printed on paper. The day culminated in a reception at the Florida Museum of Natural History at Powell Hall on the University of Florida campus, where a sensational Megalodon exhibition had just opened to the public. Overall, the Summit offered valuable insight into the ongoing multi-dimensional digitization and archival processes and the efforts to make them openly accessible, along with networking opportunities in this respect.
A few interesting webpages that were highlighted at the Summit:
- The Society For The Preservation of Natural History Collections: http://www.spnhc.org/
- Digital Morphology library: http://www.digimorph.org/
- Photosynth, a software application that analyzes digital photographs and generates a three-dimensional model of the photos and a point cloud of a photographed object: https://photosynth.net/preview/