PhD student Scott Travers recently shared an article from the Solomon Star featuring a 2 week biodiversity research expedition he took part in while leading his own expedition to the island nation. This two week trip was organized by Ecological Solutions Solomon Islands and along with Travers was composed of a multinational team representing a number of fields in the biosciences.
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
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).
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).
Before you can leave for the field, the US Antarctic Program (USAP) makes sure you are ready and competent in the science of safety. In order to get ready, G-496 sat through a half-day class on safety, taught by one of the resident guides Suz. She is a great teacher who has been down here for years. She covers things like how to stay warm, preventing frostbite and hypothermia, basic knot skills, and how to set up and use a camping stove. She also talks a little about helicopter safety.
Then the next day, as a group we went out in a haglund (see below) with Suz and our mountaineer Dave Buchanan for a full intense day of practical field safety. Photo by Ignacio Escapa
First we learned glacier travel which includes how to walk on ice and snow and how to use crampons and ice axes . Photo by Ignacio Escapa
Then we learned how to set up the tents we would be using in the field, as a team. This included anchoring the tent into the snow using a “dead man’s” anchor. After we got the tents set up, everyone who had been to Antarctica recently left for the warm of McMurdo and four of us (Charlies, Ignacio, Carla, and myself) stayed behind.
Next we learned how to build an ice-wall to protect the camp from incoming wind. Photo by Ignacio Escapa
We set up the kitchen, and made dinner. Suz left us to stay in the warmth of the instructors hunt while we fell asleep out on the Ross shelf in our tents.
The next morning we woke up to wind, which made everything more difficult. We had to, as a group, take down camp, pack everything away and be ready for Suz to pick us up. However, because of the wind and it getting colder that night, the haglund wouldn’t start. So we had to carry out everything on a sled to the road, were we could be picked up by a shuttle and return to the warmth of buildings, McMurdo and the rest of our group. -Lauren Michel
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
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