4) nzTABS EXPEDITION: Logistics, logistics, logistics

“You will be walking in places that no one has ever walked before.” After introductions with the whole crew of 16 people, Professor Craig Cary started to outline our field expedition. At this point, I started to get really excited. I can’t quiet believe that I am going to be spending two weeks stomping around the Victoria Valley, with such a diverse, passionate and interesting assortment of scientists.

A glimpse through into the Dry Valleys from the Ross Sea

A glimpse through into the Dry Valleys from the Ross Sea

But first we have to get there.  With a team of 16, one main camp and 3 sub camps, this is an expedition with a huge amount of logistics to manage, and all under the great leadership of Craig Cary. It was all hands on deck. We had 5 helicopter loads to get 16 people, camping equipment, food and science equipment to the field. This requires some serious excel spreadsheet magic. The weights of all equipment must be known, and the loading of helicopters is a small art, especially when sling loads are involved. It was organized chaos in the Hillary Field Centre, with production lines of crew testing all the tents, making up sleep kits, assembling science equipment, and the spirits and banter were high. It is going to be a fun and entertaining trip. The map of the Victoria Valley showing the sample sites was bought out and pored over. 75 sample sites!

Then there is nothing more than to ‘Hurry up and wait’. That’s the Antarctic way. With weather holding the upper hand, there is nothing more than to do a clear skies dance, cross your fingers and wait, as the helicopter cannot fly otherwise. The weather cleared around lunch time and helo ops went into full swing. The first pax flight went in at noon, followed by a sling load of gear, and my flight finally took off at 9pm. 45 minutes of vast, untouched beauty!

Helo coming in to land at Base Camp next to the Upper Victoria Glacier

Helo coming in to land at Base Camp next to the Upper Victoria Glacier

Kristi and Alia, Top Gun style

Kristi and Alia, Top Gun style

The crew who had flown in earlier had kindly put up my tent. A quick cuppa, and I fell into bed, asleep before my head even hit the pillow. Through some kind of miracle I didn’t even hear the last helicopter load land. Must be a pretty soundproof nylon tent, considering the heli pad was less than 50m away.

Base Camp, Victoria Valley

Base Camp, Victoria Valley

3) nzTABS EXPEDITION: Scott Base

Scott Base has been described many ways: an oversized backpackers, an institutionalised ski lodge, but for me the first word that comes to mind is ‘green’. Chelsea Cucumber Green to be exact. A small assortment of green square Lego style blocks joined together by green corridors on an otherwise white, blue and grey moonscape. To me Scott Base is one of my homes, as I lived there for the past two summer seasons working on the base. It’s humming with activity and run by Antarctica New Zealand who provide logistical support for the scientists doing field research. Numbers fluctuate daily as people come and go, but usually there are around 60 people on base, providing a colorful collision of productivity. Between working hard, enjoying the surroundings by foot or ski, and the odd dress up party there is always something going on. Check out Antarctica New Zealand’s webcam from Scott Base.

Scott Base, New Zealand's Antarctic Research Base

Scott Base, New Zealand’s Antarctic Research Base

We arrived on base to a pleasant 18 degrees, shed our many layers in the boot room and were led into the maze which is Scott Base for a tour. The base staff is made up of chefs, engineers, mechanics, domestics, builders, field trainers and science and communications technicians. Over the winter a skeleton crew of staff remain to keep the base ticking over. We locate ourselves a bunk in Q hut and head into the Tatty Flag (the Scott Base bar) for a beer. From an architectural point of view Scott Base is fascinating, it is like being inside a gigantic multi-room industrial fridge, only reversed to keep the warmth in. It is constructed from polystyrene sandwich board, and is kept at a pleasant 18 degrees. Power is generated by 3 large wind turbines, which also supply excess energy to McMurdo station on windy days. Scott Base also houses two backup diesel generators. Desalination is used to create fresh water that removes salt. Firstly the -1.8 degree seawater is warmed up and then passes through the reverse osmosis plant. Wastewater is treated by an ozone treatment plant, and all rubbish, food waste and solid human waste is shipped back to NZ to be landfilled.

Pressure Ridges, like frozen waves out in front of Scott Base

Pressure Ridges, like frozen waves out in front of Scott Base

The view from Scott Base is priceless; smoking Mt Erebus dominates to the north. To the south, Scott Base is situated on prime sea-front real estate, overlooking the frozen ocean. Like any ocean there is swell and waves, however in Antarctica they are in the form of timeless frozen pressure ridges. Some of the pressure ridges lie unbroken while others are broken and jutting to the sky in shards of frozen waves. Amongst the pressure ridges lie Weddel Seals, basking in the sun, the broken pressure ridges providing access from the inky depths below. Early in the season the pure white of the frozen ocean is scared in red, with the remains of seal after births. Cute baby seals and sleepy mamas lie on the ice.

Sleepy mama and pup: Weddell Seals

Sleepy mama and pup: Weddell Seals

But before we are unleashed from the safety of Scott Base to the wilds of Antarctica, everyone must do mandatory overnight Field Training. For some of our group it is their first taste of Antarctic camping, a chance to learn the tricks and tips to live safely and harmoniously in the field.

2) nzTABS EXPEDITION: Deploying to “THE ICE”

It takes your breath away, both literally and figuratively when you step off the plane and onto ‘The Ice’. Previously I have flown south in a C17 Globemaster airplane, which is like being in the guts of a thundering bull elephant taking 5 hours to fly from Christchurch to the Ice. Powered by 4 turbofan engines, C17’s are pure brute force, a grey military machine capable of encapsulating 40ft shipping containers, helicopters, humans and cargo alike. However this trip south we were destined for the smaller cousin, the ski equipped LC130 Herc. Powered by 4 turboprops, the Herc is less bull elephant, more work horse – maybe an old Clydesdale, with a flight time of 8 hours.

LC130 Ski Herc

LC130 Ski Herc

The inside of a Herc is a sight to be seen, all passengers, or pax in military speak were crammed in, bundled up in their Extreme Cold Weather clothing (ECWs), earmuffs on, deeply absorbed in their laptops and books. ECWs make for cushioning on the makeshift webbing seats, the shell of the plane is plastered in a complex maze of wiring and ducting. There are no internal walls, and only 4 small windows.

We were invited up into the cockpit for a viewing. Ice Bergs swam below in the vast ocean. To the right Cape Adare came into view, which is the most North Eastern point of Victoria Land, East Antarctica. Beyond, the long spine of the Admiralty Mountains stretch into the distance, which are the beginning of the Transantarctic Mountains which span to the Pole. Only the tips of these mountains peak out of the surrounding ice, named Nunataks. Outlet glaciers larger than you can possibly imagine spill down through the mountains to the sea sourced from the vast plateau of ice that makes up East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

First sighting of the frozen continent - the Transantarctic Mountains

First sighting of the frozen continent – the Transantarctic Mountains

We land at Pegasus, the Ice Shelf runway. It’s too late in the season to use the sea ice runway, which is rapidly turning to open ocean! The Ross Ice Shelf is a glacial extension of the ice that flows down off the plateau. The ice shelf becomes unhinged from the bedrock, and begins to float over the ocean. The Ross Ice Shelf is the worlds largest ice shelf, approximately the size of France and is several hundred meters thick. A runway is groomed on the ice and the hustle and bustle of a busy air field greats us…… and the vista!  Wow… Mt Erebus! What a prominent and spectacular volcano, cloaked in glaciers and wistfully smoking away. This mountain at 3794m high, the center piece of Ross Island is home to Scott Base (NZ) and McMurdo Station (USA), Scott and Shackleton’s historic huts at Cape Evans and Cape Royds, half a million Adelie Penguins, and approximately 1200 Emperor Penguins.

SMOKING HOT - Mt Erebus! What a vista

SMOKING HOT – Mt Erebus! What a vista

The journey from Pegasus to Scott Base is unusually eventful! The temperatures have been unusually warm, around freezing for a number of days, and the ice road has turned to bog. When you are travelling in 30 tone ‘Ivan’ the Terra Bus, bog is NOT good. The only vehicle that could pass over the bog was the tracked Challengers. So, behind the Challenger a Kevlar sled was attached, Ivan was driven onto the sled, and we were towed across the bog! Tired from a big day of travel I was happy to fall into bed at Scott Base.

Ivan the Terra Bus

Ivan the Terra Bus

1) nzTABS EXPEDITION: Terrestrial Antarctic Biocomplexity Survey

When Scott of the Antarctic ventured into the otherworldly Dry Valleys in 1903, he famously dubbed them “Valleys of the Dead”. Over 100 years later, modern science is proving Scott wrong, showing a surprising abundance and diversity of microbial life.

The almost mythical McMurdo Dry Valleys

The almost mythical McMurdo Dry Valleys

I am joining a group of scientists lead by Professor Craig Cary from the University of Waikato as part of the New Zealand Terrestrial Antarctic Biocomplexity Survey (nzTABS). We are heading to the Victoria Valley, which is a northern valley in the Southern Victoria Land, Dry Valleys for three weeks of field research. I am a freelance science communicator with a background in Antarctic glaciology and geomorphology. I am really looking forward to joining this group of primarily biologists in the wilds of Antarctica, and learning a thing or two about LIFE.

The Crew at Base Camp: Multidisciplinary and International

The Crew at Victoria Valley Base Camp: Multidisciplinary and International

The nzTABS mission is focusing on examining the biocomplexity of terrestrial ecosystems living in the extreme environments of the Ross Dependency, Antarctica, and building a model to link biodiversity with landscape, and environmental factors.  Antarctic terrestrial research is currently going through major changes. Original understanding of these extreme environments is that they are poor in nutrients with small and simple biology, which are ancient and slow growing. New modern research techniques are finding a different story!  There are biological systems supposedly thousands of years old, now carbon dated to less than 100 years, and soils once thought lifeless are found to be supporting microbial life at levels approaching those of temperate areas.

The project’s first major field season was in the summer of 2008/09, when a team of 18 scientists completed one of the largest soil sampling surveys in Antarctica, in the Miers, Marshall and Garwood Valleys which are the southern most dry Valleys. The sampling area covered 200km2, from sea level to 1200m, including steep sided valleys covered in gravel, sand, boulders with glaciers, melt streams and lakes. Additional scientific projects were undertaken, improving the understanding of the landscape, climate and how organisms respond to environmental changes.

Beauty in harshness: A granite boulder almost paper thin from sand blasted weathering.

Beauty in harshness: A granite boulder almost paper thin from sand blasted weathering.

The last four seasons has seen a continuation of sampling in the Dry Valleys and the creation of a model predicting the diversity and abundance of life that is found in different environments. This season we are continuing to sample in order to validate the model.

I’m excited to be with such a diverse group of scientists from around the world, and from many areas of study, including biologists, geochemists, geomorphologists, climatologists and GIS specialists. We will meet them all and hear about their role to play in this multi year, multi discipline project.

8th Hydrological Wonder of the World: Onxy River, Antarctica

Puffed chest, I knowledgably looked at the map and in my, ‘I’m so at home in the mountains’ voice proclaimed,

“it’s on the true left”

I then stuttered, paused, looked utterly confused and stuttered,

“which bloody side IS the true left”

The orientation of the valley from high ice plateau to ocean would pronounce the north side of the valley as the true left, but the river wasn’t flowing out to sea. Therefore by using the river as the reference, the south side of the valley is the true left.

“What the blimen heck is that river up to? It’s flowing the wrong way – where does it think it is going? Into Lake Vanda? But where does the lake flow out? Nowhere!”

Intriguing. I love maps and geomorphology, and this is a fantastic quirk.

Onxy River, Wright Valley

Onxy River, Wright Valley

I finally got there, the mystical Dry Valleys. It was a bit like my first time to Antarctica. Before my first trip south, my mind became a creative but uncontrollable pessimistic monster. I couldn’t foresee past the crazy things that WOULD prevent me from getting to Antarctica. Maybe I would be the victim of a “you’ve been punked” episode on the flight down, arriving back on the tarmac in Christchurch, movie cameras focusing on my beetroot face as I exited the airplane. Of course this didn’t happen, but it was touch and go for a long period. Getting to the Dry Valleys were much simpler, I got in the helicopter on a beautiful calm day, and 45 minutes later I was at Lake Vanda, Wright Valley.

Arriving by Helo - James Bond Style

Arriving by Helo – James Bond Style

Lyrics in my head….

Let’s have bizarre celebrations, let’s forget who forget what forget where.

Let’s pretend we don’t exist, let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica.    Of Montreal

Nothing remains of the old Vanda Station, although stories and nostalgia roll through my mind. In fact the old site is almost completely under the lake, which I suppose isn’t surprising seeing there is no lake outlet. It must be a sensitive hydrological system – certainly not prime lakeside real estate. Beside the newer hut is the old tinny, an overturned memory of lakeside summers from days gone by.

For me, there was the novelty of natural noise after 3 months of almost none!  A noise so homely and soothing, the cascading Onxy River. On the river bank I set up my Trango tent, a 4m3 cocoon of warm, glowing space. My own space (the only all season, having shared a room at Scott Base).  Time out! Bliss!

Camp at Lake Vanda

Camp at Lake Vanda

The Onxy River is the largest and longest river in Antarctica (40km). It was flowing at approximately 1 cumec, which with a little problem solving was just rock hopable. According to the stream gauging crew who helicoptered in to gauge the river, it can reach around 10 cumecs. In 1984 back in Vanda Station days, the Onxy River was rafted. Bloody good year 1984. First raft descent of the Onxy River (up valley???), Poi Eh was written by the Patea Maori Club, and I was born!

After a hard days scientific research, while the sun circled overhead, we ate our packet curry dinner and listened to the crackly news bulletin broadcasted from Scott Base. The bulletin was finished with a flourish – a static infused rendition of Poi E! Beaming out of the wee handheld radio, Lake Vanda’s links to NZ were a million miles away but as strong as steel.

Onxy River, liquid for a few weeks of the year

Onxy River, liquid for a few weeks of the year

Rere atu taku poi ti ta’ taha ra

WHAKARUNGA WHAKA RARO TAKE POI E!   Patea Maori Club

 

Doing the Dobson Dance: Arrival Heights Lab

IPod + Arrival Heights Lab + 1930’s Ozone instrument = a RAD moment. A Random Act of Dancing (RAD). Actually, many RAD moments were had, and mostly on the lab roof.

Arrival Heights is a location on the hill above McMurdo Station, with a 360degree panoramic view of Mt Erebus, Mt Discovery and the Royal Society Range. In late summer it is the best vantage point to watch the sea ice fragment and disperse forming open ocean. Its windy, wild and exposed, but restricted.

The Kiwi operated lab sits prominently within the restricted zone like a fat green elephant, painted Chelsea Cucumber Green. Inside, it is full of obscure, technical instruments, some state of the art and some simply but reliably ancient. Each instrument measures important aspects of the atmosphere. Smoke and mirrors to most, but essential pieces of the puzzle in order to understand the impacts we are having on our atmosphere.

Kiwi Lab for Atmospheric Research

Kiwi Lab for Atmospheric Research

Each day I would bounce the truck up the 4WD track from Scott Base to Arrival Heights to operate these instruments. My favorite being the mighty but ancient Ozone instrument, The Dobson. Favorite, because you get a quantifiable value at the end of each measurement. Favorite, because it involves mechanically moved mirrors. But most importantly, favorite, because it allows me to dance. Dance, while moving the encoder wheel to take a measurement. Dance, while waiting between measurements. And dance, while attaching the sun director onto the roof. The sun director looks like a submarine periscope, but directs the suns rays into the instrument. Two wavelengths of light in the UV range are measured, one absorbed by Ozone, and one not. This gives a ratio, which is converted into a Dobson unit, which is the relative measurement of atmospheric Ozone.

Opening the hatch

Opening the hatch

Along with smoke and mirror instruments, comes magician like scientists. Passionately, they come for short stints to service, calibrate and upgrade their instruments. Behind them trails the media and distinguished visitors for their tour of the new, impressive lab. This involves a little stress on my behalf as tour guide for these complex instruments. But the Dobson never fails to be the star of the show, like a wizened but quirky old man. We can see the mechanical cogs of his brain turning. He was revolutionary in his youth but steadfast in his old age. He, is one that has done a bit of dancing in his day.

Operating the Dobson. Photo by Jana Newman

Operating the Dobson. Photo by Jana Newman

Operating The Dobson. Measuring the Ozone in the Atmosphere. Photo by Jana Newman

Operating The Dobson. Measuring the Ozone in the Atmosphere. Photo by Jana Newman