9) nzTABS Expedition: Terrestrial Antarctic “megafauna”

Back in the helicopter, and back into the mountains for another soil sampling siege – I’m just about convinced that I am James Bond. Antarctica New Zealand has provided some impressive helicopter logistics, orchestrated by Barry, the operations scheduler at Scott Base to get us to all the 75 sampling sites. It has been most appreciated.

View from the help - Wilson Piedmont Glacier draining inland into Lake Vida

View from the helo – Wilson Piedmont Glacier draining inland into Lake Vida

This time, it was team Blond, not team Bond. And Kristi and I were specifically on an Invertebrate hunt, as we hiked back to base camp over two days.

Kristi, myself and Alia in the base camp tent.

Kristi, myself and Alia in the base camp tent.

Kristi Bennet is a Masters student from the University of Waikato studying population genetics of springtails in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Springtails are the largest living terrestrial organism in Antarctica, measuring in at a whooping 1-3mm. The only other visible living invertebrates are Mites. These are the ‘lions and tigers’ of Antarctica, top of the food chain – the megafauna! Springtails are found worldwide and are the words most abundant soil arthropod. They have a long evolutionary history and are one of the first arthropods that show up in the fossil record. There are 3 species found in the Dry Valleys, Antarcticinella monoculata, Neocryptopygus nivicolus and Gompheocephalous hodgsoni. During this expedition Antarcticinella monoculata was found, for the first time since the 1960s. The current hypothesis for their distribution is that they are remnants from Gondwanaland and have survived the once warmer continent becoming a polar ice cap.

Kristi Bennet - Masters student researching Antarctic springtails

Kristi Bennet – Masters student researching Antarctic springtails

Hunting for Springtails and Mites is a fine art. They have very particular places they like to hang out. They are found on the mountain peaks, in areas with some water, where snow naturally accumulates. They like to live under flat black rocks, sheltered from the harsh winds by larger boulders, on north facing slopes, with good school zoning and close to the shops…. For us, it means spending lots of time on our hands and knees turning over rocks. So I am a glaciologist by trade, and until this point the field groups had had very little luck in finding any mites or springtails. It was when I finally turned over a rock to see tiny red mites scuttling across the underside of the rock, that I truly understood the microbiologists passion and yelled at Kristi “oh oh oh, Ive found some mites!!!”. 

Next we had to collect the mites. A specially designed aspirator was used. They are sucked up through a tube, and to prevent eating them, they are caught on a filter and fall into a plastic vile. Mites and springtails are also found in the soil samples. To separate them form the soil, in the lab the soil is mixed with a sugar solution and any organic matter, including the mites and springtails floats out. They are then scooped out, preserved in ethanol and taken back to New Zealand for genetic analysis.

Alia and Kristi working with samples in the field lab at base camp

Alia and Kristi working with samples in the field lab at base camp

By the end of the field time, the total count of springtails found was approximately 100, and 300 mites were also collected. Needless to say, Kristi was pretty happy with the count, and will be spending time in the lab, studying the genetics of these springtails.


8) nzTABS Expedition: A bloke called John

Log book record: “Quiet day, but a bloke called John popped in for a cuppa”

After three big field days with people scampering all over the landscape: climbing peaks, navigating ridges, rock hoping granite and weaving through dolerite boulder fields we were all due a rest day. With the whole team back at Base Camp, we had our ear to the radio awaiting news from the helicopter that Prime Minister John Key was on his way to our camp for a visit.

Camp days consist of a variety of occupations. Coffee is drunk, soil samples are processed, bread is baked, yoga is done, water is collected, scones are baked and the crew generally relaxes and gears up for the next onslaught of sampling across the mountains. With 14 people in the one communal tent, the art of dancing around each other in coordinated chaos is finely tuned.

Base Camp - coordinated chaos!

Base Camp – coordinated chaos!

“K020. K020. This is India Delta Echo. Do you copy?”

“India Delta Echo, this is K020. Go ahead”

“K020 we are flying in over Bull Pass, we will be on the ground in 4 minutes. Over”

“Copy that India Delta Echo. The wind here is 5knots from the west. See you in 4 minutes”

Our radio call sign is K020, and India Delta Echo is the name of the Southern Lakes Helicopters Helicopter. Out of the helicopter climbed Lou Sanson, the CEO of Antarctica New Zealand, followed by Prime Minister John Key and his wife Bronagh for a short visit to camp.

Prime Minister John Key arriving at our field camp

Prime Minister John Key arriving at our field camp

With the help of Professor Craig Cary, the Prime Minister took the first biodiversity sample for the new Antarctic Genetic Archive (AGAr), numbered MDV 0001.

Prime Minister John Key and Professor Craig Cary taking the first soil sample for AGAr - photo: Don Cowan

Prime Minister John Key and Professor Craig Cary taking the first soil sample for AGAr – photo: Don Cowan

AGAr, is a tool to link all biodiversity research being conducted in Antarctica, by housing a DNA archive. Once collected, this will enable researchers from all countries to gain access to valuable DNA samples without the necessity of going to the remote locations. This enhances biodiversity research worldwide by making data collection more efficient, and reducing the overall environmental impact on the pristine and fragile Antarctic environment. This continent scale biodiversity archive will be the first of its kind in the world. The archive has the capacity to hold 1 million DNA samples and can be contributed to by any scientists working in Antarctica. Technology now allows scientists to collect, extract and store DNA very efficiently. Once established, the archive will be available to the research community across the world.

nzTABS team with Prime Minister John Key - Photo; Lou Sanson

nzTABS team with Prime Minister John Key – Photo; Lou Sanson

Then on for a cuppa, and some fresh cinnamon pinwheel scones. I had been perfecting the art of the camp scone – and the Prime Minister seemed to like them.

Camp scones - they were inhaled by the crew, so cant have been too bad - Photo: Don Cowan

Hot cinnamon pinwheel scones – they were inhaled by the crew, so cant have been too bad – Photo: Don Cowan

6) nzTABS EXPEDITION: Olympus Range

Destination: Olympus Range! It sounds so grand. And oh how it was. As there were helicopter movements in the area, we were dropped at the top of the Olympus Range at sampling routes to follow down to the Valley floor. It’s amazing how 5 minutes by helicopter can take days to cover on foot. Steve Pointing, a Professor of Ecosystem Ecology from the Earth and Ocean Sciences Research Institute at AUT and I were dropped off by helo at 1700m elevation on the crest of the mountains. A vista of naked mountains and perfectly sculpted glaciers were matched with distant icebergs in the frozen white Ross Sea. All under a calm and cloudless blue sky. One of the difficult things to judge in Antarctica is the distance. The atmosphere is so crisp and the scenery so big, that without trees for scale judging distance is almost impossible. More than likely if something looks 1km away, it is probably 10km away. But with a trusty GPS, you can tell just how close or distant it is to the next sampling location.

Steve and I on the top of the Olympus Range

Steve and I on the top of the Olympus Range, ready to start hiking.

Lake Vida and the Olympus Range to the right

Lake Vida and the Olympus Range

We trotted our way down through ancient mountain landscapes, most likely where know one had ever trodden before. As we travelled, we crossed an assortment of distinct and beautiful landscapes: weathered slabs of granite bedrock, desert pavements of dolerite, sandy polygons, and dreaded chunky boulder fields.

Granite boulders dripping like wax, carved by the power of sand blasting

Granite boulders dripping like wax, carved by the power of sand blasting

An amazing view and a long way to go.

An amazing view and a long way to go.

So how do we take a sample? Well, firstly we hiked by GPS to the specific location – a point chosen to be an indicator of a specific geology, aspect, slope, elevation and temperature. The first sampling task requires doing just what you feel like after hiking kilometers of rough terrain. Lie down and spend 10 minutes hunting beneath rocks for springtails and mites, the only VISIBLE invertebrates that live in Antarctica, which are mere millimeters in size. Then soil samples are taken which are analysed in the lab. Lastly a 10m transect is laid out and any lichens, mosses or cyanobacteria that are seen are noted down. In some locations there is a lot of life to be found. Where we were, we saw not one springtail, mite, moss, lichen, or any sign of life. I can sympathise with Scott – these valleys do appear to be void of life. However what will be seen in the lab will show another story.

Catarina soil sampling

Catarina soil sampling

As we hiked and sampled, our packs grew increasingly heavy with samples of soil. Our packs lost weight as we drank our water, but gained weight with bottles of pee. In Antarctica nothing in left in the field, including human waste. As a woman, peeing into a bottle is something of an art!  With the aid of a FUD, a female urinary director, hey presto, peeing is not a problem. Go on, Google it, I’m not going into any more detail here…..

10 hours of walking later, we arrived into sub camp 2, otherwise known as Camp Curry, to the warm welcome of Marwan and Peyman and a big pot of delicious hot steaming curry. Situated on the side of Lake Vida in the center of a perfect polygon, the site of 3 yellow tents and an array of atmospheric gadgets was a welcome site!

Sub Camp 2 with Beacon Sandstone spires beyond

Sub Camp 2 with Beacon Sandstone spires beyond

5) nzTABS EXPEDITION: Victoria Valley Base Camp

Full steam ahead! Tents up, camp kitchen assembled, field laboratory unpacked and assembled!  From here our primary goal is to trek to the 75 chosen GPS sites, take soil samples, look for invertebrates and survey a vegetation transect. From here the samples need to return to the main camp where a field laboratory has been set up, for initial tests before being package up at returned to the lab in New Zealand.

Josh whipping up a storm in the outside kitchen

Josh whipping up a storm in the outside kitchen

Today Glen and Kurt, have been on a mission to figure out a complex plan for the most efficient way to get 16 people to 75 random sampling locations in a valley with an area of around 300km2! Tricky task! In order to physically get to all the 75 sampling sites, 3 sub camps have been set up, our homes away from home, the main camp. 75 sites, 16 people and two weeks.

Not a bad place to call home for the moment

Not a bad place to call home for the moment

Glen Stitchbury, a Geographic Information Systems specialist from the University of Waikato has used a number of satellite images to figure out where we need to go. By combining information such as elevation, slope, surface temperature, geomorphology and slope aspect, the entire valley has been divided into 1241 different polygons or tiles. Based on the previous years sampling a computer model has been created to predict the biological taxa that should be found within each tile. Luckily we DO NOT have to sample all 1241 tiles. Instead 75 random tiles have been chosen.

Kurt Joy, a phD candidate at Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury is an expert on glacial geomorphology. While Antarctica itself is alien enough to most, the Dry Valleys are a rare oddity in a continent predominantly covered in ice. What is most amazing is standing outside listening while Kurt gives me the “in a nutshell” geological history of this valley, is that there is nothing to hide the history. There are no trees to obscure the landscape, in fact hopefully we will get to see the ‘forests’ of Antarctica in a few days, in the form of tiny mosses, lichens and cynobacteria. We see chocolate brown layers of Ferrar Dolerite injected into the creamy Beacon Sandstone, we see a present day glacier terminating up the valley as if carved off perfectly by a giant cake icing knife. Lake Vida used to be 200m deeper at the Last Glacial Maximum 15,000 years ago. It has left terraces perched high on the valley sides, and ancient glaciers have left lateral moraines even higher up the valley sides. This valley is the closest analogy to Mars. Ventifacts – wind sculpted silky black dolerite, frost heave polygons and desert pavements with the wind winnowing out the finer sediments.

Me in Geological Heaven!Beautiful Dolerite ventifact perched on a granite slab.

Me in Geological Heaven!
Beautiful Dolerite ventifact perched on a granite slab.

Frost heave produced polygons - you really have to be there to understand - sorry.

Frost heave polygons – you really have to be there to understand – sorry.

Between Glen and Kurt, the two of them have spent the afternoon pouring over the maps, masterminding ways to optimize sampling routes, helicopter drop offs, and who will be located at each subcamp. Snippets of conversation escape from back of the tent amongst the piles of maps,

“Ok that’s an easy one, 12km return”

“Ohhh, that ones a destroyer, look at that profile, bet the view is worth all the pain though”…..

Pouring over the map - "I rekon we go THIS way"

Pouring over the map – “I rekon we go THIS way”

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

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.