7) nzTABS EXPEDITION: Atmospheric Gadgets

The most obvious thing when we arrived at Sub Camp 2, apart from the delicious smell of dinner, was the array of interesting and alien looking gadgets along the lakeshore. A day spent with Peyman Zawar-Reza and Marwan Katurji, both lecturers at the Centre for Atmospheric Research at the University of Canterbury, and I’ve now got a handle of what they all do.

An array of Atmospheric Research Equipment

An array of Atmospheric Research Equipment

But firstly….. the Dry Valleys are dry! Antarctica is the driest continent on earth, which ironically is 98% covered in ice. The Dry Valleys receive around 50mm of precipitation per year at the valley mouths and almost nothing at the head of the valleys. Why? Because of the rain shadow effect from the Transantarctic mountains. Very simplistically the weather in the Dry Valleys is as follows: In the summer under 24hour sun, when there is regionally calm weather, the winds are driven by thermal circulations which causes up valley winds during the day. During the few hours when the low sun casts shadow into the valleys, the temperature drops a few degrees and there is a weak down valley wind. The major weather comes from the outside, in summer low-pressure systems bring strong winds into the valley, and if dense with moisture, snow will fall. In the winter when the circumpolar vortex strengthens, low-pressure systems cause hurricane strength warm foehn winds to funnel down into the valleys. These are the strong winds that pick up sand and blast and erode the rocks causing sculpted ventifacts.

To understand the biocomplexity of the Dry Valleys ecosystems, it is critical to understand the microclimate. Temperature and water are critical for life. I know that I require water and warmth to live in the Dry Valleys, and a few cinnamon scones! So what causes surface temperature to rise above freezing? And what causes precipitation?

Marwan and Peyman are also looking at finer scale climate questions. They are interested in the atmosphere very close to the surface – below 500m. Specifically wind interaction with topography, turbulence, waves, and the forcings behind them. The Dry Valleys represent a simplified system with no vegetation, which is ideal for theory and hypothesis testing.

They have some serious gadgets, 700 kilos of gadgets in fact. There is the SODAR (sound detection and ranging), and a RASS (radio acoustic sounding system), a surface automatic weather station, and a kite. The SODAR and RASS instruments measure wind speed, wind direction and temperature in a vertical profile from the ground up to 500m every 10 minutes.

RASS

RASS

SODAR Receiver

SODAR Receiver

But the most fun, was flying the kite. A beautiful bright yellow and red 4m kite is attached to a hand winch and flown with instruments attached to validating the temperature profiles taken by the RASS up to 300m. It is labour intensive but necessary for checking the remote sensing gear. Kites work better than weather balloons in windy environments, such as the Dry Valleys.

Flying to kite to validate the RASS and SODAR

Flying to kite to validate the RASS and SODAR

All in all, after a hospitable night at sub camp 2, a jolly good day eating curry, flying kites and playing with gadgets! Back to Main Camp tomorrow.

Advertisements

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”

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

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