Mountains in the Clouds

Well I would like to say I did extraordinary and exciting things today. In reality, i mostly wrapped loose ends associated with research in far flung places on the globe. Customs paperwork, lots of packing and cleaning, and a bit more of all of that is on the menu for tomorrow as well. This is what I have to show for it. Four boxes of research gear and (not shown) 8 sample containers and a freezer full of items ready to travel with me home. At the end of the day i was rewarded with a wonderful view of the discovery mountain ranges being lit by extraordinary light.

The light reflects of the glacier that is carving through the mountains giving a floating look to the peaks that have survived its ever present erosional forcing.

One of the great things is that as the sun starts to make more of a descent from the sky, the angles change. The sun is going to set in only 13 days for the first time since September. The weather has already begun its slow creep into cold as night approaches. But in the mean time it provides character to the sea (foreground), cliffs (black in front), and mountains.

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How long do ice holes stick around?

A student in Julia McFarland’s class at Egan Junior High asked “how often do you have to redrill the holes in the ice.”

The answer is… well it depends. Two factors really impact this 1) how often you tend to it and 2) the time of year. Early in the season (around august through November) the ice is still thickening and it is cold out. In conditions like this it can take as little as a week until it is very difficult to re-open the hole to below. A chain saw will still work but at some point the ice has grown on the sides that one can’t fit down the hole ever if there is open water at the top. If we go out and chip it open every couple to four days, even at that time of year, then the hole will stay good for about a month. However, a hut makes a big difference and we dove out of the same hole that we drilled at the end of August until December with very little work (although we were in and out of it all the time.) So anywhere from a few days to 4 months.

This time we needed a hole to stay open that couldn’t be tended – the solution? A BIG hole. This hole has been open for over a month and not covered up. You can see that we (and I use the Royal we – meaning mostly Terril and Martin) have been chipping only half of it as it was so big. However this is also possible because of the time of the year


This is the bottom of the ice right now, and what you can see is many ruts and lines of erosion as the water is slowly melting it away from below. This creates a place for fish to live and algae to grow but also means that we don’t have to worry too much about the ice actually sealing up the hole again. On windy days it gets a frozen crust, but nothing that a bit of hard work can’t crack back open.

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Warm weather diving.

In the last post I pointed out that it was pretty warm out. I spoke to soon.

The weather stayed sunny but the wind has picked up and this late in the season there is nothing in the way of shelter as we get ready to get in the water. It may be a balmy -2C (28 F) in the water but with windchill at -20 C, it is still a bit cold to have exposed hands when getting suited up. When finally putting on my dry gloves they don’t really fit mostly because both they and I are frozen. However once in the water comfort takes over again and back to science we go.

The worm tubes are dense at all the sites. One of the challenges of coring is not getting one of the clams in it. You can see their siphons sitting just below the sediment surface here (they look like a pair of holes).

The timing of this project worked out perfectly. The visibility is rapidly improving and is already up to around 100ft. Here is a close up of the worm tubes which are still in full form. Note the brownish hue on the sediment. That is likely the benthic diatoms that are still blooming away.

In addition to worms there are tonnes of different kinds of cnidarians (anemones and hydroids). They eat the passing plankton using their tentacles.

These are some of the most abundant types of infauna, they are sand anemones called Edwarsia. I had always thought that this was how they always lived but I discovered that they actually burrow around sideways just below the sediment surface in most of the cores. While the are not as numerically as abundant as the spionid polychaetes, they may provide more biomass.

This is why it is a bit difficult to get out our site. This is one of three large cracks that we have to walk over and take all of our gear over. For reference that is about a meter (3ft) across. You can also see the ice algae covering it.

If you look closely in the crack in the bottom right hand corner you can see a Pleuragramma icefish that make caves in the ice to hide from predators, mostly seals.

Terril was my dive buddy again. Here he is lite from above by the bright sunny summer day that is awaiting him. You can also see the tether that connects us.

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Hot sunny weather.

It is strange to be staring out at a frozen ocean, wearing a t-shirt and sweating. That was sort of my day.

Terril and Martin have kept this hole open and ready.

After a whirl wind lab setup yesterday, today’s goal was samples. The first task was to get out to our dive hole and re-open it. Thankfully the divers down here have been looking after me (Terril and Martin). Just before the ice “closed” (i.e. no more vehicles or people are allowed on the sea ice as it was too thin/ warm/ both) they drilled a gigantic hole. A normal hole is ~3ft across and there is plenty of room for a diver. This one is a clover leaf of those same holes so it is essentially ~7ft across. It would make a lovely hot tub if it wasn’t still -2 C in the water. They also have been chipping it and keeping an eye on it – every bit of it I am thankful for. I was concerned I would come down here with a hole that once existed and a chainsaw to make it exist again. Chainsawing ice looks great when people make center pieces out of it. When you are chainsawing down, into a frozen ocean, it looks more like a fountain. Its quite pretty. However you are in the center of the fountain getting a bath in freezing water, and its rarely warm out to begin with. So again. I am thankful for the work that they put in to make my life easier.

We only chipped half the hole out, as that was still plenty. The other good news is that the plankton bloom has passed and so the visibility is already improving. When I was here before the visibility went from ~ 1000ft down to a measly 400 ft and then I left. After I left, the visibility dropped to ~7ft and now it is back up to around 60ft. This makes life much easier as I can easily see my sites from the bottom of the hole. We are still diving ‘tethered’ in that we are connected to the surface with a line to make it easier to find again since we can’t actually see the hole from where we are working. We dive with two people on the same tether (or floating rope, it could also be called) where one person manages the tether while the other works.

The sites that I marked out in early September are still there and I was back coring the mud by about 2 o’clock this afternoon. I am not sure but I think it may be near a record to only be on station for two days and already be collecting samples.

In the antarctic this is called ‘man hauling’ whether it is performed by a woman or man. It is sweaty work.

Ahh back to the weather. As we have to walk out to our dive site, wearing gear meant for cold water, we get warm. Really warm. As the ice is not good enough to support a vehicle and to spread the weight of our tanks and weight belts we haul them out on sledges behind us. The sleds with tanks et al, weigh somewhere around 230 pounds for two so that would be a lot of extra strain on the ice if we were to just wear it. So hauling 230 pounds in a sled across ice, wearing a drysuit, is well. Not dry. This also means that we have no hut to dive out of, but because it is so warm this is not an issue at all.

Terril and myself heading down to get some mud. The yellow rope is our tether.

On the Dive I collected 12 great cores (well 10 great cores and two that are good enough) and that means the science season is officially open for me. A great feeling after flying some 8 thousand miles from home and taking the better part of a week in some stage of travel.

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Here again!

In true Antarctic fashion – I made it here but not quite as planned.

After what seemed like way too easy travel days, both my luggage and myself connected easily to all of my connections without extra long lay overs and I and my equipment arrived in Christchurch no worse for the wear.

Christchurch was a beautiful city. I have many fond memories of my early travels to the ice and the time there and one of the best parts of it is the botanical garden – in full bloom now as it is the height of summer. The rose garden was amazing but I am often most struck by the green leafs of plants I have not seen before, such as this one.

However ~two years ago it was hit by a town-altering earthquake and has still not recovered. Much of the town is either under construction and the city center is entirely blocked to all people as the buildings are unsafe to be around. This was an old town with much in the way of old architecture, and that is what has been mostly lost.

After a day getting settled I showed up at the Clothing Distribution Center to depart on Saturday. After checking my bags and watching safety videos about the antarctic, we got put on a hour mechanical delay (i.e. something wasn’t working on the plane). This turned into a 24 hour delay which unfortunately put us into a weather delay. McMurdo received something along the lines of 12 inches of snow in 24 hours.

Here is what the ski’s look like on the bottom of the LC-130. They are huge but allow the plane to land just about anywhere.

However bright and early today, I re-watched those same safety videos and boarded one of the LC -130s. These are prop planes that can take off using skis or wheels and can land just about anywhere. The less good part of them is that they are quite a bit slower and instead of a rapid 4-5 hour flight south, in these it takes closer to 8 hours. Originally we were supposed to take a C-17 (one of the faster planes) but they require a better runway and while this was all set – a storm came in and blew volcanic dust all over the runway. The dark material on the surface of the snow made it melt and so the nice smooth runway became a crater field… hence the LC-130.

We landed with no problems and I found myself in a nice warm overcast day in the antarctic. The weather is a warm -2C, which is warmer than it was in Oregon when I left home a little less than a week ago.

I was thankfully able to skip many of the normal briefings and got right to setting up the lab.

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Back south again

Today I head back south to finish the second half of my research. As a teaser here are a couple very short videos from the last trip.

If you listen carefully in both videos you can hear seals singing in the background. Mostly you just hear me breathing.

I leave in an hour for a flight from Portland Oregon to Los Angeles, California to Auckland, New Zealand to Christchurch, New Zealand where I will have a day or two break before heading the rest of the way south.

Posts will be forthcoming again for the next three weeks or so.

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Off the Ice

The season on the ice ended in a flurry of cleaning, gear return, and packing. Before I knew it I was on a plane headed home and after a short 21 hours in the air (and three days) I found myself home. It was an excellent season and with this post the Blog is going to take a short sporadic break. I’ll periodically update findings and will start it up again in full swing come January 20th when I head back into the field.

Until then here are a few photos that I never got a chance to put up although they are some of my favorites:

Here is a photo of a sponge about three feet across on the north side of Hut Point.

In the shallows there can be a shelf with Brincilces and, what I didn’t know until now, a wealth of amphipods living and eating the ice algae that grows underneath the ice. The storm here are the amphipods swarming. It felt much like swimming underneath a giant beehive. Thankfully they don’t sting.

The cracks never stopped amazing me and reminded me of clouds in their infinite shapes and colors.

This is one that I took many weeks ago at Cape Evan’s wall. The sea urchin in the foreground is using some bryozoan as camoflage to avoid being seen.

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Lasts and Next

Milestones keep coming along in the project. The main one that happened this week is that we wrapped up our diving for the season and Rory has departed the ice.

Rory bringing samples back to the hole at the end of his last dive in the Antarctic for the foreseeable future. The ice continues to develop into more incredible shades of green and blue and the cracks become more developed by the day.

Here is another view of the ice surface with the ice algae in bloom. You can also see where there is snow on the surface from the dark patches. This must have interesting ramifications for the algae that need light to grow.

Rory left last Wednesday and since then I have been diving mostly with the diving safety officers here to wrap up the underwater science aspect of the project. This entailed a few more cores that constitute the last of our samples to track the natural variation in food web variation and trying to make it easy to find out site in the fall (austral fall – i.e. February). To do this we ran out caving line from an easy to track location (i.e. the giant rock jetty) to our site and marked the site with and old deep sea biologist marker. This high tech, and very useful, solution is better known as a bucket lid on a string.

Here is our bucket lid on a string. There is reflective tape tied periodically on the caving line to make it easier to find. Although there is still 300ft+ of visibility, when I come back in February that will drop to <10ft.

Here is Rory taking off his tank for the last time in the Antarctic as he ascends into the heated fish hut.

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Clear weather and the end of the experiment

It was another good and productive week on the ice. Rory only needed two days to get back up to speed which was important considering our tasks for the week.

I wanted to see if there was a similar feature to the wall of bacteria that we saw at cinder cones anywhere else. A likely location would be Turtle Rocks (also there was a hut there so we might as well check.) There was no wall of bacteria but there was some great marine life.

Crinoids, at one stage of earth’s history, ruled the oceans. Now they are relatively rare to find except in a few key places. We hadn’t seen any yet this year but found a few at Turtle Rocks.

This sponge was a pretty one with the lightening ice in the back ground. Sponges are very difficult to identify, even in areas such as this that have a legacy of over 40 years of research.

I’d never seen Pycnogonid reproduction before this year and it has been everywhere. In the back you can see the silloutte of Rory. There has been an incredible increase in ice algae changing the blue hue of the water early in the season to green.

Pycnogonids are supposed to eat Cnidarians (anemones and such) and Tunicates (Seasquirts). No one seemed to have told the Antarctic pygnogonids that thought. This one is eating a gastropod (snail – likely Amauropsis rossiana) and we have seen them eating pteropods as well (another kind of mollusk – better although poorly known as sea angels.)

It can be challenging to take photos of the animals under the ice. Here’s Clint Collins doing something challenging.

The green of the ice algae and the activity of the cracks makes the sky (i.e. frozen surface) just amazing from below. This is a site where many seals have access to the air because of the ice dynamics that keep breathing holes open for much of the year.

The rest of the week was breaking down our final time point from our experiment. At this point we have had samples running for 6 weeks straight without a problem. It is a huge relief to finish up the last 24 samples. The algae that we added to them all has been either eaten or buried. Green surfaces have become brown again and there are many happy worms even after over a month in these conditions. A few more dives and we are done. Here is a view of an especially wormy core:

The community is still ‘alive and kicking’ after 6 weeks of experiments.

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Microbial Mud

Today started in the not so usual fashion. Rory woke up raring to go and headed to the gym. En route he pulled a muscle in his back and that pretty much ended his day at around 7am. We were going to go to a new dive spot where I heard that there was a pretty cool sediment feature to check out. The place is pretty close to station and called cinder cones.

Immediately upon entering the water I was blown away by the ice shapes. There was an incredible amount of ice algae providing a strange mix of colors and the sea ice cracks were spectacular.

The bottom of the sea ice with strange hues of green (ice algae) and blues (ice).

The real find was the wall of bacterial mat. The bacteria here uses sulfide (H2S) and mixes it with Oxygen to get energy. Its a chemosynthetic process so does not use the power of the sun.

The white in front is bacteria not ice. Its a thick mat of it and is an indication of interesting chemistry in the sediment below.

I now get to sort through the core to see what lives in it. I have high hopes as communities like this have been a focus of my research in the deep sea and I am excited to see what the cold microbial mats contain at a shallow 40ft.

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