Taylor Glacier 2015-2016

It’s an exhausting four days of travel, going from home in New York through Los Angeles, Sydney and Christchurch all the way to Antarctica! Yet stepping off the C-17 military transport jet and onto the ice shelf at McMurdo Station instantly replaces fatigue with excitement for the adventure (and hard work) ahead.

The team has been a whirlwind of cargo hunting, sleep-kit packing, food pulling and safety training, interspersed with consuming (un)healthy amounts of food. In our one week in McMurdo, Michael, Sarah, Andy and others have located all science cargo and prepped it for helicopter flights out to Taylor Glacier.

TG newbies Joe, Bernie and myself (Peter) have spent some extra time familiarizing ourselves with aspects of camp life and safety before we head out to live on the glacier for the next few weeks. The three of us had an excellent Taylor Glacier simulation drilling v-threads in the ice and anchoring and setting up tents in high winds at Arrival Heights. After his first snow machine course Bernie was declared a natural and passed his Antarctic driver test with flying colors.

We have all been recreating a little to stay healthy and happy, with small groups of us walking up Observation Hill, walking over to Scott Base, and skiing parts of the Cape Armitage loop. Despite our best efforts, McMurdo bugs have left a few of us with colds but we are resting when we can.

The weather has been very cooperative so far, and early yesterday morning Michael headed out to camp with several carpenters to begin setting up structures for the season. A few hours later, Kathy followed with more hands from field support. Our driller Mike, along with Sarah and Bernie flew out just after lunch today. Now, after a last-minute change, Vas, Ed, Andy, Joe and I will be flying to camp this evening around 8pm.  The real Taylor Glacier season has begun!

Cheers.

Peter

The view to the west of McMurdo Station from the top of Observation Hill.

The view to the west of McMurdo Station from the top of Observation Hill. Photo by P. Neff.

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On The Glacier!

We have now been on Taylor Glacier for a week. Our put-in to the glacier, like the rest of these expeditions, was a somewhat strange combination of the careful plan we made for it, and fairly sudden last-minute changes. The plan this season was to send Kathy (our camp coordinator) and Michael (who knew where all the structures were to be placed) in as our advance guard. On the same day, a 5-person construction crew (“carps”) as well as 2 field support personnel (“BFC”) would go in to start erecting the structures and setting up camp. On the second day, Sarah, Berni and Jayred would fly to the glacier to get ready for drilling at a downglacier location. On the third day, the rest of our team (Ed, Joe, Andy, Peter and me) would arrive. This staggered put-in would allow for much of the camp to be set up without over-crowding.

The clever plan was off to a good start. With good weather, helicopter operations (“helo ops”) were on schedule and our advance guard, carps and BFC folks were off to the glacier by early afternoon on the 1st day. That evening, we heard that a storm system may be moving in to the McMurdo area. The official forecast issued the following morning called for slightly higher winds and more clouds, but nothing too ominous. We decided to err on the side of caution, and asked helo ops if it was possible to get all of the team to the glacier that day rather than waiting for the 3rd day. Bad weather was on our side, as several field research sites around McMurdo already had poor visibility and helicopter cancellations. So helo ops had unexpected openings in the schedule and said yes to not only getting all of our team out to the glacier early, but also flying out more of our science cargo on a faster schedule. We scrambled to get ready, and off we went to Taylor Glacier, arriving at 9 pm. This turned out to be a very good decision, as bad weather indeed moved in to McMurdo, and helo ops were completely shut down for the following 2 days.

Terminus of Taylor Glacier as seen from the helicopter. Photo by Peter Neff.

Terminus of Taylor Glacier as seen from the helicopter. Photo by Peter Neff.

The glacier greeted us with high winds this year. When we arrived, it was blowing between 20 – 30 mph, and putting up a tent was a 4-person job. The winds picked up further in the next 2 days, mainly staying around 30 – 40 mph but gusting up to 50. While we have experienced such winds on Taylor Glacier several times before, this was the windiest put-in we had, making the process of setting up and organizing much slower. Everything had to be secured and anchored to the ice at all times. We’ve had crates as heavy as 400 lbs slide on the ice before, so we were taking no chances. Over the course of the first two days, the wind shredded two of the construction crew’s tents, forcing them to move into one of the larger tent structures we had erected for storage.

Moving science cargo out of the helicopter landing zone. A cloud of blowing snow can be seen upglacier. Photo by Vas Petrenko.

Moving science cargo out of the helicopter landing zone. A cloud of blowing snow can be seen upglacier. Photo by Vas Petrenko.

Unpacking the large-volume ice melter and gas extraction device. Photo by Peter Neff.

Unpacking the large-volume ice melter and gas extraction device. Photo by Peter Neff.

 

Despite the high winds, the camp came together nicely and the construction crew and field support folks returned to McMurdo once helo ops resumed flying. We’re feeling a bit tired from fighting the high winds at put-in, but excited to start on the science. We already have our first ice cores! These date to about 130 thousand years, which is the timing of the next-to-last global deglaciation. Stay tuned for more updates.

Getting up in the morning. Photo by Vas Petrenko.

Getting up in the morning. Photo by Vas Petrenko.

Vas

A few words from the BID

BID

It’s about time that I get a word in here. The humans call me the ‘BID’, short for Blue Ice Drill, but no one’s ever had the decency to ask me what I’d like to be called. My real name is Bernard Ichabod Douglas. My friends call me Bernie but I’m not much for nicknames. I’m a large diameter ice drill and I’ve been in the business for what seems like eternity. While I don’t go very deep, kilo for kilo I’ve drilled more ice than any of my colleagues. I’ll tell you – I’m getting pretty tired these days. Thinking about taking some time off, maybe visiting my family back in Wisconsin.

Since my creation, I’ve been working almost non-stop. I’ve done five seasons at Taylor Glacier and three up at Summit in Greenland.  This season, I started work a whole week earlier than most of the humans out here. I was sent out by helo to a site near the terminus of the glacier for another project with a group of three people, including my driller friend Jayred. On the last day of this short project, the humans got on a helicopter, leaving me out here on the glacier to fend for myself.

After five long days, a few members of the team finally arrived to greet me, and we spent two days drilling at this site. The goal was to find some of the oldest ice at Taylor Glacier, from some period called ‘MIS 6’, which happened about 150,000 years ago.  After the work there was done, they lowered my tripod and packed me up for a long bumpy ride upglacier to the camp location.

I’ll tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever travelled so much in a season. After that trip, I got dragged all across the ‘Main Transect’, a long (couple thousand foot) section of the glacier. I was getting pretty worn out. Then, a few days ago while my tripod was being lowered so we could move to a new site further downglacier, my tripod’s foot rotating extension (or my ankle) snapped at the welding. The humans determined that the piece needed to be sent back to McMurdo to be fixed, but the McMurdo humans were taking the next two days off, so it had to wait. With my bum leg, I couldn’t do any work until my part was fixed, so it was time for a little R&R for me, while the humans worked on other projects that didn’t require my services.

On Monday, Jayred hopped on a helo with my injured ankle. I was convinced I wouldn’t see them again, but 8 hours later he returned with my piece, newly re-welded. I have to admit, the McMurdo humans did a pretty nice job on the repair.

Within a few hours of Jayred’s return, the team started putting me back together. My tripod was carefully raised and we were back in business. I have to admit, it’s nice to be back to work. But someday, I’d still like a real vacation. Somewhere where there’s no ice for miles…

Signing off,

Bernard Ichabod Douglas

Oh, I guess I could give you a few updates about the humans.  They celebrated Thanksgiving last week. No one bothered to invite me, but I heard that Kathy did a wonderful job preparing all sorts of food. On a day off a few of them went downglacier to check out the melt water channels. The next work day, they switched over to working on night shifts so that I don’t overheat in the sun. There’s sunlight here for 24 hours a day, but during the ‘evening’ the sun hides behind the Kukri Hills for a few hours of shade. Everyone seems to be keeping busy. I guess I can share some of their pictures so you get the idea…

Andy hard at work running the GC

Andy hard at work running the GC

 

Joe and Ed operating the ice hungry continuous melter

Joe and Ed operating the ice hungry continuous melter

 

Vas and Peter cutting a BID core on the bandsaw. One section will be used for continuous melter sticks, and one section will be subsampled and sent back for analysis back at Rochester

Vas and Peter cutting a BID core on the bandsaw. One section will be used for continuous melter sticks, and one section will be subsampled and sent back for analysis back at Rochester

 

Peter tossing a scrap piece of a BID

Peter tossing a scrap piece of a BID

 

The meltwater channels as seen from above taken from a GoPro strung to a balloon

The meltwater channels as seen from above taken from a GoPro strung to a balloon

 

Sarah, Michael, and Berni on a day of reconnaissance sampling and balloon aerial photography

Sarah, Michael, and Berni on a day of reconnaissance sampling and balloon aerial photography

 

Mining Ice at Taylor Glacier

Heidi and I left McMurdo Station, known to the locals as Mactown, early in the morning on Friday 7th in an A-star helicopter on a perfect day, flying over the sea ice and Ross Ice Shelf and into the Dry Valleys of the Transantarctic Mountains. Our pilot took us on a scenic route, hovering now and then to point out interesting features and zooming up ice-filled valleys only to swoop over ridges down into the next valley. For a first timer to this area, it was truly majestic and really very difficult to get a true sense of scale. The rocks are mostly granite with dark dolerite intrusions that date from the time when Antarctica separated from Gondwanaland, etched by the wind and cracked by the freezing temperatures into phantasmagorical shapes. Often there appeared to be gargoyles along the ridge lines. It was as though the Elder Ones of the Lovecraft’s Necronomicon had been turned to stone and now stood guarding their icy and forbidden sanctuary. Wonderful stuff in the Mountains of Madness! Our journey culminated in a spectacular flight over Lake Bonney and then Blood Falls before we ascended up the ragged tongue of the Taylor Glacier. Fifteen kilometres from here we spotted the field camp below.

Gargoyles on the ridges of the Transantarctic Mountains of Madness (A.M. Smith).

Gargoyles on the ridges of the Transantarctic Mountains of Madness (A.M. Smith).

Lake Bonney and Taylor Glacier. Blood Falls is just visible below the tongue (A.M. Smith).

Lake Bonney and Taylor Glacier. Blood Falls is just visible below the tongue (A.M. Smith).

Blood Falls (A.M. Smith).

Blood Falls (A.M. Smith).

We landed at about 09:00, towards the end of the working day for the field team of ten who were all working night shifts. Morning in the camp begins at 23:30 with breakfast and the workday begins at 00:30. Lunch is sometime around 06:00 or when you feel hungry and dinner is at 12:00, prepared by the camp manager Kathy. People seek out their beds at 15:00 or so. The reason for these crazy hours is the ice drilling: the drill performs much better under cold, dry conditions and the sun disappears behind Kukri Hills at 01:00, leaving the drill site in shadow. At this high latitude and at this time of the year it never gets dark. Heidi and I had to quickly transition to these unusual hours from the more normal hours we had been keeping at Mactown.

The next few days were a real learning experience for me. I was the driller Jayred’s assistant, learning how to take the large 10” diameter ice cores the Blue Ice Drill (BID) produces. As the cores are brought up, the melting team trim them to size, scraping the outside surface clean and loading the ice melter. It takes one day to drill the 10.5 m of ice core, weighing about 380 kg, which fills the melter. After evacuation and flushing, this ice is melted over a large propane burner to liberate the ancient trapped atmospheric gas within which is then pumped into a sample cylinder. This process is repeated on another two days, sometimes three, to yield sufficient gas for the analyses. This herculean ice mining finally produces samples of CO and CH4 containing just tens of micrograms of carbon. Separate ice samples are also collected and returned to the University of Rochester where CO2 is extracted by sublimation. All these samples ultimately find their way to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in Sydney, Australia, where they are measured by me for radiocarbon (14C) at ANSTO’s Centre for Accelerator Science.

Near Cavendish Rocks (A.M. Smith).

Near Cavendish Rocks (A.M. Smith).

Sunday was a day off and eight of us headed up glacier by skidoos to Cavendish Rocks, a nunatak around which the Taylor Glacier passes on its long 150 km journey from Taylor Dome. It is also joined by a tributary of the Ferrar Glacier at this point. Where we are, the ice is flowing at 10 m per year towards the sea, which is an incredible 3 cm per day. The ice is folded and faulted in complicated ways. It gets older as you travel down glacier, but also as you travel across glacier. We are camped on 50, 000 year (50 ka) old ice, but from one side of the glacier to the other it ranges from 7 ka in the Holocene through the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) to 60 ka. Because the ice layers are inclined it also gets older with depth in the glacier, a real three dimensional time puzzle which has been painstakingly mapped out over many field seasons. What makes this area so special is that the ice is sublimed (from solid directly to gas phase without melting) as it is lifted, exposing large amounts of ancient ice near the surface, just what is need to study large scale changes in atmospheric methane during past times. Even with the atom-counting technique of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) a tonne of ice or more is needed to produce just the one sample.

On Monday four of the team were scheduled to leave camp and return home via Mactown. The weather had been overcast since Sunday afternoon, with an up-glacier wind carrying more humid air from the coast and the clouds were hanging low on the mountains. This didn’t look too good for the helicopters which can cope with wind but not poor visibility. However, as the morning wore on the wind changed to down-glacier and the day fined up, with impressive stream of snow blowing off the high ridges around, lit by the rising sun in a most dramatic way. The light and weather are constantly changing here and conspire to make it a place of unique beauty and grandeur.

Finally the helicopters arrived, one carrying a sling of cargo and the other a load of ice core boxes. We bade farewell to Vas, Ed, Joe and Berni who climbed aboard and were whisked away. Now we are eight. I sensed a certain freedom in the air now that the three PI’s had left!

Andrew Smith.

The entire Taylor Glacier 2015/16 team (A.M. Smith).

The entire Taylor Glacier 2015/16 team (A.M. Smith).

Home sweet Taylor Glacier!

Hello from windy Taylor Glacier! For some of us, this marks just two weeks in camp but it already feels like a nice home away from home. So where are we? What is it like? While photographs don’t quite capture the magic of this landscape, here is an attempt to give you a sense of our icy home.

The stunning view from the helicopter looking up Taylor Glacier. Our camp is located about ~15 km (~9 miles) from the terminus, or end, of Taylor Glacier.  Photo Credit: H. Roop

The stunning view from the helicopter looking up Taylor Glacier. Our camp is located about ~15 km (~9 miles) from the terminus, or end, of Taylor Glacier.
Photo Credit: H. Roop

Taylor Glacier is in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Our camp is located about ~15 km (~9 miles) from the terminus, or end, of Taylor Glacier. Several stunning glaciers surround us while the Kukri and Friis Hills loom over camp. Up valley we can see the Quatermain Mountains and a place called Windy Gully. Our winds come down glacier as they pour off of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. At the moment, we are all too familiar with these winds as we start our fourth day of strong, relentless wind. We have consistently had wind gusts of over 40 knots (46 mph).

We can generally accomplish all of our work when it is windy but the wind creates a less than optimal sleeping environment and demands extra attention around camp.  Wind can move even the heaviest of items (e.g. sleds, fuel drums) in camp so we have everything strapped down.  Even when it is calm, we check these items frequently to make sure that nothing will blow away when, inevitably, the wind returns. Our sleeping tents are standard camping tents so the wind shakes and rattles us all night. Earplugs are an important part of our sleep kits out here!

Our personal sleep tents are quite cozy but can be loud when the winds howl. This view is looking up glacier towards Windy Gully (upper left). Photo Credit: H. Roop

Our personal sleep tents are quite cozy but can be loud when the winds howl. This view is looking up glacier towards Windy Gully (upper left).
Photo Credit: H. Roop

The rest of camp is made up of our cook tent, two bathroom tents and a range of science tents located near where we are currently drilling with the Blue Ice Drill (BID). Our blue cook tent is where we eat our meals and spend most of our free time, as it is the only space with a heater. In the next post, we will tell you about our yellow Scott tent, the bathroom with one of the best views in the world!

Caption: Home sweet home on Taylor Glacier! Our camp is the perfect size for our current team of eight.  Photo Credit: H. Roop

Caption: Home sweet home on Taylor Glacier! Our camp is the perfect size for our current team of eight.
Photo Credit: H. Roop

Peter and Kathy inside our cook tent. This is the only heated structure in camp (see the heater next to Peter’s feet) so we spend most of our free time here.  Photo Credit: H. Roop

Peter and Kathy inside our cook tent. This is the only heated structure in camp (see the heater next to Peter’s feet) so we spend most of our free time here.
Photo Credit: H. Roop

Despite the wind, we are all still smiling. Everyone is busy collecting and sampling ice cores. Kathy is preparing plenty of hot, delicious food. As always, there is nothing a big cup of hot chocolate can’t fix!

All the best from the Taylor Glacier team!

Finding your footing and what happens when nature calls…

While we face numerous challenges out here on a glacier in Antarctica, there are two basic tasks that prove to be the most difficult. These are two common activities many of us take for granted back at home. Can you guess what they are?

Looking north from camp over the uneven but gorgeous blue ice surface towards the Asgard Range and Catspaw Glacier.

Looking north from camp over the uneven but gorgeous blue ice surface towards the Asgard Range and Catspaw Glacier.

The first is walking. Yes, walking. We are located in what is called a blue ice zone, where it is so cold and dry that no snowfall accumulates from year to year, and strong winds help to expose the bare glacial ice at our feet. The surface is not smooth and slick like an ice-skating rink, as you might expect. Instead, it is uneven and undulating.

The glacier surface looks as though it is covered by thousands of mini-mountains. These interesting features are formed primarily by the sun, which is why they are known as “sun cups”. The formation of sun cups is also aided by windblown dust and sand particles, which can accumulate in the depressions. These particles are dark in color, and so absorb more heat from the sun—just like how hot you feel when you wear a black shirt on a sunny day. This extra warmth from sand and dust can cause the depressions of the sun cups to deepen.

The uneven, sun cupped surface of Taylor Glacier (size small glove for scale).

The uneven, sun cupped surface of Taylor Glacier (size small glove for scale).

Sand and dust particles blown around in a recent windstorm are accumulating in the sun cups on the surface of Taylor Glacier.

Sand and dust particles blown around in a recent windstorm are accumulating in the sun cups on the surface of Taylor Glacier.

These uneven sun cups make it difficult to walk, but provide entertainment when watching other members of the team move about camp. Everyone tips and teeters around, making slow progress moving from place to place. To help ease our movement around camp, we all wear special treads on our boots. While these help keep us (mostly) upright, movement it is still a slow, tricky endeavor.

An example of the special tread we add to our boots so we can walk more easily around the glacier.

An example of the special tread we add to our boots so we can walk more easily around the glacier.

Knowing how quickly you can move on the ice is critical for planning for the second most challenging activity at Taylor Glacier—making it to our yellow Scott tent, the camp toilet.

Taylor Glacier is located within the McMurdo Dry Valleys Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA). The ASMA provides special environmental protection and requires that we leave no trace, including removing all of our waste.

Because we don’t have running water and also need to ship out all of our waste, our toilet tent looks quite different from any bathroom you might be familiar with. The basics include a bucket, a can and a barrel.

Our Taylor Glacier Scott tent toilet and our UG (urine-grey water) barrels.

Our Taylor Glacier Scott tent toilet and our UG (urine-grey water) barrels.

Inside our yellow Scott tent toilet complete with pee cans, waste buckets, toilet paper and hand sanitizer!

Inside our yellow Scott tent toilet complete with pee cans, waste buckets, toilet paper and hand sanitizer!

We dispose of our liquid in a 55-gallon urine-grey water, or UG, barrel. Solid human waste is collected directly into 5-gallon buckets, which are sealed with a tight-fitting lid once they are full. All of this waste is flown by helicopter to McMurdo Station and much of it is transported on a cargo ship back to the United States where it is processed.

While these details are somewhat unpleasant, they are very necessary to maintain the pristine Antarctic environment—which is of interest to scientists as a relatively undisturbed baseline against which to compare other environments more heavily impacted by human activity.

The stunning view of Stocking Glacier from the Scott tent.

The stunning view of Stocking Glacier from the Scott tent.