Setting foot on Antarctic soil (well, igneous rock on Ross Island)


We had a port call at the largest US research station in Antarctica, McMurdo Station (MacTown), at the halfway point (hump day) of our expedition to switch out some of the ship’s crew and science party groups. To get to the McMurdo ice pier, we had to break through the heavy sea ice around Ross Island, the home of McMurdo and New Zealand’s Scott Base. Luckily, the US Coast Guard heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, cut a path for us. But the pack ice quickly moved, obscuring the Polar Star’s path, and we had start breaking our own path. Icebreaking doesn’t just make for a bumpy and loud ride, it is the best time to spot wildlife. We saw all the Adelie penguins in Antarctic (slight exaggeration), as well as minke whales, and seals. Some folks were lucky enough to spot some orca whales!

The RVIB N.B. Palmer at the McMurdo Station Pier. McMurdo Station is the major US research base on Antarctica and is run by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

As McMurdo Station came into view, we caught a glimpse of the “Golf Ball”, which is the aptly named weatherproofing that protects various satellite receivers, and wind turbines that supply power to McMurdo Station and Scott Base. Even with ice breaking, we arrived at port 3 hours early and had to park in the sea ice until the station was ready for us. While we were waiting, we got a glimpse of life in McMurdo, including some type of running race, featuring an inflatable t-rex costume. Since it was Sunday, most of McMurdo had the day off.

After docking, we said goodbye to the other group of scientists, who spent a few days in McMurdo before flying back to Christchurch, New Zealand. Luckily, it was not goodbye, but rather, see you later, as we now have plenty of future collaborations. Plus, as it turns out, two of my roommates, Alyssa (featured in the last post) and Rachel (one of the microbiologists), and I got tickets for the same Taylor Swift concert in Tampa (Editorial note: SOMEONE’S PhD advisor did NOT get tickets and remains quite bitter about her loss).

After saying goodbye to our fellow NBP23-01 scientists and offloading some gear, we were allowed down the gangplank and onto the Antarctic continent – well, technically, the igneous rocks of Ross Island. Our first adventure on land was to Hut Point, named for Discovery Hut, built by Captain Robert F. Scott in 1902 for his Discovery Expedition (1901-1904) and used by Ernest Shackleton during his Nimrod Expedition (1907-1909). Fun fact: the hut was delivered to Antarctica in pieces – much like Ikea furniture! The strangest thing about visiting the hut was the perfectly preserved seal and penguin carcasses inside –hunted by Scott’s party and preserved in the cold and dry Antarctic polar conditions.

Discovery Hut (left), overlooking McMurdo Sound. We were lucky to be able to tour inside the practically undisturbed hut (right, which is also Antarctic Specially Protected Area 158)! We were happy we wore masks, because the smell of petrified seal blubber and penguin carcasses from the early 1900s was not pleasant.

For dinner that night, we had a special delivery to the Palmer – pizza! While it wasn’t the most gourmet pizza ever, not many people can say that they had pizza delivery from McMurdo Station, Antarctica!

Special delivery from McMurdo Station!

Our next land adventure, Observation Hill, required outdoor safety training. The 230m tall (extinct) lava dome provides 360° views of McMurdo Station, Scott Base, McMurdo Sound, the Ross Ice Shelf, and the expanse of surrounding sea ice. We also got great views of Mount Erebus, Earth’s southernmost active volcano, which was named after one of James Clark Ross’ ships.

View of McMurdo Station from Observation Hill. McMurdo is the main US station in Antarctica and is run by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs; their logo is on one of the tanks in the photo. Hey – I can see my home (the Palmer) from here!

Our last outing, before boarding the Palmer for another month, was a short walk towards Scott Base. Unfortunately, we missed “American Night” at Scott Base, but it was a nice little walk to see our Ross Island neighbors.

New Zealand’s Scott Base, located next to the ridge where the Ross Ice Shelf meets the surrounding sea ice. The base is very green!

The night before our departure, we had some new scientists and crew join us onboard. Stay tuned over the next few weeks to hear more about our sediment coring adventures and their science.

Transit and Arrival in the Ross Sea!


Hello from Emily in the Antarctic! We’ve had quite the journey south onboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer. We left Lyttleton, New Zealand and transited to the Ross Sea, Antarctica over ~10 days. Leaving port we had beautiful weather and were escorted by the pilot and a few local Hector’s dolphins.

Lyttleton Harbor, New Zealand

As we transited south, the sun stayed up longer and longer. During our last few dark nights, we stargazed from the Palmer’s helo deck. Back in the day, explorers would follow the Southern Cross towards the pole. Now, we have GPS, but the Southern Cross is really cool (just ask Matt Hommeyer, Amelia’s husband and CMS’s multibeam wizard. Rumor has it he got a tattoo of the Southern Cross onboard the Palmer in 2001). Also, now that we’re closer to the South Pole, it is light almost 24/7.

Stars from the Palmer’s Helo deck

As we transited farther south, the seas began to get rocky. We left New Zealand coastal waters and had to quickly adjust to 15-20 foot waves. One day the swells even got to be 30+ feet, with wind gusts of 50 knots! While the Southern Ocean is notorious for being rough, we were sailing into a large low-pressure system.

After crossing the Antarctic Circle (66.3° S), we not only woke up to calm seas – but also giant icebergs the size of skyscrapers!

Our first iceberg

Once we saw the first signs of ice, we began to adjust to our work shifts. To fit in as much science as possible, we operate 24 hours a day. In the science party, we work 12 hours on and 12 hours off. I am part of the night shift and on the clock from midnight to noon. At first, the adjustment was hard, but it got easier after the sun started staying up almost 24/7. We stayed awake by watching movies in the lounge, trying new card games, playing ping pong in the helicopter hanger, and exploring the Palmer. After a night or two, we started transitioning into “work” mode, with lots of coffee!

Moving closer to our destination, the icebergs faded away as we reached patches of floating sea ice. Since it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, the ice has been melting and we haven’t had to do any “hardcore” ice breaking yet.

Moving through sea ice and into the Ross Sea

We did see a few whales and dolphins during our transit across the Southern Ocean, but nothing compared to the wildlife we saw once we reached the pack ice! Our group was most excited to see some penguins and, luckily, they stand out from the white backdrop of the ice. So far, we have seen Adelie and Emperor Penguins off in the distance. We have also seen many crabeater seals lounging on sea ice.

Soon, we’ll reach our first study site and start science operations!

-Emily Kaiser

Some critters from my iphone camera

1/28/2014 – Cruise Preparations

Tasha writes: 1-P1010284 Excitement is building now that we’re almost ready to sail. By the time you read this, in fact, we’ll probably be well underway. Research time during this cruise will be split evenly between three groups: physical oceanography, seismics, and marine geology and geophysics (MG&G). Our group, the MG&G group, is comprised of the following people. Principal Investigators:

  • Chief scientist, Dr. Amy Leventer (Colgate University)
  • Dr. Amelia Shevenell and Dr. Eugene Domack (USF) 

Graduate students:

  • Michelle Guitard, Katy Smith, and Tasha Snow (USF)
  • Kelsey Winsor (OSU)

Undergraduate students:

  • Mikhaila Redovian and Kara Vadman (Colgate University)
  • David Morgan (Hamilton College)

Gene Domack shares with the students some insights gleaned from three decades of Antarctic research. Number one: Look around. This is not Antarctica.

Gene Domack shares with the students some insights gleaned from three decades of Antarctic research. Number one: Look around. This is not Antarctica.

Since our arrival in Hobart, Tasmania, we have been steadily working together to prepare the ship for the six-week research cruise. When we first stepped onto the R/V Palmer for the cruise, we found the labs completely bare; they had just been stripped down by the outgoing science crew and were ready for the incoming group of scientists to set them up in a way that best facilitates the new research demands. That would be our primary focus for the four days before the cruise.

Core lab ready for transit. The calm before the storm.

Aft dry lab ready for transit. The calm before the storm.

We began transforming the lab on Saturday, Jan 25th, by unpacking all of our supplies: sediment sampling tools, vials and bags for carrying samples, and a cornucopia of other odds and ends that together make scientific research possible. We strategically arranged lab benches to accommodate 6-meter (20ft) long jumbo kasten cores and leaving space to move around the core in the limited lab space; the process became more of a game of Tetris than lab setup.Next, we built jumbo piston core racks as well as our magnetic susceptibility (MS) system with core tracks and electronics that will be used to measure the amount of magnetic material in the cores (like magnetite). We secured all equipment and boxes for sea by bolting down all loose tables, using ropes and bungees to tie any loose items to the table legs, and fixing any drawers that do not latch properly. This will prevent drawers from ceaselessly banging open and closed, boxes sliding around the room dumping their contents, and objects becoming missiles during heavy seas.

To wrap up our preparations for the transit south, we cleaned all of the lab benches and cabinet doors for radiocarbon, first with soap and then ethanol. Cleaning will help to prevent the radiocarbon contamination of our sediment samples that would artificially alter our radiocarbon dating measurements. After being cleaned, lab benches were covered with bench paper and our facility preparations complete. Now as we set sail on our long voyage to the East Antarctic, the lab will be ready for any sort of event we might encounter. Continue reading

1/27/2014 – A Long Way Here and a Long Way to Go

Michelle writes: 

This is only my first blog post and barely my fourth day in Hobart, Tasmania, but I already feel like I left home ages ago. Perhaps this is because it took about 30 hours of traveling to get from Florida to Tasmania, or maybe because I have been busy every day. Or maybe I am finally beginning to realize how much work we have to do and the weeks are stretching out endlessly in front of me.

The Palmer still working on her tan

The Palmer still working on her tan

That sounds like I am dreading this cruise- quite the opposite! I am so excited to finally be here and have the opportunity to contribute to the understanding of changing ice dynamics in East Antarctica. I think the reason I feel so removed from what I consider “normal life” is because the cruise is really a whole different ballgame. First off, it spans 46 days. It will take 7 days just to get down to Antarctica, and then there is a solid month of work surveying and sampling the continental shelf from the George V Shelf up to the Totten and Shackleton glaciers. Second, our study area is so isolated and the elements are so extreme, it’s enough to make anyone feel slightly anxious. And third, this cruise has been in the works for many years, with many smart and experienced scientists spearheading the effort. Continue reading

10/27/2013 – Heading South

Michelle writes:

We’re now on our way down through the Straits of Magellan bound for the Drake Passage. It’s been a long trip so far. I left Tampa on the evening of October 24 and headed to Miami. From there, I took an overnight flight to Santiago, Chile.  Everyone traveling through Santiago on their way to Antarctica meets at the Palmer Agency in the airport to wait for their flights down to Punta Arenas. Some of the scientists and crew, including me, had evening flights so we didn’t get to Punta Arenas until early morning on October 26. After all that traveling, I was very tired and wasted no time getting to bed so I would be rested for our busy schedule the next day.

Leaving Punta Arenas behind: LMG13-11

Leaving Punta Arenas behind: LMG13-11 starts…now

Punta Arenas is the town that our research vessel, the Laurence M. Gould, sails out of, so it’s a point of operations for the cruise. This is where we pick up our gear and get any last minute items we may need for our time at sea: lab equipment, seasickness medication, or a favorite snack. The first day in Punta Arenas was spent trying on our cold-weather gear.  We have everything we could possible need to face the elements: different pairs of gloves and mittens, work pants, steel-toed boots, thermal underwear, rain gear, and polar fleece clothing. We also spent time setting up the labs on the ship. This is the same as setting up a lab back home, but we have to make sure all our materials are put away in locked drawers or tied down. Otherwise, everything becomes a flying object once we hit rough waters. Continue reading

10/25/2013 – Meeting the R/V Gould

Tasha writes:

Flying out on October 23rd on the beginning of my journey south to Antarctica, I admired one of the most beautiful views you can behold flying out of any airport; the sparkling ocean and waterways surrounding the inviting, curving beaches and lush landscape of warm Tampa Bay. Twenty-four hours later as I descended into Punta Arenas, Chile, I found myself looking onto an equally beautiful but cold landscape: covered by pockets of water, bordered by the glistening Strait of Magellan, and surrounded by a halo of snow-capped mountains along the horizon.

Punta Arenas is the main harbor from which research cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula and West Antarctica set sail and provides a temporary berth for the R/V Laurence M. Gould, an ice “fortified” research vessel (i.e., not quite strong enough to be an icebreaker). The Gould will be my home for the next three weeks on my journey to conduct research near the Antarctic Peninsula.

R/V Laurence M. Gould docked in Punta Arenas, Chile

R/V Laurence M. Gould docked in Punta Arenas, Chile

I am a geologist and I use deep-sea sediments to reconstruct past ocean changes. In the work that I do, I am something like a historian of the Earth. The history of the earth is recorded at the bottom of the ocean when different creatures and rocks sink and get buried. What gets buried varies with the changing climate and other processes that take place over time. I go back and identify those changes and try to figure out what these historical records can teach us, not just about the past, but also about present oceans and what to expect in future changes. Continue reading

10/8/2012-10/10/2012 Cruise LMG12-11: Punta Arenas Port Call

During October 2012, I will be participating on a scientific research cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula aboard the US Antarctic Program research vessel the Lawrence M. Gould, with researchers from Hamilton College and Tulane University.


We have several scientific objectives during our three week cruise, including: installing and replacing GPS units and collecting marine sediment cores and water samples. The data and materials we collect will be used to understand how fast the land surface is rising after the removal of ice from the Antarctic Peninsula (isostatic rebound) and to understand how the regional climate has evolved over the last 10,000 years. In addition, we will be taking personnel to the Copacabana Field Station on King George Island and to Palmer Station on Anvers Island. In lean times, combining scientific and logistical efforts is especially appealing to funding agencies. Continue reading