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.

11/10/2013 – Cruise Progress: Sitting Still

Tasha writes:

Like I have said before, geologists love to have their hands on rocks and sediment especially when it has come from a site with a well-recorded and fascinating geologic past. We had quite a bit of sediment to work with up until three days ago. Now our hands, nails, and faces are clean and we are left feeling a little upset. Our plan had been to go into Palmer Deep, near Palmer Station, to get some water samples then steam over to Palmer Station to pick up five scientists who would be ready to go home after a long stay in Antarctica. Then we would head to Boyd Strait to get one last core on our way home. However, our plans were thwarted.


“So, anyone know any good chanteys?”

The wind can be unpredictably troublesome this time of year, moving large expanses of brash sea ice around the Antarctic Peninsula like a chess player moves a queen around a chess board. One day there is no sea ice, the next day the wind pushes sea ice in from a distant location and packs it in so tight it may as well be a solid sheet of impassable sea ice. That is what happened since we last pulled in and has now stopped us from making it into Palmer Deep or Palmer Station. When we began pushing through the ice yesterday morning, we made a little over a mile of progress in about six hours (pushing into the ice until it halted us, backing, then getting a little speed to push a little farther through the ice) before we just couldn’t go any farther. Continue reading

11/3-11/4/2013 – Trials of Sea Ice and Coring


[Check out the Facebook page for more photos that we couldn’t squeeze into the blog entry. This link to the album will work even for those without a Facebook account.]

Tasha writes:

We were at Palmer Station for almost two days. It was nice to visit the store to buy Antarctica garb, meet the Palmer occupants, and hike the glacier. Views from the top of the glacier were breathtaking: snow draped islands fringing the station; glacier scoured rock outcrops littering the island; a giant, bright blue cave leading to glacial melt under the glacier; and….large expanses of sea ice!

Blue holes are little different here than back in Florida

Blue holes are little different here than back in Florida

While at Palmer, wind blew a ton of sea ice in around our mooring and into some of the locations we planned to visit to core. This included our first stop, Palmer Deep, which is an area where an ice stream carved out a basin over 1,000 meters deep. As we soon found out, the ice would make our voyage to Palmer Deep a bit more difficult than we had hoped. Continue reading

11/1/2013 – We’ve Sighted Land!

Michelle writes:

I didn’t get a chance to write yesterday, so I will just do a quick summary. We moved the Cape Shirreff scientists into their camp. This required volunteers to unload equipment, and haul everything up on sleds from the beach to the camp. It was a good day of hard work in the snow: lots of heavy lifting and trudging through fresh powder. The highlights of the day were definitely the zodiac ride over cold Antarctic water and seeing a little group of chinstrap penguins as they walked around awkwardly in the snow. After everyone was settled in, we got back in the zodiacs, headed for the ship and set a course for Palmer Station, one of the three American stations on the continent.

So long, Cape Shirreff...

So long, Cape Shirreff…

It was a full day of traveling today, but there was plenty to see. When I woke up to icebergs outside my window, I felt like a little kid waking up to snow. Pretty soon the individual icebergs gave way to sea ice. This is the first time I have ever seen sea ice, and it is one of the few sights that has taken my breath away. Continue reading

10/31/2013 – How to Open a Research Station

[Check out the Facebook page for more photos that we couldn’t squeeze into the blog entry. This link to the album will work even for those without a Facebook account.]

Tasha writes:

Last night we completed our crossing of the Drake Passage and arrived at Livingston Island. Our purpose for being here: reopen Cape Shirreff research station for the new field season. (Amelia wrote about the similar experience of reopening the field camp at Copacabana on King George Island around this time last year.) After the briefing from yesterday, most scientists were very excited to get on land and help out. Those running the show were a little worried about the sea state and weather but decided it was good enough to get things started just after breakfast. So we all dressed down in our cold weather gear for the first time.

"Guys, this is embarrassing, but I think we all wore the same Halloween costume."

“Guys, this is embarrassing, but I think we all wore the same Halloween costume.”

We were expecting to get cold and wet in the zodiac ride to shore and get relatively warm and sweaty moving all of the supplies from the zodiac to the station. So we layer on the clothes with the water resistant Gore-tex pants and orange float coat over everything to keep dry. After dressing, we have to step through a series of decontamination rinse buckets to clean off any dirt or organisms that could be hitchhiking so that we don’t introduce new species to Antarctica.

“Non-essential” personnel were allowed onto the third trip to shore. Getting into and off of the zodiac from the ship is the largest safety hazard for us, especially with the large swells we were in. The zodiac is so much lighter than the Gould that the zodiac was rising and falling 2-4 feet more than the mother ship with each swell. That made it pretty hard to come down the ladder without getting squished between the ship and the zodiac or falling off into the water or the boat. Luckily the techs on the zodiacs were great at instructing us on when to get in safely and there were no problems.

"Okay, everybody remember: we parked the ship in the Blue Lot, Row C."

“Okay, everybody remember: we parked the ship in the Blue Lot, Row C.”

The trip from ship to shore was pretty far and took about five minutes. Being on the small zodiac, the large swells and high winds did a great job of soaking us, but with our float coats and pants we all stayed relatively dry underneath. I can, however, say that I have tasted my fair share of Antarctic seawater now. Continue reading

10/19/2012-10/20/2012: You can check out any time you like…


I am really beginning to believe that we will never be able to leave. For the past three days it has been beautiful: sunny, cold, and dead calm. A high-pressure system has parked over us and nothing has changed.


So, why is there so much ice along the western Antarctic Peninsula this season if the region is warming at 5x the global average? Well, one hypothesis is that because the glaciers are producing more melt water, the surface ocean is freezing at higher temperatures and is forming fast ice along the coast. The ice that we are stuck in now is likely fast ice from Graham Land that let loose during the gale that blew from the south, creating the rough conditions that we experienced in the Bransfield Strait last week.


To protect ourselves from the pressure of the ice, we are tied up at the pier at Palmer Station. Here is a photo of the ship from yesterday. As you can see beyond the ship, there is a lot of sea ice. If you want to check out Palmer Station and the ship, and be the first to know if we are leaving, you can check out the Palmer Station webcam. It updates quite often and gives a good view of the station. Continue reading

10/17/2012-10/18/2012: “MAMA, I STUCK…”

So, one evening when my daughter was little and we were living in London, she called to me from her bedroom…. “Mama. I STUCK… I STUCK”. Because he is a much better parent than I am, my husband ran upstairs to find that she had fallen out of bed and was stuck with her feet in bed and her head resting on the floor. She couldn’t move. She was stuck. Although we did not get a good picture of that episode, a few weeks later we did get a picture of a similar episode, but this time it played out reverse.


So why am I telling this story? Well, maybe this photo will provide enough of a hint…


Yes, it is true… WE STUCK… WE STUCK! We are in the midst of reenacting Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, minus the small boat journey, I hope. Continue reading

10/16/2012: Transit to Palmer Station

Well, we missed the 08:00 docking time at Palmer Station. And we didn’t just miss it by a little. We missed it by 9 hours! Why did we arrive at 17:00? Well, because of this:


As we emerged from the southern Gerlache Strait, we encountered pack ice that had blown into the region over the last several days. These wind forced the sea ice up against the southern and western coasts of Anvers Island, where Palmer Station is located. We crept along through the pack at about 3 knots. The Captain, Earnest, and our Ice Pilot, Val, did some of the best ice navigating that anyone on the ship had ever seen. They were downright impressive, especially since the LM Gould is only ice strengthened, and is not an icebreaker. We will make sure that NSF and Edison Chouest know how amazingly talented these guys are. Just to put this in perspective, this is the worst sea ice I have ever seen since I have been coming here. Gene said that this was the worst he had seen since 1987.


Science alert (and a stolen photo from Garrett): The formation and retreat of the sea ice around Antarctica is one of the largest annual physical changes on Earth. Sea ice not only impacts regional and global climate, by influencing Earth’s albedo (reflectivity), but it plays a critical role in Southern Ocean biogeochemical cycles and marine ecosystems. Spring is an important season for the Antarctic ecosystem. As the daylight hours increase, the region is bathed by sunshine, which provides heat to melt the sea ice and is required for photosynthesis. The combination of increased sunshine and the availability of nutrients from ocean waters and melting sea ice triggers large blooms of microalgae. Continue reading

10/14/2012: Copacabana Field Camp Put-In: Admiralty Bay, King George Island

Today was the big money Antarctic adventure day that you have all been waiting for (humor me and at least pretend that you haven’t just been waiting to hear about science). I awoke at 06:15 to the tune of the bow thrusters. We had arrived in Admiralty Bay for the 2012 Copacabana Field Camp put-in. Today we would offload my roommate and her team (three women and one man) and all of the fresh food and gear that they would need for the next four-month summer field season. The Copacabana group monitors the Gentoo and Adelie penguin populations and has observed a reduction in penguin numbers and a shift in penguin species dominance over the last 20 years, which they hypothesize is due to regional warming and sea ice reduction. Science alert: The Antarctic Peninsula is warming faster (5x) than anywhere else on Earth, except maybe the Arctic.

Our shore operations were supposed to begin at 08:30 but were delayed due to sustained 40-knot winds. As soon as the winds dropped to 30-knots, the zodiacs could mobilize. While we waited, I did some work and wandered around the ship. I like to spend time up on the bridge hanging out with the Captain and the mates. They are a lot of fun and I have known a few of them for ~15 years; plus, the view is always spectacular. Admiralty Bay is surrounded by craggy peaks, glaciers, and icebergs. Our Chief Scientist and my collaborator/mentor/friend, Gene Domack, and I spent some time with the charts, trying to identify the peaks of King George Island.


At 14:00, we were given the go-ahead to mobilize. We carried Copa frozen foods and freshies up from the hold and to the back deck where we loaded them into cargo nets and down into the zodiacs. Copa cargo also included communications equipment, fuel, personal gear, shovels, and ice picks. We donned our cold weather gear (fleece, puffies, waterproofs, steel toed boots, wind breakers, hats, gloves, and float coats; as you can tell from the photo, this is a particularly good look for me), cleaned our boots for ecological reasons, and flung ourselves over the side of the ship, down the rope ladder, and into the surging zodiacs. After a drenching ride, we arrived at Copa. Continue reading