Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Transantarctic Mountains at 3 AM

I took this picture this morning at around 3 AM when I took a short break from logging. The Royal Society Range of the Transantarctic Mountains is reflected by the morning sun, a row of snow mobiles is visible on the sea ice on the left, and the buildings of the air strip further away. I have seen this landscape hundreds of times now, but it never gets old. The light and the weather are different every day.
Last night we had a small breakthrough: we had drilled through a major unconformity (erosion surface) and found larger quantities of diatoms in the sediments. Diatoms are tiny single-celled algae made of silica that are particularly abundant in the polar regions. The paleontologists can use them to provide ages for the rocks we core (biostratigraphy), because through evolution they have changed their morphology frequently through time (image of diatom to the right from Reed Scherer). The paleontologists will now sample the rocks we described and identify different species using a microscope (diatoms are much less than a millimeter in size).
Other news is that Ann Curry of the Today Show arrived in McMurdo Station yesterday and she is going to report on the projects related to "Climate Change" in a series of broadcasts. The date of a Live broadcast I heard is Nov. 5th. There is a small chance some of the people in our project will appear in the program. See the link here for more information...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A sundog at Halloween

I imagine the pumpkins stacking up at home and all is ready for Trick or Treat? Here no pumpkins, but the Halloween party here was interesting (it is held the Saturday before Halloween in the old helikopter hangar, which is now a Gym). Unfortunately we could not participate in the festivities, because we had 32 m of core to log at night, but we were served with some interesting entertainment at our Midrats meal from people coming back from the party to grab an after midnight meal: various Zombies, Jokers, Hippies, and a guy with a Cow costume that you could milk??? Anyway, when we got back to work, the American co-chief scientist was dressed like Eddy van Halen (the acting Italian co-chief is standing next to him in the photo, not knowing what to think of it).

That night there was a Sundog: it looks like there is more than one Sun with a halo and it is caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere. It is a peculiar polar phenomenon, which I witnessed before when doing research in Greenland. We did get some ice fog later on. Instead of very moist air composed of water droptlets, the fog is frozen into ice crystals that precipitate on all exposed surfaces. You had to be careful that your gloves did not freeze onto the handle bars of the stairs.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The biggest clast contest

Last night we described another 27 meters of core down to 198 meters below the seafloor. We are seeing large rocks (clasts), such as the migmatite in the photograph. These rock clasts have been eroded from the basement of the Trantantarctic Mountains. Antarctica was involved in a number of tectonic plate collisions and was once the center of Gondwanaland. Antarctica is for 98% covered by ice, so the igneous and metamorphic rocks we find in our cores are important in telling that story. Last night we found a granite clast of 28 cm in cross section and we have started a "biggest clast contest". We all put in our entries, and they range from 29 cm to 5 m. I entered 38 cm. Do you think it will be enough? We will see what we will find in the journey towards 1000 meters of core!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Meet the McMurdo ANDRILL-SMS Science Team

The Antarctic Drilling Program (ANDRILL) is an international research program supported by four nations: the United States, New Zealand, Italy, and Germany. Scientists from these four nations are present here on the ice. A small group is stationed at the drillsite, but the majority is working in the Crary Laboratory at McMurdo Station on various aspects of the science. Our goal is to answer a question that has been debated for more than 20 years now: has the East Antarctic ice sheet, the largest on Earth, been a stable polar ice sheet for the past 14 million years, or did it become more dynamic more recently in response to climate warming. We are interested in learning how the ice sheet responded during well-documented intervals of warming in the past, comparable to what is predicted for the future. Currently, drilling has progressed to almost 200 meters below the seafloor and we have seen changes in the influence of glacial ice through time.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Next sunset February 20, 2008

Last night the sun set for the last time this season. It is nice that now when we walk to our mid-rats meal at midnight we can see the sun's reflection on the buildings and the Transantarctic Mountains across the McMurdo Sound. The polar summer has begun and the temperatures are rising as well. The snow storm passed and a Hercules plane had landed while I was sleeping: new people came into the station, and we had fresh salad for lunch! Helicopters were also flying and we had more than 20 meters of core to describe. Most of it was composed of coastal sediments with very few dropstones from icebergs or sea ice, very different from yesterday. To the right is an example of sediments made by currents (ripples in cross section) overlain by sediments made by waves (the flat layers at the top). After we describe the core, the data is entered in a database system with software called PSICAT. The software also generates a graphic log of the different rocks down the hole. The photo shows Larry Krissek who is entering the data into the PSICAT program.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Snow and core

Last night snow fall and wind were keeping us inside. Right now all travel is suspended, because of low visibility and wind. We were planning on visiting the drillsite to talk to our colleagues there, but these plans had to be postponed, because it requires travel on the sea ice. We also don't know when they will be able to fly the core in from the drillsite, because all helicopter flights are suspended as well. So maybe we will get a little break. Saturday night we were logging core through diamictites and it seemed there was no end to them. But then last night we went through cycles of sandstones, mudstones, and diamictites, which is interesting because it shows that glaciers were sometimes close (diamictites with big stones) and sometimes far away from the drillsite (mudstones). Some of the sandstones had dropstones in them, dropped by icebergs floating above the location of the drillsite in the past. Other sandstones and mudstones showed faults, indicating instability, like in the photo to the right. Do you see how the horizontal layers are displaced along the vertical fault plane?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cutting whole core samples

I started the day by giving a lecture on glaciers to a group of educators who are part of the ANDRILL project. During the night we logged more diamictites, but there was some variety in the rock units as well. I also got a note from one of the co-chiefs to take a sample for off-ice scientist Francesco Fasano. Two drillsite scientists are producing physical property logs that we use to pick a good spot to check for evidence of ice loading onto the seabed. In the photos you can see the whole core (before it is split), marking the location of the sample and the core curators, Simon and
Davide, cutting out the section with a rock saw. We usually only get to see the cut face of the core after it is split into to equal halves, so for us it was interesting to see the whole core. As you can see: we are drilling into lithified sedimentary rock now at more than 70 meters below the sea floor.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Diamictites and midnight skies

Today was a very good night. We drilled through the volcanic sequence into all too familiar rocks for this part of the world: diamictites. These rocks are produced by glaciers and ice sheets. Diamictites are composed of debris scraped off the landscape by moving ice, which is then incorporated into the base of the ice when it flows. At the terminus or end of the glacier where melting and iceberg calving takes place, the debris is released and it accumulates in thick layers. We are drilling into those types of layers now. See how sedimentologists describe the core in the video here. We have no idea how old these rocks are, and we hope the paleontologists can give us a clue soon. We found some marine microfossils in a smearslide today that may be useful in providing an age. The paleontologists will probably be working on that today. Watch a video on what paleontologists do here.
On a more casual note: I would like to draw your attention to the increasing hours of daylight in the far South. Coming back from our mid-rats meals we can see the midnight skies changing every day. We have seen the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen in my life. At this time of the year the sun just dips below the horizon, so it does not get really dark any more. The sky turns almost pink and purple, such as above Mt. Morning (a volcano) here in the photo.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Core delivery!

Meet Phil (left), ANDRILL curator, and Josh, computer wiz. What would we do without them... They certainly keep us out of trouble and busy in the core lab! The curatorial team takes care of the conditions of the core, sampling, and high resolution images, which are processed by Josh and made available to us. Today they brought us some very interesting sections of core with much variety, including these laminated beds in the photo below. Interestingly: we are only 25-35 m below the seabed and we see no sign of glaciers, although we can't say how significant that is right now. There is still quite a lot of volcanic material.
Yesterday I climbed Observation Hill for the first time. From the hill you have a 360 degree view and you can see the active volcano Mt. Erebus, Scott base (the Kiwi base) and the Transantarctic Mountains. On the summit is a cross in memory of Scott and his party who died on their way back from the South Pole in 1911. While I was on a summit, I heard a strange sound, like thunder, and I saw a larger cloud coming off Mt. Erebus: a possible small eruption? It is possible according to Kurt and he notified his colleague from the volcano observatory in the U.S. who will come down here shortly.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Meet the nightshift core logging team

We have now converted to nightshift and will be describing core for at least the next few days (or nights). The people I work with in the photo are (from left to right) Brad Field from GNS, New Zealand, Chris Fielding from Univ. of Nebraska, Sonia Sondroni from Univ. of Siena, Italy, Kurt Panter from Bowling Green State University, and Larry Krissek from the Ohio State University. Yesterday we had just 3 meters, but it was enough, because we still need to tune in to each others logging habits and streamline the process. The core we got was very interesting with abundant volcanic material. It looks like we are currently drilling through the remnant of a lava flow: a volcanic breccia composed of vesicular basalt.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Arrival of the first core to describe

Last night the first boxes of core were brought in from the drill site by helicopter. We are starting our core descriptions one hour from now. The core is now being split in two halves and the cut surface is scanned, so that we have a digital image for later as well. It is now almost 2AM and we will work until the morning and then sleep during the day. I am very excited about starting our task of providing detailed core descriptions to the whole team. On the nightshift, we will work with a group of 5 sedimentologists, 2 petrologists, 3 core curators, and 1 computer specialist who maintains the software for the database of core images and logs.


The science lecture this morning was by my colleague Kurt Panter, a volcanologist from Bowling Green State University. He gave us a review of the volcanic history of the McMurdo area going back more than 20 million years. We expect to see volcanic sediments from numerous eruptions in the cores. These volcanic beds are important because they give us an absolute age for the rock layers based on radiometric dating. Mount Erebus is a 3900 m/12000 ft high active volcano on Ross Island and during our Snowcraft course we had a good view of it. As always it was slowly puffing away. The station is based on volcanic rock such as these basalt fragments with vesicles (imprints of gas bubbles) here in the photograph.
The other news is that we are now converting to nighshift and we expect to see core at midnight tonight, so I will have a loooong day ahead of me.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The science behind the drilling

We spent the last two days getting ready for core and getting our lab set up. In addition: most of us are working on a series of lectures that we are going to present to a group of teachers who are here on ice for the public outreach component of our project. Tomorrow night the first core is expected. The sea riser (the outer pipe of the drill system) is cemented in the sea floor and the PQ drill string (the inner pipe) is now drilling into the sea floor. We use a similar type of drilling as in the middle example of the figure to the right. The drill rig is mounted on the sea ice (~ 7 m thick), and drills into the sea floor in a water depth of ~ 400 m. We are drilling at this location, because we have a unique geological setting here with a rift basin which is filled up with sediment and preserves a record of glaciation back in time. Over the past millions of years layers of sediment have been piling up in the graben. By drilling into those sediments we can reconstruct the climate and glacial conditions in this area back in time. The layers have a different character depending on whether they were supplied by glaciers, or rivers, for example. Our drillsite in the diagram to the left is located at the red triangle closest to the volcano Mt. Morning (M). We hope to drill ~17 million years back in time.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A walk to the hut point

The weather has warmed up due to a warm front and we have seen clear skyes in the past 24 hours. Conditions are really calm and the temperatures are a "balmy" -14C/+7F. The satellite image for yesterday shows a clear map view of the area. Click the image on the right to get a larger view with the location of McMurdo Station and the SMS (Southern McMurdo Sound drill site). The station is on Hut Point Peninsula. It is called "Hut Point" because Scott's hut is there, where he and his party stayed in 1902-1904 (2 winters!). I took a short walk out to the hut last night. There is still a frozen seal lying next to it. Scott and his men used blubber as fuel for their stoves.

Yesterday we also attended a sea ice lecture, because we will be traveling out to the drill site later on by Hagglund or Piston Bully (more on those vehicles later). There are numerous cracks in the sea ice due to tidal action and pressure from glaciers pushing against the sea ice and we learned what is still safe to cross (ice thickness > 30"). The sea ice surface can be quite rough and can be buckling up in places due to pressure, such as in the photo here.
Every year the sea ice will break out and melt so there could be open water closer to McMurdo later in the season. The SMS drillsite is on multi-year sea ice that hardly ever breaks out. The ice is about 7-8 m thick with 400 m of water below it.
Yesterday I was reminded of the previous cold conditions when we were camping on the ice shelf by a blister on my finger, that I had since then. I confirmed with the doctor here that it is frostbite, but a mild form, which will heal completely. One of my colleagues had worse forms on his toes. Very typical injury around here...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

First sample from ANDRILL SMS

Yesterday afternoon the first sample of the project came in. It was a greenish looking piece of compacted sediment with a hint of cross-bedding (formed by currents on the sea floor?). The material looked volcanic. Volcanoes are very common around this area. Ross Island on which McMurdo Station lies is a volcanic island with 3 volcanoes: Mt. Erebus, Mt. Terror, and Mt. Byrd. Across the McMurdo sound are two more: Mt. Discovery (in the photograph) and Mt. Morning. It is very likely that we will find more material of volcanic origin in the core that will come later.

The science team is now almost complete, because during the time we were at Snowcraft course a Hercules and a C17 came in. The planes also brought salad and fresh vegetables, a real treat when you are here. Tomorrow we will probably learn to use the technology involved in describing the drill cores that come up. More later....

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Snowcraft I course

I returned back to McMurdo Station yesterday after two days out on the McMurdo Iceshelf. To be able to fly in helicopters around here we were required to take a Snowcraft I survival course. What you learn is to survive for some days after a helicopter crash (or if you get stuck with some other snowcraft) using the standard survival gear that is present on every snowcraft. We were camping on the McMurdo iceshelf with a group of 18 people and were left by the instructors for the night. We manhauled our equipment to the site on sledges. We built a snow wall to stay out of the wind, pitched tents, got the burners going and made hot water. At night the temperature dipped to -22F/-30C and we were all cold. Some got up to walk around to stay warm in the middle of the night. We used our skills that we just learned to get through the night (it never got really dark). I ate a lot of candy bars and cookies, drank my water that I had taken into my sleeping bag and closed my sleeping bag so that only my nose was sticking out. I slept a few hours, but not much: I would wake up shivering and then I had to eat and drink some more. Hydration improves circulation in extremities (hands and feet) and eating gives the body energy to burn (=heat). All was far from comfortable, but in the end we all did survive and that was the point!
To the right a picture of the cold weather clothing I used on the trip: several layers of insulation, two layers of underwear, one midlayer and an outer windtight shell (Big Red and windpants), three hats, neck gator, several types of gloves and mittens (including large sledge mittens), goggles and mucklucks (big blue boots).
On the science front things are gearing up: core is expected this Sunday and we need to convert to night shift soon. We have a lot of meetings at the moment to discuss procedures and data storage. Some of us are also involved in teaching. More on that soon.
The photo at the top is by Diane Winter (my camera did not work properly, unfortunately).

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Wind and snow

Yeah, that's me in the picture. It is starting to warm up a bit after a snowy morning, but we still have to wear our Big Reds (the big red down coats). Tracy and I went to the Berg Field Center to exchange some clothing for a better size. I got new windpants that are long enough (I got my Grandma's long arms and legs). I will need fitting wind pants when I get out on snow survival camp in the next two days. We will be camping overnight on the ice shelf.
The Hercules plane that should have brought the last batch of scientists is not coming (the C17 has a mechanical problem: things break down easily in these conditions). Wind and snow are the greatest enemies of operations, because the combination of the two has a bad effect on visibility. Notice in this picture here how everything on base is tied down with big concrete blocks to keep it from blowing away. Hopefully the weather will improve shortly and we can continue preparations for our work ahead.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Adjusting to the cold

The temperature will stay below -15F/-26C today. My colleagues and I are still adjusting to the cold. It means you feel a bit more tired than usual. Coming from Summer in the northern hemisphere to this is quite a shock to the body. It is also very dry here, a polar desert with low humidity, so we have to drink a lot of water. Fortunately the station is heated, but it is still not comfortable with drafts coming off the windows. After a week or so, we will not notice it any more, but now we still do. Here is a picture of some of the people I will be working with on nightshift later on: Sonia Sandroni, a petrologist from the University of Siena, Italy, Tracy Frank, geochemist, and Chris Fielding, sedimentologist, from the University of Nebraska. Some of the ANDRILL core curaters (who make sure the core stays in good condition) are visible in the background. The picture was taken on the plane.

Friday, October 5, 2007

No Boomerang: in Antarctica!

We arrived yesterday after a 5 and a half hour flight. We landed smoothly and were greeted by a howling 30 knot wind. When I took this picture this morning out of the window of the Crary Lab in McMurdo Station the wind was still there. The Transantarctic Mountains are visible in the background. We landed on an airstrip on the sea ice beyond those huts in the foreground. Now a depression has moved in and snow is blowing horizontally, blocking the view. Some of my colleaugues are currently on a sea ice training course. I hope they stay warm. I will have training somewhere next week too. This afternoon we had our first science briefing. All is well at the drillsite and on schedule with the first core arriving in a week or so. We are currently setting up our labs and sorting out our computer issues. The weather forecast for tomorrow is not looking good: it has cooled off and wind is blowing from the ice sheet, so those who can stay indoors.
More information on McMurdo Station can be found here

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Packing the Boomerang Bag

Clothing issue of Extreme Cold Weather gear (ECW) was as usual this morning: hectic and I almost had to exchange everything for a larger size (The ladies helping us out said everything shrunk in the laundry: they are so nice!). I am now packing my "Boomerang Bag". That is the bag we will get for the night in case we don't make it to Antarctica tomorrow. What will happen then is that they will leave all our gear on the plane for the next try, the next day and we are only allowed to take off the Boomerang Bag. We need to report to the airport at 6 AM tomorrow and will fly by C17 to McMurdo at 9 AM. We saw the plane this morning when returning from clothing. We need to put on some of our ECW gear on, on the flight tomorrow. For info on the C-17 see the link here.

In Christchurch New Zealand

Some of my ANDRILL (Antarctic Drilling Program) colleagues and I have arrived in Christchurch New Zealand this morning with a large group of science support personnel. This afternoon I took a walk along the river Avon and took another look at Scott's statue. He lost the race for the South Pole to Roald Amundson, but he is a British hero. He passed through Christchurch many times on his way to Antarctica, which was then a far more dangerous journey than it is today.
Tomorrow we will be issued our Extreme Cold Weather gear (ECW) and Friday we will try to get to McMurdo in the Ross Sea region by military aircraft. Landing on the airstrip on the sea ice requires visibility (no radars present) and the weather can change rapidly so close to the icesheet, forcing pilots to return to Christchurch when they can't land. Let's keep our fingers crossed! More soon..