Frozen or On-The-Rocks? Anchor Ice is Both!

For the past week, we have been diving near the McMurdo Jetty. Our dive hole and hut are located very close to shores of Ross Island, and during our 15ft, 3 min safety stop – we enjoy playing underneath the sea ice close to shore in amongst the wonderous anchor ice.

This view of McMurdo Jetty and Observation Hill was taken from beside our dive hut (“hut 19”) on the sea ice. As you can see, our dive site is actually very close to shore. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

Achor ice forms in the spring/early summer here in Antarctica. Supercooled water flows out from underneath the ice shelves and moves North. Although this “supercooled” water is only 0.1-0.2°C [or 32°F] colder than the surrounding seawater (the annual mean water temperature in McMurdo Sound is -1.87°C or 28.6°F) the temperature difference is enough to stimulate ice crystal growth.

Diver Rob Robbins swims amongst the anchor ice at the Jetty dive site, McMurdo, Antarctica. Photo credits: Rowan McLachlan

Beautiful, shimmering crystals form in the water column and larger crystals start to grow on the seafloor. Eventually, a giant blanket of thick interlocking crystals known as “anchor ice” forms on the shallow seafloor, growing up to 2 feet thick in some areas.

A Sterechinus urchin moves across the anchor ice in McMurdo sound. It better be quick though, or else the anchor ice may grow over him! Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

Swimming next to this anchor ice is a phenomenal experience. As you gently graze the anchor ice, the crystals break off and float up into the water column. With light reflected in all directions, you feel like you are inside a magical kaleidoscope or surrounded by fairy dust.

Anchor ice floating in the water column. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

The experience of being beneath sea ice is almost indescribable. The colors of blue that pass through the cracks in the snow and ice are so beautiful – it almost reminds me of the milky way!

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

Which way is North?

Turns out, any direction when living in Antarctica!

This morning we took a short training course on how to use handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) units. When wandering around on this harsh continent, the last thing you want to do is end up lost with no idea of how to get back to somewhere warm!

To start out today’s training, we learned about the three different flavors of North: True, Magnetic, and Grid.

Grid North is a navigational term (used by pilots and boat captains) referring to the direction northward along the grid lines of a map. It is associated with map projection, in which the rounded shape of the Earth is projected into a 2D flat representation. Because we are so close to the pole, the map projection can be especially skewed here, so grid north isn’t particularly useful.

Magnetic North is not a fixed point on the Earth’s globe. Instead magnetic north is the direction that a compass points to as it aligns with the Earth’s magnetic field which actually shifts and changes over time in response to changes in Earth’s magnetic core. Here in Antarctica, we are too close to the magnetic south pole, and compasses don’t work here. The Earth’s magnetic field is not arranged in straight lines all the way from the North to the South pole. As you get closer to the Magnetic South Pole, the field lines will dive inwards, perpendicular to the Earth’s surface. Instead of pointing horizontally, your compass needle is actually trying to point straight down towards your feet!

True North (aka geodetic north, of geographic north) is the direction that points directly towards the geographic North Pole. This is a fixed point on the Earth’s globe. For this reason, True North is the best option for navigating down here.

The GPS models we are using down here are the Garmin GPSMAP® 78.

So how does it work? Well, satellites pulse signals down from space which are then received by the GPS unit. Because the Earth is spinning, and there is a delay between when the satellite sends the signal and when the GPS unit receives the signal – there is a margin of error in regards to how accurate your GPS is, and where it thinks you are located. The more satellites that reach the GPS unit, the more accurate it is at pinpointing your exact location. There are fewer satellites covering this part of the globe, understandably, but usually, we can get ~10-20 to connect.

In addition, there is no Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) available here either. The WAAS is an air navigation aid that enhances the accuracy of GPS. It uses supercomputers to correct errors. In the absence of WAAS, the accuracy of GPSs here in Antarctica is 9ft – which is not bad!

We use the GPS to mark where our dive sites are. At the moment, we only have one dive hole, located at the Jetty and very close to McMurdo Station. However, if we are able to reach some of the further away dive sites (sea ice thickness dependent), we will definitely rely more on the GPS, especially when the weather is bad and visibility is low!

Photo of dive hut 19. Inside, there is a hole cut in the ice through which we dive. This dive site is called “the jetty”. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan
Photo of our PistenBully which we use to drive from McMurdo Station to our dive sites. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

Q: What is it called when someone smashes a compass? Breaking NEWS 😂

McMurdo Station Weather

“Whether the weather be fine, Or whether the weather be not, Whether the weather be cold Or whether the weather be hot, We’ll weather the weather Whatever the weather, Whether we like it or not.”

The United States Antarctic Program’s (USAP) McMurdo Station is located on the southern tip of Ross Island, Antarctica. The station is positioned 850 miles north of the South Pole and 2,415 miles south of Christchurch New Zealand.

The mean annual temperature at McMurdo is -18°C (0°F). In the summer months (October-February) temperatures can rise to a cozy 8°C (46°F). However, now (September) we are currently at the end of Winter.

The temperatures during winter can drop to -50°C (-58°F). While the air temperature is often in the tolerable range, the wind chill decreases the temperature substantially and can make it unbearable for any exposed skin. The average wind is 12 knots (2.3 mph), but winds have exceeded 100 knots (115 mph) in the past.

Here is a snapshot of today’s weather forecast. Sunbathing anyone?

Earlier this week, the visibility looking across the McMurdo Sound was substantially reduced due to heavy winds carrying snow. A view that normally looks like this…

View of Mount Discovery across McMurdo Sound. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

… quickly turned into this:

View of dive shed with whiteout background. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

To track how the snow storm, I set up the GoPro on a tripod looking out of our lab window in the Crary Laboratory Building and started a timelapse. I started recording at 3:30 pm on Thursday and stopped recording at 09:30 am on Friday (so 14 hours total). I then sped up the video to condense it into a 30-second clip.

At the start of the timelapse, you can glimpse MacTown citizens scuttling around at the end of their work day. Then the snow starts to gather on the window as the sun sets. During the night, through the gaps between the snow, watch for the waxing crescent moon glide across the sky. Finally, in the morning, the storm has passed and we are welcomed with the glorious sight of Mount Discovery in the distance and the warm rosy pink sky.

While the gathering of snow drifts and heavy winds shown here may seem extreme, this was actually just a mild day at McMurdo. In fact, when I asked whether it was categorized as a storm or a blizzard, I was laughed at. Thanks Andrew!

The weather conditions here at McMurdo are split into three categories, and each category has restrictions regarding if and when we can go outside. Here are the descriptions of the three weather categories and their corresponding travel restriction, as defined by USAP:

Condition 3 – Considered the normal weather condition in McMurdo. Check out with the Firehouse or Central Communications is not required for vehicular travel during summer months, but is required during winter months. Recreational travel is only permitted during Condition 3 weather.

Condition 2 – You must check out with Central Communications by radio prior to leaving McMurdo and check in upon your return.

Condition 1 – All travel by vehicle or foot requires prior approval from the NSF station manager.

Under condition 1 conditions, everyone must stay in the building where they are at the time of the announcement. If you are out in the field, you need to set up your tent from your survival kit. As you cannot go outside, people just have to hunker down and stay put until the storm has passed. Depending on where you are, you may end up stuck in your office building overnight, or if you are lucky, be stuck in the galley! For this reason, it is important to always have food (and a book) stashed in multiple places around town, just in case. Normally, the weather office is able to give people a 2-3 hour warning ahead of time, but not always. The weather in Antarctica is highly unpredictable, and can change at any moment!

Acclimating to the weather here is an important process, I am discovering. As a tropical coral biologist, I usually pack sunglasses and swimsuits when I go on field expeditions for my research. Now, anytime I want to go outside it is a 5 min ordeal of getting kitted up! Once, I made the mistake of thinking I could just run between buildings in just my base-layer clothing. Let me tell ya: that was a mistake! #regrets

If even a tiny part of your skin is exposed to the elements for a minute, all the moisture soon starts to freeze! Here’s Lila after our short walk last night:

Hey Maybelline, got any ice-proof mascara?

Training to be Citizens of Antarctica

31st August 2022 – our first day on the ice.

View from Crary Lab window. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan.

We’ve landed. We’ve settled in. And now we are ready to do science, right? WRONG!

Before we are even allowed to leave the station for a casual stroll, we must complete a long list of important training courses that will ensure we are always safe and heathy on this amazing, but harsh continent.

Training course topics include:

  • Antarctic field safety
  • Cold illness and injury awareness
  • Light vehicle training
  • Tracked vehicle training
  • Helo (helicopter) safety
  • General waste and recycling management
  • Laboratory and chemical waste management
  • Fire safety, Medical
  • IT security
  • Outdoor recreation safety lecture
  • Sea ice safety, GPS training
  • MacOps communication briefing
  • Harassment awareness and prevention
  • Heater use and troubleshooting
  • Chainsaw safety (for cutting ice).

Today we started with the Antarctica Field Safety (AFS) course taught by the Field Support & Training (FS&T) center. [P.S. There are a LOT of acronyms used here at McMurdo!]

The purpose of this course is to provide the necessary survival training should anyone find themselves in an emergency situation while working in Antarctica.

Antarctica is one of the most beautiful and pristine places on Earth, but it also presents one of the harshest environments. In particular, the extreme cold, wind and sea ice are potential hazards that can be limb- or life-threatening. Therefore, everyone must be informed and ready to act should something untoward happen. For example, if we were working off-base, far from McMurdo Station and suddenly the weather changed for the worse, we would need to buckle down where we are and ride out the storm.

The first things we discussed in the course were all relating to Risk Management and how to identify, prevent and minimize potential risks associated with working in Antarctica. At first we brainstormed as a group to create a list of objective and subjective risks, including, but not limited to:

  • extreme cold weather
  • reduced visibility
  • extremely strong winds
  • high UV exposure (reduced ozone here)
  • dehydration
  • fatigue
  • crevasses
  • cracks in sea ice
  • communication issues (broken radios etc)

We then discussed how to create a 6-step decision making model risk management tool. Again, lots of acronyms used in this part of the course including S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) and P.A.C.E. planning (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency).

Next we learned about survival bags. Every time a group leaves McMurdo base to work in the field, they must take with them a Survival bag. This bag contains everything needed to keep two people alive for three days in an emergency.

AFS Training Course. Photo Credit: Lila Ardor Bellucci

Contents of the survival bag:

  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pads
  • WhisperLite stove + fuel
  • Snow shovel
  • Food rations
  • Pot and utensils
  • First aid kit
  • Tent
  • Cord
  • Spare clothing
  • Ice screws
  • Ice saw
Photo showing the contents of the survival bag. Photo credit: Lila Ardo Bellucci

After looking through the contents, we learned how to use these tools conventionally, as well as creatively. For instance, an ice saw is conventionally used to cut blocks of ice when building igloos and wall, but creatively, this long metal tool can also be used as a splint to set a fracture or sprain. Likewise, the bag itself is used to carry all the supplies, but as this is made from waterproof material, it can also be used as a windbreaker or a mini-tent for anyone entering into mild hypothermia.

Next, it was time to learn how to use the WhisperLite camping stove.

Rowan McLachlan successfully lit the stove without burning the building down. Photo credit: Lila Ardor Bellucci

This stove can use a variety of different fuel types including white gas, kerosene, and unleaded gasoline. And it is so compact!

Contents of stove bag. Photo credit: Lila Ardor Bellucci

After this, we learned how to pitch BlackDiamond Fitzoy 3-person tents.

Andrew Thurber: Scientist, Photographer, and Professional Tent-Pitcher. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

Although this model is a little trickier to put up compared to most other tents, its pole design and tight pitch mean that this is one of the sturdiest tents out there and suitable for weathering the harsh Antarctica storms in an emergency situation.

Okay, so the tent is up, but what do you tie the guy lines to to prevent it from blowing away in the gale? There are no trees or rocks on the sea ice… The answer: dig V-thread holes in the ice using ice screws!

Lila Ardor Bellucci making sure the instructor doesn’t screw up. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

You then put the guy line down one side of the v-shaped hole, and use the ice screw to catch it on the other side and pull it up. Next, use a T-hitch and secure your tent to the ice!

The last component of the Antarctic Field Safety course was Cold Illness and Injury. I have to say – although this was arguably the most important component of today’s training – I enjoyed it the least. #Squeamish. This presentation contained lots of visually disturbing images of frost-bitten fingers and toes, and something known as “degloving”. I dare you to google degloving if you are unfamiliar.

Some of the cold injuries we covered were:

  • frost nip
  • frostbite
  • hypothermia
  • chilblains
  • Raynauds syndrome
  • cold water immersion

Here are some of the less-gory slides from the presentation:

source of above slides: FS&T at McMurdo

The take-home messages from this part of the training were:

  1. Your body is an engine and needs water and food as fuel. To stay warm you must eat and drink!
  2. Layered clothing is key to reducing heat loss in Antarctica. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer, then use fleece layers, and finally, a wind-proof outer layer is required for staying warm
  3. The buddy system is vital for identifying if someone is suffering from cold-induced illness or injury. If someone’s behavior changes (e.g. if a normally loud person starts to become quiet, or a normally quiet person starts to be loud and incoherent), they themselves may not be aware – so look out for one another! Likewise, if the tip of someone’s nose turns white, it is up to their buddy to let them know as they themselves may not be able to feel it!

Today’s training was 4 hours long. However, this was actually the condensed version of this course. The full-length version used to be called “Happy Camper” training, but unfortunately, they don’t teach it anymore. In the Happy Camper training, you apparently went out onto the ice, pitched your tent, cut and built an ice wall, and then spent the night sleeping on the ice in the shelter you made! We are all a bit disappointed that they don’t do this anymore as it sounded really fun! Regardless, we learned a lot in today’s course about how to survive in an emergency – and hopefully, we never need to apply any of it!

Five Fantastic Facts About Antarctica

During our extended layover in New Zealand, we took part in a variety of online information sessions teaching us some important facts about Antarctica as a continent and working with USAP (the United State Antarctic Program). Here are some of our favorite highlights of these sessions!

1. Antarctica is huge!

source: USAP

The Antarctic Ice Sheet covers 99% of the continent of Antarctica and has a total area of 5.4 million square miles (or 14 million square kilometers). It is the single largest mass of ice in the world and in some places, is up to 3 miles thick! This frozen mass contains 90% of the planet’s freshwater ice and about 70% of all the fresh water on Earth! If all the ice on Antarctica melted, it is predicted that the global sea level would rise 60-65m (or 200-210 ft)!

2. Antarctica is the Highest, Driest, Windiest, and Coldest Place on Earth

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan
  • Elevation: Although covered in ice, Antarctica actually has one of the largest mountain ranges on Earth: the Gamburtsev Mountains. This range (750 miles or 1200 kilometers in length) has peaks around 2,800 meters in elevation; equal to about 1/3 the size of Mount Everest!
  • Humidity: The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are the driest place on Earth, where the humidity is so low, that snow and ice can’t accumulate here! The humidity is so similar to the conditions on Mars that NASA did testing here for the Viking missions!
  • Wind: wind speeds of up to 200 miles per hour (or 320 kilometers per hour) have been recorded in some locations
  • Temperature: The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was -89.2 degrees Celsius (or 128.56 degrees Fahrenheit).

3. No one owns Antarctica

source: USAP

When people first saw Antarctica in 1820, it was the only continent on Earth that was yet to be inhabited. Several nations tried to quickly lay claim to it, which unsurprisingly lead to tension! Eventually, everyone agreed that the only solution was to share this beautiful place without anyone nation owning it. In December 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty and agreed to work together to govern, protect and conserve this special place as a haven for peace and science. The treaty fully came into force in 1961. Sixty-odd years since it was signed, 42 other countries have also signed the treaty and participate in annual meetings where they discuss how human activity in Antarctica is managed.

4. There are >70 Research Stations in Antarctica

source: USAP

Thirty different countries have scientific research bases on the continent. During the summer months (Dec-March), there are ~4000 people living and working here. In winter (April-Nov) this number drops to about 1000. How much humanity remains in these 1000 people after a long, dark winter in Antarctica is another question…

5. Wonderful humans work here!

source: USAP

United States Antarctic Program (USAP) employs ~3000 people every year to work in Antarctica, mostly during the summer months. The people who work here are not just scientists. In fact, scientists are the minority here! Contractors are hired from all walks and backgrounds. To name a few (based on people I have met here already), there are firefighters, medics, mechanics, communication engineers, bus drivers, janitors, chefs, HR staff, search and rescue mountaineers, helicopter pilots… the list goes on! If you are interested in working in Antarctica, check out USAP’s Jobs and Employment webpage

Everyone should experience Antarctica – this place is heaven… if heaven is cold and windy, but beautiful!

Donning Big Red

This morning we took a trip to the USAP CDC (clothing distribution center) to get fitted for our extreme weather gear!

A few weeks ago, we filled out paperwork specifying our clothing sizes. When we walked into the changing room area, we picked up two orange bags tagged with our names that were filled with the following:

  • red parka jacket (aka “Big Red”)
  • fleece trousers
  • fleece jacket
  • hat
  • fleece neck gaiter
  • 2 x glove liners
  • 2 x leather insulated gloves
  • insulated mittens
  • balaclava
  • ski goggles
  • carhartt insulated bib-overalls
  • insulated thermal rubber boots (aka “Bunny Boots”)

So how are we supposed to wear all of the extreme weather gear? Well here is a step by step guide! (Model: Dr Rowan McLachlan)

It is SO IMPORTANT for us to try everything on, make sure it fits, and is in good working conditions (i.e., no rips, holes or broken zips) now when we are here in New Zealand as we have the opportunity to switch it out for something better. However, when we get to Antarctica, and are “on ice”, the supplies of ECW (extreme condition weather) clothing is really limited, and it is very difficult to make swaps or get replacements.

For the rest of today, we are listening to a variety of different training and safety talks to prepare us for living and working in Antarctica. There is a lot of information to absorb – but all of it is really important to keep us safe and to conserve the precious and pristine ecosystems in Antarctica.