I see the light

Dr. Rowan taking images of the night sky. A little milky way and already you can see that it is just not getting entirely dark with the faint light on the horizon.

When I say I love light, it means I love the colors and many dynamics of light that make the landscape stand out as one of the most beautiful places on the planet. We have tried to take advantage of the many faces of light as the sun set gets later and later in the day since in a few weeks there will be no more dark.

Stars and aurora on one of the last nights of real (or at least mostly) darkness before the bright light of summer.

The light makes colors here that contrasts with the white and black volcanic ground. Soon we will be taking photos of the various shades of white, but for now, it is a calidascope.

You can see why they call it the Royal Society Range. (ya there is probably a history to that too, but I think it should be simply due the majestic views that this mountain range provides).

We pay for the color by getting out in the (a bit colder) weather to take the images.

Dr. Rowan capturing the amazing light.

But in the end, the time on the ice in the cold (especially when drinking hot chocolate) is well worth it for the experience, and sometimes the images.

I love ice.

Dayton’s wall

Dayton’s wall is named after Scientist Dr. Paul Dayton, one of many pioneering researchers who did the foundational work on the ecology of this region.

One of my favorite dive sites, anywhere in the world, Dayton’s wall is a site dominated by sponges and diversity of life. In this video, you can join us on our dives and see all of the life that carpets the seafloor. You can see in this video why we spend so much time talking about ice….

Sometimes when filming, I miss the action being transfixed by the invertebrates on the seafloor.

The above is a bit more from Dayton’s wall. The funny part is that I shot this video of the sponges and soft corals on the seafloor. I didn’t notice the seal until after the dive when I was editing what I had shot (i.e. filmed) underwater. You can tell that seal really likes Dive Supervisor and all around great guy Rob Robbins.

More on Anchor Ice

Anchor ice, as Rowan explained in her post, is really pretty and the ocean freezing in front of us. It is also a great disturbance that leads to the seafloor ecosystem being pretty different than many places. The depth of sea ice formation is anywhere from around 10m (30ft) to in pretty cold years, 20m (60ft). This year it is down to around 54 ft. The reason why this impacts the community is that as the ice forms, it grows on anything that it can and especially sponges.

Here you can see the sea ice forming on this sponge (Homaxinella balfourensis). This fast growing sponge will grow and cover the seafloor until it is removed by predators or anchor ice.

The sponge community here is very dynamic with sponges that live hundereds to maybe thousands of years. And others… particularly one Homaxinella balfourensis that grow quickly but are also grazed upon and removed. Above is an images of a field of Homax (as I call them) but covered in anchor ice that is slowly acting like a baloon to pull them up to the surface ice.

Here is a Homax colony that is not long for this world. It has been floated up to the surface by anchor ice, pulling a soft coral and some mud with it. All will be frozen into the ice and be no more.

In the deeper areas, the long lived sponges dwell. We have studied these in the past and know that they grow to the size of a baseball in ~10 years or so but they reach huge sizes and have age estimates in the centuries not decades.

This vibrant community of sponges and other invertebrates (like Lila talked about in her post) grow deeper than the anchor ice can get meaning they can live for a very long time without ice removing them. Unless an iceburg comes along. Then they are frozen toast.
As a parting shot – Here is Rowan peering at all the different bits of life that have been pulled off the seafloor and frozen into the ice above.

A day under the ice.

Today we took a bit of a break of stirring up the mud to collect samples to instead collect some images to better communicate what a remarkable environment we are privileged enough to dive in. Here is Rowan collecting some imagery up in the tidal cracks where we spend our “Safety Stops”. Safety stops are used to get the nitrogen that builds up in our blood while underwater out, and while we never spend long enough down to need to off-gas on the way up, it adds a safety margin to diving (and is pretty).

One of my favorite things about working under the ice here is that when we look up, it is a sky of ice above us rather than the surface of the ocean. At this (so far our main and only dive site) there is a lot of snow on top of the ice which makes it VERY dark underwater. We can see ok without lights (not great) but the cameras really struggle to collect good imagery. Above you can see a boulder covered by hundreds of Anemone as well as some soft corals with a crack in the background. This crack separates the shore from the ocean and is caused by the ocean tides rising and falling throughout the day, pushing the floating ice up while the ice stuck to the land stays where it is. The fuzzy bits on the rock in this image are plates of ice growing over everything (we are at around 40ft/13m depth here.

We actually spend more of our time underwater doing what Lila is doing here, sampling the mud. In this particular case, she is collecting water through a filter that is stuck in the mud. It only collects the water so we can analyze the chemistry to look at how th environment changes for microbial communities and animal communities with increasing depth.

I am always amazed at the blue’s of the water here in this land of ice both above and underwater. The ice stops at about 40-60ft but the coloration of the surface is spectacular.

A momentous day – last training (maybe)

Profiling Cracks to quantify how safe the sea ice is. That is Ross Island in the background on which McMurdo Station sits.

After almost 2 weeks, we have finally (I think) finished our 24 required trainings for fieldwork in Antarctica. Today was Chainsaw day but they have been as varied as waste sorting to helicopter riding in (although we don’t have any Helo time scheduled for this trip.) It is a good feeling since now we can get down to science.

Moon over Mount Discovery. I never get tired of this view.

Searching for Auroras.

It was an amazing sunset looking north at the clouds and ocean and Royal Society Range in the background.

The southern lights, or Aurora australis, are the manifestation of solar storms hitting the earth’s magnetic poles and creating, sometimes, amazing color.  There are many challenges in seeing them: 1) it has to be dark, 2) it has to be clear, 3) you have to be lucky to see them since they are incredibly ephemeral.  One of the most challenging is the dark part.  Usually, when most people are in Antarctica (which is already a pretty slim number of people) it is light 24 hours a day and so one just can’t see them.  The other is that if it isn’t clear, no chance either. Sometimes most of the winter will go by when they are not visible because of clouds.  And the sun rises then ending of the chance for 4-5 months until night sets in again.  

Shooting in the pitch black, when the camera is soo cold that it burns to touch, and you are shooting constantly moving particles hitting the atmosphere is not the easiest photography. Plus, I find that just aurora images really need something in the foreground. This was a short (0.5 second) exposure and that meant it was pretty grainy (don’t like it).

Also, when they are faint they just look like clouds making it even more confusing. Plus.. it has to be dark… like really dark… like away from all lights. So not out the front window of your room. Often you see what might be them, run around the station getting cameras and lots and lots of warm clothing, and then go to the darkest spot you can find. Then find they were actually clouds or already stopped. I have only seen them two times in my years coming down to Antarctica. On Sunday, it was forecast to be nice and clear, and… there was supposed to be a solar storm!  A perfect storm of weather and conditions to see the rare Aurora australis.  We had talked about it all day and made plans to see them.  

Here is another lackluster image showing the faint clouds that are actually aurora and an indication there is great photographic potential.

I had stayed up a little late doing a bit of work when I walked back to my dorm, I was pretty knackered only to look up and see Aurora!  They were faint but I was in a well-lit area so that meant they were strong!  I ran to my room to put on more layers and then to the lab to grab my camera and tripod before running (ok walking very slowly in so many layers) to a dark spot nearby.  And started trying to take pictures.  Taking pictures in the dark is hard.  Little things like focusing… not easy.  Exposures can either be relatively fast and grainy or slow and have stars move relative to the camera making them fuzzy or streaky. I have had issues getting images before. One time, it was so cold that my camera shutter simply froze open. The other by the time I got my camera, the aurora had turned off. On Sunday, I ended up with around 15 minutes of the Aurora showing where I was trying to get images and in the end only ended up with 1 that I liked:

This is two two minute exposures showing Observation hill in the background with it shrouded by the last of the aurora show.

This one was two images combined with different focus settings to try and see what I saw.  I was happy that at least the camera didn’t call it quits halfway through but the Aurora shut off.

I wanted another chance though so I woke up at 4:45 am to see if I could see any more, only to find overcast skies. If we are lucky, we might see them again before the sun gets all the way up or maybe next year.

The other atmospheric oddity this time of year is Nacreous Clouds.  We also had those today (as in Lila’s post) and here is another image of them and the wonderful sunset that was a prelude to the Aurora joys.

Nacreous clouds are pretty things and you can see some just above the statue on the hill, to the upper right.

Thinking of ice.

Mountains and Ice are on our doorstep.

We often talk about the cold temps and winds in Antarctica, but it is really a land (and ocean) of ice.  We are lucky enough to have some of the rare mountains that rise above the ice on our doorsteps. The Royal Society Range sits right across the McMurdo sound which is on the continent (for real… we are on an island… but it is frozen to the continent so its kinda like part of it).

Here is the current view from McMurdo and we can see ice of a few different colors…well colors of white.  The smoother white to the bottom left is about 5 ft (1.7m) thick which is plenty thick for us to work on.  Off to the right side the rougher patch is only a couple week old and there are some pretty significant cracks there that if it continues to freeze may form up into solid ice.  And if not, we don’t cross them. Good news. It is -42 C right now and that is good ice forming weather! Whoo Hoo.

It is the ice that dictates our paths and activities and we spend a significant amount of time on the ice.  It is a cruel mistress that we love and …sometimes like a lot less.  This is a strange year, to say the least, and it has gotten off to a slow start.  Over the past (as long as anyone here can remember) there is solid ice in front of the station going at least up to a feature about an hour north, and usually, ~100 miles north that sets in by July at the latest.  This year, it was a short 2 weeks ago that the ice began to actually freeze us in and this has and will lead to some interesting days ahead of us.

This is a pretty significant crack just off Hut Point. It all depends on how thick it is and whether or not it is moving. The shape of this crack makes it look like a working crack, so one to pay attention to.

Now cracks are a thing too.  We spend a lot of time monitoring and tracking cracks to make sure we can get over them.  We have sea ice training to make sure we can do this safely and work with the field safety team (Field Support and Training or FS&P) to monitor and track the cracks. However, our vehicles are designed to both cross cracks as well as have the most gentle pressure on the ice. 

The view north from Hut Point.

Looking north, there are many different features in the ice and we hope that in coming weeks the ice will solidify enough for us to head this way to our main site.

Here you can see McMurdo Station in the background, Scott’s hut in the foreground and Rowan and Lila, braving the brisk late winter’s day to peer at the ice (and hour-long sunsets)

To look north and see what the ice looks like up there, we hiked over to the Hut point where Scott’s hut, from 1902 sits still unchanged for more than a hundered years.

Vince’s Cross marks the overlook at Hut point.
Another day… Success!

We are still…not here…

Winfly (a series of 3-5 flights in the middle of August) is a time of year when the weather is a bit cold still. The flights sneak in to set up the station for the onslot of science that happens at mainbody (starting in early August) and support a few science groups (us) that need to be there as early as possible in the season. It is sometimes a bit of a difficult dance to get the planes in, and unfortunately, that has been the story thus far this year.

So while we wait… we practice all the things that go into science. Macro photos, all sorts of photo and video editing, and mostly try to get used to the cameras that we will use underwater but in very large and clumsy cases where it is best to know what button you are looking for before it is encased in metal. So here is Lila getting re-familiar with one of the many cameras we use to document science and also convey to everyone what and why we do what we do.

After a brief and highly anticipated two nights in New Zealand and being ready to fly, we have waited while a diversity of challenges have kept the flights not going. The good news is that yesterday, (which was Friday here, Thursday most places) the second of the flights made it in! Hurray! That is also exciting since we are on the 3rd flight – so we are next! After a morning of anticipation…. we got the dreaded “24 hour delay”. So we remain in New Zealand at least until Sunday. So instead of 2 nights in New Zealand, we are stretching into 11. Normally, this would be pretty awesome. I love Christchurch and I love New Zealand – however, we are staying in our hotel rooms to avoid catching COVID, while being tested every couple of days to make sure we don’t bring COVID to the “Ice”. So we make it out to the fresh air and distance from everyone to at least see grass and green before we see white and more white.

A break from the cold story…

A world in 360 – be sure to drag around the image.

As we sit here in our Hotel Rooms, I have had some time to edit some of the other images collected over the past couple of years. This is a 360 video that we shot of working in French Polynesia on Project RECHARGE. This project is aiming to understand how coral reefs are impacted by fishing and nutrient pollution through a large-scale manipulative experiment. You can read a little bit more about it here on the site of Dr. Vega Thurber, who along with Dr. Deron Burkepile and Dr. Tom Adam are the leads of the project. In this video we are scrubbing cages to remove overgrowth that builds up over time.

As always, the highlight of these trips is the amazing water and people of French Polynesia. This took place in Mo’orea at a NSF funded Long Term Ecological Research Site (the MCLTER).

Made it some of the way there.

Travellers pretending not to be weary.

So after 4 flights and something like 28 hours of travel after departing on our first one, we ended up in Christchurch, New Zealand. This is always one of my favorite places on the planet with wonderful people and a totally different feel to the states. Among the most amazing parts is that all of our bags even made it.

8 bags for 3 people + 6 carry-ons. Sometimes traveling light sounds really really nice.

We have spent our time since then sitting through virtual training to take care of some that we would otherwise have to do when we get to Antarctica. Covid remains a problem globally and New Zealand is no different. Many of us have been hunkering down for the two weeks before we left and now are hunkering down in New Zealand, trying to avoid exposure and (as you can see from the pictures) wearing masks throughout. So we spend out time here, not enjoying the wonderful food and beauty, but instead sitting in a hotel room and on zoom. However, this is the first time in a long time that there is not mandatory isolation quarantine (translated to 2 weeks locked in a hotel room where you are literally not allowed to leave) and so the few days we have here are just fine. In addition, we can still go for walks and so I was able to continue my long-standing tradition of visiting the Christchurch Botanical Gardens to enjoy the smell of soil and plants before a few months of none of that.

It’s still the tail end of Winter here so the skies are overcast and the temperature a very comfortable brisk.

Our flights remain a bit delayed which is very normal for this time of year. We are among the first since Winter to try and rejoin the frozen continent and so little challenges plague the flights, from cold to wind to a runway made of Ice that hasn’t been used for many months. Right now we are scheduled to fly on Sunday (2 days from now) but long ago I learned that you fly to Antarctica when the fates align and sometimes that is sooner than others. No reason to rush, because it just doesn’t help.