Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A sort-of sucssesful day... followed by a very sucssesful day off

Yesterday, Monday, was a busy day here at Lake Bonney, and all over the Dry Valleys. I had a full to-do list in the morning that included chipping out the bot hole, harnessing up to scoop out the ice, and then bringing helicopter load rigging back from the West Lobe to the East Lobe of the lake, so Maciek and Jim could use it to load all their gear, as they were leaving. :( So after I chipped out the hole, I harnessed myself up and started fishing out the chunks of ice. Shilpa gives us a designated time to get in the bot in the water, usually 11am, and it is my job to have the hole clear before then. Yesterday it was definitely rushed. I got done just in time, and up onto the floor and off my hook. But we were pushing the robot over before I even had time to take off my harness! The day before that, I was done two minutes early and just hung out for awhile over the hole, enjoying the view. When I am, on occasion, done early, I can hang in my harness, and it feels like Antarctic swing set!

So after the robot got into position, I left the Endurance team to do what they do best!
Bart working on the Sonde, or science package, before the day of missions

Chris readying the bot

The bot being lowered into the water

Then I raced some rigging parts over to East Lobe for Maciek and Jim's loads. I arrived and realized just how much they had to bring with them over to their new work spot, Lake Fryxell. Maciek and Jim, although expert hole-melters for the Endurance team, or science event B(Bravo, in the radio alphabet)-211, are actually here in the Dry Valleys to collect lake data from multiple lakes for LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) under science event B-426.

After the hectic, weather delayed, hole melting mess Lake Bonney had become over the past two weeks, it felt like an accomplishment to have the robot in the water on West Lobe and Maciek and Jim leaving to do their work at other lakes on the East Lobe. Lake Fryxell is about 15miles down Taylor Valley from Lake Bonney, which means they are East - closer to the sea and farther from Taylor Glacier.
Taylor Valley: from West to East the red labels read Blood Falls (on Taylor Glacier); Lake Bonney; Lake Hoare; Canada Glacier; and Lake Fryxell

The boys gear being picked up on the shore
Maciek and Jim standby watching their loads head off to Fryxell

LTER, Long Term Ecological Research, is a network of scientists, researchers, and students all working together and synthesizing research and data from 26 different ecologically diverse sites across the world, from Alaska to Antarctica! The sites are chosen based on unique ecological conditions, some more suitable to supporting life than others. The goal is to study these sites and acquire a wide range of data and understanding of how the ecosystem works. The data is collected over a long period of time at each site, with the job of doing the data collecting changing hands every so often (McM LTER at the Dry Valley lakes is in the hands of scientists like John Priscu and Peter Doran, and the grad-students that work under the. This is important to the understanding of how the ecosystem changes and how it is being changed and affected over time, with special attention put to conserving and protecting the areas. The sites range from coral reefs and kelp forests, to hot desserts and savannas, to cold desserts and frozen lakes (like here in the Dry Valleys).

LTER in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica (according to LTER website)

The McMurdo Dry Valleys are located on the western coast of McMurdo Sound (77°00'S 162°52'E) and form the largest relatively ice-free area (approximately 4800 square kilometers) on the Antarctic continent. These ice-free areas of Antarctica display a sharp contrast to most other ecosystems in the world, which exist under far more moderate environmental conditions. The perennially ice-covered lakes, ephemeral streams and extensive areas of exposed soil within the McMurdo Dry Valleys are subject to low temperatures, limited precipitation and salt accumulation. Thus, the dry valleys represent a region where life approaches its environmental limits, and is an ""end-member"" in the spectrum of environments included in the LTER Network.
Maciek and Jim will drill and melt holes in three lakes, Lake Bonney, Lake Fryxell and Lake Hoare, all in Taylor Valley. They have to remove sensors from the lakes, that have been there for a year, and change the sensors and gather the data. I helped Maciek accomplish this sensor switch last week. Maciek chipped the hole, so it was big enough to pull out the sensors, cages, and the large orange buoy, that a sensor was attached to. Then we pull out roughly 50ft of rope and three sensors. One sensor is held in a aluminum cage. This cage was breaking, from rust and microbial life eating away at it. I took on that job. This sensor cage had been tied with rope and zip-ties (the all purpose tool) for a year. I was determined to get them off, for Maciek's work and sanity. I sat down on the ice and began loosening the knots. Maciek walked back to the camp to get some more things we needed, we were about 20min (walking) out into the middle of the East lobe. So for about an hour, I sat on this lake, and I was sure my carharts (work overalls) were melting into the ice. I started pulling loose the ropes, which were frozen on to the cage. The whole cage and all the ropes were covered in a layer of algae - Antarctic Algae! This algae that had collected on these sensors was the first living thing I had seen in Antarctica! (besides us!) My first siting of Antarctic wildlife, and I was covered in it. After much frustration, which turned into me just cutting one rope completely loose (it now resides on my wrist), the cages were switched out. I tied the ropes onto the sensors and added many, many zip-ties. Zip-ties are the plastic ties where you put one end in the top and tighten it through and it clicks tighter in one direction but cannot be pulled back in the other direction. Maciek and I joked all day about how useful zip-ties were, and how many we were going through. I believe you can use a zip tie to secure just about anything!!

Well, now Maciek and Jim are off gallivanting around the Dry Valleys conducting more LTER research. As for the Endurance team, Saturday was a stressful day, something in the batteries tripped off at the end of the mission day and basically reset everything. It took them all day Sunday to identify the problem. Sunday was a SNOW DAY! I woke up to the sound of snow flakes lightly tapping against my tent. It is a truly magical sound. I quickly, as quickly as you can, got out of my sleeping bag and into my parka and boots. I hoped, futilely, for a snow blanketed valley, with white ground and snow circling and blowing around me... Unbelievably my wish came true. It was just as good as Christmas morning. I came running into the Jamesway yelling, "It's snowing, it's snowing!" Rachel followed a few minutes later just as excited! She said, as she is from Texas, that she never see snow and I responded with I always see snow! But oh how I missed it. The cold air and the scenery here in the valleys combined with snow flakes that fall on my nose and eyelashes... these are a few of my favorite things. I hadn't realized until then, how essential snow is to my happiness, especially in this perpetual cold.

Snow at the lake front

Snow at our doorstep

Some little ventifacts we collected covered in snow

The lake covered in a blanket of fog

So Sunday was spent diagnosing the problems of Saturday and by the time they all came home, they felt much more comfortable with the robot and his progress. They believed the problem was centrally located in the batteries. Monday started on a much more optimistic note. As I said Monday was busy, and I didn't spend much time at the Endurance site. But they stayed out there until about midnight and came home with stories of great accomplishment. They completed 19 out of the 90 Sonde drops planned for the season. Then they spent time testing the bot in the water to localize the problems they had encountered. The tests all went well, and they feel much more comfortable with the bot's abilities.

My day was a little more harsh. We were in need of water, so I tied up the ice sled and began the 45min trip over to the edge of Taylor Glacier. I road up as close to the glacier as I felt comfortable getting and started chipping out and collecting chunks of the galcier, or glacier berries. It took about an hour to collect a sled full of glacial ice chunks I could actually carry and get on to the sled about 30ft away. But being there, at the bottom of a 30 or 40 foot face of a glacier, was insane!! I could not believe it! I got done and I just stood there and closed my eyes and opened my ears. For a few minutes I stood in the cold, breathing in the air, and listening to the creaks, crashes, and all sorts of noises that come from the glacier. I had to walk up and touch the glacier, it was the first actual galcier I had ever been up close enough to touch! After the glacier berry adventure, I traveled over to Blood Falls camp and then back up the North side of the lake. There were lots of self-timed pictures opportunities with the glacier and large boulders along the shore.
Me in front of Taylor Glacier
Me in front of a 20ft tall boulder

That's when the real trouble began. The sled full of ice behaved itself, and slid behind the ATV, like a sled should. But in the last 25yards, the sled slid around and lifted up the back tire of my ATV and shoved me into the shore! I couldn't go forward, or backwards. I was stuck. So I got off the ATV and turned it off. I hiked up to camp and got a knife. I cut the sled off the ATV and rolled off it. I was so upset! I couldn't believe I had broken a sled! I drove the ATV back to the Jamesway and left the sled where it was. I unloaded all the gear and sat down. I wanted to cry! It was the most frustrating experience here to date. I didn't want it to be broken, but try as I might I could not get it to hook back to the ATV.
The ATV/sled accident

The team was still out at the Endurance site, and I had to bring dinner out to them. So the time to be upset was not yet upon me. I finished up dinner and hooked it up to the ATV and headed over to West Lobe. I knew I was just dropping off dinner, and coming back to do dishes, so I decided not to wear my stabilicers, the straps we hook to our shoes, that help you walk on the ice. I arrived at the Endurance site and grabbed the food off the back of the ATV. Then I took my first step off the ATV and Woosh! the ground below my feet was lost and my face was rocketing towards the ice! Whack! My face slammed against the ground and I felt my tooth pierce into my skin. This can't be happening, I thought to myself. It felt as though I easily had pierced all the way through my lip. I held my neck warmer against my lip and walked, basically crawled into the bot house. I delivered the food and borrowed some stabilicers so I could head back to camp and check on my lip. I finally got back to camp and assessed the damage done to my lip and knees. I was a little worse for the wear and a quite bruised up. But my lip was only cut through on the inside. In the epic ongoing battle, of Antarctica vs. Emma... Antarctica had won.

Today's day off was well deserved and welcomed on all fronts, both for leaps forward in the science and a few snags in the day. Tomorrow we are back to business as normal. Hopefully I will come out victor in the battle royal against the fierce Antarctic wilderness... haha, oh it's really not so bad :)



Friday, November 6, 2009

Just Hanging Out...

Just Hanging out over Lake Bonney -

So this morning started out as normal as most. I woke up in my sleeping bag, to my alarm on my watch, which is velcroed to my eye mask (yes I wear an I eye mask for darkness in this perpetual light). I unzipped myself out of all the layers I'm wrapped up in all night. Then I collect all my gear for the day - I pull out my parka from under my sleeping bag, and put my pee bottle and funnel in the pocket (oh, yes. that is how nature calls in Antarctica). Then I put on my cold-weather hiking boots and this particular morning I grabbed a new pair of socks and liners. Change your socks, change your attitude! I walked down my hill, up near the helo-pad, and into the Jamesway. The smell of coffee and the hussle and bussle of a rushed Lake Bonney morning was upon us. The Endurance team, and me, are out the door and onto the ATVs by 9am. Just imagine 8 people trying to get anywhere on time and add many layers of clothing and lunch for the day... and you've got it (it reminds me of the mornings before school at O.L.P.H, my grade school, when my Mom had to get my brothers and sister and I out to school on time!) So I grab some oatmeal, my go to breakfast here, and pack up my bag and gear for the day ahead. Lael, our GA (General Assistant), who is here from McMurdo helping to lighten the load from an injured Maciek, helped me move some things around before our upcoming inspection from Environmental, and then we were off, with Bart, on our morning commute.

Me driving the ATV
Every night, after they tuck the robot into bed, the team leaves a hot finger in the hole, to keep the hole melted through the night. But even with that, the top of the hole still freezes over about a quarter of an inch thick overnight.
The hole in the morning
Lael and I had the job of chipping and scooping away the ice, so the robot could get into the water. Bill was explaining that it takes some effort to reach the ice, "usually we just put someone in a harness over the hole, but you two probably don't want to..." I immediately, and without thinking, jumped at the chance to get harnessed up and hang over a large hole in the ice! I couldn't believe it when Bill actually said okay, went to get me a harness, and told me to step in. Well there was no backing down now. While (almost) every part of me was super excited that I was getting to do this!... I was actually going to belay down over the Bot Hole... there was still a part of me, whispering doubts and fears... Doubts about my ability to hold myself over a hole, and chip and scoop ice; Fears of belaying myself down, to hover over a hole in the ice, with nothing to catch me but 125 feet of frozen water!!! Honestly, the most challenging and thrilling part of life in Antarctica, is there is rarely time to be stalled by your fears. I was in a harness, and Bill was going over the use of my hand and foot ascenders and foot loop. Oh wow, this is happening!

Bill teaching the ups and downs of ascending
My harness/life-line and ascenders

Bill is an expert caver and rock climber. I was sure he was the only one I would trust completely to put me in a harness and hang me out over the depths of Lake Bonney. Also Vickie, another season caver, and was only a shout away if I felt unsure about anything. With this support, my excitement, and the bot waiting for its clean bot hole, I leaned back from the Bot House floor and allowed my weight to fall into the harness. With one push I was out over the center of the hole. 'Holey' cow! It is entirely unnerving to be supported by a harness and foot rest, over 100+ feet of water. Especially when it would only take 2 or 3 feet of that water to put me straight into cardiac arrest, and only a few more to kill me.

I was surprised though, how comfortable and safe I felt in the harness. I did not expect to feel like the harness was really holding my weight. I was over the top of the hole, at floor level, and the surface of the water was about 8ft down. So with Bill's help, I lowered myself down. I had to stand on my foot loop, in order to release the tension on my hand ascender up at my chest. Then I released the hand ascender at my chest level and pulled it down about a foot. Then I leaned back and put my weight in my harness and lifted my foot off the foot loop to release the tension there, and moved the hand ascender at my feet down. I did this a foot at a time for about 8 feet, until I was hovering just above the water level. Lael then took control of my ropes, and handed me the fish net we use to scoop ice out. The net, and anything else held over the hole, is tied down so if we drop it, it is secured and doesn't fall into the lake (a BIG environmental and scientific no-no).
The process of clearing a hole requires breaking up the surface of the ice and scooping it out into the bucket (which is also secured).
Me scooping out ice with my net

Me dumping ice out of the net and into the bucket

After about 30mins of scooping ice, Lael handed me the ice-chipper. This was the truly difficult part. It is impossible to put force into a chip, without anyway to stabilize yourself. Every time I pushed down to chip something away I got pushed away from the wall and spun around. The spinning made it difficult, but Lael was great! All the ropes got very confusing. I was new to this and was never sure where to release tension and where to hold more tension. Lael did a great job pulling be around the hole, and giving me tension on the ropes when I needed to move or stabilize myself. Bill spent a previous day scuba diving and chipping ice off underwater! I don't know how he managed. It must have been impossible, with the buoyancy and weight issues in water, I do not know how he put any force behind his strikes. But he got off way more ice underwater than I did on top of the hole.

I spent about two hours over the hole. The first hour was breaking the ice cover, and scooping out the ice with my net. Then I got the chipper and chipped the edges off so the robot would have some extra room in its already tight squeeze down through the hole. After that, I had to pull out all that new ice! It was a lot of work! But every time I looked down, into the blue depths of Lake Bonney, I was blown away with exactly where I was hanging!
The shattered ice cover
I was really sore after my hours of harnessed chipping. But it was and still is unbelievable that I get to hang in a harness over a hole in the ice. The bot had a ice-free hole, and was ready to be lowered down and start exploring. Now this job has become my daily job, and everyone warned me that while the first day was exciting, the excitement will fade every day I have to do this. I told them, "No way, this will always be one of the coolest, coldest, scariest, and bravest thing I have ever done!" The next day, I had to get harnessed up again, except I could do most of it myself this time... and as I was leaning my weight back into the harness and lowering myself over the hole I thought "This IS the craziest thing I have EVER done!!" Tomorrow will be just another day, hanging out, just chillin'...



Monday, November 2, 2009

A Haunted Frozen Antarctic Halloween

On the frozen 7th continent on the bottom of the planet... its bright out and will be 24/7... the wind blows and the Jamesway creeks... eerie, creepy, scary, haunted and VERY COLD ANTARCTIC HALLOWEEN...

Halloween comes but once a year, and being 10,000 miles from home was not going to stop me from celebrating! The day started early for me; around 0600 hours I woke up, too excited for the day to sleep! I started putting the finishing touches on my cards and decorations. The day was scheduled to begin at 0800, so I started to prepared the wet and dry ingredients for my Pumpkin Pancakes. People started filing in and were greeted with a "Good Morning! Happy Halloween!" I started my first batch of Pumpkin Pancakes and everyone immediately jumped in. I grabbed one for myself to nibble on while I cooked and they were quite delicious! It was nice to have something that reminded me of all the tastes and smells of fall. I made two full batches. The first batch was enjoyed by SAS before they went off to celebrate Halloween with Endurance! Shilpa stayed in for Halloween, she was really sick. So after she napped and Maciek and Jim came home from their slumber party with the Bot, I whipped up the second batch. We enjoyed them on our Halloween, so here is the recipe for all of you at home!

Recipe for Antarctic Pumpkin Pancakes
Mix wet:
2 large eggs (we got 120 eggs on Halloween, we were almost tempted to egg Blood Falls camp)
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
2 Tbsp sugar

Mix dry:
2 cups baking/pancake mix
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
I added a dash of joy (thanks for the measuring spoons Kristina!), maybe 1/8 tsp of baking Powder, because I learned Powder Pops, and the pancakes came out fluffier.

Mix together and cook on hot skillet in ANTARCTICA...
then you have Antarctic Pumpkin Pancakes*
(can be cooked elsewhere for regular pumpkin pancakes, but results may vary)
Pumpkin Pancakes a la Antarctica

Everyone left for the day and I began preparations to turn our normal Jamesway into a Haunted Jamesway. The windows got covered with ghouls and ghosts made out of large black garbage bags and white paper. Next I finished up my cards to everybody, jack-o-lanterns of everybody, and planning spooky dinner and dessert.


Witches' Brew:
Re-fried bean stew with
5 cans of re-fried beans
2 cans of corn
1 red onion
1 white onion
2 red peppers
1 green pepper
5 cups of water
and 2 adorable little vegetarian bouillon cubes
then I added 5 servings of cooked brown rice

Witches' Brew with Jack-o-Lantern garnish

Jack-o-Lantern Garnish:

4 large carrots sliced and meticulously carved into jack-o-lanterns

I was missing all the fall festivities at home so I decided to carve faces into carrot slices. It was like carving a pumpkin, but on a really small scale.

Maciek with his Halloween feast, happy as always


Pumpkin Loaf:

Mix wet ingredients:
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup shortening
2 eggs
1/2 cup water
1 cup water
1 cup pumpkin puree

Mix dry ingredients:
1 2/3 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ginger
1/8 tsp cloves

Mix together and add in about a 1/2 a cup of walnuts. Place in 4 bread loaf pans and bake at 350 for 35 mins. Garnish with a carrot jack-o-lantern or two.

Pumpkin Loaf

I went as a 1950's housewife for Halloween. I had a my coral one-piece swimsuit that has ruching on the top. Over that was my wide-leg black pants and my Viking cooking school apron. It was quite an appropriate as I was cooking, baking, and decorating all day!
Emma, the 1950's housewife, at the stove
There were pictures and drawings up everywhere, from Kritof, Chris, and me drawing all night. Lake Bonney is a hodge-podge of many years of people's pictures, books, and there are even decorations and wigs! So everyone had a different silly wig on. We enjoyed some witches brew, pumpkin loaf, and a night of guitar and laughs!

Happy Halloween on the worn-out dart board
Vickie and I in costume with the Ghoul... Boo!
The Lake Bonney Ghouls