Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Helo Flight to New Harbor

On Thursday, we flew by helicopter to a bay on the mainland of Antarctica called New Harbor to collect some seafloor samples.

It was about a 30-minute chopper ride from McMurdo to the field camp at New Harbor.

Antarctica is amazing to see from the air. As we were crossing McMurdo Sound, we could see a field of enormous icebergs trapped in the sea ice north of us:

The base camp at New Harbor is used primarily for diving under the sea ice there. There is a species of foraminifera unique to New Harbor - foraminifera are single-celled, often macroscopic, organisms with fairly complex behavior. The sea ice at New Harbor is not smooth and flat like elsewhere in McMurdo Sound - here tidal forces cause it to be cracked and compressed and ridged:

The dark color patches you see on the sea ice above are collected dust and dirt carried by winds from the shore. There were lots of interesting patterns and formations to see in the ice:

Below are what appear to be bubbles trapped in the ice:

At New Harbor, dive holes are made by using explosives to blast a big hole in the ice, then letting the hole partially refreeze to form a foot-thick shelf, then using a chainsaw to cut a nice round hole. Here is the result:

We made two dives through this hole. The surrounding scenery was just gorgeous. Below is a shot of the nearby mountains and part of the Commonwealth Glacier:

And finally, a last shot of Mt. Erebus from the air on the way home:

Another amazing day!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Field Trip to Cape Royds

This Sunday, November 9th, we set off on a field trip to visit the Barne Glacier, the explorer Shackleton's hut, and the penguin colony (called a rookery) at Cape Royds. DJ and I took snowmobiles and the rest of the team rode in the Pisten Bully:

We headed north over the the sea ice of McMurdo Sound. We passed Cape Evans and the two icebergs trapped in the sea ice there:
Shortly thereafter, we reached the Barne Glacier - a river of ice flowing (at a glacial pace) off Mt. Erebus: You can get a feel for the size of the glacier face by the person walking in front of it.

After the Barne Glacier, we continued northward along the sea ice to Cape Royds, where the explorer Shackleton had built a hut to use as a base camp for exploring the continent of Antarctica. The hut was built in 1909 and is remarkably well preserved:
The other neat aspect of Cape Royds is the big penguin rookery there. What is it about those goofy penguins that appeals to humans so much? Perhaps it's because they look like they're always having fun? Who knows... Each year, the penguins return to the rookeries to mate, lay eggs, and raise the young. They were certainly doing a lot of mating when we were there!

Finally, as we were leaving the cape, I saw the following tracks in the snow. On the left are penguin tracks walking up the hill and on the right are tracks walking down the hill followed by a belly-slide the rest of the way!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Under the Ice

We are currently diving the robot at a site called Cape Armitage - about halfway between McMurdo and New Zealand's Scott Base. Here are a few images from the first dive there.

The photo above is of SCINI just entering the dive hole. We had a lot of trouble getting this hole made since the ice was about 32 feet thick. We used a melting machine called a Hotsy to melt the hole through the ice, which is why it has an odd shape.

The photo above was taken at about the same time as the first photo, but taken through SCINI's camera. The metal cage you see is to protect SCINI's optical dome while we learn to fly it - kind of like training wheels!
The next image is of a sea spider (pycnogonid) walking around the sea ice.

Next is a field of sea anemones:

Below is a photo of a starfish (acodontaster):

Next, two big Rosella sponge corals:

Another sea spider and sponge coral:

And the last image is another sponge coral and sea anemone:

Finally, here is a link to some underwater video of SCINI recorded by a diver. It shows SCINI going through its paces, investigating sea life, cruising around and returning to the hole:

SCINI is scheduled to appear on the Today Show on November 17.

Amazing Day!

Yesterday we did something different and took about a 40-mile trip along McMurdo Sound to visit a few interesting sites.
After about a 45-minute drive on the sea ice in the Pisten Bully, our first stop was to an ice cave in the Erebus glacier tongue. The Erebus Glacier is one of several glaciers flowing off the active volcano Mt. Erebus. Part of this glacier flows several miles out into the sea ice and is called the ice tongue. Some natural ice caves had formed when deep crevasses in the ice tongue closed up on top.

Ice crystals grew inside the cave that looked a lot like stalactites in a mineral cave.

The cave was fairly roomy and had an eerie blue glow.

It was one of the most unique things I have seen on Earth!
After the cave, we drove over to the Scott Hut on Cape Evans near the Barne Glacier. Although this hut was abandoned after the expedition in 1913, much of its contents are well preserved.

Nearby was Cross Hill, which held a memorial for members of the expedition who died in Antarctica. The view from the hill was spectacular. Below are two trapped icebergs in the distance:

After visiting the hut, we drove over to the two icebergs to look for a diving hole. Although we didn't find one, we did run across three Adelie penguins trotting along!

They were just waddling and belly-sliding along, looking like they were just having the best time!

It was quite impressive to get up close to the icebergs. The ice bergs are broken off from a glacier, and are formed of rather pure ice. They have a beautiful iridescent blue color.

And finally, we drove over to Cape Evans Wall to make a SCUBA dive. As I was wandering around the dive area, I noticed a small hole in the ice with bubbles coming up into it. I was excited about finding what I thought was a volcanic vent until a seal stuck its nose through the slush and started taking breaths!

You can just make out the nostrils and whiskers in the picture above. The next time he came back, I was ready and shot the following video.
What an amazing day.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Interesting Sights...

There are lots of interesting things to see in this otherworldly continent. Although the land is mostly devoid of life, the sea is teeming with it. Here are a few examples brought up by some divers recently:

The beastie above is a sponge coral, but unlike all other sponge corals I've seen, this one had numerous glass spikes emanating from its body. The glass is synthesized from minerals in the sea water and the spikes are used as protection from predators.

This next creature is a Sea Spider. It isn't in the same family as spiders or crabs - it's unique. They get quite large here - over two feet. This one has a good-sized parasite on one of its legs.

There are a variety of strange vehicles here. One that we use often is called a Pisten-Bully:

It has two compartments: the driver's compartment with two seats and the passenger/cargo compartment in back, which can seat 6 people or hold a bunch of cargo. Here's the obligatory Jim-driving-a-cool-new-snow-tractor photo:

A friend and I hiked up a nearby 800-foot hill (Observation Hill) which offered great views of the surrounding landscape. Next is a shot of the lovely McMurdo Base:

Next is a shot of the Mt. Erebus volcano puffing away at sundown (not sunset, since there won't be anymore of those until next year):

And finally, a shot of Mt. Discovery with a standing lenticular cloud around its summit. These clouds are caused by high winds and orographic lifting, and appear to be stationary. To a pilot, they indicate nasty turbulence on the lee side of the mountain. To normal people, they just look interesting! :-)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Long Week

All sorts of stuff has happened this week. For one thing, I got up close and personal with a Weddell seal:

This poor guy had just had several implants and tracking devices surgically removed and was still sleeping off the ketamine. But he was still fun to see anyway:

So after visiting with the seal, I went back to the dive hut to carry on with another SCINI dive. Unfortunately, unlike the first two dives, this dive met with failure! First, one of the two active camera lights failed, and then the imagery received from the robot was far too dark. When we pulled the robot back out of the water, we noticed smoke inside the camera "bottle" and immediately shut off power. We took the camera bottle back to the lab and eventually determined there was a short circuit in the camera lighting circuitry due to salt water intrusion:

We took this opportunity of being back in the lab to fix several other nagging problems.

In the mean time, we started preparing a new dive site at Cape Armitage. This site is about a 15 minute drive across the sea ice from McMurdo Station, and is in sight of the New Zealand base. We are using a device to melt a hole through the ice called a "Hotsy". We had tried several attempts with a truck-mounted hydraulic drill but were not able to reach water by the time the 24 foot limit of the drill was reached. Thus we resorted to melting our way through. Here Francois and I are refueling the generator and melting machine:

This collection of machines pumps hot propylene glycol through a metal coil which is lowered down a hole. This heats the surrounding water, which expands the hole in the ice.

While we were making a hole at a new site, two of us were SCUBA diving in a dive hut in front of the station. The dive hut has a heater which keeps the inside fairly warm. We had also rigged a fan and a plastic tube to blow warm air on the surface of the ice hole to prevent it from re-freezing:

We have been promised an actuall day off tomorrow (Sunday), but it only starts after our 4:30AM trip to refuel the generator and Hotsy.