I’ve finished two sculptures made from 3D scans of the Antarctic landscape so far. This latest one is of a ventifact — wind-eroded boulder — that I photographed in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, a trip I recounted in an earlier blog post. I call it the “Bird” Ventifact because from certain angles, it looks like a giant beaked bird with a crest.
In addition to its lively, birdlike presence, part of what attracted me to this form was its concavities and holes, worn by the abrasive action of volcanic gravel carried by fierce Antarctic winds. If a successful sculpture is judged by how it transforms as one walks around it and takes it in from different vantage points, this ventifact certainly works as sculpture. By capturing it in 3D, I’ve “brought it home” for others to experience as an object and not just as a series of flat photographs. Looking at one side hardly predicts what you’ll find on other sides:
In order to capture the complexity of the form, with all its undercuts and hollows, I chose 3D printing over CNC routing, because the router bit only moves up and down in one direction, and does not tilt to get other angles. 3D printing, by contrast, is additive, and builds the form in layers, preventing the undercuts from collapsing during the printing process with temporary supports that can be broken off once the print is finished. Since the 3D printers that I have access to only have a capacity of about 8 x 8 x 11 inches, and my finished sculpture is 16 x 29.25 x 29.25 inches, I had to print it in sections, epoxy it together, and smooth the joints between the pieces before painting it. However, I was able to assemble the 25-odd pieces into a seamless whole. I’ve made this short video of the process. Watch it full screen and see it come together:
The Antarctic & Arctic Data Consortium has included two of my photos in its 2017 wall calendar (shown above and below). 7,000 calendars were printed; 3,500 were distributed at the 2016 American Geophysical Union Meeting in San Francisco. The remainder were shipped out to other organizations and collaborators.
Both of the photos were taken in the McMurdo Dry Valleys when I spent a week there in December 2015. The photo above is of a ventifact field above Lake Bonney that I called the Surrealist Sculpture Garden (more about that here). The one below is a close-up of delicate ice designs that had formed over sediment atop the frozen surface of Lake Hoare (more photos here).
The a2dc (as they render their acronym) “was initiated to provide a centralized resource for scientists to submit, use, and discover polar data. The participating organizations provide the expertise and tools to support fellow polar researchers.” When I was in Antarctica, I met staff from two of the ten organizations, UNAVCO and the Polar Geospatial Center (PGC). Both organizations had offices in the Crary Science Labs at McMurdo, where their staff provided crucial mapping and geophysical data for the scientists. The PGC is based at the University of Minnesota and specializes in aerial views, assembling detailed maps from satellite photos of remote locations and have dozens of Antarctic maps online. UNAVCO works on the ground, doing GPS surveys, terrestrial laser scanning, and other kinds of measurements. An example is this two-year study which tracked the erosion of an ice cliff in the Dry Valleys and concluded that it was melting faster than anticipated due to climate change.
Let’s clear up one thing that I get asked a lot: there are no polar bears in Antarctica. That’s the Arctic. The only mammals are marine mammals, found along the coasts: seals — which I saw on a number of occasions — and whales —which I did not see at all. The only birds I saw were skuas, which are feisty brown birds related to gulls, and Adélie penguins. Uphill from the sea ice pressure ridges in New Harbor beneath the Double Curtain Glacier was a highly unusual sight — several square yards of gray and tan moss — the only plant life I saw growing in soil the entire seven weeks I was in Antarctica. Further inland, walking the gravel hills and ice-covered lakes of the Dry Valleys, you and your companions are the only living things in sight — nothing green, feathered, scaly or furry. The exception was a lone skua occasionally spotted in the vicinity of the Lake Hoare field camp, nicknamed Taylor by the field camp residents. The major life forms of the Dry Valleys are microscopic organisms in the lakes, streams and soil that scientists sample and study as part of the long-term ecological research study, but of course, they’re not visible without a microscope.
Against that backdrop, it was startling to periodically come across the bodies of mummified seals in the Dry Valleys, several miles from the ocean. Seals are built for swimming. Underwater footage shows even 10-foot-long, 1,200-pound Weddell seals gracefully gliding along. They spend most of their time in the water, occasionally poking their heads out to take a few breaths. Periodically, they laboriously haul themselves onto the ice to rest, like the young Weddell seal in the photo at the top of this post. The ellipsoidal body shape, wing-like flippers and tail that serve them underwater are definitely not made for walking. Once you’ve seen a seal galumphing with great difficulty across the ice like a giant slug, it’s even more remarkable to imagine how they could travel for miles on their bellies, dragging their rotund bodies over ragged lake ice and gravel hills. An oft-quoted statistic is that mummified seals have been documented as far inland as 41 miles. If that’s the case, this one at Lake Bonney must be one of them, since that’s about how far the lake is from McMurdo Sound:
The dry, freezing climate and lack of bacteria and invertebrates that break down carcasses in warmer regions leave the seals in varying states of preservation that make it impossible to tell how long they’ve been lying there by their appearance just by sight. Some are mostly skeletal, some still have a substantial amount of leathery skin attached, but you can’t tell if they’re a few years old or several hundred without doing a laboratory analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes.
A research team led by Paul Koch and Brenda Hall in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons has done just that. They saw these seals not as a weird curiosity, but as a way to investigate the history of seal populations over the past 1,500 years, and how they adapted to changing amounts of ice in McMurdo Sound in terms of their diet, which is also revealed by the chemical analysis. Up until about 500 years ago, McMurdo Sound had far less ice than it did afterwards, when ice shelves formed. Knowing how the seals responded and how their diet changed would help predict how warming oceans might affect them in the future. To that end, the scientists a undertook a comprehensive inventory of Dry Valleys mummified seals and took over 400 samples to be analyzed (read more about the study in the Antarctic Sun and this press release). “Studies of fossils let us see how species do or don’t adapt to environmental shifts. Here, we are using that approach to explore the adaptability and vulnerability of different Antarctic seal species to less icy conditions in the near future,” said Koch.
If you’ve read every single one of my Antarctica blog posts, you’ve encountered a few of the following scenes before, but I thought it would be interesting to bring them all together in one place, along with some information about what is known about them.
The presence of mummified seals has posed a scientific mystery since the first explorers of the region in the early 1900s ran across them. They’re generally small, and I have run across only one account of researchers encountering a live seal in the Dry Valleys. The current assumption is that these are young seals that get lost during whiteout conditions in the harsh Antarctic winter, when the seals usually stay near cracks in the sea ice. Without visual cues, they get turned around and crawl along in a futile search for the sea until they expire. As of October 2015, Koch’s team published that it had reported identified mummies of over 300 crabeater seals, 100 Weddell seals and around 20 leopard seals, a proportional breakdown roughly corresponding to their current numbers in the sound. That sounds like a significant number of wayward seals, but the mummies can be as much as 1,500 years old. Koch told the Antarctic Sun that it may be that only one or two lose their way each year.
The leopard seal shown below, on the Lake Fryxell side of the Canada Glacier, is a rare sight on a few counts. Leopard seals make up less than 5% of the mummified seals. This one is pretty much intact, including fur, which is unusual. And unlike the vast majority of the mummies, we know for sure that this one is a recent arrival, because this area is frequently traversed by Dry Valleys researchers and they took note of its appearance a couple of years ago.
Mummified seals are not only found in the Dry Valleys. There’s one on the black sand beach at Cape Royds. It’s notably well preserved, but it’s right by the sea ice so there is no mystery as to how it ended up there:
I photographed all the mummified seals I encountered, with the exception of one that had remarkably made it the length of Lake Hoare and part way up a hill near the Suess Glacier. It was dismembered into two halves, lying in the dirt side by side, which for some reason struck me as more grotesque and disturbing than a dead seal in one piece. I just didn’t want to look at that again! But probably the strangest one I saw was also near the Suess Glacier: rather than lying on its back or its side, it’s perched on its belly, tail curving upwards and head lifted as if flash-frozen in mid motion.
The scientists who have studied these seals are interested in them as a fossil record and a way of understanding the history of ocean ecology. What drives the seals to travel for miles over land and how they survive the journeys is ultimately beside the point in terms of their research. The lack of information about that aspect is a reminder, though, of how little we still know about what Antarctic animals do during the long, dark winters — that includes seals and penguins. At one of the science lectures, I asked Jennifer Burns, who has been studying Weddell seals for over 20 years, if she had seen any changes in behavior related to climate change. She responded that she hesitates to make comparisons because monitoring and tracking hardware is so much better quality now than 20 years ago. Devices are smaller and less intrusive to attach to the animal — in the past they were bulky and generally didn’t stay on long. In years to come, perhaps more seals will be tracked and shed some light on the mystery of the lost seals.
Biologists who study the creatures that live on the ocean floor in McMurdo Sound do their work during the first part of the summer research season. That’s when the sea ice is strong enough to support the heavy tractors that tow the dive huts onto and off the ice. Huts on the sea ice are removed by mid-December, when air temperatures warm and cracks in the ice widen and deepen. In a previous blog post, I’ve already written about my stay at Sam Bowser’s field camp at New Harbor, which is across the sound from McMurdo at the edge of the Dry Valleys. Other scientists collect samples right by the base, from a dive hut set up on the sea ice that’s a short downhill walk from the Crary Lab and the helicopter pad.
Near the hut, a smaller hole is drilled in the ice and the Observation Tube is installed. Known around town as the “Ob Tube,” it’s basically an underwater manhole with windows, dating back to the days when the U.S. Navy ran McMurdo. Anyone living on the station is permitted to go to the station firehouse any time of day or night and pick up the key, as long as they are accompanied by at least one other person. I went with Shaun O’Boyle, the other Antarctic Artists and Writers Program participant at McMurdo while I was there, on the morning of November 27th, timing our visit for a morning when we knew biologist Gretchen Hofmann’s dive team would be working there.
A visit to the Ob tube is not for the claustrophobic. I’m not a large person, but climbing down the tube via metal handholds while wearing a down parka didn’t leave much room to maneuver. You descend the last few feet via a rope ladder, which is visible in the background of my inadvertent selfie below. Standing at the bottom, you are surrounded by windows and looking up at crystal chandeliers of sea ice. Schools of tiny fish scoot past.
The Ob Tube provides a unique view of the underside of the sea ice, which is covered with mounds of platelet ice, clusters of thin, irregularly shaped slivers of ice, each a few millimeters thick and around one to four inches in diameter, that attach together at apparently random angles. Composed of 80% seawater and 20% fresh water, platelet ice is a peculiarly polar phenomenon that Encyclopaedia Britannica’s sea ice article calls “perhaps the most exotic form of sea ice besides marine ice.” A scientific paper based on research at McMurdo explains that these “semi-consolidated” layers of ice can be anywhere from a few inches to several meters thick and in Antarctica are “commonly observed beneath sea ice in regions adjacent to floating ice shelves.” Located not far from the ice shelf/sea ice border, the Ob Tube is perfectly situated to observe platelet ice.
Gretchen Hofmann is based at the University of California Santa Barbara and is studying the impact of ocean acidification on the Antarctic pteropod and the Antarctic sea urchin. (Read more about her research on the Hofmann lab page.) Umi, a doctoral student and member of her dive team, swam up to the Ob Tube and helpfully wiped the frostiness off the outside of the windows with his gloves, which did making it easier to see out!:
A pulsing, glowing form the size of a dinner plate drifted past — a jellyfish:
It’s a good thing Shaun and I got to the Ob Tube when we did, because a few days later, it was decided that it was time to pull it out and haul the dive hut back to dry land. I went back to dive area on December 5th, when Gretchen’s team was making their last dive. Steve Rupp, one of the two dive supervisors on staff at McMurdo each season, offered to take some photos of the outside of the Ob Tube for me, and to bring up some platelet ice for me to photograph up close. Elaine, my logistics coordinator, came along to help me. The plan was to scatter the platelets on some pieces of discarded tent fabric I’d borrowed from the McMurdo Craft Room as a backdrop, but periodic gusts of wind over 25 mph didn’t make that easy. What you can’t see in this photo is Elaine, who is truly a good sport, comically sprawled on her stomach holding down the fabric with both arms, while I scattered handfuls of platelet ice from a plastic bucket and took pictures.
After the dive was finished, I went inside the dive hut, and Steve leaned over the edge of the dive hole, shining underwater lights to illuminate the surface of loose, floating platelets for me, and throw them into low relief. These are a few of the photos I took inside the hut:
During his dive, Steve took some photos of the outside of the Ob Tube for me, which give a diver’s-eye view:
Steve tried to make a series of photos circling the outside of the Ob Tube for a 3D capture, but it proved too difficult for him to keep it in focus. However, I was able to take a series of photos of the surface of the platelet ice inside the dive hole while he held the lights underwater, and to make a 3D file from them. This is a screenshot of a detail of that file, rendered in yellow and blue shading to show the form:
Three days later, I happened to be in the Crary Lab Library overlooking McMurdo Sound when I saw workers loading the Ob Tube onto a truck in sections. The orange dive hut had also been put on a trailer to be towed to the spot where it spends the offseason:
One day in late November, five of us took a day trip over the sea ice by snowmobile to visit Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans. To paraphrase the words of a bronze plaque outside the building, the hut is protected by international treaty and maintained as an historic monument to the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913 led by Robert F. Scott, who built it in January 1911 as the expedition headquarters. (Read a brief history of the expedition.) Like Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds and Discovery Hut at McMurdo, it is administered by an historic trust headquartered in New Zealand. To obtain a key and enter, at least one member of your party has to have received authorized training. I was amazed at how much stuff had been left inside, and because of the cold dry climate, it’s in a remarkable state of preservation. It’s like stepping across the threshold into a time capsule from 100 years ago.
Part of the briefing before going to the hut was to warn us to not touch any of the artifacts and to walk carefully. Outside the hut, not even shards of broken glass, splinters of wood or leftover bones from dinner were to be touched. Everything was left as is. Behind the hut, the anchor from Scott’s Terra Nova ship is half buried in the volcanic soil:
Here are a few more exterior photos to give a sense of the location:
The trip was of particular interest to Shaun O’Boyle, a photographer who was the only other Antarctic Artists and Writers Program grantee whose residency overlapped with mine. Shaun has a background in architecture as well as photography and his project, “Portraits of Place in Antarctica,” focused on documenting the buildings and manmade structures in the area around McMurdo from the past 110 years. Three Lockheed Martin staffers also came with us, McMurdo veterans Ralph Maestas, a videographer, and his colleague Joolee Aurand, who both also ran the base TV station, and Mike Lucibella, who was there for his first season as editor and reporter for The Antarctic Sun, the official news outlet for the U.S. Antarctic program.
I’d taken snowmobile training 10 days earlier, the day after I arrived at McMurdo, but this was the first time I’d driven one since then. I was confident about being able to keep my balance on it, even on inclines, but when I had to put the thing in reverse, it tended to abruptly lurch backward. However, I figured after two 90-minute trips, I’d pretty much have it down. My biggest problem turned out to be, as someone who wears glasses, how to keep them from fogging up while keeping my face from freezing! People are always asking me how cold it was in Antarctica. Well, that day it was in the mid teens, and going 25 miles an hour on a snowmobile, the wind on your face felt even colder. I started out covering my face with the program-issue balaclava:
Cape Evans is the largest of the historic huts. There is one large section where the men slept in bunk beds, cooked, kept their medical supplies, had a darkroom for photography, and work tables for their telegraph and laboratory equipment. Seeing the crepuscular light shining in through dusty windows onto the dark wooden walls, old pitchers and crockery was like walking into a painting by Vermeer or Chardin. What surprised me was how much stuff the explorers left behind. Did they think that maybe other explorers would make use of them in the future, or was it just too much trouble to pack it up and take it home to England? Whatever their reasons, they left not just equipment and leftover tins and crates of food, but personal items: wool socks, fur boots, blankets, bedrolls, and arrangements of photos glued to boards for decoration. Not to mention a copy of the London Illustrated News and a large, stuffed Emperor penguin.
Exiting the living area, an enclosed corridor led to the stables and contained a bed-sized pile of seal blubber, blackened with age. Around the corner were stalls with even more boxes of supplies, tools, equipment, as well as decidedly more curious leftovers such as a box of penguin eggs, a hand-carved wooden wheelbarrow, a bicycle (a bicycle? in Antarctica?), and accessories for what turned out to be an ill-advised idea to use ponies for transportation. A couple of snowshoes for horses hang on one wall. We noticed some names stenciled on the same wall, and were puzzled at first, until realizing that those were probably the names of the horses.
You might be wondering — as we did — how much of this was authentically left as is and how much of it was rearranged and staged by the New Zealand historic trust staff who maintain the huts. A few weeks later, I was sitting in the field camp hut at Cape Royds one evening with penguin researchers Katie and Jean, when one of them heard some voices in the distance. “Here come the Kiwis,” she said. Al Fastier, the program manager for the historic sites; conservator Lizzie Meek; Martin Wenzel, a restoration carpenter; and two young women who were assisting them had been working down the hill at Shackleton’s hut for the past several days. They were about to leave and came in to say goodbye, a bottle of Scotch in hand. We managed to make room for all eight of us and their parkas in the small room (I think it was no larger than 12 x 15 feet, including the camp stove, plywood desks along one wall, propane heater, wash-up station and boxes of food). I had not been issued a permit to visit Shackleton’s hut before going to Cape Royds, so I had not gone in. I asked them about something I’d heard from somebody else, that Shackleton’s hut was less staged and in a more natural state than Scott’s at Cape Evans. This made the Kiwis smile. Actually, they said, it was the other way around. Katie noted that when she first started to coming to Cape Royds in the early 2000s, the items inside were in more disarray, and in a way she preferred it that way; you felt more of the human presence. The Kiwis acknowledged that over time items had been removed for conservation, then put back, and that there was a balancing act between protecting them and making it possible for visitors to walk around, while not going overboard with arranging.
Conversation turned to a hot topic this season: the so-called “Shackleton’s axe” — authentic or hoax? The helicopter pilots had recently noticed a pickaxe sticking out of the top of a tall, pointy-topped mound of volcanic gravel, the metal part wedged into the gravel and the handle pointing up at a jaunty angle. On the flight to Cape Royds, our pilot had pointed it out to Evan and me and said it was two miles by air from the field camp. That doesn’t sound like much, but over rugged, hilly terrain, it would be a considerable hike. The sudden appearance of the axe poking out of the pile, even in midst of that forbidding and remote area, struck many people as a possible prank. Lizzie said she’d looked at high-resolution photographs of it and that the markings on the axe were consistent with the period so it plausibly belonged to Shackleton’s party. Al said that it was plausible that the mounds were used as landmarks for supply caches for Shackleton’s epic trans-Antarctic journey and that an axe could have been stuck in the top to help the expedition team find it. That makes sense, though as Jean pointed out after they’d left, why it seemed to suddenly appear, and at a picture-perfect angle, remains an open question!
Shaun’s blog has some good photos of the pickaxe, and indeed, of the Cape Evans hut and the other two huts. They’re worth checking out to see a different approach to the same subject matter than mine. For one thing, he processed his photos mostly in black and white, for another, since this project was specifically about architecture he spent a lot more time in the huts than I did, returning for repeat visits. In general I’ve found it interesting to compare our photos of the same places, seeing which places where we chose similar shots and where our different interests and personalities emerge.
Note: Cape Evans is where I took a photograph of an unusual cloud formation over Mt. Erebus that the Cloud Appreciation Society, a large online database of cloud images and information, chose as its January 2016 Cloud of the Month (see below and earlier post).
The evening of December 18th, I shook the snow off my tent from the snowstorm earlier that day and spent my first night at the Lake Hoare field camp. Though the dense fog and gray skies lingered long after the snow stopped, camp manager Rae had checked the forecast and said the skies were expected to clear overnight. Sure enough, in the morning we awoke to bright sunshine. I set out on a day hike with Renee, Rae’s assistant at Lake Hoare, to cross over the Canada Glacier and visit the eastern side, which faces Lake Fryxell. The Canada Glacier snakes down from Mt. McLennan, which is about 1,600 meters (5,250 feet) high on the north side of the Taylor Valley. The Lake Hoare camp is nestled beside the western side of the glacier, a tall wall of ice with a relatively smooth and rounded profile reminding me of an adobe house. In the course of walking over it and visiting the other side, I would see that the other side of the glacier looked very different.
Renee is an avid hiker who runs a backcountry lodge at Glacier National Park in Montana during the summer. Before we left, she told me, “I always hike with poles,” and offered to let me use one of hers. In all my years of hiking I had never had used walking sticks or poles; they’d struck me as just another thing to carry. But I figured this was not familiar terrain and if as strong a hiker as Renee relied on them, I’d follow her lead.
We started up the steep rocky moraine beside the Canada Glacier with the stream ecology team, who were planning to take water samples at various locations. Beside the glacier are piles of large and medium sized rocks and the Andersen Creek, fed by meltwater that comes off the glacier, but it was still so cold and shady in that area that the stream sampling team was having trouble finding thawed meltwater to collect. When we came to an area where the top of the glacier flattened out, we parted ways as they headed for another of the sampling spots. Renee and I put crampons on our boots and headed toward the ice falls, a slope where gravity had creased the glacier and separated it into rows of irregular boulder-sized chunks of blue ice. To the right of the falls, an enormous tongue-shaped section of the glacier clings to a steep face of Mt. McLennan.
Once we were on top of the glacier, I quickly discovered why climbing poles aren’t, um, pointless. The layer of about four inches of snow from the day before lay on top of the glacier, covering areas of thin ice where your foot could punch through into a hollow spot that could be anywhere from a few inches to a couple of feet deep. Underneath could be rocks or small melt pools. This made traversing the area more challenging than usual, when the hazards are more visible. As she walked, Renee rapidly jabbed at the ice ahead with her pole. If the pole punched a hole in the ice, then she’d pause and continue probing until she found a solid spot before taking the next step. I followed suit. Here is a detail of the ice falls, taken with the assistance of a telephoto lens:
After photographing the falls, we continued over the top of the glacier, carefully poking the surface with our poles to avoid the gaps until we stepped off the glacier onto the rocks and gravel on the other side. We looked for tracks where the stream ecology researchers had walked before, but couldn’t always find them, so we had to pick our way carefully, especially when we got close to the edge where the glacier tapered off onto the gravel-covered hill. To the south, there were thin clouds in the sky and the previous day’s snowfall gave the opposite hillside the texture of a tapestry:
Looking toward Lake Hoare while standing on top of the glacier you can take in its scale. We had walked up from the right:
Our next destination, Lake Fryxell, lay ahead to the east. We were up high enough to see the ice-covered summit of the Mt. Erebus volcano in the haze across McMurdo Sound about 13 miles away. After crossing the glacier to the gravel hill on the other side, we ate lunch in a sheltered spot, then headed downhill towards the Lake Fryxell field camp. Our plan was to get in the ATV that stays on the sea ice during the research season and double back across the lake ice to have a closer look at the Fryxell side of the Canada Glacier.
In order to protect the ecology of the streams which run off the Canada Glacier into Lake Fryxell, approximately one square kilometer of the hillside adjoining the glacier and the lake shore has been designated an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA). Although it looks like just more of the same rocks and gravel you can see for miles in every direction, its relatively sheltered location and the meltwater coming off the glacier makes this tract one of the best places to find life in the polar desert, especially bryophytes (e.g. mosses) and algae. The tiny plants are freeze-dried most of the year, but come briefly to life during the austral summer. To enter one of five ASPAs in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, you must be issued a permit by a national authority, which for the U.S. is the National Science Foundation. I obtained a permit to enter the Blood Falls ASPA but not the Canada Glacier one. The NSF staffer who issues the permits assured me I would be able to get close enough to the glacier from the lake to photograph it and that there was no reason for me to enter the protected site. When I got there, I could see her reasoning. That portion of the glacier isn’t even particularly interesting from a visual standpoint:
Hiking across the gravel to Lake Fryxell we encountered the first of two mummified seals. I made a tentative ID of the one below as a crabeater seal, based on its teeth. The three types of seals found in this part of Antarctica — leopard seals, Weddell seals and crabeaters — all have different shaped teeth.
The next seal we encountered was easily identified as a leopard seal, because due to the freezing temperatures and the lack of organisms such as bacteria and insects, it still had its fur, even though, according to the people at Lake Hoare, it had died there about three years ago. Leopard seals are ferocious predators — when I asked Sam Bowser if his dive team ever saw them at New Harbor, he responded, “No! And I wouldn’t want to.” Leopard seals could attack the divers. Weddell seals, which the divers often do see, are essentially harmless and non-intimidating, even though they weigh over 1,000 lbs. But even a young leopard seal that had drawn its last breath a few years ago looked somewhat sinister with it’s long powerful jaw.
Eventually, we reached the Lake Fryxell Jamesway hut. Nobody was staying at the field camp, though a team of carpenters were expected to return shortly to resume work building a new hut on the site, of the same design as the one at Lake Hoare. When they’re done, the Jamesway will be dismantled, and these photos will be documents of a vanished era. The Lake Bonney Jamesway will be replaced next. There’s something cool and retro about the Jamesways, especially the quirky improvisations and embellishments added over the years as teams of researchers have come and gone, but whatever the boxy Lake Hoare hut lacks in character it is way more functional and comfortable.
After eating a snack in the hut, we headed for the ATV, which was parked on the thick, permanently frozen layer of ice that covers Lake Fryxell. This time of year, the margin of the lake melts, and is a few feet deep. So how do the limnologists (lake scientists) get onto the ice? The ingenious solution, arrived at with Rae’s input, was to have an aluminum rowboat rigged up so that at either end a loop of rope was attached to the boat. Through those loops runs a very long loop of yellow rope, which is threaded through two pulleys, one set up on shore and one on the ice. Get in the boat, pull the yellow rope hand over hand and the boat travels across the water and glides up onto the ice. It kind of reminded me of the old rope tows at ski areas in the 1960s and ’70s.
Once on the lake ice, we walked to the ATV, pulled out the pan underneath it protecting the ice in case oil dripped from the engine (every effort is made to not have any alien materials enter the environment), and made sure the tires weren’t frozen to the ice. Renee got it started, I straddled the back part of the seat behind her, and off we went.
Renee drove cautiously, taking care to not drive too close to cracks around the periphery that might indicate unstable ice, and slowing down when crossing rough areas, which we encountered increasingly as we approached the glacier. I was grateful that she took her time and I wasn’t being bounced around on the narrow back part of the seat. Later on, when we were back at the hut, I told her that I’d appreciated her restraint. She burst out laughing and said, “Oh good! I was thinking, ‘She must think I’m such a wimp!'”
In the distance, Renee waits at the ATV for me to finish photographing the glacier. There were some raised areas of ice at that end, left behind when the rest of the lake ice surface ablated (vaporized). There is nothing as irregular as the ice structures on Lake Hoare, but driving over and around them made for a bumpy ride in places.
The Lake Fryxell face of the Canada Glacier looks completely different than the Lake Hoare side. For one thing, at its tallest, it’s about twice as high — around 20 meters. That’s because the land slopes beneath it and the surface of Lake Fryxell is actually about 55 meters lower in elevation than that of Lake Hoare. If you look at the second photo from the top of this post, taken from a helicopter, you can see the slope. I am guessing that it’s this downhill gravitational pull as well as the directions of prevailing winds and sunlight that make it look so different — spiky and Gothic with narrow pointy-topped spires, as opposed to the rounded contours on the west-facing side, which get the warmer afternoon and evening sun.
Renee waited patiently while I shot some 300 photos of the glacier side. That’s way more photos than I usually took at a site, because I wanted to see if I could produce a 3D capture (i.e. scan) of the complex surface, and since I hadn’t had much experience tackling something that is both that immense and that detailed, I wasn’t sure how many different angles I would need. So I decided to err on the side of “more than enough.” Eventually some of these 3D captures will be produced as sculpture. (Read more about the process.) Recently I processed one section that I shot that day. It took the software about 18 hours to calculate the relative distances between points to produce a model of the section below, and another few hours for it to generate a polygon mesh, but I’m really pleased — and relieved — with the results. Below is one of the source photos, followed by screenshots of the model.
After returning the ATV to its parking place, the hike back to Lake Hoare was more challenging than the hike out had been, due to gusty winds that had kicked up. The rowboat tilted to one side while Renee was pulling it to shore and I immediately shifted my weight onto the gunwale to stabilize it, to her great relief (amazing how those instincts kicked in from the long ago days of taking out sailboats at Camp Whippoorwill, when I was 13 ). The sky started to cloud, and on the top of the glacier, the previous day’s snowfall was swirling around, making me even happier to have a pole in my hand to prod the ice in front of me, and also glad that I’d stopped to photograph the ice falls in the morning. Then we walked down the moraine to camp.
All told we’d been out for about eight hours. Photographing — or for that matter doing scientific research — in the Dry Valleys is often very physical, and involves a lot of walking up and down hills while carrying a pack. And I still had a lingering cold the entire time, but was damned if that was going to stop me. Last week a woman who writes a travel blog called me up to interview me about the Antarctica trip. She asked about my formative travel experiences. This got me thinking about the aforementioned Camp Whippoorwill, where I was introduced to hiking and camping in the Adirondacks, and Crossroads America, a cross-country teen tour I took the summer I turned 16. I spent those nine weeks riding around the U.S. in a Ford Econoline van with nine boys and girls and two adult leaders whom I’d never met before the day we started out. All my belongings were in a duffel bag, we camped outdoors almost every night, and we all had to get along with kids at close quarters whom we might not otherwise have chosen as friends.
I’m grateful and maybe a little surprised to arrive at this age with the energy, physical conditioning, and the ability to tolerate a lack of creature comforts and to roll with the inevitable glitches that arise, but I think it goes back to those formative experiences: reaching the summit of an Adirondack peak on a day where you could see for miles, singing to keep our spirits up while we walked in plastic ponchos getting drenched with rain, campfire meals of tuna-rice-a-pea (open cans of tuna, rice, peas and cream of mushroom soup, and stir), picking up my ground cloth after sleeping in the open at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to find a little white scorpion had also spent the night there. Somewhere were planted the seeds of confidence, resilience and determination to push onward until you reach your destination that have never left me. I think my teenage self would have been happy to know that.
The Lake Hoare field camp in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where I spent five days, sits at the east end of the lake right next to the immense Canada Glacier. At the opposite end of the lake is the smaller Suess Glacier. When I first heard the name, it would not have surprised me if a glacier in Antarctica had been named for the children’s book author Dr. Seuss, given the odd landscape features that resemble some of his fanciful illustrations. But no, the 1910-13 British Antarctic expedition led by Robert F. Scott named it for Professor Eduard Suess (1831-1914), a prominent Austrian geologist and paleontologist who helped lay the basis for paleogeography and tectonics.
One day I hiked there accompanied by Mari, a young woman who normally worked at McMurdo in the field camp supply center, but was spending a couple of weeks at the Lake Hoare camp assisting camp manager Rae during a particularly busy period of the research season. There are many people in their twenties who work 10-hour shifts, six days a week at McMurdo during the austral summer as dining hall workers, supply staff, janitors, cargo loaders, etc., but their opportunities to travel beyond the base are limited. So Mari was thrilled to be in the Dry Valleys and enthusiastic about hiking to the Suess. We followed a path of sorts that had evolved from the walks of other researchers, which wound around the perimeter of the rocky north shore of the lake (on the right in the photo above).
After about an hour, we came across a mummified seal. Positioned on its belly rather than laying on its side made it look curiously animated, as if it was in the process of clambering out of the water. The mummified seals strewn throughout the Dry Valleys are an enduring mystery, and one I plan to write more about in a future blog post. Suffice to say, the icy climate and lack of organisms to break down dead animals keeps them in a state of preservation such that it’s difficult to know if that seal has been there a few years or a few hundred.
As we continued following the lake’s shoreline, we soon reached a very tall gravel hill that blocked our view of the glacier. Mari climbed to the top to scout the best route around it (remarkably quickly, too — it’s hard to get a footing on steep, loose gravel). As you can see in the photo at left, a stream of water was running downhill off the glacier into the lake. Mari had determined there was no shortcut to the glacier from where we were so we continued around the lake side of the hill.
From the Lake Hoare side, the Suess glacier is not nearly as impressive as the Canada Glacier in size or height. This panorama made from three negatives is pretty much what you see as you approach from the lake:
Walk around to the left of it and you can look uphill to see it flowing from the crest of the hill on the right:
But the really good stuff was just around the corner. The Suess flows down one steep hill and comes to rest where another steep hill meets it, forming a narrow passage called a defile. Once you enter the defile, you encounter another side of the Suess, a towering wall of glistening scalloped ice. It glowed with a peachy color reflected off the gravel hill:
One of Scott’s party in the 1910-13 expedition, the geologist Griffith Taylor, described the discovery of the Suess in his 1916 book With Scott: The Silver Lining (you can find the section referred to here on Google Books). The title implies a motivation to spotlight the expedition’s accomplishments and successes, which had been to some degree overshadowed by its sad ending, when Scott and four of his men died on their way back from the South Pole. The following year, World War I broke out and was still raging when the book was published. As the book’s editor, Leonard Huxley, put it in the Introduction, “It is for Mr. Griffith Taylor to tell of the daily life of that company from within, to tell in careless detail its lighthearted cheerfulness lining solid effort, which the cloud of English earnestness so constantly turns out upon the night.” The section on the journey through what is now known as the Taylor Valley exudes the joy of discovery and is illustrated with Taylor’s charming drawings, including a humorous depiction of “The Compleat Explorer” wearing the state-of-the-art cold weather gear for 1911. (This includes “Beard,” which continues to be a popular male accessory in Antarctica. Once somebody said, “You know who I mean? The tall guy with the beard,” and the rest of us started laughing since that did not narrow it down at all.) At any rate, I’m guessing the Dry Valleys were associated with particularly fond memories for Taylor, because along the way Scott informed him he was naming the magnificent Taylor Glacier after him! Taylor’s book also includes his sketch of the Suess:
Taylor and company approached the Suess from the west, i.e. the opposite direction we took. His description remains apt today: “a face of ice forty feet high; but just where it butted into the steep south slope of the defile, there was a narrow gap where thaw-ice had filled in the interspaces between the cliff debris.” Mari and I put on crampons (velcro sandals with spikes on the soles) over our boots to walk on the icy passage where it narrowed to the width of a typical sidewalk.
We walked alongside a wall of ice with such hard, polished surfaces that it looked like it had been cast from a mold:
We also encountered the most impressive frozen waterfall I saw anywhere in Antarctica:
I was fascinated by the large rocks protruding from the icy wall that had apparently been swept up by the slow-moving glacier long ago. You see a couple of them in the photos of the waterfall above. The one below had to weigh several hundred pounds, and yet was somehow securely frozen in place in its icy niche:
Toward the end of the defile, where the narrow space opened up and the glacier height tapered off, another frozen waterfall had formed an ice stalactite and stalagmite:
Once out of the defile, the Suess presents yet another aspect, a frieze of rounded shapes:
We reached the end of the defile, and looked down at the small blue lake on the other side (below). It was 5 p.m., we’d been out for four hours and decided to go back to the camp, figuring we’d be there in 90 minutes, just time for dinner. That was the time we decided to take a direct route back across the lake ice which turned out to be, ah, no shortcut at all for us lake ice rookies. If you haven’t read that story, you can find it here. Long story short, we made it back, albeit almost three hours later with wet socks. It was unnerving while we were in the middle of it, but funny once it was over: silver lining!
It was late in my stay at McMurdo when I finally got around to walking the hiking trails at two places I could see every time I walked out of my dormitory: Hut Point and Observation Hill — Ob Hill as the McMurdites call it. These photos were taken on two different days. When I arrived in November, the Ob Hill loop trail that circles it about one-third the way up was open, but the trail to the steep summit was closed due to ice. On December 29, six days before I left, I took advantage of a mild day (i.e. it was 20 degrees F with no wind — that counts as mild at McMurdo) and walked up to the top of Ob Hill, which has an elevation of about 750 feet. There it is on the right in the photo below.
It took 15 minutes to walk to the Ob Hill loop from my dormitory (I lived in one of the four identical brown buildings near the large blue building that you can see in the photos above and below; click any photo to see an enlargement). It took 20 more minutes to get to the summit on a progressively narrower trail that is very steep with a lot of loose, gravelly volcanic rock surrounded by larger volcanic rocks. If you see the shaded ridge up the center of the hill in the photo above, that’s pretty much the line of the trail. The further up you climb, the steeper it gets. I had flashes of mental images of myself skidding off it and bouncing off rocks on the way down like a playground ball, so I tread carefully, pausing frequently to make sure I was on the best path, and reassuring myself periodically, “You’ve got this.” A few days earlier the annual Ob Hill Uphill, a competitive race to the top, had taken place. Hopefully, the racers spread out before they got to the upper part, because I cannot imagine how you’d pass someone on that trail. No, I don’t have that need for speed. But hey, I’ve got this. I made it to the top without a mishap. There, wedged between two rocks, I found a new black water bottle with a McMurdo emblem that sold in the station store for $30 (left from the race?). As my good deed of the day, I brought it down and handed it in to the Recreation Office. If that was your bottle, you’re welcome!
From the summit, you have an excellent view that encompasses McMurdo, New Zealand’s Scott Base, the golfball-shaped observatories, the Dellbridge Islands and Mount Erebus.
At the top of Observation Hill is a nine-foot wooden cross, built in 1913 and hauled there by sledge by the crew of the Terra Nova, the ship that carried British explorer Robert F. Scott and his party to Antarctica for their attempt to become the first to reach the South Pole. Scott and four men reached the pole in January 1912, only to find that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beat them to the record by five weeks. All five of them died in March on the return trip. Their tent, containing their bodies and belongings, was discovered by a search party eight months later, including Scott’s last diary, where he recorded their final days and ended his last entry, “For God’s sake look after our people.” The sad story is summarized here.
The other place to take in a view of McMurdo is from Hut Point, so named for the historic Discovery Hut that sits at the end of it, which was built in 1902 for Scott’s first Antarctic expedition, in 1903-07 and used by subsequent exhibitions until 1917. Below is the view of Hut Point from the back door of my dormitory. You can see the hut and another melancholy monument, this one dedicated to George Vince, a member of Scott’s party who died in an accident in 1904, when he fell off the cliffs into the McMurdo Sound while trying to make his way back to the hut during a blizzard.
The Hut Point Trail winds along the top of the ridge you see to the right of the hut in the photo above. I walked the trail on a cold Sunday afternoon. It was around 20 degrees that day, too, but strong gusts of wind made it feel much colder, unlike the mellow morning I climbed Ob Hill. As you climb the trail, the most prominent landmarks ahead of you are the “golf balls.”
Looking back toward the sea ice gave me a good look at the cracks and melt pools that were developing as the ice thawed. A large number of Weddell seals had congregated there. Shaun O’Boyle, who was also photographing in McMurdo this season for an Antarctic Artists and Writers Program project, arrived before I did and has posted his photos from these two hikes. Comparing his photos from late October and early November to mine, you can see the changes in the landscape and the sea ice that took place within about two months.
Climbing further up the ridge, I looked down at the other side and found a small pond with three glowing green spots. You seldom — or never — see anything green in the Antarctic landscape, so it was a weird sight. I assume there is some algae growing there, because no green plants grow in Antarctica.
Another oddity I spotted: a small volcanic rock that had been eroded and hollowed out to the point of resembling a sponge:
The ridge trail leads to the small, dark “golf ball” and then winds back into town. I planned to walk the entire loop, but the wind kicked up with 20-knot gusts coming from the sea ice. Not only was it making my eyes water, but as I walked along the top of the ridge, I had to brace myself to keep my footing. I decided that it was time to turn back. As I headed back, I came upon another hilltop memorial, Our Lady of the Snows. A statue of the Madonna on a ironwork frame topped by a cross, and held in place by a pile of volcanic rocks. Beside it, a plaque explains that during the construction of McMurdo in 1956, Petty Officer Richard T. Williams of the U.S. Navy Seabees was part of a crew bringing supplies across the sea ice from a ship anchored 30 miles away, when the tractor he was driving broke through the sea ice north of Cape Royds and “plunged 350 fathoms to the bottom of McMurdo Sound. His body was never recovered.” I hadn’t realized until reading the plaque that Willy Field, one of two airfields used by the U.S. and New Zealand Antarctic Programs, was named for him. It’s formal name is the Williams Air Operating Facility.
I walked back to the dorms, following the road up from the ice pier. Now that the sea ice was breaking up near shore, the colorful fishing huts used by seal researchers and dive teams studying underwater creatures during the first part of the research season had been pulled off the ice and stored along the road:
I also noticed for the first time that there was a pink flamingo outside the Fuels Building:
Nearby is a perky welded sculpture along the road overlooking Hut Point and the ice pier of what I take to be a whale, made by an anonymous worker out of chains and rods. While clearly playful in intent, it struck me as in its own way congruent with the other monuments erected around McMurdo by grieving men. The wooden cross dedicated to Scott and his comrades is inscribed with a quote from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Made from discarded found objects, the whale embodies a similar ingenuity, optimism and creativity that the people on base find within themselves. Sometimes, you just have to smile and say, “I’ve got this.”
To travel to the four field camps I visited during my stay in Antarctica I took a total of eight helicopter trips. Traveling by “helo,” as they say there, or watching them take off, land, and pick up sling loads never got old. I don’t think it was just because I was an Antarctic newbie; even at the field camps where helicopters took off and landed a few times a week, or in the case of Lake Hoare, a couple of times a day, camp residents would stand at the hut window or just outside the door to watch.
Since all fresh water, fuel and food is brought into the field camps, and all waste is packed out, the helo pilots are busy all day during the field season. And when I say all waste is packed out, I mean everything: gray water (water left from washing hands, faces, and dishes), human waste (metal drums for the pee, five-gallon plastic buckets for the poop), trash (sorted into recyclables, non-recyclables, and food waste). By treaty, all traces of human presence are to be removed from the environment, which as you can imagine, demands a lot more thoughtfulness in sorting and disposing of trash than we’re used to, not just in the field, but at McMurdo, too. Heavy items are suspended under the helicopter as a sling load. Laura Von Rosk has posted a short video of sling load take-offs from New Harbor on the Bravo! 043 Facebook page (see December 9, 2015 post).
Helicopters take off and land vertically, which is a different sensation than the headlong forward motion of an airplane liftoff. On December 16th, a brilliantly sunny day, I shot this video of the helo take off (posted on YouTube) from McMurdo Station on the way to Blood Falls in the Dry Valleys. (I’ve already discussed Blood Falls in the previous post.) The video starts just after the helo has risen off the ground and is turning around to head out over the sea ice. Mt. Discovery is in the distance.
Mike, the helo pilot that day, knew that I was interested in ice, and asked if I’d like to see the recent changes to the edge where the sea ice meets the ice shelf. Well, yeah! The last time I’d flown across the sea ice to the Dry Valleys had been almost a month before, and it was indeed different. Meltpools filled with blue water streaked the surface of the ice shelf, including a stream flowing to the sea ice. The rest was a corrugated pattern of white ice and snow outlined by dark brown sediment that had blown there from the surrounding mountains, carried by fierce Antarctic winds.
We flew over a large crack in the sea ice that was remarkably regular in shape: three fairly straight segments at close to right angles. When I showed this photo to glaciologists Doug MacAyeal [pron. mac-hale] and Ian Willis, they told me that it was the result of movement analogous to that of the tectonic plates of the earth’s crust, where forces were pulling the sea ice away from the ice shelf, creating the two cracks that are vertical in the photo. The horizontal crack had then opened between those two cracks, connecting them; Doug pointed out how its edges were jagged, rather than clean.
As we headed across McMurdo Sound toward the Kukri Hills and the Dry Valleys a low white object appeared in the distance, resembling those gift boxes they give you at a department store. It was a huge tabular iceberg that has been frozen in the sea ice for at least a few years, according to another of the helo pilots. I had flown over it once before, on the way to New Harbor.
As we got closer, the immense scale became evident. What looked like a perfectly flat top and planar sides from a distance was inflected with vertical ridges and horizontal lines. Tabular icebergs have flat tops and steep sides, and are created by breaking off from ice sheets or ice shelves, so presumably this one was once part of the ice shelf.
At one corner, a huge chunk is poised to fall. The helo pilots have been watching it all season: “I’d love to be flying over it when that happens,” one told me. That will be quite dramatic when it gives way and tons of ice come crashing onto the sea ice, though odds are nobody will be around to see it. The McMurdo helicopter pilots enjoy the ever-evolving panorama beneath them as a perk of the job. On my last flight I asked the pilot about that and he said, absolutely — flying over other locations can be very monotonous by comparison.
As we began to enter the area of the Dry Valleys, we saw a variety of other patterns in the ice below: an area where it had broken into large, roughly rectangular sheets; turquoise melt pools and a stream between sparkling white ridges; and a long blue melt pool with parallel sides as if someone had built a canal there. The way the sea ice could fracture along long straight lines into almost rectangular shapes intrigued me.
Our helo flight to Blood Falls turned and crossed over the steep gravel Kukri Hills. On the other side of the valley, you could see the Canada Glacier spilling down to Lake Fryxell, which was on the right, and Lake Hoare, on the left. We landed briefly at Lake Hoare to drop off some supplies before continuing to Blood Falls. That was my first view of the field camp where I would return a few days later and spend five nights. If you check out my earlier blog post about Lake Hoare, you’ll see ground level views of the camp. From the air, it’s clear how tiny the main hut, lab buildings and tents are in relation to the Canada Glacier.
The final photo in this sequence was taken just before we got to Blood Falls, looking into the Taylor Valley toward the distinctive striped hills resembling chocolate sandwich cookies, yet another unexpected sight in a trip that was full of them.
The word “awesome” has taken on a casual meaning, approximating something like, “Super cool!” or “Hey, that’s great!” But there were many times in Antarctica I was confronted by something awesome in the original sense of the word, as in awe-inspiring: difficult to grasp in its immensity and power. Even if you learn the scientific explanation, there’s something unfathomable about a large expanse of bright orange and red ice spilling from the end of the steep walls of a glacier that towers overhead. It’s one of those moments where I’d just stand there for a minute thinking, “I’m in Antarctica. I’m really in Antarctica.” That’s how I felt when I stood at the bottom of Blood Falls, at the toe of the Taylor Glacier in the Dry Valleys, overlooking the west lobe of Lake Bonney.
In those I’m-in-Antarctica moments I felt how privileged I was to even be standing there. Since my Antarctic Artists and Writers Program project involved photographing ice formations to recreate in 3D I was among the fortunate few granted a permit to walk around it, not to mention a helicopter ride to the site. Blood Falls is among the highly protected zones of Antarctica because it is both a rare natural phenomenon and harbors delicate mineral deposits, which in turn harbor unusual microbes, all of which one must take care not to trample. National Geographic’s Blood Falls web page offers a good overview of where the minerals and and their colors come from, and the scientific significance of the site. In brief, the iron oxide salts percolate up into the glacier from a hypersaline lake (i.e. super-concentrated salty water) trapped beneath it from geological processes occurring over a period between two and five million years ago. When the iron salts hit the air, they oxygenate and turn red and orange. This is a dynamic process, and I’m told that the depth of the colors varies from year to year.
National Geographic goes on to explain that scientists from a variety of disciplines are interested in the microbes who live in the unusually harsh conditions of these deposits: glaciologists (who study glaciers), limnologists (who study lakes), microbiologists (who study microbes) and astrobiologists (who speculate about the presence of life on other planets). As a group, the microbes fall into the broader category of extremophiles because they “are able to withstand and even thrive in extremely harsh environments.” The extremophiles (I like to think of them as the X-philes) of Blood Falls manage the trick of converting sulfur and iron compounds into energy under freezing conditions. Hence the interest on the part of astrobiologists, since this may be the closest Earth can come to approximating conditions on a freezing planet.
I visited Blood Falls with mountaineer Forrest McCarthy, a veteran of about 20 seasons “on the ice” in the US Antarctic Program. We flew in a helicopter and were joined by Mike Jackson, the National Science Foundation science representative on station for that period. Since Mike’s trip was spur of the moment due to their being room in the helo, he had not obtained a permit. Even an NSF administrator isn’t allowed to walk all the way to the falls without one, so he stayed on a nearby trail overlooking the site, while Forrest and I waded across the shallow but wide melt waters of the Taylor Glacier at the edge of Lake Bonney, which was ankle deep in some places. I had changed into hiking boots instead of bunny boots, so I splashed through the freezing water as fast as I could, hoping my boots were as waterproof as advertised. (They did reasonably well. Lowa boots, in case you’re wondering, from REI. They’re the only ones that come in true narrow widths, so I didn’t have much choice. But they turned out to be great boots.) This was my first view of Bonney, and I knew it was a frozen lake, but I didn’t realize the edges would be swiftly moving water. Or that streams of water would be spilling off the top of the glacier in little waterfalls. I’d never seen a glacier do that before; it seems to be a particularly Dry Valleys phenomenon, where the glaciers are basically grounded rather than actively moving out to sea. (I’ve posted a 13-second video to YouTube.) It was a cold and windy, but sunny day, with a brilliant blue sky.
If all goes well, the photos I took during my walk-around can be processed into a 3D file after I return home to recreate this special place as a sculptural form.