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.