New Harbor

New Harbor iceberg
I made it to New Harbor!

Friday, Nov. 20th, I arrived at Sam Bowser’s camp at New Harbor (also known as Explorer’s Cove). The campsite is on the shore of the sea ice. They need access to the water because they scuba dive under the ice to collect mud from the bottom which they sieve in the lab to collect foraminifera, the one-celled creatures Sam studies. The Antarctic variety are particularly large and easier therefore to study, which is why he’s been coming here for years. He’s interested in their adhesive properties, because they secrete an adhesive that securely glues grains of sand together to form protective shells, and they do all that underwater (and the Antarctic variety do that in 28.5 degree F water to boot). How do they do it? The answer could have practical applications — imagine having an adhesive that would work while submerged that could be used during surgery, for example.

Diving in Antarctica
Paul helps Mike exit the dive hole. The divers can stay down about 20 minutes.

At the camp are Sam’s wife, Laura Van Rosk, an artist who while here assists in the sieving, sorting and organizing of the foraminifera samples, Amanda, also a lab assistant, and Henry, Mike and Paul, who take turns diving. We are all living in a structure that has been here for many years that has a kitchen and dining table in one section, cots set up for sleeping in the other, and a passageway in between, which is where the visitor’s cot is; that’s where I’ve been sleeping. The lab and the outhouse are each separate buildings. Everyone has been very welcoming and helpful.

There’s also a dive hut on the sea ice, although sometimes they dive from different holes. Amazingly, even though the dive hut isn’t that far from shore, the water is 80 feet deep beneath it. The sea ice closest to the shore is very rough, much more choppy and irregular than at McMurdo, because it’s multi-year sea ice as opposed to ice that freezes and melts every year. There’s a pressure ridge they call “the moat” where the multi-year ice meets and ice that thaws and melts, and is therefore flatter. Riding a snowmobile across the multi-year ice was a bumpy ride; walking on it takes extreme care as it is also quite slippery.

Crack in sea ice, Antarctica.
Multi-year sea ice cracks and heaves and is very bumpy and irregular.

On Saturday, Laura took me out on the sea ice on a snowmobile. We visited a couple of spots, including an enormous iceberg that is frozen into the sea ice. I walked all the way around it taking pictures from every angle for a potential capture (i.e. 3D scan). I’m not sure if my software will process the entire iceberg as a single object, but I should be able to at least get 3D files of portions of it. Certainly, if I’m ever going to do a 3D iceberg, that’s a good way to do it, walking on solid ground as opposed to being in a Zodiac boat. It took me about 40 minutes to walk around the whole thing, taking a shot every few feet. We also saw a young seal napping on the ice, and later another one popped his head out of one of the diver’s old dive holes. Got photos of all that. I’ve posted a selection from the day here.

Iceberg, Antarctica
Iceberg stuck in the sea ice. It was about a 30 minute snowmobile ride across the sea ice to get there, and then I spent about 40 minutes tramping around it shooting it from every angle. You can see this iceberg from the camp way in the distance.
Seal on Antarctica sea ice
The sea ice is a great place to chill — if you’re a Weddell seal. We found a young Weddell seal resting on the sea ice near Cape Bernacchi. Here’s a video clip Laura shot:

Weddell seal taking a breath
A different seal pops its head out of a dive hole at Cape Bernacchi used by Sam’s team a few weeks ago. It took a few breaths of air before submerging again.
Skua, Antarctica
Skua flying overhead. It’s just begun to be warm enough for the skuas to return to the area.

Ice formation

Melting sea ice creates unusual formations, like this shelf delicately held up by icicles.

Training Day 2: On the Sea Ice

Gretel the Haagland
We traveled on the sea ice in this tractor, called a Haagland. We sat up front, and the equipment rode in the back section. If you look closely at the front, you see it’s named Gretel. There is another Haagland named Hansel.
Drilling in Antarctic sea ice
Ben drills into a small area where we’ve cleared away the snow to measure the thickness of the sea ice.
Drilling Antarctic sea ice
The drill is pushed as far as it will go or until it hits water. If it doesn’t hit water but goes all the way in, we know that the ice is thick enough to support the heaviest vehicle.
Measuring sea ice thickness
Ben has lowered a tape measure into the hole he just drilled to measure the ice thickness. It was 240 cm thick.
Road to Turtle Rock
It’s hard to read distances in Antarctica. This picture of Turtle Rock (the small dark mound at the end of the road) was taken at about 1 p.m. …
Weddell seal at Turtle Rock
…and this picture was taken 27 minutes later. It was much farther away than it had seemed, even taking into consideration we were probably going about 15 mph. There are Weddell seals in the center and off to the left.

Before joining Sam Bowser’s camp beside the sea ice at New Harbor, which is the first field camp I plan to visit, in addition to the prior day’s trainings, sea ice training was required. That involves learning to recognize and measure cracks in the ice, so you know if it is safe to cross with a snowmobile or a heavier vehicle such as a Haagland, a tractor used to transport materials to field camps. My logistics coordinator arranged for me to get the training by assisting Ben, one of the mountaineers, who measures the thickness of the sea ice in the Ross Sea weekly until it breaks up sometime in January and floats away. He had also been tasked with going to Turtle Rock, an island that is iced in, because a seal study wanted to cross an area that has begun to crack nearby, and they wanted to know where it would be safe to drive a Haagland or a larger and heavier vehicle called a Challenger. So my training ended up not just being an academic exercise but actually assisting with gathering information needed by the science program. We were out for about 3 hours.

I took some pictures of Ben checking the thickness at one the sites he measures weekly, a feature known as Big John’s Crack (see above). First we shoveled the snow away from a small area. Then he attached a long bit to the drill (actually the one he was using in those photos is two bits hooked together), and drilled a hole. When water comes gushing up the hole, you know you’ve drilled through the ice. Then you lower a tape measure through the ice that has a collapsible brass bar at the end. You reel the bar up and it catches against the underside of the ice. Then you look at the measurement. All three places he monitored that day were very close in measurement — 237 cm or 240 cm each. That tells you the sea ice is very uniform in its thickness, which surprised me because the monitoring spots were so far apart there was a lot of driving between them.

The thickness of the ice below the cracks near Turtle Rock were not nearly as thick. Some were more than 140 cm, which is more than enough for the heavy vehicles, but a few were not, so we knew which areas the vehicles would have to avoid.

At Turtle Rock, I saw my first Weddell seals which was very exciting! They were lined up along a long crack that paralleled the shoreline, just lying still. Every once in a while, one would raise its head when we passed, but most of them just lay there. Seals are a good indicator of where the deepest cracks and therefore the thinnest ice is, because they chew holes through the ice to come in and out of the water, and they don’t want to work any harder than they have to. As we drove along in the Haagland and I looked at the seals I found myself amazed to be there.

Training Days Part 1

USAP risk management card
A wallet-sized laminated card to help answer the question, “Um, should I really do this?”

The past couple of days have been devoted to completing required trainings for going out into the field. As has been constantly stressed to us, Antarctic can be a harsh environment with rapidly changing weather conditions, so safety and proper preparation are primary concerns. The temperature on the base has been in the mid to upper teens. The sun has been shining every day (and every night — it’s a bit freaky to wake up in the middle of the night, notice a bit of light leaking in from around the edge of the window shade, check the time, and discover it’s 3:30 a.m.). Yesterday  was so windy that even though it was bright and sunny all day, they cancelled the incoming flight from Christchurch, and the stiff wind certainly made it seem colder than the other days. The ECW gear (as in “extreme cold weather”) they give you is very effective.

Yesterday’s first training was snowmobile driving. Learned how to perform the safety checks, free the runners if their iced to the snow, and then how to drive it. Drove it up and down a gentle incline a few times, practiced turning, and then practiced how to shift my weight to keep it upright when riding over an incline such as a mogul (lean uphill, and swing both legs over to that side if necessary, in case you were wondering). Took that baby up to 15 mph — the local speed limit. Feels a lot faster when you’re riding the Skidoo than it does in a car though. Brought a helmet back to my room to have available for the duration. Add that to my resume!

The afternoon was survival training for people going into the field, in case you’re dropped off somewhere and say, bad weather grounds your flight back so you have to use your survival kit. The survival kit is a duffel bag containing a bright yellow tent that’s easy to set up quickly, a camp stove, food, sleeping bags and other necessities. We practiced pitching the tent and lighting the camp stove in a large indoor area outside the classroom. The teacher is a mountaineer who works on the Search and Rescue Team here during the research season and at Yosemite the rest of the year. In between the hands-on portions were slide lectures, including some truly disgusting photos of frostbite that I could barely stand to look at (e.g. a large swollen foot the color of grape jelly), the point being to drive home the consequences of being unprepared to cope with the cold. Point taken: gotta take the ECW and the survival kit when you’re heading out, even if you ultimately don’t need all of it.

We were all given a little card (shown above) with a chart to help assess risks in advance — the idea being if it’s in the red zone, nooooo, what? are you crazy?! And if it’s in the yellow zone, that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t do it, but you do pause to think through ways to lower the risks. We broke into small groups to read a scenario apparently based on an actual incident, in which a group of six workers got themselves stranded a couple of hours drive out of town in bad weather and had to be rescued, after making a series of bad decisions. What was interesting to me is that part of what got them into the terrible situation was what the instructor called being too “mission-focused” — i.e. they really wanted to get the job finished having come all that way to do it, so they pushed their luck instead of resigning themselves to having to leave it undone for another day with better conditions. Though the consequences haven’t been anything like life or death, I must admit I can get caught up in the quest for completion at times when it would be better to stop for the moment. Note to self: watch for those times when your “mission-focused” streak stops being an asset.

On a lighter note, the air is so dry here that my hair has been completely straight, instead of the usually springy curls. There was a time in my teen years I yearned for straight hair and subjected myself to hot electric curlers to get it, but now that I have it without effort, I’m not exactly embracing the look. As I looked at my lank, flat hair in the mirror last night I suddenly realized that a lot of the people I’ve noticed walking around wearing hats constantly while indoors are neither cold nor making a fashion statement, but are doing their best to cope with a permanent bad hair day. This morning I hit it hard with conditioner, but I’m keeping the Indoor Hat Option, as I have named it (or IHO — everything here has an acronym), available if I start looking the way I did by the end of yesterday!

Arrival in Antarctica

Briefing room
Pre-flight briefing room at the Antarctic Center in Christchurch
Inside airplane
Waiting to take off in the military transport plane
Inside airplane
We sat along the sides with cargo containers in the center.
Helen Glazer outside plane
Setting foot in Antarctica for the first time!
Ivan the Terra Bus
Boarding Ivan the Terra Bus for the drive to McMurdo

Today (Monday, Nov. 16) was a long day. I got up at 4 a.m., checked out of my room at the Quality Inn in Christchurch, and rode a shuttle with two astronomers to check in for our flight to McMurdo at the Antarctic Center. After having our bags weighed (mine, with the extra gear they’d given us, came to 83 lbs. which is a good thing, since the limit is 85!) we assembled in a room for a pre-flight briefing with information about how the general rules of conduct regarding waste disposal, energy use, contact with wildlife, etc. Then we boarded a military transport plane that was large enough to fit a big metal storage container and lots of pallets of supplies. All the pipes and cables that are hidden in a commercial airplane were exposed. There were a number of US Air National Guard people on the flight; they fly some of the planes to ferry people around here. We were handed earplugs as we got on, and once the engines started I could see why. So there wasn’t any conversation. I managed to doze for the first couple of hours with the white noise.

The flight was about 5 hours. We’d been instructed to pack a “boomerang bag” in case the plane encountered bad weather and had to turn around and fly back to Christchurch. The bag was supposed to contain items we’d want if we had to spend the night in Christchurch. At some point, I looked at my watch and realized we’d been flying more than 3 hours, which meant we were going all the way, for which I was glad.

We touched down on an airfield called Pegasus on the sea ice. A videographer from New Zealand named Rachael, who’d been sitting next to me, took my picture and I took hers. Then we all boarded the bus known as “Ivan the Terra Bus” for an approximate 90 minute ride to McMurdo. It isn’t that McMurdo is that far away, but vehicles can’t ride more than 25 mph on the packed snow, and Ivan was loaded down so was even slower, especially when we started climbing hills. We dropped off the Kiwis (New Zealanders) at Scott Base and continued on to McMurdo.

I was greeted by Elaine, my logistics coordinator from Lockheed Martin, which does the logistics for the program. There was another briefing, then I went up to my dorm room, which is pretty much like a college dorm room, with two beds, beat up furniture, and a bathroom that we share with the room on the other side. My roommate turned out to be a young woman who is a volcanologist and post-doctoral fellow from the University of New Mexico, who arrived on the same flight as me. This is her second trip to Antarctica and she expects to leave for the volcano Mt. Erebus by the end of the week.

Tomorrow I start field training bright and early — a 7:30 briefing, snowmobile training all morning, and an indoor field safety class all afternoon. At 7 p.m. I’ll have another lecture to attend. Wednesday will be an easier day, with only an hour’s worth of trainings in the morning. Thursday I have sea ice training all day. After that, hopefully I can join Sam Bowser’s team at New Harbor out in the field.

It’s amazing to actually be here. Almost hard to process after all the anticipation and planning that I’m really here.

Arrival in New Zealand

Yesterday I arrived in New Zealand after a very long two days of travel: a 3 1/2 hour flight from Baltimore to Dallas, 7 hours at the Dallas airport, an 18-hour flight to Sydney, which was an hour longer than it was supposed to be because of headwinds. I was lucky that the middle seat in my row of three was empty. I did my best to sleep. After landing in Sydney, a 2 1/2 hour layover, and then got on the plane to Christchurch, New Zealand, from where the US Antarctic Program stages. That flight was on Emirates Air, which was the nicest economy flight I’ve been on in a long time — comfortable, roomy, lunch included, and they even brought us warm washcloths to freshen up before lunch!

This morning was a briefing, a laptop check to make sure our antivirus protection was up to date, and the main event, being given our polar clothing and trying it on to make sure it fit. There were a couple of young women scientists in the changing room with me who had been there before and so I got some good tips about gloves. One will be at McMurdo and then other is a volcanologist and will be going up onto the volcano.

Tomorrow we are scheduled to leave for Antarctica early in the morning. Check-in at the US Antarctic Center is at 5:30 a.m., so the shuttle is picking us up at 4:45 from the hotel. Normally I’d dread getting up that early, but I’m still not adjusted to the time zone and have been waking up around 3:30 a.m. anyway!

Here are some photos I took from the plane as we flew over New Zealand. The mountains are the Southern Alps on the west coast of the South Island. The flatter areas are the farmlands you see as you approach Christchurch, which is on the east coast.

New Zealand Southern Alps
Southern Alps on New Zealand’s west coast
Southern Alps on New Zealand's South Island
Southern Alps on New Zealand’s South Island
New Zealand river
Aerial view of New Zealand countryside
Farmland New Zealand
Farmland in New Zealand toward the east coast of the South Island.

Countdown to Antarctica


On November 12, 2015, I take off from BWI airport to begin my seven-week adventure as a participant in the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. This is a dream come true — after six applications over a 10-year period, followed by an extensive review process including a thorough medical evaluation, I’m about to be on my way! While there, I plan to photograph ice formations and geological formations for eventual production as hand-colored prints and 3D digitally-produced sculpture when I return. (See examples of past artworks on

I arrive in Christchurch, New Zealand, the staging site for the McMurdo Station of the U.S. Antarctic Program on the 14th, pick up my gear and polar clothing on the 15th, and take off for McMurdo via military transport plane on the 16th. After that comes a few days of safety training and then my first trip into the field to join Dr. Sam Bowser’s team at New Harbor. Later I’ll also be traveling to the Adelie penguin colony at Cape Royds as a guest of Dr. David Ainley’s team, and finally to the McMurdo Dry Valleys. In between I’ll be back and forth to my home base at McMurdo Station. Watch this space for updates and photos throughout November and December!