Fieldwork preparations in Antarctica

As we are just a couple of days out from our planned departure for Erebus, we are finishing off training and testing out some of our equipment to make sure it will work in the field.

On Saturday, we went out for crevasse rescue training, along with another team. They will be working on a glacier, so the training is a useful precaution – in our case, although the upper slopes of Erebus are crevasse-free, our work comes with a small risk of breaking through the top of an ice cave. We may also need to use ropes to access some of the caves.

In the classroom, we went through some knots, principles of crevasse rescue, and self-rescue using prusiks, which are friction hitches tied around a rope. These can attach you securely to the rope when your weight is hanging on them, but slide freely when they are not loaded (usually when your weight is being held by a second prusik). We then headed out to the simulator – an artificial crevasse – a short way by hagglund from McMurdo. Unfortunately, photos are a little scarce as I was busy trying to learn things! We practised self-arrest (to stop ourselves from sliding, or being pulled, into a crevasse) using ice axes, creating anchors to which a rope can be attached and used to rescue a crevasse-fall victim, then put all the elements from our training together to pull either ‘Mr Orange’ or a heavy bag out of the crevasse.

Mr Orange was our unfortunate crevasse-fall victim

‘Mr Orange’ the mannequin, our unfortunate crevasse-fall victim

The first part, which was hard enough, was self-arresting with a bag about half my own weight falling down the crevasse attached to the rope behind me. It was then up to my supervisor to secure a second rope into the snow, set up a pulley system, and rescue the bag (which had, by then, hit the bottom). I am not yet confident that I could rescue anyone from a crevasse or ice cave (unless it were myself), so here’s hoping for a safe field season!

The other team undertook the rescue of Mr Orange - the person on the ground has self-arrested and is holding Mr Orange's weight while the other anchors the rope that will be used to rescue the mannequin.

The other team undertook the rescue of Mr Orange – the person on the ground has self-arrested and is holding Mr Orange’s weight while the other anchors the rope that will be used to rescue the mannequin.

It has been snowing a lot this weekend, so I put off going for a walk (until after I finish this post!) and spent another day in the office today.

USAP shuttles getting covered in snow this morning

USAP shuttles getting covered in snow this morning

Our preparation for fieldwork included putting together the system that we would use for gas sampling. This starts with a soil probe, which will go into a vent. Flexible tubing connects it to a series of copper tubes that will be used to collect gas so that we can measure its composition, and analyse helium and other noble gases. A tiny pump draws air through this system so that the air already inside will slowly be flushed out, and the gas from the vent will fill the tubes. On the other side of the pump, some glass vials will collect the outflowing gas for carbon isotope analysis. All of these samples will need to come back to UNM for analyses.

The sampling setup on a lab bench, with water at the intake end to help us estimate how long it takes to fill the system with new gas

It turns out gas geochemistry is really all about finding the right size of tubing to fit all the other tubing

We tried testing the system with the soil probe in a beaker of water. We wanted to find out how long it took for the air in the system to be flushed out, which in this case would be when it filled up with water. It’s much harder for the pump to draw up water than air, though, so while we found a few leaks to deal with, we didn’t manage to time the flushing. Instead, we found the volume of the sampling train by filling it with water. It’s about 120 mL so, at a pumping rate of 10 mL air/min, it would take (in theory) 12 minutes to flush the system. In practise, we think that flushing for a couple of hours should be enough to ensure that we are measuring gas from the vent and not the ambient air.

After dinner, I went back to pack things up…

Two of the three cases full of equipment that are coming up to Erebus with us

Two of the three cases full of equipment that are coming up to Erebus with us

…and finally, I can head out into the sunshine for a walk, before a busy day tomorrow – getting our cargo ready to fly, more snowmobile training, and packing up our personal gear.

View from lab window

Tantalising view from lab window

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McMurdo station, Antarctica: 2015-16 Erebus field season

The Volcanofiles have had a long break between fieldwork posts, and there are a few more days to come before I get into the field, so this season’s blog posts will start with today’s non-scientific update on our trip thus far, and some photos from Ross Island, where we are based.

It’s exciting to be back on Ross Island after four years. A few things are different this time around. Instead of working on gas emissions from Erebus lava lake, we are collecting gas samples in the ice caves. Last time, with G-081, (who will also be heading up in January this season) I was in a group of about twelve. Now, I’m part of a much smaller group (event number G-411) – just me, my supervisor, and a mountaineer to help us in the field. This means I’m much more involved in planning our fieldwork, and realising just how much effort goes into supporting Antarctic science.

Since arriving, we’ve had meetings and training to cover several topics, including communications, field safety, working at altitude, and our environmental responsibilities. I’ll go into more detail on the Antarctic Specially Protected Area, or ASPA, and environmental concerns around the ice caves, in a later post.

We completed our food pull today with the help of field centre staff here, so that we have supplies both for the acclimatisation camp at Fang glacier, and for Lower Erebus Hut, or LEH. We also went through the camping and caving equipment that we are borrowing for the trip. For those who didn’t follow our previous trips to Erebus, we spend a couple of nights at an intermediate altitude, in order to help us acclimatise to the lower oxygen availability. Fang is a tent camp, with no buildings, so people from here at McMurdo have to go and set it up every season before science events like ours start coming through. LEH has two huts – one where we cook and work, and a ‘garage hut’ with tools and storage. We can set up our own tents when we arrive.

Now we’re hoping for good weather on Monday, so that Fang camp can be put in. Apparently this was due to happen last week, but weather conditions have intervened. Once Fang is in, we can head up – in the meantime, the carpenters will be opening up Lower Erebus Hut. As you’ve probably gathered, there are a lot of people working hard to make the research down here happen.

Tomorrow, we are planning some crevasse rescue training to prepare for our work in the ice caves. This is weather dependent, of course – as I write this I can see the islands of the Ross Archipelago to the south appearing and disappearing due to what I think is snow! An update on our training will follow, but in the meantime, here are a few photos from our trip so far.

We travelled from Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the USA, where I started a postdoctoral research position in August, to Christchurch, New Zealand, where we were issued clothing and waited for our flight south.

Clothing issue in Christchurch: The parka is called a 'Big Red' and identifies us quite clearly as being with the US Antarctic Program. Although other boots are available, I asked for the blue boots as I've used them before (in fact, I haven't used them since arriving in McMurdo). My favourite item is the wind pants, which are both comfortable and excellent against the wind.

Clothing issue in Christchurch. Wind pants are my favourite items: both comfortable and excellent wind protection.

After an early morning start the next day, we got on a C-17 at Christchurch airport, and spent a few hours getting to Ross Island.

Sea ice from C-17 window

Sea ice viewed from from C-17 airplane window
(Christchurch – Ross Island flight 16 November 2015)

One difference from my previous seasons is that we landed out at Pegasus air field, an hour’s drive from McMurdo on ‘Ivan the Terrabus’, as opposed to the sea ice runway that we used in the past, which was much closer to McMurdo.

Disembarking the C-17 at Pegasus airfield. Those in red parkas are US Antarctic program participants; those in orange and black parkas are from Antarctica New Zealand, who share our flights

Disembarking the C-17 at Pegasus airfield. Those in red parkas are US Antarctic program participants; those in orange and black parkas are from Antarctica New Zealand, who share our flights.

Unfortunately, I was so disoriented on getting off the plane that I’m not actually sure which direction Erebus is in relative to anything else in these photos!

Ivan the Terrabus takes us back to McMurdo station (and drops the Kiwis off at Scott Base en route).

Ivan the Terrabus takes us back to McMurdo station (and drops the Kiwis off at Scott Base en route).

McMurdo is as built up as ever. We sleep in dorm buildings, work in the Crary lab where we have lab and office space, go to the ‘galley’ for meals, with visits to places like the Science Support Centre for training, or the Berg Field Centre for our field gear. We spend most of our time indoors – but if you remember to look up (provided the visibility is not too bad) it still looks like Antarctica.

Looking south from McMurdo towards the continent.

Looking south from McMurdo

When the weather is good, it’s easy enough to take a walk out of town. Last night I visited Scott Base, which was a chance to meet some fellow Kiwis.


Scott Base viewed from the road to McMurdo. The interesting ice formations behind the base are the pressure ridges formed at the boundary between the sea and shelf ice.

The main reason for the walk, though, was to get outside and find some nice views…

South from Scott Base - pressure ridges in the foreground, where sea ice and shelf ice meet; probably White Island in the background.

South from Scott Base – pressure ridges in the foreground; probably White Island in the background.

…including a first look at Erebus.

Erebus from Scott Base road

Erebus from Scott Base road

If you squint, you may be able to see the summit cone and a tiny plume coming out of it…but in any case, please keep an eye on the blog. We hope to be reporting from up there in a week or so.

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Hawaii’s Pahoa Lava Flow Heads for Transfer Station [VIDEO]

All eyes have been on the slow-moving but unstoppable force that is the Hawaiian lava flow heading straight into the town of Pahoa, HI. The Kilauea lava flow has actually been going on since 1983, but a recent diversion in the flow has sent it streaming toward Pahoa. The town has been evacuated for some months now, so no one is in any danger. But, there’s no way to stop a lava flow, and it might end up swallowing the whole town.

Here is how far the flow has come to date:

That bright red part of the flow near the transfer station? Yep, the lava is heading straight for it. Check out some recent video:

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Images of New Explosion at Ubinas Volcano, Peru

Today, the Geophysical Institute of the Peru (IGP) issued a press release including images of an eruption at Ubinas volcano that occurred at 9:11am local time. The eruption column reached a height of 1,500 meters, with ash dispersal to the south and southeast affecting the towns of Ubinas, Tonohaya, Escacha and Chojata. The eruption was preceded by a magnitude 4.6 earthquake recorded in the city of Arequipa and felt throughout southern Peru.


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Fun with a fresh bomb at Erebus volcano

This past field season (winter 2013), Erebus volcano was churning out more volcanic bombs than usual. The very lucky field team even got to play with some freshly erupted ones and watch the still molten insides flowing! These bombs can be anywhere from the size you see in the video below to the size of a garage. They are phonolite in composition and come straight from Erebus’s phonolitic lava lake that sits in the summit crater. Generally, the farthest the bombs fly is about 1 km from the crater.

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Live Lava Lake Imagery from Erebus Volcano

Now that the team is settled in at the Lower Erebus Hut, the live webcams are streaming again. Below are two views, one visible image of the volcano’s summit as viewed from the hut and one infrared image of the lava lake itself from a camera perched up at the rim. These feeds are also available at the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory website.

Refresh this page for new images.

Erebus volcano as viewed from Lower Erebus Hut:

Erebus lava lake in the infrared:

Stare at these long enough and you might just see an eruption!

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Icy Weather and Our Longest Dataset Yet from Erebus Volcano

The southernmost active volcano in the world tends to get a bit icy over the winter. Volcanology team G-081 arrived at the observatory hut on the side of Erebus volcano one week ago, and they found that what would become their home for the next several weeks had been totally covered in ice over the Antarctic winter!

Icicles had taken over the hut while it was unoccupied over the long, dark Antarctic winter

Just getting up to the hut proved a challenge this season. Nial sent us this update when he had secured internet access:

Well we finally made it up on to Erebus after having our helicopter flight cancelled a couple of times. We flew straight in to the Lower Erebus Hut (which is our main camp on the volcano), pulled all the snowmobiles out of the garage and drove them down to Fang (which is our acclimatisation camp). Starting snowmobiles in a confined space at high altitude is not a very good idea it turns out, and we all ended up with bad headaches. Still, after two days of lying around at Fang camp (the weather was rubbish so we basically just stayed in bed for two days) everyone had acclimatised pretty well and we drove back up to the hut again. The snow conditions are awful for driving this year with huge sastrugi (hard packed snow drifts) everywhere.

The team had a brief weather window after they arrived at the hut, which was just enough to set up tents and clear all the accumulated snow out of the hut, and then the wind picked up to 40 knots and the temperature dropped to -30 and below. The weather has been pretty bad ever since, with low temperatures and very high winds.

Home sweet home for the next several weeks

What about the camera?
If you’ve been following recent posts, you may be as anxious as we were to hear about the fate of Nial’s thermal camera, which was perched atop the Erebus crater all winter long with the hopes that we would have the first ever over-winter data set from Erebus. Nial gave us the scoop.

We had a few hours of good weather the other day, so Clive and I went up to the crater rim to assess the damage. The camera was not running….which was not too much of a surprise since the power had never come back on. All the batteries at the power generation site had exploded over the winter, not quite sure why yet but hopefully we can fix the problem before we leave. Anyway, even if the power had come back on the camera would not have. It looks like there were some crazy winds at the summit this year – the tripod mount for the camera (which is a 5mm stainless steel bar) had been bent out of shape, allowing the camera to be rotated around by the wind. This broke the power cable to it and meant that it wasn’t pointing at the lake anyway! It wasn’t all bad news though, the camera had worked perfectly up until the power went off (in late April) so we have over 3 million lovely images of the lake (which is more than all the other field seasons put together), and when I restored power to it it started up fine. The lava lake looks much the same as ever, a bit bigger than last year perhaps. There are a few fresh bombs around the summit, but we haven’t witnessed any big explosions yet.

Nial’s infrared camera at the rim, not really pointed toward the lava lake…

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Update from the Ice: Preparing for Erebus

Nial and the rest of the G-081 team are “on the ice” at McMurdo base, Antarctica patiently awaiting a helicopter flight up to the camp on Erebus volcano. Bad weather and an early Thanksgiving celebration on the base have kept the helicopters grounded and the crew stuck in town. Another attempt is scheduled for this evening. in the meantime, Nial sent over some pictures taken close to the nearby New Zealand Scott Base.

“Last night we drove over to Scott base (which is the New Zealand base just over the hill from McMurdo) and took a hike out in the pressure ridges. These are the “wrinkles” in the sea ice formed where the sea ice meets the Ross ice shelf. So it’s a combination of big ice towers, and depressions flooded with sea water. The weather had finally started to clear and it was really beautiful (a few photos attached – they don’t really do it justice though). There were lots of seals out on the ice too which were fun to watch…..well actually they don’t really do much, just lie in the sun. I think I would make a good seal.”

That's Erebus volcano in the background, rising 3,974 meters above the sea ice.
That’s Erebus volcano in the background, rising 3,974 meters above the sea ice.

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Erebus Field Season is Officially a GO: The Team is Off to the Ice

It was touch and go for the Erebus crew this year. Canceled, uncanceled, canceled again, and now, finally, the field season is a go for team G-081 heading to Erebus volcano, Antarctica. Access to Erebus is through the largest base in Antarctica, McMurdo, which is run by the Americans. Our Cambridge crew get to the volcano via a collaboration with New Mexico Tech located in Soccorro, NM, USA. They’re funded by the National Science Foundation. The US government shut down meant that this year’s field season almost didn’t happen. At one point, the NSF even issued a press release claiming the Erebus work had been shelved. Finally, after much confusion, our team got word that they were clear to head for the ice and up to the camp on Erebus.


Did Our Camera Survive the Harsh Antarctic Winter?
Volcanofile Nial Peters has been on pins and needles all southern hemisphere winter — he left an infrared camera perched atop the rim of Erebus, pointing at the lava lake that sits in the Erebus crater. Details of the specially designed camera system are in a paper now open for discussion in the journal Geoscientific Instrumentation, Methods and Data Systems. The crew left the camera with the hopes that it would survive through the entire winter season. If so, we’d have the longest data set from Erebus ever. The camera’s power system was registered as working for some months after last year’s field season was over, until one day it stopped. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the camera stopped running.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” says Nial. “We know the power lasted for as long as it normally does. The power stopped when the sun went down”. Solar power is a main source of energy for the systems at Erebus, which is fine during the 24-hour-a-day sun in the summer months. In the winter, power systems rely on wind turbines. The timing of the shut down, Nial explains, indicates that the wind turbines may be damaged. We haven’t seen the power return since it switched off, but that could indicate a number of things. It could be that the power came back on but that the telemetry, which tells us if we have power, never returned. If that’s the case, the camera could still be running, but we won’t know until we go and have a look ourselves. There is also a seismometer attached to the telemetry system. If that’s damaged, it could simply be a case of the seismometer not registering any voltage even if the system is running fine. Again, we won’t know what happened until someone goes up to have a look.

Nial Peters with his thermal camera system at the summit of Erebus.

Nial Peters with his thermal camera system at the summit of Erebus.

Erebus Activity Revving Up?
While we were all worrying about whether the Erebus season would be canceled this year, Erebus decided to put on a nice show for us via the our seismic stations. It looks as though the volcano may have entered a highly active phase, and it may even be throwing out volcanic bombs generated by explosive volcanic eruptions from the lake. Seismic data streaming in from Erebus kept us all on our toes. But, again, we won’t know exactly what’s been going on until the team get there and have a look for themselves.

Another explosive day at Erebus. The small earthquakes are the result of explosive eruptions. The eruption near the bottom of the chart is one of the largest seen in October. The large teleseism is the magnitude 7.3 quake off the coast of Honshu, Japan.

Another explosive day at Erebus. The small earthquakes are the result of explosive eruptions. The eruption near the bottom of the chart is one of the largest seen in October. The large teleseism is the magnitude 7.3 quake off the coast of Honshu, Japan.

An exciting season lined up…
In addition to all the exciting science that happens on Erebus each year, this year promises to be an exciting one. With the activity gearing up and the possibility of our first winter data set from the volcano, there’s a lot to look forward to! Watch this space for updates from the field!

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Epic Journey to Paektu volcano, North Korea: Or, How to Service a Seismometer in -12 °C

Just two months ago this August, Volcanofile Kayla ventured along with volcanologist (and Volcanofile PhD supervisor) Dr. Clive Oppenheimer and seismologist Dr. James Hammond to a remote volcano that straddles the North Korea-China political border.

Peering into the caldera of Mt. Paektu this August (photo credit: Kayla Iacovino/The Volcanofiles)

The gigantic 7 km-wide caldera that hosts a deep Lake Chon was created about a century ago in one of the largest volcanic eruptions to occur on Earth in the last 2,000 years. A few years ago, the volcano started acting up after decades of quiescence. It awoke with a seismic crisis that lasted from 2002-2005. The new rumblings caused anxiety in the region, since little was known about the slumbering giant Paektu.

So, the Mount Paektu Geoscientific Experiment, a UK-US-DPRK collaboration, was born, and after two years of bureaucracy, the international team made it to the DPRK along with a set of seismometers and empty sample bags. The trip was a great success, thanks to extensive support from North Korean scientists and officials. Not too long after the team’s return, however, it was discovered that some of the seismometers were acting up.

“We only have these seismometers for a year,” says Kayla Iacovino, Volcanofile and PhD student working at Paektu, “so, it’s imperative that we get as much data as possible from all of the stations.” Just this month, seismologist James Hammond set off on an epic adventure to service those stations. Why so epic? Paektu, while temperate and quite agreeable in August, is known for some of the most extreme weather on Earth. What was a picturesque, lush area in summer quickly became a white, frozen mountain peak only passable with the right gear.

James Hammond’s view of the Paektu crater covered in fresh October snow (photo credit: James Hammond)

“I am back in Pyongyang after a trip that can only be described as epic,” Hammond wrote in an email to his UK-based team. “It was very challenging both physically and mentally, but the good news is that all our stations are now working.”

(photo credit: James Hammond)

The project was made possible with help from AAAS, the Royal Society in London, the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP), and Pyongyang International Information of New Technology and Economy Center (PIINTEC), a DPRK non-governmental and non-profit organization that organizes international exchanges and cooperation.

Follow the team on twitter:
James Hammond @joshammond
Kayla Iacovino @kaylai
Clive Oppenheimer @ultraplinian
The Volcanofiles @TheVolcanofiles

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