Tag Archives: McMurdo

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

Catch-up (1): pre-Erebus

Apologies for the lack of recent updates! This post will cover what we got up to during our last week at McMurdo.

Hut Point and Discovery Hut

Although Erebus is the only active volcano on Ross Island, three other volcanic centres are also located here, including Hut Point peninsula. For now, here‘s a map of Ross Island that you can zoom into to find the peninsula, McMurdo Station, and a few other key locations. One of the walks near McMurdo is along the Hut Point Ridge. I chose the clockwise direction, which passes the historic hut built at the start of Scott’s 1901-04 Discovery expedition:

Discovery Hut, Hut Point

Discovery Hut, Hut Point

There were a few seals sunning themselves on the sea ice near Vince’s Cross, which was originally erected in 1902 as a memorial to a drowned crew member on the Discovery.

Weddell seals at Hut Point

Weddell seals at Hut Point

Vince's Cross, Hut Point

Vince's Cross, Hut Point

The walk follows the ridge of the peninsula for a short way, with views of McMurdo and beyond, including Observation Hill:

Observation Hill and McMurdo viewed from Hut Point ridge

Observation Hill and McMurdo viewed from Hut Point ridge

The walk goes as far as a place called Arrival Heights, where I could finally get a good view of Erebus – although the summit was still obscured – before following the road back to McMurdo.

Erebus viewed from Arrival Heights


Barne Glacier/Cape Royds trip (aka penguins and historic huts)

The highlight of the weekend was a sampling trip on Sunday 28 November. One of the G-081 team members planned to sample some volcanic ash from the Barne Glacier, which would mean a trip by snowmobile across the sea ice.

It was a nice morning, which meant plenty of chances to enjoy the views:

Weddell seal in front of Mt Erebus

while we stopped to check that any cracks in the sea ice would be safe to cross:

Drilling through a crack in the sea ice

Drilling through a crack in the sea ice

Sea ice is an upper layer of frozen seawater that still undergoes tidal changes. Some cracks represent weak areas, so we needed to drill through them to make sure that the ice was thick enough, and remained thick enough, over a distance that was safe for snowmobiles.

Snowmobile train

We found a safe route and made it out to the Barne Glacier, which comes off the western side of Mt Erebus.

Barne Glacier

Barne Glacier

We continued on to Cape Royds, where there is a colony of Adelie penguins. These are the most common type of penguin in this part of the world.

Penguin footprints, Cape Royds

We can observe the penguins from a distance – the scientists studying them get a bit closer.

Adelie penguin rookery, Cape Royds

Although we saw some Emperor penguins in the distance, they stayed near the open sea.

Open sea to the west of Cape Royds

The next stop was Shackleton’s Hut, a short walk away. This hut was erected in 1908 during Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, and was the base for the first ascent of Erebus just a few weeks later. We also stopped at Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans on the way back to McMurdo. This hut was built in 1911, and it was from here that Scott’s Polar party set out – just over 100 years ago.

Sleeping arrangements at Scott's Hut, Cape Evans

We looked around the hut for a while.

Kitchen at Scott's Hut, Cape Evans

Kitchen at Scott's Hut, Cape Evans

It was an opportunity to reflect on the history of Antarctic exploration and science – to appreciate both the privilege of being here and the comparative luxury in which we work.

Then it was time to head home – the wind had picked up and visibility had dropped, so we were grateful to return to the warmth and comfort of the station!

Leaving Cape Evans

More catch-up and an update schedule will follow. We’ve had a busy few days, with acclimatisation to altitude at Fang camp; moving up to the hut where we’ll be based for the next month; setting up tents and snow walls; testing equipment; and, for a few intrepid team members, trips to the caves and crater rim despite the bad weather.

Bad weather & fieldwork preparations

The reduced visibility and blowing snow continue, but today we managed to do most of our food pull – collecting all the food we are taking to Erebus, some of which we will take to Fang camp (where we spend a couple of days getting used to the altitude), and what will go up to Lower Erebus Hut (where we spend most of the field season).

One of the training sessions we had today was run by a couple of the G-081 team members, Aaron and Meghan. Aaron’s work is in the ice caves on Erebus, so they showed us some techniques for rappelling into and ascending out of the caves.

Aaron shows G-081 how to ascend a rope

After dinner, I decided to head over to Scott Base for American Night – because the NZ base is so much smaller (about 80 people at the moment, compared with about 1100 at McMurdo), there’s just one night a week where anyone from McMurdo is free to visit without an invitation. Since the conditions weren’t suited to the walk – which takes about 30 minutes – I took the shuttle. While waiting outside for the return trip, we got an amazing view out across the sea ice, including the transition from the shelf ice (which is connected to and fed by ice overlying the land) to the sea ice (which is a thinner layer of frozen seawater).

View across the sea ice transition from Scott Base

View to the west (ish) from Scott Base

Here’s hoping for more good views tonight as I head back to my dorm.

Fieldwork preparations

Over the next week or so, we at McMurdo go through training for fieldwork and get our equipment together. The four G-081 members who are new to Antarctica are away overnight on ‘Happy Camper’, learning survival skills in the field – among other things, they’ll be digging snow trenches, and finding out what white-out conditions (when there is no visibility) are like, through an advanced simulation. Since they’re sleeping out in their snow trenches or tents tonight, here are some photos from last year:

One of the Volcanofiles at Happy Camper in 2010

Fortunately, that roof isn't as precarious as it looks, so a night in the snow trench was immensely satisfying, if nerve-wracking.

Advanced snowstorm simulation

In the meantime, the rest of us have been at refresher courses and are putting together our equipment. There’s a lot to get done before the first half of G-081 leave on Monday!

Nial's research centres on thermal camera images of Erebus lava lake. He'll be telling us more about his work in the next few weeks.

It’s a warm -3C at McMurdo today, and the weather has been starting to clear – hopefully we’ll have photos of Erebus soon.

– Your Erebus correspondent

Antarctica or Bust!

Our Antarctic Volcanofiles, Nial and Tehnuka, have arrived safely at McMurdo base, Antarctica, the largest Antarctic base, via a C-17 flight from Christchurch, New Zealand.

The plane ride takes about 5 hours, but the adrenaline makes the whole thing go by all too fast. Boarding a huge military aircraft like the C-17 is a thrill, and seeing the continent out the window for the first time — unforgettable.

Cargo crate inside the C-17. Our sentiments exactly!

The view out the C-17 window. We're really in Antarctica!

Another look out the window. Nearly there!

Now that they’re there, new members of the team will go through basic survival and Antarctic skills training while the experienced members will take some refresher courses. Safety is a big deal in Antarctica, especially when you’re deployed to a remote field area like Erebus. Although Erebus is only about 37 km (23 mi) away from McMurdo, the only way to get there is via helicopter. And helicopters will only fly when the weather is right. So team members need to be trained to make sure that nothing goes wrong — and know what to do if something does.

C-17 on the ice runway at McMurdo

The weather in McMurdo is warm but snowing, and visibility is low. On a good day, you could see Erebus clear as day from the ice runway where the C-17 lands. But, today, it was too cloudy to see her. We’ll post some good pics when visibility clears up and we can get a good look at Erebus in all her glory. Here’s the view from today:

Normally you can see Erebus from the ice runway. Today it was too snowy!