Cape Roberts: waves and wildlife

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Adélie penguin at Cape Roberts

Our work at Mawson Glacier was complete, but we still needed to be pulled out of the field.

The trip back to Scott Base was broken up with an overnight stay at Cape Roberts, which provided an enjoyable change of scene.

Cape Roberts is a tiny – less than 1 km long – ice-free peninsula, approximately 100 km south of Mawson Glacier and 125 km north of Scott Base and McMurdo Station. Discovered during a British Antarctic Expedition in 1907–1909, it is now occupied by a Skua colony, a small New Zealand managed hut and a range of scientific monitoring equipment. Cape Roberts was also the base for a large geological drilling project in the 1990’s that investigated the tectonic and climatic history of the region.

The hut, while very basic, was still very luxurious compared to our tent set-up. That evening we feasted on hut-made pizzas and apple crumble together with our helicopter pilot, Antarctic field trainer and two Scott Base staff who were temporarily staged at the hut.

But for us, the most exciting and novel aspect of Cape Roberts was its low-lying, coastal location.

Waves laden with fragments of recently broken up sea-ice lapped and crashed against the shore. In the direction of Ross Island, groups of penguins could be seen swimming in between icebergs.

A small group of Adélie penguins even hopped up onto the shore to say hello. So, after three visits to Antarctica, I can now satisfy many questions and say that I’ve seen a penguin!

The following day, we helped clean and shut up the hut for winter, and formed our camp gear and fuel into sling-loads – tightly packed bundles that are transported in a net that hangs below a helicopter.

We then flew back to Scott Base, skirting the coast and retreating sea-ice margin.

Since flying out to Mawson Glacier, much of the McMurdo Sound – a small section of the Ross Sea between Ross Island and the Antarctic mainland – was now open water. Below us, we could now see icebergs, whales (minke and orca) and a U.S. icebreaker, which was forging a channel into McMurdo Station for the arrival of the end-of-season cargo ship.

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U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker cutting channel through sea-ice.

A few days at Scott Base to ‘demobilise’ our gear and regain any lost weight, and then back to leafy New Zealand!

Here’s a video of our expedition highlights, produced by Shaun:

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Mawson Glacier: beautiful and balmy

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Looking over the tongue of Mawson Glacier.

Rocks: collected (300 kg). Weather: warm (-3 to +5 °C). Incidents: sprained ankle, thawing camp site, moisturiser mistaken for toothpaste, poor facial hair growth.

The aim of our expedition was simple – to collect rocks deposited by Mawson Glacier as it thinned in the recent geological past (since the last ice age). This would provide insight into the potential rates and magnitudes of ice loss in Antarctica and, ultimately, how such glaciers can respond to a changing climate.

For this we visited a series of nunataks – essentially, mountains surrounded by glacier ice. One of these, Mt Murray, was the location of our camp for the duration of the expedition.

Arriving by helicopter, we targeted a large snow patch to set up camp. Soon after the helicopter had departed us, we realised that the snow was only tens of centimetres (a few inches) deep, which, for the most part, capped solid ice. To make matters worse, melting snow and ice had formed slushy ponds in some places.

It didn’t take long for us to decide that we needed to camp elsewhere, and a nearby rocky area was the only candidate. Luckily we had foam pads and sheepskins – intended to insulate us from the cold ground – which provided some comfort against the rough floor of the tent.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect about this camp site was that we couldn’t build an igloo-like toilet, and instead had to perch our poo bucket behind an insufficiently-sized boulder.

Over the next several days, we explored this area by foot, collecting cobbles at various elevations above the glacier margin.

While glacier-deposited cobbles were not abundant, our largest limitation was how much rock we could haul the several kilometres back to camp. A 35 kg (nearly 80 lb) backpack was definitely our limit, as proved on Day 2. Travel across snow patches was made harder by melt ponds, streams and penitentes.

Further signs of relatively warm air temperatures could be seen during helicopter flights over Mawson Glacier to other nunataks.

Mawson Glacier (76°13′ S, 162°5′ E) flows out into the Ross Sea, where it forms the Nordenskjöld Ice Tongue – a floating shelf of ice that projects out from the coast. The ice tongue is one of the largest in the Ross Sea region, stretching over 35 km out from where the grounded glacier meets the sea, and about 8 km wide – that’s about 5 times larger than Manhattan in New York.

Unexpectedly, we saw large melt ponds on the surface of the ice tongue, reminiscent of the Greenland Ice Sheet margin. In 2002, a build up of melt ponds in the relatively warmer Antarctic Peninsula caused the weakening and collapse of the Larsen-B Ice Shelf, and the subsequent acceleration of glaciers into the sea.

While such melt ponds make for nice photos, it is worrying to see them this far south, where the air temperature reaches above freezing point for less than a few weeks of the year.

One positive of these mild summer temperatures was the ease of getting drinking water. Instead of spending hours melting snow on stoves, we were able to melt pots of snow in our tent porches during the day – it reached over 30 °C (86 °F) in my mountain tent one day! – or we could simply collect water from a nearby melt pond.

So, what did I take from this expedition?

Firstly, and most importantly, lots of rocks to process in the lab over the next few months.

Secondly, a lesson to be prepared for thawing conditions; parts of Antarctica are not always cold and frozen.

Thirdly, a swollen ankle; looking at your notes while walking over rocky terrain is not advised.

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Training and preparation for Antarctic field work

View out of window at Scott Base, after a storm has blown through.

View out of window at Scott Base, after a storm has blown through.

Soon after arriving at Scott Base, we had dinner and were briefed about the base.

The next few days involved long (12-14 hour) days of Antarctic Field Training (AFT), as well as science and camp preparation.

This started with an 8.30 am meeting about our field plan with a number of science programme staff. Frustratingly, our plan had to be revised because of our delayed southbound flight from Christchurch.

Next up was AFT. For this we had Mike, a mountaineer/Antarctic field trainer who had been assigned to our event. His role was not only to train us, but to check that we were competent enough to look after ourselves camping over 200 km from base – far enough to be classed as ‘Deep Field’.

As part of this we underwent forms of basic survival, stove, generator, communications (e.g. high-frequency (HF) radio), snow/ice travel and helicopter training.

That afternoon we were required to travel over 10 km from base to camp out overnight. This is one of my favourite parts of an Antarctic field campaign, as it is the first time we get acquainted with the Antarctic environment, our clothing, tents and (double) sleeping bag, and members of the team, all with a beautiful view of McMurdo Sound, Mt Erebus volcano and the Transantarctic Mountains.

Training camp on Ross Island. In the picture are two Polar Pyramid tents (one with a vestibule), a mountain tent, and a Hagglund for transport.

Training camp on Ross Island. In the picture are two Polar Pyramid tents (one with a vestibule), a mountain tent, and a Hagglund for transport.

The following day we packed up camp, and were assessed on our ability to safely navigate semi-steep rocky terrain and snow slopes, characteristic of what we would likely be traversing on foot in the field. The day ended with a camp demob and review of our training.

The next day – and last day prior to scheduled deployment into the field – was long, event-filled and slightly stressful. Aside from further meetings, we had to accumulate, evaluate, check, double-check (and even triple-check) all equipment required in the field . This included items like our tents, stoves, communication devices, poo buckets and pee barrels, science gear, personal gear, food, etc.

Then, this all needed to be weighed and assigned to certain helicopter loads.

Three separate loads to our camp location will be necessary, which would take over 9 hours.

This leads us to now, when we should be deploying to the field. Instead, we again need to wait for a storm to clear. At least we now get a chance to rest, fatten up and write blog posts!

Tomorrow the weather forecast looks much better, and our helicopter pilot – who was recently awarded International Pilot of the Year for his rescue attempts in Nepal – is confident we’ll fly. 

All going well, I’ll report back in a couple of weeks when we return from the field.

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Boomerang’d

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Hercules aircraft ready for departure, and the logo of our Christchurch hotel, which happens to look like a boomerang.

Two days later and I’m back in the hotel in Christchurch.

On day 1 we were scheduled to leave on the 4th flight of the day, but our departure got delayed several times until it was postponed to the following morning. Unsuitable weather and a faulty plane were to blame.

This morning we were confident we’d depart – weather at the runway in Antarctica was sunny and calm, and we were the only flight scheduled.

Our flight – on a US Air Force LC-130 (ski-equipped Hercules) cargo aircraft – left on time.

Unfortunately, when halfway to Antarctica, the loadmaster indicated that we were turning around. This had become a ‘boomerang’ flight – returning to where it had departed 8 hours earlier – and it is frustrating to say the least.

On our return, we were told it was due to fog over the runway site and, annoyingly, this had since cleared.

Tomorrow, we try again!

To get an idea of the no-frills flight that we get to repeat tomorrow, watch the video below (edited by Shaun in our hotel room).

Update: We successfully arrived at Scott Base, Antarctica, the following day. But it was far from uneventful. 10 minutes after boarding the plane, we were then asked to exit the aircraft. A faulty front ski on the Hercules was to blame. This was then fixed and we departed on our 8-hour flight south. Hoorah.

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Back to the Ice

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Although summer has only just begun (for those in the Southern Hemisphere, anyway), I’m now off to the cold desert climate of Antarctica on a new expedition. The purpose: to better understand how Antarctica’s glaciers respond to changes in climate.

Tomorrow we depart on an 8-hr flight south to “the great white”.

Today, we arrived in Christchurch (NZ), our gateway to Antarctica, and collected the clothing for our next month.

There’s a lot of it – enough to easily cover my hotel bed when piled several items high.

Items include: 3 jackets (windstopper, extreme cold, intermediate cold), salopettes (aka snow pants), fleece jacket and trousers, intermediate top, 4 pairs of long-johns (aka long thermal pants), 4 thermal under tops, 6 pairs of woollen socks, 2 neck gaiters, 4 hats, 2 woollen gloves, woollen mittens, 3 polyprop gloves, windproof gloves, leather gloves, extreme cold mitts, balaclava, 3 pairs of sunglasses, ski goggles, extreme cold weather boots, sturdy walking/mountaineering boots, and standard Sorel boots.

After 2 hours, I’ve finally managed to pack these clothes, and much more, into several bags. Weather permitting, I’ll be at Scott Base, Antarctica, this time tomorrow.

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Research shows reality of runaway ice loss in Antarctica

It has been nearly two years since my expedition to Mackay Glacier in the Transantarctic Mountains. Following a lot of lab work, data processing, numerical modelling and manuscript writing, the results have now been published!

To quote Victoria University of Wellington’s media release:

By studying rocks at different elevations beside the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS), the team concluded that a period of rapid glacier thinning occurred in the recent geological past, and persisted for several centuries.

Satellite observations show that parts of the Antarctic ice sheet are currently thinning in response to a warming ocean. Of particular concern is the potential for ‘marine ice sheet instability’, where an initial retreat of ice margins into deepening valleys could lead to continued, unstable ice loss.

The new research, led by Victoria Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Richard Jones, indicates that the processes leading to instability can be initiated by just minor climate warming.

“The finding is very important for predicting Antarctica’s future contribution to sea level change,” says Dr Jones. “Particularly when considering that the EAIS contains enough vulnerable ice to raise sea level by tens of metres.

“It might only require a small amount of climate variation to initiate runaway ice loss, and it could continue for centuries to millennia,” says Dr Jones.

While this process has been posited for many years, the study presents the first directly recorded evidence that it has taken place in the past, providing new insight into the future behaviour of rapidly changing parts of Antarctica today.

A major strength of the study was combining numerical modelling experiments that simulate glacier retreat with geological data processed in Victoria University’s world-class cosmogenic nuclide laboratory.

The laboratory studies rare isotopes produced through the interaction of cosmic radiation with minerals on the Earth’s surface, which allows for the calculation of the age of a rock surface.

“Most research has previously focused on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which makes these observations from East Antarctica all the more significant,” says Dr Jones.

Dr Jones’ research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

The field work and data collection conducted as part of this study were captured in a video and can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/80447422.

Stories on the new findings were written by the New Zealand Herald, and Radio New Zealand, featuring live and recorded interviews.

In less than one month, I’ll be heading down to Antarctica again. This time our team will be visiting a larger glacier, in order to better understand the response of such glaciers to a warming climate and these ‘marine ice sheet instability’ feedbacks during the last major deglaciation.

More blog updates to follow shortly. Watch this space.

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Climate Science – a new film and a new website

‘Climate science’, ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’, these are all phrases used by the media, by the public and by scientists. Many sources will be telling you that the climate is now changing rapidly with the potential to affect everyone on the planet within their lifetime. Whatever the source or whatever your opinion, it makes sense to assess what the science behind this information actually means. Are these sources of information reflecting the wealth of climate research by the tens of thousands of climate scientists?

On the other side, climate scientists get incredibly frustrated by false communication of their research as well as malicious demonisation of their specialism. At this point I should clarify, ‘climate scientists’ include a wide range of disciplines which seek to better understand the climate and Earth system; atmospheric chemists and physicists, geologists, oceanographers, glaciologists and ecologists are just some of these.

Scientists at Oxford University (UK) and here at Victoria University of Wellington (NZ) decided they needed to communicate the important messages from the research themselves. This took the form of a film, Thin Ice, which “creates an intimate portrait of the global community of researchers racing to understand our planet’s changing climate”. Thin Ice was released in April with screenings in every continent (including Antarctica), but it is still possible to purchase the film and several short informative clips can be found on the website.

While you may often see and hear news stories on ‘climate’ matters, it is often hard to learn more about the topic. To believe in what you’re told, you need to understand where it comes from. Firstly, where can you find such information? Secondly, what sources can you trust?

I, together with a couple of other postgraduate and early-career researchers, decided something needed to be done and responsibility lies largely with those within the research community. So we have created the missing information medium – Climatica. This website informally launches today! Please feel free to provide feedback as we continue to develop it to suit multiple needs.

We aim to explain the basis of the science, how data is collected and what all of the research is saying. Climatica will be an ongoing project, maintained by us in our free time, but with the majority of the content coming from guest scientists. These will be experts writing about the topics they love to spend their lives researching. In addition to topical articles, there are/will be video talks, blogs from the field, and opportunities for questions and discussion, meaning that there is hopefully something for everyone. It should also be said that this project would not be possible without the support of two reputable research bodies; Geological Society and Quaternary Research Association. Come peruse.

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