Field season 2012/13: Mackay Glacier, Antarctica.

I’d just like to start with some words of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, recovered from his body 100 years ago. These final words are interesting and sobering reading. Yes, Antarctica is a place that can cause pain and push the survival of man, but to experience and explore this continent is thoroughly rewarding. What lots and lots I could tell you of this journey. How much better it has been than lounging in comfort at home.” – the words of a man appreciating the Antarctic journey that he knew was about to kill him. A sombre start to the blog post, but Capt. Scott also writes to his widow saying “make the boy interested in natural history if you can, it is better than games”. Hard to disagree, and this brings me to talk about my upcoming Antarctic adventures.

On the 4th January I will be travelling down to Antarctica again for 1 month of fieldwork. This time I will be exploring Mackay Glacier, the other side of the Dry Valleys from where I was last year, and a little over 100 km from Scott Base/McMurdo Station, Ross Island.

This expedition will form the main part of my PhD research, investigating how much and how quickly Mackay Glacier has melted and thinned since the last ice age. The outcomes will hopefully improve our understanding of these types of glaciers, which deliver the huge volume of Antarctic ice to the sea. Think of Antarctica’s glaciers as conveyor belts of frozen water, controlling the amount of water in the sea. We have some understanding of how a warming atmosphere, warming oceans and rising sea level affects the speed of this conveyor belt, but we still need to know more about the processes involved and how quickly this conveyor belt has responded in the past and how it will respond in the future. Sea level is rising around the world and it is likely to rise more quickly, but will some of these glacier conveyor belts speed up to dangerous levels causing parts of the vast ice sheets to collapse? Could this happen in our life time?

So back to the business. My PhD research rests on the success of this field season, which definitely stops me from thinking this will just be a novel holiday. Weather aside, success will come down to my planning of field sites, arrangement of a team and organisation of equipment and field camps.

Check list:

  • Team – Chris Fogwill (who has many years of Antarctica experience with the British Antarctic Survey, with private expeditions and now involved with the Australians) and Kevin Norton (one of my PhD supervisors and a cosmogenic nuclide dating expert – the technique responsible for working out how quickly the ice has thinned and left behind rocks). CHECK.
  • Fitness and Antarctica Medical – one would always like to be fitter, but filling my weeks over the last few months with cycling, swimming, rowing and numerous team sports has got me to a satisfactory level, and I’ve gained about 8 kg in the process. Thorough medical assessment is complete and I even got an “excellent” from the doctor. CHECK.
  • Clothing and field equipment – I have several pairs of merino wool base-layer thermals, hats, gloves, balaclava, neck gaiter, thick woollen socks, sturdy boots and new swish prescription snow/sun-glasses (which are hopefully in the post). Also to collect are the standard issue Antarctica New Zealand salopettes, fleece tops and bottoms, 3 types of jacket, 2 types of boots, plus more gloves, hats and goggles. Included as part of our sampling equipment we have hammers, chisels, a circular saw and a rock drill, to feel manly with rock, plus a fancy GPS so we know where we are amongst all the ice and rock. CHECK.
  • Camp logistics – Transport to Mackay Glacier, 3 camp moves and a day drop-off by helicopter has been organised. The times of these are annoyingly heavily weather dependent though. We shall have a camp set-up of 2 Polar tents, essentially a modern version of what Captain Scott’s team used, as well as a lightweight mountain tent which we will use for storage, and that’s it. There’ll be no communal tent to cook and relax in with space to stand, or a toilet tent. Cooking will be restricted to small bedside gas stoves and we’ll have to use a boulder to protect our toilet bucket activities from the wind. All other sleeping, cooking, climbing and communication equipment as well as food rations should be ready and waiting for us at Scott Base. CHECK.

Next, Christchurch (43 degrees south), then Scott Base (77 degrees south).

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