Camp gossip

Having recently returned from the field, I thought I’d share some goings on from camping in Antarctica.

Each of our camps were set-up the same. We had our main Polar Pyramid tent (for communal morning and evening cooking and warmth), 3 small mountain tents (each with an ensuite pee bottle and a sanitiser wipes ‘shower’), a fuel cache and a toilet. Our first camp’s toilet was our proudest, built out of snow blocks to shelter from wind and complete with a blue ice floor as it was built on a frozen lake.

Antarctic camps

Couple of our camps on the flanks of Mackay Glacier

Each day would start with a reluctant unzipping of the sleeping bag and then a rather hasty wriggle into our salopettes, tops, jackets and then boots, hats and gloves. We’d firstly have our daily sked with Scott Base over HF (high frequency) radio, reporting our safety and getting a weather forecast. Meanwhile we also melted snow and boiled water for the day. For breakfast we cooked up some bacon and hashbrowns, or alternatively had muesli or toast. We also got a small hit from an orange flavoured vitamin C tablet in the mornings, before the cups of tea and coffee kicked in. After all of this we usually then headed off around the snowy mountains. Days were fairly long with 5 minutes to half an hour break for lunch, depending on the weather and morning’s progress. Lunch consisted off crackers and cheese, warm soup, a muesli bar, some dried fruit and some squares of chocolate. Constant daylight meant the working day often dragged on. Once we had returned to camp we got the stove fired up and stuffed our faces with pretzels, nuts, chewy bars or other snacks while we cooked. The evening meal usually involved frozen meat (thawed in the roof of the tent or sleeping bag if required), frozen veg and a form of carbohydrate mixed with some flavouring. We were even supplied with an Antarctica New Zealand cookbook, which annoyingly included recipes with ingredients they didn’t provide us with. The highlight of our endeavours however, was probably leg of lamb braised in sweet chilli sauce, on a bed of garlic, chilli and parsley cous cous, with some mixed vegetables, and then a steamed Christmas pudding (pre-made) to follow. It’s amazing what can be done with a camp stove. But some nights an easy option was simply adding water to a bag of dehydrated food. At 7.30 pm Scott Base sent out a weather forecast, base news and real-world news consisting of bizarre stories with little significance from New Zealand and beyond. The evening then progressed to gin & tonics, whisky and/or Kahlua, and inevitable ‘deep and meaningful’ conversations.

One tends to get less fussy about cleanliness, of food and personal hygiene  Breakfast often included remnants of the previous night’s meal (for example, odd flakes of tuna in a bowl of museli). Kevin was conforming well to this way of life, happily glugging down a piece of mince floating in his gin. It’s best not to think of what you don’t have, yet we often talked about favourite fieldwork food, like venison in an Alpine bistro or fresh crayfish while cruising down the Amazon. Kevin also constantly reminded us of showers. An itchy head and unavoidable Antarctic dandruff takes a few days to get used to, but after a couple of weeks Kevin’s hair (usually worthy of Loreal “..because I’m worth it” adverts) turned to a matted mess.

Dinner (possibly some form of curry) and our kitchen set-up with drinks cabinet underneath.

Dinner (possibly some form of curry) and our kitchen set-up with drinks cabinet underneath.

When coming to Antarctica one expects very cold dry air and strong winds off the polar plateau, but on this trip we discovered other weather to be afraid of. Zero wind meant that bad conditions lingered and snow from moist sea air made tents and clothing damp which then froze and was frankly miserable and cold. This is something you can’t escape even in tents, but whacking the stove on helps and Chris’ never tiresome comment “It’s like Antarctica in here” was a gentle reminder to turn the stove on or up a level. Despite this, Antarctic sun can be even more intense than what I got used to in New Zealand with a temperature of nearly 20 degrees C in direct sun with zero wind, but then this can turn to -15 degrees within seconds simply with a cloud drifting passed the sun and a pulse of katabatic wind. Having said this, some days it felt like a balmy winter’s day in Scotland – very pleasant.

Morale can be greatly affected by the weather, and although the mad appearance of me walking around in circles most mornings looking at the ground may seem like the end, it was merely to warm my feet up while contemplating the day’s plan. An added advantage of having to bring a generator, to charge communication radios and rock saw batteries, was the opportunity to have occasional film nights. This involved bringing our sleeping mats into the communal Pyramid tent and perching a laptop on a food box in the corner. It was almost possible to escape the cold reality. After our first film night we popped our heads out of the tent to experience midnight sun, surreally the sunniest it’d been since arriving.

There were other added bonuses on this trip. Chris brought his satellite phone (with call minutes paid for by Google – thanks), to use in an emergency but also for important business or the odd special reason. I took advantage of this luxury to wish someone a happy 21st birthday, and despite the sound of (joyous, I think) screaming being muffled by white noise it was a novel and odd experience to be in contact with people from the inhabited world. Meanwhile, Chris got word that he’ll be organising a massive research trip that will take a ship around the Antarctic coast and then use hovercrafts to traverse onto the ice shelves and ice sheet – I want a ticket!

Aside from using a helicopter for some fun and productive daytrips and camp moves, we also required it for a pre-planned resupply of numerous things including food and fuel. Little did we know that the Prime Minister of New Zealand had come down to the base for a visit, and he duly took over our helo time. This delayed our resupply by a few days, to our great annoyance.

Towards the end we were all feeling fatigued and repetitive comments like “Scott Base bar” and “Can we go home yet?” made it obvious that some were looking forward to rejoining civilisation, and that I might have a mutiny on my hands. Before this could happen we had to experience an Antarctica storm, didn’t we? It built up over an afternoon and raged all night and into the following day, rattling my little flimsy tent. But the tent survived, although it half-filled with snow through every orifice, and I was required to dig a way out. Our departure from the field was delayed as the New Zealand helicopter was required to assist with search and rescue attempts of a Twin Otter plane which sadly ditched in the mountains south of us in horrific conditions. The weather changed at our camp and we tried to make the best of our situation, lying in until 11 am, waking up with a view of icebergs and Mt Erebus over the water. The day progressed in a similar fashion, meeting for a brunch of tea, coffee (none of that instant stuff), bacon and hashbrowns, more coffee and pancakes. A couple of days later we ran out of tea, possibly the first ever Antarctic expedition to do so. The lesson being to never let an American pack your food box, said in the words of Kevin (the American). Word of our eventual return to Scott Base was accompanied by news that the Twin Otter crash had no survivors, a reminder that this continent can be harsh to those most prepared. We had a successful, safe trip, with most of our body and mind still intact.

Toilet in the midnight sun

Toilet in the midnight sun

I’m now looking forward to returning to New Zealand and Wellington, having a leisurely brunch of eggs benedict in the sun and then an afternoon down at the beach, perhaps hugging some trees and smelling some flowers in between. Unfortunately the continuous wearing of thermals has exfoliated all the tan I built up over the first half of summer. I will however have a sun-kissed patch across my nose and cheeks to take home.

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“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.”

I’ve landed in Antarctica, albeit 2 days late, and it’s a very pleasant -3 degrees C (with wind chill)! It might be Summer but this is warm. The sea ice runway which I landed on last year in the C17 is now almost open water, and the back-up runway on the Ross Ice Shelf is melting to slush. So instead of the usual snowy conditions of a white-out causing problems for landing, the issue lies more with aircraft attempting to take off. We flew by Hercules fitted with skis and it was quite an experience, despite it taking a noisy 8 hours with minimal leg room and then an hour ‘road’ trip to Scott Base.

Hercules flight south. Inside the plane and shortly after landing.

Hercules flight south. Inside the plane and shortly after landing.

Last year I talked about life at Scott Base as an inexperienced foreigner. This time I am still a foreigner but I’m familiar with the set-up of Scott Base and operating with Antarctica New Zealand, which is more than the other two of my team. So my intention was to give a tour and then head to the bar for a Scott Base Pinot Noir. Annoyingly red wine stocks didn’t survive Christmas but at least there was still cheap ($3) Moa beer (Antarctica Edition) to moisten our lips in the dry air.

The following day was busy. We started with two briefings before being taken through some survival skills. To break down the days, Scott Base has a 10 am coffee break (often with sausage rolls and a sweet pastry) and 3 pm afternoon tea (with some other tasty snacks). We were to miss afternoon and evening feasting as our field training developed into an over-night camp on Ross Island. This gave us the opportunity to test out some equipment, including a polar pyramid tent and some lighter-weight mountain tents. A series of locations and accommodations meant that this was my 5th bed in 6 nights, but the eventful day meant I slept well.

Our training field camp near Castle Rock on Ross Island, and a bit of nearby rock-climbing.

Our training field camp near Castle Rock on Ross Island, and a bit of nearby rock-climbing.

On return the following morning, we had to clean, dry and mend the tents, and clean and sort out all other camp items. Once we had been given the thumbs up for not killing ourselves or others in the field we could move on to the final field preparations for Mackay Glacier. This required hoarding first aid kits, gas stoves, kitchen boxes (with standard bowels, mugs, pans, cutlery, etc.), food boxes (for tinned and dry food, and for frozen meats, cheese, etc.), climbing equipment, sleeping gear (including an inner down-feather bag, an outer synthetic sleeping bag, and a padded and insulated mat), a generator with fuel, toilet buckets (with plastic bags and a wooden seat), pee barrels, and numerous other useful items (like sledge hammers, shovels and maps).

There’s a back-log of science events needing helicopter support, so despite our efforts to catch-up with our original schedule, we still need to wait. But it’s best to get everything ready to go! The final things we sorted out were weighing all of our field camp gear, with the aim of using just one fully loaded helicopter, and then ordering some liquor for the field. We need it to keep warm and happy inside; 5 bottles of scotch whiskey (minimum for any Antarctic expedition), a couple of gins with tonic bottles (for hopefully those sun-bathing with sight of penguins moments), and a bottle of Kahlua for an extra treat.

My next post might be on return from the field. Cross your warm fingers and toes for good weather, plenty of rock samples and no camp breakdowns (of equipment or personnel!). I’ll report back.

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I be clothed.

Stage 1: Christchurch, the portal to Antarctica for the New Zealanders, Americans and Italians.

Our team is reunited and we’ve picked up our Antarctica clothing! However, just as our excitement was bubbling up inside we got news that weather conditions and logistics issues were going to temporarily burst that bubble, delaying our departure by a day. So here I sit, in a hotel room waiting to catch a ride down to Antarctica. Perhaps some team bonding down the pub is necessary for tonight…

Antarctica New Zealand store - Extreme Cold Weather jacket amongst other clothing laid out in a dressing room for me.

Antarctica New Zealand store – Extreme Cold Weather jacket amongst other clothing laid out in a dressing room for me.

Some Antarctica gear laid out in my hotel

Some Antarctica gear laid out in my hotel

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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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Antarctica Day!

Today, 1st December, is officially Antarctica Day! So I hope you’re dressed as penguins right now, munching iceberg lettuce at your street parties with snowflake paper chains from lamp-post to lamp-post.

Why is there an Antarctica Day?

On the 1st December 1959 12 nations signed the Antarctic Treaty. This set aside 10% of the Earth to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, becoming the world’s first nuclear-arms agreement. Antarctica Day is to recognise the landmark agreement between the 12 original nations and 35 additional nations who have accepted the treaty. It is a day to celebrate peace and international cooperation manifested through Antarctic science, exploration and culture.

Here’s some more information – Antarctic Day poster and events around the globe.

Snowflakes, blobs and bubbles_penguin

On a related topic, Christchurch – the portal to Antarctica for New Zealanders, Americans and Italians – recently celebrated all things Antarctica with a month-long Ice Fest. I helped out with some of the events including a Flakes, Blobs and Bubbles art project which taught children about ice core science. And here’s a little video I put together of IceFest:

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Glacier detectives

A fairly busy last few months has involved proposal writing, lab work, seminar presenting and even some fieldwork, this time just down the road (relative to my Antarctic expedition). This fieldwork was part of a fellow blogger’s PhD project, focussed on mapping evidence of past glaciers and ice caps in New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park (a cultural and natural World Heritage Site). The work is part of a larger GNS mission, which also includes mapping the area’s volcanic past, and the result should be similar to what has been achieved in the central Southern Alps.

Mapped glacial moraines in the Southern Alps (GNS)

“That sounds interesting, but what’s the point?” Well aside from informing the public and helping tourists envisage glaciers in the valleys and mountain slopes where they now trek, it’s also important for piecing together New Zealand’s evolving climate. There are some records of past climate from marine and terrestrial indicators, including evidence of much more extensive glaciers in the South Island, however very little work has been done in the North Island. Glaciers have a close relationship with both temperature (primarily affecting the amount of melting) and precipitation (which in the form of snowfall, creates and extends a glacier). So by working out where a glacier once existed and how extensive it was you can then investigate the temperature and precipitation drivers for that time.

Developing the picture of past environments and climates is a vital step in understanding causes of climate change and, together with climate simulation models, looking at future change.

The detective work for these glaciers had been largely achieved on numerous previous trips. Glaciers erode valleys into bedrock slopes and deposit large moraine ridges made out of all this eroded boulder material at its limits. The next stage is to provide an age of when these glaciers formed the valleys and deposited the moraines. A best guess would be that they were this extensive during the last ice age (about 20,000 years ago), but science doesn’t make such great assumptions so this needs to be tested.

Tramping around Ruapehu in search of boulders to sample

Using a similar approach on Tongariro and Ruapehu to what I am using for Antarctic glaciers, the ages of when glaciers and ice caps last existed and then retreated can be determined. Put simply, cosmic radiation which has been stored in a boulder’s surface since it was uncovered and deposited by glacier ice, is measured and compared to a known rate of radioactive decay and therefore an estimation of its time since exposure can be calculated. Many days tramping around these mountains and copious boulders later, we had an ample collection of samples. Stay tuned, the dates are probably a year or two away.

So basically, all this (one-way) chat is just to introduce my first attempt of time lapses and video editing. It will also hopefully explain why we are using a circular saw to attack rocks. It’s in the name of Science.

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The Thesis Whisperer

I have spent years exhorting students to publish as much as possible before they finish and straight after. But lately I am beginning to wonder about my place in the academic publishing system, both as a researcher and a teacher.

I don’t think I can keep handing out this advice with a clear conscience.

Academic publishing is presented as a universal good, without regard to how the publishing system operates. While publications are an essential addition to the CV in today’s competitive job market, the ethics of publishing need to be considered too. Some big publishers are making boatloads of money – in the order of millions of dollars – out of labour we academics willingly give them.

This profit largely goes into the pockets of shareholders, not the researchers or universities.

Essentially this is public money which becomes ‘privatized’. It works a bit like this. Australian citizens are…

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