I think I see the end of the season…

Greetings from F6 camp!

As the Stream Team draws closer to the end of the season, our team schedule is getting fuller and fuller. The Stream Team only expects to spend another 2.5 weeks in the Dry Valleys before heading back to McMurdo Station and re-deploying back to Christchurch, NZ.

Before we depart the Valleys there is a long list of objectives to accomplish. These include repairing gage control structures, building new control structures, closing all the stream gages for the season, sampling algal mats, surveying lake levels, retrieving data loggers peppered throughout the Valleys, and packing up the glorious F6 camp. It’s hard to believe that the end of the season is so close. Amazing how fast time passes, here…

January is also when many of the MCM-LTER lead scientists show up. In other words, all of the talented senior scientists who generate the ideas worth studying and compete (successfully) for money to fund those ideas (…and us graduate students), show up to spend time in the Dry Valleys. Today, we were happy to have Dr. Diane McKnight, Dr. Jeb Barrett, Dr. Ross Virginia, and Dr. Diana Wall hang out with us. Dr. Diane McKnight is the leader of the Stream Team and also the lead investigator of the MCM-LTER. Dr. Barrett, Dr. Wall, and Dr. Virginia are all leaders of the soil-science portion of the LTER. Search these names on Google Scholar and learn something new!

Today Dr. Jeb Barrett took a team of us out to the P3 experimental plot to do some explaining and planning. P3 is a long-term soil-wetting experiment, where specific plots of soil are carefully wetted to explore the impact of a wetter environment on soil microbial communities and solute concentrations. Our lab group at Penn State will be responsible for understanding the hydrologic alterations to these sites. We have deployed a suite of sensors into the soil, which measure temperature and soil moisture potential. Turns out, water flow and solute transport through unsaturated porous media is complicated stuff. Should be fun!

It’s a bit sad to see the end of my stay in the Dry Valleys, but then again I really need to do some laundry.





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Good morning!

The Stream Team has had a busy, fun-filled week. The hi-light so far was Friday’s trip to Miers Valley. We collected water samples and measured discharge on Adams Glacier Stream, Miers Glacer Stream, and Miers Outlet Stream. I also deployed several data loggers to measure specific conductance, temperature, and water height in Miers Outlet Stream, and Miers Glacer Stream.

While we were working at the Adams Glacier Stream gage, we noticed an abrupt change in discharge. Over a period of several minutes, the amount of water flowing through the stream increased threefold. In temperate, non-glaciated, watersheds, large changes in discharge are usually associated with rain events.  As more water is put into the system (rain on watershed), more water comes out of the system (streamflow), right?  Well, in glacially dominated catchments, large changes in discharge occur on a daily basis without any rainfall at all! As the sun is shining directly on the face of a glacier – a maximum amount of runoff (melt water) is being generated. When the sun is not directly shining on the face of a glacier – a lesser amount of runoff is being generated. This daily variation in solar intensity on glaciers results in daily flood events, which can clearly be seen on streamflow hydrographs. A hydrograph is a record of stream discharge over a period of time. check out the hydrograph at Green Creek to see what I’m talking about… http://www.mcmlter.org/queries/hydro_graph.jsp?begDate=10/01/2009&endDate=04/01/2010&hydroStation=GREEN

Today, the Stream Team is traveling to the Wright Valley to study the Onyx River – a personal favorite. Unfortunately, we are leaving F6 just before a group of congressmen arrive on a tour of the Dry Valleys. Hope they like what they see…



If you don’t care for my verbal vomit above, maybe you’ll enjoy these photos…


Patterned ground

Patterned ground

A penguin WAY far away from home.

A penguin WAY far away from home.

Miers Valley. The Royal Society Mountains in the background.

Miers Valley. The Royal Society Mountains in the background.

Adams Glacier runoff

Adams Glacier runoff


lots going on here. Somewhere en route t

lots going on here. Somewhere in Dry Valleys, Antarctica. 






Late December photos

white kiwi a-star helo in the Wright Valley.

white kiwi a-star helo in the Wright Valley.

Upper Canada Glacier crevasses

Upper Canada Glacier crevasses

Ginger bread house. Notice the stream in the side yard.

Ginger bread house. Notice the stream in the side yard.

Watching grown aspiring scientists decorate Christmas cookies is quite funny.

Watching grown aspiring scientists decorate Christmas cookies is quite funny.


Oh yeah, I'm here to study streams...

Oh yeah, I’m here to study streams…

Enjoy a photographic journey of the last few weeks of my life.





2013 Happy New Years!

Happy New Years from the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica!

Last night I quietly rang in the New Year with a small group of friends, sitting along the western face of the Canada glacier. As the clock hit midnight there were no fireworks, no loud music, no screaming crowds, just the steady sound of water tricking off the glacier. I couldn’t think of a better way to look back and be grateful what 2012 brought me, and to look forward to the good times of 2013.

We have officially hit summer here in the Dry Valleys. On clear sunny days, the weather does not drop below freezing and can even get as high as 45 – 50 F! It is pretty unbelievable that I am experiencing warmer weather than my friends and family back home in the north eastern continental United States. I assure you that this is not exactly Florida, but the warm weather is very welcome following a very cold November.

Along with the warm sunny weather comes stream flow! Nearly all of the streams in the Dry Valleys have been faithfully and predictably flowing, which makes for looong, but stimulating work days. I’m sorry for not posting as often as I’d like, here on my blog. Unfortunately, this writing is not very high on the priority list, behind field work, data analysis, and more academic writing. I hope you can understand.

I hope everyone out there was able to enjoy a safe and happy holiday season, close to friends and family. It’s pretty rough being so far away from home during the holiday season, but I assure you I had a nice enough time here in the Dry Valleys.

Best wishes,


Helo inbound over Rae's Ridge. Lake Hoare Camp, Antarctica

Helo inbound over Rae’s Ridge. Lake Hoare Camp, Antarctica


Miers Valley

Splendid day today. First of all a new team member arrived today. Jon Denner, a  US Geologic Survey (USGS) hydrologist from Vermont, will be helping us throughout the season. Jon has loads of experience with the USGS and will certainly be a brilliant contribution to the already fantastic Stream-Team. Eventually, I will write a post to introduce you to the rest of the team. promise.

Anyhow, at 0900 a B212 helicopter picked us up from F6 camp to transport us for a day of field work in Miers Valley. Miers Valley is located in southeastern portion of the greater Dry Valleys region. The helo ride from F6 to Miers is approximately 30 minutes. This ride provided some smashing views of the Royal Society Range. You can see the Royal Society Range from McMurdo, but nothing compares to flying along these massive peaks, which explode out of glacial ice into the clouds.

Royal Society Range. photo credit: Tyler Kohler

Royal Society Range. photo credit: Tyler Kohler

There are three streams in the Miers Valley. Adams Stream (awesome name, eh? … more like Adam’s stream) flows from the Adams glacier, which enters the valley from the southwest. Miers Stream flows from the Miers glacier, which enters the valley from the northwest. Adams and Miers both flow into Miers Lake. Miers Lake then has an outlet stream, which doesn’t have a name that I know of. We were happy to see streamflow on Adams. We spent several hours sampling water chemistry, measuring discharge, surveying, and fixing data logger instrumentation. Tyler and I also hiked over to Miers stream, only about 15 minutes on foot from where the helo landed. Unfortunately Miers was not flowing enough to measure discharge, but we did collect water chemistry samples.

Looking up the Miers Valley. Adams Glacier seem far left and Miers Glacier seen far right. Photo taken on ice-covered lake outlet stream

Looking up the Miers Valley. Adams Glacier seem far left and Miers Glacier seen far right. Photo taken on ice-covered lake outlet stream. B212 holdin’ it down. photo credit: Tyler Kohler

I was amazed by how this valley was the perfect little Antarctic watershed. Two glaciers, two lake-inlet streams, and a lake-outlet stream. It is a simple example of how water is stored and transported in the Dry Valleys. On a sunny day, like today, sufficient solar radiation and air temperatures melt the face and surface of glaciers, generating enough water for streamflow. The streams then feed into the lake. A beautiful example of two large storages of water (glaciers and lakes) becoming connected via a more transient storage (streams!). Ahhh hydrology.

I am quite curious about the mass balance of the lake. By “mass balance” I basically mean water accounting. If the lake is a bank account, it has an income and expenses. The income is incoming streamflow, and the expenses are losses of water. The lake can lose water through the outflow stream or via sublimation and evaporation. Because mass can neither be created or destroyed (recall 4th grade science), mass balance studies allow us to understand simple and complex processes occurring in earth systems.

The Stream-Team will return to this site in the coming weeks. We plan to construct and instrument a gage box to provide continuous discharge records on the Miers Lake outlet.

After the helo ride home, arriving at 1630, I enjoyed the contents of a goodie-box sent from some friends at home! Thankya! If you’ve never had a Reed’s Ginger Chew, I highly recommend them.



wireless data connections!

We study many streams in the Dry Valleys. These streams are located far enough apart to justify the use of helicopters to get back and forth. Our streams gages consist of very expensive science equipment, which helps us measure stream dynamics, such as water height, water temperature, and specific conductivity. Given the distance between sites, the very expensive (and delicate!) science gear, and the extreme conditions of Antarctica – monitoring streams in the Dry Valleys costs a lot of money!

When something breaks at a gage site, it is always best to know ahead of time. Prior knowledge of field failures saves money in the long run, because we’d only need one helicopter trip to fix the problem, rather than two (one to discover the problem, and the other to go back and fix it). Turns our, helicopters are not the cheapest mode of transportation.

To help us get an idea of what is happening at sites very far away, some gages can radio-transmit real-time data via a series of radio and satellite connections to a computer we can easily access.  So, before we visit a site, we can look at the data to see if something looks funky. Usually funky or unusual data means a mechanical or electrical problem, which requiring maintenance.

Today, Chris and I worked to set up a new radio repeater on Mt Loke. Radio repeaters, take an incoming radio signal and repeat it so it can be received at some location far away. Radios only work by line-of-sight. So if you and your pal each have a walkie-talkie radio, then generally speaking, if you can see one another – you can talk to one another. At our main camp, F6, we certainly cannot see most of the stream gages in the Valleys. So, we use a series of radio repeaters to transmit real-time data, such that we can see it at F6.

Here are a few photos from our trip. Lucky for us, radio repeaters are located up in the mountains with a great view (line-of-sight) of places all through the valley.


Measuring discharge with “rating curves” in Antarctica

The temperatures have been rising lately. Warmer weather and intense solar radiation combine to melt glacial ice and snow patches. The melt water then runs down-gradient forming streams! The stream team monitors these streams to account for how much water is flowing, where it is going, and when it is going there.  A major responsibility of the Stream Team is measuring stream discharge at many sites throughout the Dry Valleys.

A stream’s discharge is the volume of water passing a cross section of stream per unit time. Discharge is always expressed as volume/time (e.g. litres per second, cubic feet per second, cubic meters per second, etc.). Instead of a river, let’s think about your kitchen faucet. If you turn the faucet on and allow water to pour into a measuring cup for 30 seconds, then turn the faucet off, you’d be left with some volume of water (you can measure this, of course!). To calculate the discharge of your faucet, simply divide the volume of water collected by the time it took to collect the water (30 seconds).

When we want to calculate the discharge of a stream or a river, we would likely need a very large measuring cup to collect all of the water coming downstream for any period of time! So, we use a different approach. Turns out, we can also calculate discharge by multiplying the velocity of stream water by the cross-sectional area of the stream channel. Velocity is always expressed as length per time and area is always expressed as length squared. Multiplying velocity by area, we get volume per time (e.g. litres per second, cubic feet per second, cubic meters per second, etc.). Simply a different path to the same result – a discharge measurement!

My friends and I have been graciously trusted with fancy and expensive instruments, which can accurately measure the velocity of flowing stream water, as well as the cross-sectional area of the stream channel. So, whenever we have the chance to visit a stream, we can easily measure discharge. But, we cant be everywhere all the time. So the dilemma arises – How can we know the discharge of many streams in the Dry Valleys all the time?

Turns out, my friends and I have also been graciously trusted with fancy devices that measure the height of water flowing over top of them. We call these devices “stage loggers,” because they can continuously measure the stage (i.e. height) of water, and store the measurements on a small computer chip (data logger). We can deploy a stage logger in a stream and then walk away, knowing that we’ll return to a wealth of data, telling us the height of water in the stream over time. So, lets recap a bit. We are able to measure the discharge of the stream sometimes, but we can measure the stage of a stream all the time.

We use something called “rating curves,” to relate stream stage to stream discharge. “Rating curves,” are mathematical relationships (discharge = f(stage)) between stage and discharge, which allow us to estimate a stream’s discharge, given a steam’s stage. To establish these relationships, we maintain and build control structures. Control structures are built to back-up flowing water behind the structure. This enables us to get very accurate stage measurements at very low flows and very high flows, alike. Below is a photo of our team, working on a control structure located on the Onyx River. Usually these are constructed out of sand bags and rocks.

Stream Team works to re-construct a dilapidated control structure

That’s the brief basics of measuring discharge with rating-curves!



p.s science is the bees knees, dude.

Antarctic Thanksgiving 2012

Due to the seasonal constraints of studying flowing water in one of the driest and coldest landscapes on earth, I am obligated to spend the austral summer in they Dry Valleys of Antarctica. The warmest annual temperatures, and highest net solar radiation occurs between November and February in this region. This means that I will spend the holiday season away from friends and family in the continental United States. The idea of spending three major holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years) away from home is a bit daunting. However, I have quickly discovered that folks here in the Dry Valleys know how to have a good time with holidays.

I began Thanksgiving day at F6 camp. Unlike previous Thanksgivings, I packed my bags for a scenic hike to Lake Hoare, instead of sitting around watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. My colleague,  Tyler, and I set off for the six mile treck (turkey trot) under cloudless blue skies. 2.25 hours later, we arrived at Lake Hoare, where we were greeted by 20 of our friends and co-workers, who were busy making final preparations for a proper Thanksgiving feast.

Chris basting the bird

…. all the fixins

The menu was right in line with traditional American Thanksgiving fare. We enjoyed two turkeys prepared on the grill, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potato casserole, cornbread pudding, stuffing, roasted pumpkin and carrots, cranberry sauce, and a nice green salad. For dessert there was a large variety of pies to chose from. Everything was homemade and totally delicious. The best part was the abundance of fresh veggies! It had been a while since I had the chance to chow down on fresh veggies, as they are particularly hard to come by in the Dry Valleys.

dinner inside the main hut at Lake Hoare

After dinner we enjoyed conversation and games over fantastic New Zealand wine. Although nothing is quite like Thanksgiving at home, most certainly nothing is like Thanksgiving in the Dry Valleys. I’m quite grateful for the abundance of good people (and good food) here in the Dry Valleys for the Thanksgiving holiday.

I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving, surrounded by loved ones and tasty food.



Outside my tent just prior to turkey slumber

Nov 18: Ventifact hike


One of the most interesting aspects of the Dry Valleys landscape is the complete absence of vegetation. Without vegetation, the sandy and rocky soils of the valleys are completely exposed to the elements. As winds rip down-valley or up-valley, sand is often picked up and moved through the air. Exposed rocks are weathered by the frequent blasting of wind and sand. Rocks, which have been shaped by this weathering process are known as ventifacts.

Today, Tyler, David, and I took a hike to check out some ventifacts. Check it out…


Until next time…



Nov 16 – 17: Wright Valley, helo-nausea, Blood Falls, and Bonney Camp


Allow me to share some recent happenings from the last two days. On Friday morning our helicopter pilot, Flo, picked us up to be flown into Wright Valley to set up some gaging stations. Wright Valley is the first valley north of Taylor Valley, and to get there we took a highly scenic helo trip through the Asgard Range.

View from above the Asgard Range

In the photo shown above, notice polygon patterned ground . This is an interesting landscape feature of cold regions. Patterned ground forms as a result of sequential freezing and thawing of the subsurface, and can be found in most any region underlain by continuous or discontinuous permafrost. Permafrost is defined as soil which has been frozen for more than 2 years. Permafrost is found several meters beneath the ground surface. The shallow sub-surface, which is thawed and then re-frozen each year is called the “active layer”. As the active layer freezes it often cracks, which makes sense because water expands when it freezes. Dont believe me? Fill up a water bottle all the way to the top and stick it in the freezer for a while – see what happens to the bottle. Anyways, the cracked active-layer gets filled with water, snow, and sand. When the winter months come along, this new moisture and sediment re-freezes and expands the cracks further. This is essentially “ice-wedging” – the dominant process behind patterned ground.

We flew into the Wright Valley to set up a gage at the Onyx River. Although currently not flowing, the Onyx river is the largest river in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. In the photo below you can make out the fluvial channel structure, which has been imprinted on the landscape by the movement of water through the valley bottom.

The Onyx river, although it dosen’t have any water yet, you can make out the braided channel structure. Look closely.

At each gage we survey the relative elevation of important features, necessary for the conversion of water height to discharge. Basically the gage boxes record the height of water, also known as stage, at any given moment. When water is flowing we make manual measurements of discharge (volume of water passing per unit of time). By mathematically relating continuous stage measurements to occasional discharge measurements, we can estimate the continuous discharge record of the stream. This is also known as a “rating.” The surveying allows us to account for changes in the infrastructure of the gage system, which is highly important to work the “rating.”

Doing my part to help survey at the Onyx River.

After we wrapped-up surveying, we climbed back in the helo to go scope out a candidate position for a radio antenna. Some of the sites we monitor are rigged up to send data back to the U.S., near real-time. This process is made possible by transmitting a signal from the gage box to a radio antenna, which can relay the signal to McMurdo Station. This complicated process requires that antennae be within eye-shot of the gage boxes, which is why we choose to position antennae at higher elevations. Thank goodness for helicopters.

Checking out the peaks around Wright Valley. McMurdo Sound in the distance

Although climbing above Antarctic mountain ranges in a helicopter is an awesome experience. It is also extremely nauseating, at least I thought so! I spent the remainder of the helicopter ride with a bag in my hands anticipating vomit. Thankfully, I held my own.

We needed to abort our scheduled mission due to the gnarly inbound weather. We were dropped off at Lake Bonney Camp. Lake Bonney is located at the far western edge of Taylor Valley and it backs up against the Taylor Glacier. The lake is split into two lobes – West Bonney and East Bonney. Similar to Lake Fryxell, many glacier-fed steams drain into the lake.

From right to left: Talor Glacier, Lake Bonney West Lobe, and Lake Bonney East Lobe.

There several streams draining the Taylor glacier and feeding into Lake Bonney: Lawson, Sante Fe, Sharpe, and Lyons. These streams give us a reason to visit one of the most novel and interesting areas of Taylor Valley: Blood Falls. Notice the rust colored patch on Lake Bonney West Lobe, above? This is a result of Blood Falls. I cant speak to eloquently about this site, as I am certainly not an expert – but I’ll do the best I can. This part of the Taylor Glacier seeps very very salty and iron-rich water, several times the salinity of sea water. It is believed that relict sea water is trapped within the Taylor Glacier. As this hypersaline and iron-rich water seeps out, iron ions are oxidized as they come in contact with atmospheric oxygen, resulting the highly identifiable orange color. Also, turns out, this water sustains life! Many different kinds or micro-organisms are able to use sulfate as a catalyst to respire with iron ions and metabolize organic matter in the water, all in an anoxic (no oxygen) environment. Jill Mikucki is a microbiologist who has done a ton of fantastic science on this site. This is one aspect of the Dry Valleys, which can be potentially analogous to life on Mars.

Blood Falls hypersaline discharge

Tyler stands amazed by blood falls.

Currently, I am situated at Lake Bonney Camp for the weekend. Bonney Camp is a medium sized camp, maybe twice the size of F6 Camp. I look forward to hanging out with a whole bunch of limnologists (lake scientists) tonight. Should be a fantastic time.