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.



Traveling is done, and work is beginning

Hi All!

I have finally arrived! After many airplanes, a terra bus, McMurdo Station, a helicopter  Lake Hoare Camp, and another helicopter I am finally settled in at our primary hub of activity – F6 Camp. Located on the beautiful banks of Lake Fryxell, this glorious two-room hut will be home to the MCM-LTER stream team, and other more transient researchers.

F6 camp. Home for now!

The kitchen side of F6. We make some pretty awesome meals, and drink LOTS of coffee

We have one room for cooking/hanging out and another room for laboratory work. Thanks to the good folks at McMurdo Station, we were set up with lots of delicious looking food to keep us going while we are out here. Unlike my experiences at Toolik Field Station, in northern Alaska, F6 is D-I-Y. We make all our own meals, and keep the camp running by completing a long list of daily chores. But when the work is split amongst myself and two other teammates – it’s not so bad. I’ll further elaborate on camp life in a future post.


Tyler instals instrumentation inside a gage box at Harnish Creek. I’d love to show photos of streams but there is no liquid water to be found…. yet!

Today was our first day of field work. In brief, the stream team is responsible for maintaining a suite of US Geologic Survey (USGS) gage stations established in 1994, here in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. A “gage station,” basically monitors the discharge of a stream through time. Discharge is the volume of water passing through a cross-section of stream, per unit time. Although this sounds simple – it’s not. There are many streams running throughout the Dry Valleys, which requires us to cover lots of land on any given day. We utilize ATVs, helicopters, and our feet to get from site to site. Also, to put it simply: things break. Trouble shooting and fixing broken stuff often becomes the focal point of our job. Again, I will use future blog posts to explain how we measure discharge in greater detail.

It’s getting late, so for now I’ll leave you with some photos. Enjoy!  ~ Adam


Nov 10: Adam meets the Dry Valleys!


Very exciting day today! I packed up my belongings at McMurdo field station and put them and myself on a helicopter at 0800 to be flown across the McMurdo Sound to the Dry Valleys. Our helo pilot, Flo, treated me to an exceptionally scenic trip. Photos can do the talking…

Approaching the Asgard range, home to the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Ice covered McMurdo Sound below.

getting closer…

The Ferrar Glacier fills the first Valley South of Taylor Valley, our destination. Almost there…

Taylor Valley!


Canada Glacier, viewed from across the helo cockpit.

We eventually arrived at Lake Hoare Camp located on the northern shore of Lake Hoare, which is located ont the western side of Canada Glacier. Upon my arrival, the camp manager, Rae, had hot coffee waiting! What a world we live in! After a brief tour around the small camp facilites, I set up my tent. Sorry I don’t have picture, but I’m camped very close (a safe distance) to the edge of Canada Glacier. This is easily the most beautiful place I have ever been.

I am currently enjoying a pizza dinner with the good folks at Lake Hoare. I have been consistently impressed by the quality of people here in Antarctica, and Lake Hoare is no exception.

Aside from breath taking views and the feeling of being way out there, the most amazing thing is the sound. There is none. When I stand outside of my tent and hold my breath, it’s like being in a vacuum. Think of all the sounds around you right now. Cars, air conditioning, birds, wind through trees, etc. Now errase it. Hard to imagine.

Until next time…



Nov 06 – Nov 08: Happy Camper


Tuesday, Nov 06

Only a few hours after stepping off the C17, I was assigned to attend a mandatory field training course, commonly known here at McMurdo as “Happy Camper.” Happy Camper is a two day course which covers the basics of living and more importantly surviving in the cold, beautiful, yet unforgiving land/sea-scape of Antarctica. We began in the class room discussing cold weather basics such as frostbite, hypothermia, dressing for extreme cold, and understanding the importance of team work. Here is a picture of our two instructors, Ben and Alasdair. Alasdair is the one all bundled up in ECW.

By 1030 we (16 other classmates and myself) had packed our bags for the night and were boarding the bus, which would take us out onto the McMurdo Ice Shelf, where we’d stay the night. Standing on the ice shlelf was a surreal feeling. To the north and south you’re bounded by mountains. However, looking east, the ice seemed never ending, revealing the curvature of the earth. Directly north of our small campsite was Mt Erebus (shown on the left), an active volcano and the topic of some very interesting research. Because there is nothing to provide a sense of scale, distances are difficult to grasp – what seems 5 miles aways may actually be 22 miles away. Also the snow pack acts like a big mirror reflecting the ever-present sun, making snow blindness and sun burn serious threats to ones overall comfort.

several mountain tents sit between two Scott tents, all safely behind a snow wall

Snow walls 101 with Alasdair

Ben and Alasdair showed us some essential field techniques. We learned to tie some cool knots, my favorite was the “truckers hitch,” used to secure tents to the ground. We built a snow wall to protect our camp from the possibility of a wind storm, the worst of which always come from the south (off of the ice cap). We use two types of tents, here in Antarctica: the Scott tent (sorta looks like a teepee), and mountain tents (modern expedition tents). The very first Antarctic expeditions used Scott tents – remarkably robust shelters. Around 1800 our instructors left us out with some stoves, food, and shelter. We spent the night on the ice shelf. Thanks to my -50 sleeping bag and a few wisely place bottles of hot water, I was plenty toasty and slept quite well. Overnight lows likely reached -10 F.

After eating a solid breakfast and breaking down camp, we reconvened with our instructors in a nearby hut to work on some scenario situations. My favorite scenario was as follows:

Your team and you are all sitting around inside a warm hut, when the weather suddenly turns bad – Very high winds, very cold temperatures, limited to zero visibility (known as Condition 1 in Antarctica). You all notice one of your teammates is missing. Maybe they’ve been gone 30 minutes? Someone thinks he/she has gone to the bathrooms, which are located appox 40 yards from the hut. What do you do?

Well, we decided to go look for our missing teammate  So, in order to simulate Condition 1 weather, each team member that stepped out of the hut needed to be wearing a bucket on his/her head. We sent two teammates who held onto a rope, which was fastend to the inside of the hut. After a several minutes of stumbling and fumbling they came nowhere near the out-houses. Lesson learned: Condition 1 is no joke. However, watching my new friends stumble around with buckets on their head was worth quite a laugh (see below).

Snow School was easily the best class I’ve ever taken. I reviewed things I already knew, learned some completely new things, met lots of new friends, and got my first thorough Antarctic experience. I am definitely a “Happy Camper!”

On Saturday Nov 10, I’ll fly to the Dry Valleys to meet my fellow MCM-LTER Stream Team members. I absolutely cannot wait – feeling like a kid on Christmas. McMurdo station is pretty sweet, but it’s time for some new scenery and lots of quality (big)science in the field!




Nov 04 – 05: Christchurch to McMurdo…


I am writing to you from McMurdo Field Station, Antarctica! After a long couple of days, I have arrived safely at the bottom of the Earth. Let me tell you about it.

Sunday, November 4

On Sunday, myself and other Antarctic bound travelers were taken to the Antarctic Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) in Christchurch, NZ. Here, we were greeted by enthusiastic Kiwi USAP staff, who got us all geared up with our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. My ECW includes…


  • 2 pars of light long underwear & 2 pairs of heavy long underwear
  • 2 light base layer tops & 2 heavy base layer tops
  • insulated Carhartt bibs
  • Bunny boots” & two pairs of socks
  • 2 paris of mittens and 1 pair of insulated leather work gloves
  • balaclava, fleece hat, fleece scarf, & ski goggles
  • “Little red” – a light parka
  • “Big red” – a big red goose down parka… very warm

Lots of gear, eh? I feel especially loaded down considering I’ve also packed plenty of personal cold weather gear, including additional boots, base layers, hats, gloves, pants, jackets, etc.

We departed the CDC, after making sure that all of our gear was well fit and comfortable. Our check in for the next days flight to the Ice was scheduled for 6:30 am. I headed back to my hotel for a good night of sleep.

Monday, November 05

This morning we were taken back to the CDC, where we compiled our gear and caught the next flight to Antarctica. Flying to Antarctica is no ordinary flight. Around 8:10, myself and approximately 52 other southbound scientists and support contractors boarded a C17 operated by a crew from McChord AFB, Washington.

Along with scientists and other southbound travelers, the C17 was well packed with southbound cargo, essential to operations at McMurdo Station. Our flight contained a Kiwi R44 helo, which sat directly in the middle of the cargo bay. Southbound human cargo was situated in seats on the side walls of the jet. I was lucky enough to be one of the last people to board. Turns out, all the seats on the side of the plane were taken, so I snagged a sweet first-class-esque seat in the front of the aircraft, sitting besides some important looking US Air Force gents.

We were in the air by 8:45, beginning our 5.5 hr haul south. Unlike typical airline flights, you can do what you please during the flight. I spent much of the time milling about the cabin and catching views of sea ice. It was fascinating to observed the gradual change of scenery along the ride. First the green New Zealand country side, then the blue ocean, then sea ice, and finally our first glimpse of Antarctic mountains – all observed through one of four tiny windows located throughout the aircraft.

Around 14:22 we finally landed on the sea ice near McMurdo Station. Bundled up in our slick ECW digs, we finally stepped out of the C17…. finally made it to Antarctica!

I am currently all situated in my temporary home, here at McMurdo Station. Tomorrow I will be going to “Snow School,” where I’ll learn the basic survival techniques I’ll need for working in remote field locations (should be very fun!). Today has been fantastic. Getting to the continent has been quite the journey. However, the best part is knowing that this is only the beginning. I am very excited to get out in the Dry Valleys and do some big science! Keep tuned – much more to come!