Saturday, January 23, 2010

My final day on the ice .. and now back home

I am back! And if I didn’t have the photos as proof I think I would be convinced that I had just woken up from the most amazing dream ever. What an unbelievable experience! Yesterday morning I woke at Scott Base, it was an absolutely stunning day, bright blue sky, not a breath of wind and an almost warming sunshine .. This morning I woke up to the unfortunately grey and dismal weather of Christchurch. The wind is blowing and I can feel it’s bite through the window. I can see houses .. and trees!!! Aside from the exterior of Scott Base (and the delicious array of salads we were served daily) this is the first green I have seen in nine days.

The McMurdo shuttle (Ivan the Terra bus) was due to pick the 12 of us departing kiwis up from Scott Base at 1200, however it was a good 45 mins before it actually arrived. If I didn't think Antarctica could amaze me anymore, that 45 minute wait proved otherwise! As we (the ‘departees’ and fare welling party) stood gathered at the HFC (Hillary Field Centre) we were joined by another party of onlookers. Less than 100 metres offshore in sea ice holes just in front of the pressure ridges, a Minke whale (or two?) came to bid us farewell. Every so often they would rise to the surface spouting water high up into the air as they took a breath, and then intermittently they would lift their heads up out of the water. They were so graceful .. it was amazing to watch! So with the Minke's appearing inquisitively every 5-10 minutes, and with the seals lounging around the sea ice holes nearby, as well as having new friends from Scott Base nearby, it was a very special moment! - surely the best send-off party I could've imagined! (unfortunately I don't have photos of this incredible wildlife display .. but the picture at this link provides a vague idea of what it was like!)

I was so sad leaving Scott Base and Antarctica yesterday .. I know that I am so incredibly lucky to have had this experience at all, and I have had such a fantastic time, but to get on that plane and have no idea whether I would ever be able to set foot in Antarctica again was difficult to say the least! This nine day experience will forever hold a special place in my heart and I am really looking forward to sharing my experience with as many people as possible.

Here are some pictures from my last day in Antarctica:
The cute little 'beach front' church at McMurdo

A snapshot of McMurdo Station. The brown buildings in the background are the accommodation blocks. Note the overhead power cables - definately not what I had expected to see in Antarctica.

The tanker in port ready for the annual re-stocking of the fuel supplies. The icebreaker can be seen in the channel in the background.

The Scott Base - McMurdo intersection

My lunch bag for the trip home "Sir Peter's Ambassador" - thanks guys .. every single meal we had was delicious, and that lunch was no exception!

Some of the crew before departing: Stephen Sun, John McCrone, ??, Matt Vance, Jack Tame, Me and Dan O'Sullivan.

My last view of Scott Base (bottom right), Crater Hill (top right), the wind turbines (top left) and the Newman Glacier (affectionately known as Frank) :) (bottom left)

The C17 landing at Pegasus

The last photo of me in Antarctica

Boarding the plane

The cargo being loaded on board

My last view of an Antarctic glacier from the cockpit

A spacious flight home -- one crew member even set up a bed to make the trip home as comfortable as possible!

Landing in Christchurch with a dull and very wet evening to welcome us!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A day to remember forever!

The luck that I have had today with one of the most amazing experiences I could ever imagine becomming a reality for me has just been incredible - I put it down to my lucky red socks - they worked for Sir Peter Blake and his crew back in the Americas Cup challenge in 1995 and they definately worked for me today!

An unexpected opportunity arose for Jana and I to head into the Dry Valleys today with Kevin, one of the environmental scientists/engineers posted at McMurdo Station. A group of American environmental scientists involved with Antarctic work are in the process of proposing that an area within the Taylor Valley, known as Blood Falls, is raised from ASMA status to ASPA status. ASMA's are Antarctic specially managed areas whilst ASPA's are Antarctic specially protected areas. Whilst all areas in Antarctica are regarded as highly valuable and are treated with a high level of care, access to ASMA's and ASPA's is more strigent, and, for ASPA's, this means that a permit is required for entry. Kevin is working on the proposal at present and has come up with several suggestions regarding the extent of the proposed ASPA, however he was looking for a second opinion, which Jana could provide. Whilst I (unfortunately) had no knowledge to offer regarding the proposal, I was extremely fortunate that there was room in the helicopter for me, and the trip gave me a fantastic opportunity to see the broader environmental responsibilities that the environmental scientists, and all Antarctic researchers have. I was also very lucky to see, first hand, how the Americans and the Kiwis share logistics and collaborate together to ultimately reduce the overall 'footprint' on Antarctica while performing top science and minimising the effects to the environment. It was a fantastic trip for so many reasons and I feel extremely fortunate to have had this opportunity.

Having boarded the helicopter I was extremely excited, still not really believing what was happening .. sitting in that helicopter was a very surreal feeling!

All buckled up and ready to go

In the Taylor Valley, which is in the Dry Valley system. The terminus of the Taylor glacier towers above.

Jana and I with the stunning reflections behind us

Kevin and Jana - the US and NZ environmental advisors

Blood falls (a red-orange water fall, which is thought to be caused by an ancient source of sea water trapped under the glacier that is essentially rusting the iron-rich rocks on the valley floor)

Stunning scenery!

The reflections were just incredible

Me in the Taylor Valley ...

... absorbing the majestic beauty ...

... while waiting for the helo.

Our transport had arrived

Stunning ice falls on the Canada Glacier

Our shadow on the valley floor

Amazing colours

An ice berg surrounded by broken (and breaking!) sea ice

On the way back to McMurdo we not only got to travel along the shelf edge observing icebergs and the breaking sea ice, but we also saw the channel that the icebreaker has been preparing for the cargo ship, which is due any day now (the icebreaker was still in the channel too). Seals were lying all over the sea ice just chilling out and there were orca whales everywhere!! The orcas were gorgeous! Such a treat!

... AND ... to top off a superb day, a lecture from Sir David Attenborough at McMurdo Station. His voice is just as impressive and engaging in real life as it is in his documentaries!


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Back to the wind farm

The evening sun is always incredible, somehow making everything look even more beautiful than it does during the day! Last night I spent a bit of time enjoying the scenery out and around Scott Base (by the way, today was the Scott Base's 53 birthday!). Scott Base is built on the tip of an island, known as the Ross Island. Around Ross Island is the ice shelf to the east and directly in front of the base (i.e. south) and to the west is the sea ice. Whilst the ice shelf is relatively permanent (and much thicker), the sea ice has become progressively thinner and weaker since I have been here. This is apparent by the number of holes that have appeared in the sea ice resulting in seals emerging to lounge around sunbathing on the ice. Although the sea ice can give you the illusion that you are surrounded by land, there is one phenomena that makes it very clear that something is going on out there in the great white sea in front of the base ... the Ross Sea beneath is, tidal (with just one tidal cycle per day, and holding no relationship with the moon phases) and therefore the water level rises and falls. Whilst we cannot see much of the Ross Sea there are two reminders to us that beneath the ice there is actually water. The first a permanent crack or tide crack that marks the boundary between the ice shelf and the sea ice. The second is this beautiful formation of pressure waves (see photo). As the tides change and the sea ice becomes thinner, the sea ice buckles forming a series of wave like features over the surface. Stunning!!!

Pressure waves out from Scott Base

Today Jana and I spent the whole day up at the wind turbine site working on the VSA. The site was broken into a number of zones and we assessed each zone based on a number of factors. For the first part of the morning we were fortunate enough to have Tanya helping us out, giving us tips on what to look out for. The following photos show a series of the features we were assessing.

Tania and I looking at the surface impressions on the ground as we worked through the VSA check list.

Evidence of vehicle tracks - they are much lighter in colour - grey-brown, compared to the darker grey-red scoria colouring of the surrounding, undisturbed terrain.

Fresh footprints at the site

Although there are a couple of snow patches, the white colouring in this photo is predominantly a salt, presumably calcium carbonate, that precipitates on the rocks. Extensive salt deposits (such as above)are typically an indicator of site disturbance.

Changes in the ground, or desert pavement, are evident throughout the turbine site. E.g. see the difference in the size of the larger cobbles in the foreground and the finer gravels marking increased disturbance in the middle of the photo. The size of the gravels, stones and cobbles in each zone also tend to illustrate different uses for each zone, with finer gravels representing increased disturbance.

Despite the common belief that there is no vegetation in Antarctica, this photo proves otherwise! There are many patches of lichens, as well as some mosses .. and the new cable way runs directly through them!

The field work for phase three of the Crater Hill wind turbine monitoring project is now complete, although I will hopefully have time before I leave to take a few more photos!

But for now my bed is calling!! As always, looking forward to another day in parad-ice!!!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Into the science

Today has been another brilliant day down here! Honestly this place is just amazing! The sun has been shining, there has hardly been a cloud in the sky and there has been very little wind - not ideal for the turbines, but conditions like this make for a superb working environment!

Firstly this morning I had an interview with Simon Morton from Radio New Zealand on the Summer Report show. I was pretty nervous before hand, but I think it all went OK – despite the delay and odd interruption. The interview is on the Radio New Zealand website ( near the bottom of the page – time slot 9.18) for anyone who is interested.

Organising my notes for the VSA (visual site assessment)

After the interview Jana and I spent the rest of the morning up at the turbine site carrying out a VSA or visual site assessment. Just to put the science side of my time here into perspective for you, I am working alongside Jana Newman, an Environmental Advisor in the Environmental team at Antarctica New Zealand. Two years ago Jana carried out the first stage of monitoring at the Crater Hill site which had been proposed as the location for the Ross Island Wind Farm. The aim of her work was to assess the degree of disturbance that had already occurred at the site. A number of criteria were used during that assessment including:

• photo monitoring (taking a series of photos of the site that could be replicated in subsequent years),
• a visual site assessment (VSA – which included noting the spread and depth of vehicle tracks and boot prints; the disturbance of rocks within the desert pavement, and carrying out a litter survey, among other things!),
• a basic survey of the birds and vegetation observed near the site was also noted. The original phase of monitoring recommended that monitoring continued throughout the turbine construction phases.

The second environmental monitoring of the Crater Hill wind turbine site was carried out last summer (08/09 season) by Libby Liggins, last year’s Antarctic Youth Ambassador and one of Jana’s colleagues in the Environmental Team, Renee Burns. At that point the wind farm was already well on the way to being constructed with all of the foundation blocks at the three turbine sites having been installed. They replicated the work that Jana had done, and then extended it by adding some additional photo monitoring sites, dividing the site into zones based on the land use/activity, or the type of disturbance within each zone. This meant that the visual site assessment task could be better structured and more comprehensive.

This year I am again replicating Jana’s work as well as the work Libby and Renee did in the post construction monitoring report. Last night we managed to get all of the necessary photos taken for the photo monitoring component and today we made a good start on the task of VSA. Tomorrow morning we will be heading back up to the site with the ‘resident’ soil disturbance expert (Tanya O’Neill) so it’ll be great to have some advice from her too.

As Antarctica New Zealand is consciously trying to restrict the ‘foot print’ of Scott Base, careful thought and planning must go into all activities. Every event (scientist or group of scientists) is required to assess the impacts they expect their work here in Antarctica is likely to have on the environment. The event must then propose how they plan to mitigate the impacts so that the study site or environment is left as undisturbed as possible. As for all events or activities, monitoring of the wind turbine site is essential for measuring how well the impacts of the construction site have been minimised, in accordance with the initial assessment. The pre, during and post construction monitoring reports will also act as a benchmark for how well the wind turbine site recovers from the disturbance over time.

These strong environmental values to ensure that impacts are minimised fits well with the legacy of Sir Peter Blake, and the firm stance he had as an ambassador for the Antarctic environment.

The variation in desert pavement (ground) colouring - light brown-grey indicates a high proportion of fine sediment and therefore a high level of disturbance, the white dusting is a salt, also an indicator of disturbance. The darker colouring with larger cobbles indicates areas of less disturbance

In the shadow of the turbine

Heading around Observation Hill to meet the American Environmental team (Kevin, Laura and Corey who then came over and had dinner with us at Scott Base)

Looking out towards Black Island and the Pegasus airfield where the C17 landed. The sea ice at the foot of Obs Hill has already disappeared

Checking out the American poo-plant

On an American creation - a ski-bike constructed of unused bits and pieces from around their base

Monday, January 18, 2010

Penguins, a crevasse, dinner with a legend, fresh snow, a sightseeing tour, and FINALLY some SCIENCE!!!

WEll, it really has been a jam-packed, fun-filled adventure down here in the deep south. Sunday's around Scott Base are typically reserved for activities outside of the normal routine and often various people organise FAM (or familiarisation trips), and these are held, of course, after the 10-12 brunch - which, by the way, includes waffels to die for!!! So, a trip was planned to head out to the ice fall to go for a walk on a glacier. This sounded like a pretty cool adventure to me, so I joined the trip. We did a bit of training in the morning, which included learning about the importance of travelling in pairs/groups when walking on a glacier, harnessing up, learning how to tie 50 million different types of knots into one length of rope, and then prussiking up a rope (basically climbing up and down a rope with 'minimal' effort). It definately looked easier than it was, but it was great fun to, as well as being a rewarding achievment! On our way out to the ice fall we came across four Adelie penguins making their way across the ice shelf .. they were gorgeous .. and surprisingly quick!

The ever-so-cute Adelie penguins we passed on our way out to the ice fall

Adelie penguins!

All lined up and on their way

Being lowered into the unknown

Exploring the crevasse


A beautifully decorated crevasse

Hanging out around the crevasse holes

All roped together and returning from our crevassing adventure

Sunday roast with a legend in our presence - Sir David Attenborough joined us at Scott Base for dinner

Monday morning - we woke to a dusting of fresh snow over everything

Heading off on a sightseeing tour out along Hut Point Peninsula

Castle Rock shrouded in cloud

A snack in the snow

Back in the hugglund and headed for home

After the adventures of the past 6 days, it was finally time to knuckle down and make a start on the wind farm monitoring project. Jana and I headed up to the wind farm this afternoon and began by carrying out the photo-monitoring (replicating photos taken in the last two seasons - 07/08 and 08/09 and comparing the images to analyse change in the disturbance around the turbine sites). It was windy and cold on site, and the sun was hidden by cloud. Jana had tried to prepare me as best she could for the work environment we were heading into, but, probably in the me being me way that I function, I don't understand very well until I am experiencing the situation for myself. And then I finally get it! Anyway - the key is to be SUPER prepared, and to have your necessary data/equipment/whatever extremely organised. Even though I tried to have everything sorted and organised before heading out to site, there is definately room for improvement there! We were lucky though. Because of the scale of the wind farm project, along with the ongoing work that is being done, there are several containers on site that are fairly comfortable inside which can be used to shelter out of the wind. Jana assures me this is absolutly not the norm for research in Antarctica. Well all I can say is that it has been a real blessing today! We fumbled around a bit this afternoon trying to get the photo monitoring sorted, however it was already after 5 pm by the time we had finished the first two photos (of nine), so we decided to head back, have dinner and then head head up to the site again after dinner (light is no issue which has been brillant!). After a good piece of steak, some fantastic salad (thanks Sharlene and Barry!) and a re-read of the report written last year (thanks Libby!) we were away laughing! And the sun had come out -- a gorgeous evening! The remaining photos were taken in no time. Part one of our monitoring is now complete!!

Doing the photo monitoring

Me and my baby .. to give you an idea of scale, I am standing near the bottom of the turbine

Wind turbine at dusk

Yet another Scott Base sign; by the way - it's a possum, not a cat! :)