Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Fresh batch o' photos

Hi again. Here's some new photos (well, new to you, the blogger) for you all. The shutterfly URL is:

http://share.shutterfly.com/action/share/view?i=EeMN2rVo4bO2g&open=1&sm=1&sl=0

http://share.shutterfly.com/osi.jsp?i=EeMN2rVo4bO2g&notag=1

This batch of photos is a collection of pictures taken during my first week or so here in McMurdo, Antarctica. For starters, this is a special time to be in Antarctica. It’s the end of the winter season here. People here call this time of year “Winfly”. It stands for Winter Fly-in. Every year the base “closes” near the end of February, meaning that the summer population of McMurdo plummets from over 1000 people to about 150 people for the winter. Planes stop coming to McMurdo once March rolls along. By May it is completely dark all the time. So the 150 remaining people are now in Antarctica all by themselves, no new people show up, no fresh food, and no sunlight. Just the bitter cold of the Antarctic winter. When mid-August arrives, there is a brief time-window where the Air Force will fly 3-4 flights from New Zealand into McMurdo Base. The purpose of these flights is to get the base ready for the oncoming summer science research season which starts in early October. These planes bring in vital supplies and people. The base increases in population to about 300 people. The most important job for Winfly is to get the runway ready that the planes will be landing on come October. It takes several weeks to accomplish this because every year the runway has to be made all over again. The reason is because the runway is on the frozed sea ice of McMurdo Sound a few miles from the shore line where McMurdo Base is.

What also makes this time of year so interesting is that this is about the time when the sun begins to get above the horizon and therefore marks the end of the long, cold, night of the Antarctic winter. The sun rising on this frozen landscape after a 4 month hiatus has an amazing effect on the biology of Antarctic. This is the time when life begins to get going again. It may not be as visually stunning as Spring in a temperate forest with flowers blooming and birds chirping and what not, but compared to the frozen and motionless sterility of the dark Antarctic winter, it truly is a remarkable turn of events. The enormous Weddell seals haul out of the water (where ever they can find a crack in the sea ice that allows them access to the air above the frozen waters of the Ross Sea) and give birth to baby seals. Whales (Minkes, Blues, and Killers) begin their migration south to feed on the rich planktonic life that is found in the Antarctic water. The late winter/early spring also marks a time when the marine invertebrates found beneath the frozen sea ice begin to reproduce. One invertebrate in particular, the Antarctic pin-cushion seastar, Odontaster validus, begins spawning at this time. It is this seastar that allows me and the lab I work in to have this rare opportunity to come to Antarctica during Winfly. If we were to arrive in October, when most of the other scientists get here, the seastar would already be done spawning, and we would not be able to study these amazing animals. I use the word amazing because they, and all other Antarctic life-forms, are living in water that is almost 2 degrees below the freezing point of fresh water. The seawater doesn’t freeze however because of the salt that in it. I will talk more about how we study these animals in later emails.

So anyway, that was a basic introduction to why our lab is in Antarctica right now. The photos in this “posting” are just a small sampling of pictures I took around town during my first week here.

The first set of photos show our science group, BO-006, working with another science group, BO-005 (Art Devries’ group). We are attempting to open up a hole in the sea ice so that we can have access the water below it and go SCUBA diving so that we can get the seastars we are interested in. This is not typically how a hole in the sea ice is made. The town has much more appropriate equipment to do this, along with much better trained people to use that equipment. However, it being Winfly, a lot of that equipment was not quite ready to be used yet. So we took it upon ourselves to make our own hole (it really was imperative for us to get in the water and collect these seastars as soon as possible). What we didn’t know was that the ice we were trying to cut through with a chainsaw and/or drill through with a Jiffy drill was sea ice that had not been blown out to see for several years. The sea ice was actually 16 feet thick! So to make a long story short, our efforts did not pay off. But honestly, we did have fun being out on the sea ice and playing with chainsaws and drills. Luckily, the drill rig we normally use to make dive holes was ready a couple of days later and we never had to repeat this futile experience again. I will include photos of how to correctly drill a dive hole in later photo albums. Some of the other pictures show the general work being carried out to get the town ready for the approaching summer season. Roads have to be built on the sea ice so that vehicles can drive from town to the "airport". The most dangerous part of these roads is the transition from land to ice. This is the point where cracks in the ice are most likely to form. Even though the sea ice is 16 feet thick, it is still floating on top of a large body of water that is heavily influenced by tides. The motion created by these tides is constantly creating cracks in the ice where it abuts land. Heavy equipment operators try to stabilize this “transition zone” but clearing away the snow so they can see where the cracks are and then by adding freshwater to them so that it will easily fill in the cracks and freeze.

The second batch of photos are pictures of nacreaous clouds. These are a type of polar stratospheric cloud (PSC) that occur often in Antarctica. They are very stunning with there psychedelic coloration. The reason for this coloring is due to the large amount of ice crystals that these clouds contain. Interestingly, as beautiful as they are, they are a very important part of the cycle that creates the ozone hole over Antarctica. The ice crystals in these clouds create an optimal chemical environment for the chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere to interact and destroy the ozone in the upper atmosphere. If this reaction were to occur in the absence of ice crystals, it would happen with a much lower efficiency. This is the main reason why the hole in the ozone is focused over Antarctica. Antarctica is cold enough to support a large number of PSCs.

The photos after the nacreaous clouds are of a laser used by atmospheric scientists to detect PSCs. The laser (the green beam going up into to sky) is located in the Crary Lab (where our lab spends most of its day). The laser has a telescope hooked up to it. When the laser encounters a PSC, the light created by the laser scatters and the interference is picked up by the telescope.

Wow, that was a long-winded description. Hopefully the next ones will be shorter now that I’ve given you some background information.

Enjoy the pictures. If you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments sections of the posts and I will try to address them in the next installment.

13 Comments:

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awesome entry. then again, it had chainsaws. what's not to like.

 
At September 28, 2004 at 8:52 AM, Blogger Ken Wheaton said...

hEY dOUG! I gotta hear more about this laser. I used to work on LIDAR maps. HOpe you are well! Cat

 
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