Saturday, December 08, 2007

Mars on Earth

Some of the below pictures are from my hike yesterday, others are from NASA images of Mars. 1) Do you spot the martians? 2) Can you tell which pictures are of Taylor Valley?


Friday, December 07, 2007

Lake Fryxell and Glacier Berries

We made it to Lake Fryxell yesterday! (see the snow/ice covered patch in valley basin below) I sampled the moat for pH, DOC, metals, and major ions, all indicators of the geochemical-ecological processes occuring in the Lake. The breeze, an icy breath from the Ross Sea, was persistent, so we ate and drank constantly (drinking water frequently is really important to staying warm, more so than eating as your body requires water to regulate its temperature).
To get there, we hiked up the western margin of Canada Glacier, a feat that required stablizers to handle the refrozen snow. Stabilizers are like strap on sandals that have screws sticking out the bottom to minimize slipping. The don't have front points like crampons and can only handle minimal changes in topography. Without them, you would slide not so gracefully into the side of the glacier like a lost seal trying to find its way back to the sea... Once we were parallel with the base of the icefall, we crossed the glacier across a flagged route (we crossed this way, because the GA, Matt, had not used crampons before and this is the approved route for non-glacier crews using stabilizers).

My flat friends waddled slowly behind us, wading up to their bellies in the high amount of snow that has fallen this spring/summer. (Normally, the Taylor Valley averages around 10 cm/yr of snow- but it looks as though at least that has fallen in the past month).
Here is our view on the east side of the glacier, before we headed down to the lake.
At the end of the day, we had a nice cup of tea from the melt of glacier berries (above in the crate, and below along the margin of the glacier). Until Lake Hoare moats opens up, glacier berries are the preferred source of drinking water. Also, Lake Hoare is the only 'freshwater' lake that we can drink from in the valleys. The rest are quite salty including the magnesium-rich lake mistakenly savored by early valley researchers that was aptly named Lake Chad.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

2 Hours to Go

I'll be hiking across Canada Glacier to the east side and plan to sample Lake Fryxell today. I'm waiting until noon to leave because Matt, a GA (General Assistant), has flown in to help out at camp this weekend while Rae returns to McMurdo for a little while. We will be walking higher on the glacier, so it will be much less hummocky and the channels are all below the surface....

Frozen samples

Right now my samples are frozen. The unthawed ice contains soil and rock that dissolve into a mysterious mix for me to analyze. My advisor, Dr. Berry Lyons, has been looking at rock weathering throughout the world from the tropics to the poles. Weathering is extremely important as is tied with climate change and redistributes chemistry. It is controlled by changes in slope, temperature, biology, and even the amount of water flowing. I am interested in the distribution, weathering and uptake of trace elements in glacier snow and glacier melt.
(Small changes in trace elements may mean large changes for ecosystems, trace elements are like vitamins, good in the right doses, but potentially damaging at higher concentrations). They also act as chemical traces, helping to source wind patterns and snow deposition.
My dissertation work is part of the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program that began in 1993 as a part of an integrated network of 26 sites (mostly in the US) studying ecosystems in all climates. The McMurdo LTER is the coldest and driest end-member. I am working alongside stream-team hydrologists, worm herders (studying nematodes and other soil organisms), glaciologists, and limnologists. Its a great experience and a wonderful team.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Melt to Come

The flurries from Monday remained glued to the salty soils of the valleys, it is now impossible to discern gypsum crystals from stalagmites of snow. Below is the USGS stream gauge for Andersen Creek (along the western margin of Canada Glacier), a stream I am sampling; waiting for it to melt.

During the night, the gray sky made sleeping a bit more chilly. Faint sun penetrated my yellow Scott Tent and inside was a more subdued sepia tone than the shocking yellow of warmth. I had to place my wind-up alarm clock inside a sock because it was too cold for it to work yesterday. In January 2002 katabatic winds pummeled our tents and my tent walls twisted spasmodically, smashing my alarm clock into a thousand rattling pieces (fortunately, these pieces were contained---the problem was only uncovered swishing the clock like an infant's rattle.) Anyway, to keep from needing to eat pounds of chocolate throughout the night, I put my little red parka underneath my sleeping mat along with a few folded duffle bags. The more you can get yourself off the ground the warmer you'll sleep. I wove myself into a chrysalis of a pile pants, a sleeping bag liner, and miscellaneous Smartwool tops. My eyes draped with a face warmer and hat secured into position. Today, I emerged from this encasement revitalized but debating the pros and cons of changing into new attire.
The winds are light today, but no flights again do to the sustained gray. There is little chance that today will be the day that Andersen Creek melts... so I will take a hike today after a few hours on my dissertation. I sit comfortably inside Lake Hoare Camp now. Looking out upon this gray day with anticipation.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Preparation and Dissertation

I'm posting a few more pics from yesterday (Monday) and Sunday... today I spent much of the day organizing future sampling trips and equipment. Working on the glacier requires coordinating schedules. The glaciers of the dry valleys are unique, they are not experiencing the rapid retreat of their temperate and tropical counterparts. The rest of the mountain glaciers of the world have accelerated in their demise, especially it seems within the last decade (from what you can see from the photographs and moraines (rocks left by receding glaciers) left identifying glaciers used to be). What used to be snow is now falling as rain at higher and higher altitudes. This is a big concern to people reliant on glacier melt for drinking water, crops and energy. Especially areas with dry summers and little other water. (Snowpack is similarly important).

Why are the dry valley glaciers an exception? Antarctica is isolated from the rest of the world with circumpolar winds and a huge ozone hole, that may or may not be healing itself. (These are among the many hypotheses being explored).

I do wonder if the channels we crawled in the last few days are indicative of change to come. I don't remember them being so incised 6 years ago. The surface is very dynamic, but it almost looks as though lower on the glacier the channels are able to penetrate deeper into the icy surface. The trapped sediment in the middle of the channel walls is at approximately the depth of the channels the first time I visited... (Could it be that the channels are 2 times deeper???)
Above and below are shots of the Canada Glacier.

While I wrote, the Frankenberg Fish went back to the Suess Glacier for a glamor shot. I realize that I am not writing this for kids (but hope the pictures entertain).

Snow at Lake Hoare Camp

Just when it looked like the streams would be running, it got colder beginning yesterday afternoon. Gusts turned to flurries and soon no water was left unfrozen. The sun has just come out again (so I'm hoping to sample streams tomorrow-my fingers are crossed).
In the meantime the Flats found a dry patch and a mummified seal that had lost its way back to the Ross Sea and wandered inland instead. They were not sure what to make of this poor creature.
It feels even more remote here with snow because all Helicopter traffic stops (not that there is a lot, but 2 or 3 a day is a beacon connecting us with McMurdo).

I've been working on my dissertation every day (its amazing to be able to walk out the door into the vast landscape, the salty soil scouring at rocks, and to come inside and make a cup of tea and write.... ) My days are very productive here with all of this encouraging light.