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Archive for the 'Environment' Category

Mid-Winter Celebrations

Susanne, Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

Throughout my travels around the world I have gotten to experience various holidays that we don’t necessarily celebrate in the United States. Since travelling to New Zealand and Antarctica I have seen Waitangi Day and Anzac Day, but my favourite holiday down here so far has been the Mid-Winter celebrations. My family has celebrated mid-winter in the form of Christmas, so it was a wonderful experience to be involved in a different kind of mid-winter festival. Do you participate in any celebrations for mid-winter?

The 2008 mid-winter, also known as the winter solstice, occurs on June 20 in the Southern hemisphere and December 21 in the Northern hemisphere. In Antarctica, this means that the sun is at its greatest angular distance from the equator and we experience the longest night of the year. This also means that the sun will start to return to us, although it will take a few more weeks before we see the horizon again.

A yearly tradition in Antarctica for both the Kiwis and Americans is to celebrate Mid-Winter by having a somewhat formal dinner and celebration. On Scott Base, Chef was busy all day preparing for the eight course meal for that evening. Therese and helpers transformed one of our common areas into a wonderful and comfortable setting in which to laugh and be merry. First we enjoyed numerous platters of hors d’oeuvres including shrimp, venison, crab cakes, and beef.

Venison with capsicum as an hors d'oeuvres © Antarctic Heritage  Trust

Venison with capsicum as an hors d’oeuvres © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Once we were seated at the table, there was a huge selection of homemade breads and New Zealand wines. We then enjoyed crayfish bisque, seared venison, and duck with pumpkin and ginger tortellini. Is your mouth watering yet? Throughout dinner there were many toasts to the chef, the crew, and to the people who helped make Scott Base a possibility including three toasts by Lizzie, Therese, and myself. After a mango sorbet palate cleanser, we continued with the main course and my favourite dish, slow roasted pork belly with a delicious accompaniment of garlic mashed potatoes, bacon wrapped beans, and chorizo sausage with apples. To finish off the evening with dessert, chef made a chocolate and hazelnut spring roll and quadruple chocolate mousse with ice cream. As a final cap to the evening, we also had warm brie with rhubarb and lavosh. Everyone was so full, that we sat around the table for many hours afterwards enjoying the warmth of the room and the company of friends.

The 2008 Scott Base winter crew after our delicious mid-winter dinner © Pete de Joux

The 2008 Scott Base winter crew after our delicious mid-winter dinner © Pete De Joux

The following evening, the Americans from McMurdo invited us over for their Mid-Winter celebrations of dinner and dancing. They also did an amazing job on decorations and had ice sculptures made by the carpenters and live acoustic music played by three of the many musicians at McMurdo.

An ice sculpture made by the carpenters at McMurdo © Antarctic Heritage  Trust

An ice sculpture made by the carpenters at McMurdo © Antarctic Heritage Trust

The team of eight chefs and support staff that reside at McMurdo for the Winter prepared a delicious meal of beef and fish accompanied by a huge assortment of vegetables and desserts, all wonderfully arranged and decorated. Of course, there was also plenty of wine to be enjoyed all evening!I am so glad that I was able to be a part of this very traditional celebration. Mid-Winter celebrations go as far back as 1800BC in South America and even earlier for the Egyptians. In more recent times, Mid-Winter has been celebrated by the early explorers with a full dinner and celebrations. As Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote in his book, The Worst Journey in the World, ‘We are very merry - and indeed why not? The sun turns to come back to us tonight and such a day comes only once a year.’

Measuring the Earth’s magnetic field

Susanne, Thursday, June 19th, 2008

As a scientist, I am always interested in learning more about how we have discovered so much about the world we live in. One of the best things about living in Antarctica is that I am exposed to so many different types of research that are being conducted down here. I have already learned about bacteria at Bratina Island, seal populations at White Island, ozone depletion and viruses in the Dry Valley, but one of the most interesting sciences I have seen so far is the measurement of the Earth’s magnetic field.

One of Pete’s many responsibilities at Scott Base is to maintain the experiments that scientists use to collect data about Antarctica during the winter. I had a rare opportunity to see the huts at Scott Base that Pete uses to do observations of the Earth’s magnetic field. Only a few visitors at specific times can go into the huts to see the instruments used to take the measurements. In fact, this equipment is so sensitive that just walking around outside of the huts will change the measurements significantly.

The magnetic observation huts at Scott Base, 1957 © Vernon Gerard

The magnetic observation huts at Scott Base, 1957 © Vernon Gerard

The magnetic observation huts at Scott Base were built during the summer of 1957 by Vernon Gerard, a geomagnetism scientist on Sir Edmund Hillary’s expedition. On his blog, Vernon recounts what it was like to build the huts and how Hillary erected a life line leading to the huts for use during bad weather. To this day, Vernon’s photo hangs in the hallway of Scott Base in the Winter-over 1957 team photo.

Vernon Gerard using a magnetometer after the hut was built in 1957 © Vernon Gerard

Vernon Gerard using a magnetometer after the hut was built in 1957 © Vernon Gerard

Pete using a magnetometer on the same pedestal used by Vernon Gerard over 50 years later © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Pete using a magnetometer on the same pedestal used by Vernon Gerard over 50 years later © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Antarctica provides the perfect environment from which to study the Earth’s magnetic field, which is still being thoroughly researched and debated. Reduced interference and the convergence of the magnetic flux lines allow for reliable measurements. The angular change as the Magnetic South Pole shifts its position is more easily measured when located nearby. The Magnetic South Pole is the point at 90 degrees to the Magnetic North Pole and is where the magnetic field lines are completely vertical. The Earth’s magnetic field is produced by movement within the Earth’s molten iron core and the direction and intensity of this field changes according to the external impact of solar wind activity. The magnetometer at Scott Base is used to measure these changes of the magnetic field. This data, along with similar data from a network of magnetic observatories, gives scientists a better idea of what is happening in Space and with the Sun. Solar storms produce magnetic anomalies which cause auroras and degradation of radio communications.

Measuring the magnetic field around the Earth is not a new science to Antarctica. During Borchgrevink’s Southern Cross Expedition of 1898, Louis Bernacchi served as the physicist and astronomer, a position he also held a few years later for Scott’s Discovery expedition. Bernacchi was the first person to have collected a year of magnetic observations from Cape Adare.

Louis Bernacchi takes a magnetic observation at Cape Adare © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Louis Bernacchi takes a magnetic observation at Cape Adare © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Bernacchi likely used an Eschenhagen magnetometer to take measurements; examples of this type of instrument can still be seen at the Scott Base magnetic observation huts. Some of the first buildings to be constructed at Hut Point during the Discovery expedition were two huts used for magnetic observations. These are mentioned repeatedly in subsequent reoccupations of the huts, both by Scott and Shackleton. At one point Shackleton even attempted to burn them down as a signal to the nearby Nimrod. Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition was also involved in geomagnetic observations and Mawson, David, and Mackay became the first to discover the magnetic South Pole on 16 January 1909.

Lifetimes are spent studying the Earth’s magnetic field, but for me it was fascinating to briefly discover the history of magnetic studies in Antarctica. We have learned so much since Bernacchi made his first observations, but we have so much more to discover about this wonderful Earth beneath us. I wonder if Bernacchi knew the substantial contribution he made to an understanding of the Earth’s magnetic field or if he knew we still wouldn’t have all of the answers yet.

Diving in Antarctica

Susanne, Thursday, June 5th, 2008

Scuba diving is a major part of my life, both personally and professionally, so it’s no surprise that I wanted to learn more about the diving operations in Antarctica. As a technical and scientific diver, I understand extreme diving environments and the dangers associated with them, but I was intrigued to see the unique diving challenges of the Ross Sea. Not only are the waters of Antarctica cold (-1.8°C) and deep, they are also very dangerous. The presence of glaciers and sea ice overhead can prevent the diver from accessing the surface in an emergency, and the cold water temperatures can cause breathing equipment to freeze. While there have been lives lost during diving operations in Antarctica, hundreds of dives have occurred since the late 1980s and have led to a better understanding of underwater Antarctic ecology.

Diving in such cold temperatures requires special equipment such as a dry suit and cold water breathing regulators in addition to the normal scuba diving gear. Additional training beyond basic scuba certifications in overhead environments, confined spaces, and ice diving is also necessary. While the training and equipment is time-consuming and expensive, the reward is well worth the effort.

In my quest to learn more about the underwater environment, I discovered that a complex relationship exists between the natural environment and the biological environment. One of the features that I found interesting was the icefalls that form underwater and entrap marine organisms. Sometimes the organism is able to survive until the ice melts, but mostly it becomes food for other scavengers.

Bottom dwelling sea creatures are trapped inside ice crystals that form from icefalls © Bruce Miller 2007

Bottom dwelling sea creatures are trapped inside ice crystals that form from icefalls © Bruce Miller 2007

Anchor ice is the largest danger for bottom-dwelling organisms, as glaciers and drift ice can crush them or sweep them up off the sea floor. One of my favourite Antarctic species is the sea spider. Sea spiders are in the phylum Arthropod that is the same as spiders, scorpions, and insects. While they are found in waters all over the world, the largest and most interesting species are located in Antarctica. Sea spiders are predators that feed on other bottom dwellers such as anemones and sponges. This unique creature is thought to have existed as late as 450 million years ago, but several fossils have been found from the Jurassic period.

Sea spider © Bruce Miller 2007

Sea spider © Bruce Miller 2007

While I truly appreciate getting to see the seals and penguins, the underwater world is more fascinating to me. I won’t get the opportunity to dive while I am here, but I enjoy learning more about Antarctic ecology. Surely the early explorers knew that there was a diverse and wonderful world that existed right underneath them, but I don’t think they would ever have imagined the biological beauty that thrived beneath their vessel as they sailed into McMurdo Sound. Similar to how we peer over the edge of the shoreline in the summer to see the colourful starfish and sea urchins, I envision the men from Scott’s party walking down from Discovery Hut along the edge of the sea and pondering what lies beneath.

Diver floating past stalactites that form from the sea ice © Bruce Miller 2007

Diver floating past stalactites that form from the sea ice © Bruce Miller 2007

Climate change and the Historic Huts

Therese, Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

Climate change is a subject on many people’s minds these days and something often discussed at Scott Base. There are always lots of different views with some scientists even saying we need to factor in that this warming may be part of a natural warming/cooling cycle which has been occurring for millions of years. But while there are many views we all recognise humans have played a major part in contributing to the ‘Green house’ effect and we are all committed to doing what we can to help combat climate change.

People often ask us do we notice any difference in Antarctica - mainly because the continent is an important regulator of global climate and used as a global barometer to what is happening to the world. On a personal level it’s really hard to comment - mainly because we have been here for a couple of months and we are currently in the middle of the Antarctic winter that means pretty much 24 hour darkness. And as we all know climate change trends tend to be taken over years if not decades.

Interestingly enough we have been told the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula has, over the past fifty years, been one of the most rapidly warming parts of the planet. There is also statistical evidence that there is a warming trend at Scott Base over the past 50 years. Scott Base is probably the only place in Antarctica that has been consistently recording daily weather statistics using the methodology and types of instruments for that length of time. Pete de Joux, who is responsible for weather observations at Scott Base, says that the data shows a definite pattern of warming: 1° Celsius increase in mean temperature over 50 years. Previous warming phases on Earth saw a rate of change of approximately 4° Celsius over 1,000 years. This means that the rate of change at Scott Base is significant. Check out the British Antarctic Survey’s website for their views on climate change as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change website (the IPCC were recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 along with Al Gore for their work).

The build up of snow at Cape Evans after the winter season © Antarctic Heritage Trust

The build up of snow at Cape Evans after the winter season © Antarctic Heritage Trust

There are also indications of changes in climatic conditions at the early polar expedition bases. Over the past five years, the Antarctic Heritage Trust has seen some identifiable changes at the bases particular at Captain Scott’s base at Cape Evans. During the past three or four years Captain Scott’s base has at times, been almost completely buried by snow drift and the Trust’s conservation teams have regularly removed between 75 - 100 cubic metres of snow at the beginning of each summer season before they even begin conservation work. This is a new phenomenon and we are told this was almost unheard of a decade ago.

The annual clearing of snow from the walls of Cape Evans © Antarctic Heritage Trust

The annual clearing of snow from the walls of Cape Evans © Antarctic Heritage Trust

With the base being buried in snow, it brings a number of problems. Snow loading has caused structural damage in the stables that housed the expedition’s ponies. Other issues include snow and ice build-up – as the snow forms layers the weight compresses the snow, and when combined with freeze/thaw cycles, the bottom layers turn to ice. Each season the combination of snow and ice creates a mini glacier that pressurises the southern side of the building causing buckling and warping.

In 2003/04 the warmer temperatures caused the snow and ice to melt, flow under and into the building then refreeze. That caused some major damage to the building – both internally and externally. The good news is this season the Trust’s team of conservation carpenters installed a waterproof membrane along the entire southern and eastern exterior walls to waterproof the building to prevent this from happening again. The Trust has also been working with a team of experts from around the world on the issue of snow and ice build up. Permits are now in place and this coming summer the team will implement some long term solutions to alleviate and minimise the snow build up.

The wall of Cape Evans cleared of snow © Antarctic Heritage Trust

The wall of Cape Evans cleared of snow © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Back here at Scott Base we all pitch in and do what we can and we are committed to reducing our environmental footprint. Being in such a pristine, remote place brings home to you on a daily basis what impacts we all have on the environment.

Water and energy usage are monitored and discussed at weekly base meetings, with heating and lighting adjusted regularly for maximum efficiency as the external temperature drops, or different areas of the base come in and out of use. To conserve fuel, the walls of the base are heavily insulated and heat is harnessed from the exhaust of generators to help with heating. All waste is sorted for recycling, prior to being packed for return to New Zealand and appropriate disposal. Trips out into the field are rigorously monitored for impact on the environment. All waste, including human waste, is packed and returned to Scott Base. Various safety measures are used to prevent contamination of the environment, including using spill trays when refuelling vehicles to ensure no fuel leaks on the ground. Even the snow from a spilled cup of tea is shovelled up and removed back to base.

This may seem over the top, given how few humans exist in this vast landscape and how quickly the climate seems to erase human evidence, as well as an interesting contrast with our work on the AHT project that aims to prevent specific human evidence from being erased. But we feel we’re in a position here to achieve minimum environmental impact on a small scale, which will hopefully influence larger scale efforts throughout the rest of the world.

From the Team at Scott Base (with thanks to Fiona and Al at the Christchurch office in New Zealand for providing the information on climate change at the huts).

White island

Susanne, Thursday, May 8th, 2008

The winter has officially begun to set in and we are running out of light. The sun has stopped rising and setting on the horizon and at the moment we have about four hours of twilight. The lack of light not only makes working outside difficult, it also means that we won’t be able to leave the base on any overnight trips. So, in order to have one last trip off base, we decided to spend a night on top of White Island.

Approximately 15 miles long, White Island was originally located and named by Scott’s Discovery Expedition, the name based on the fact that only a few edges and peaks are visible through the snow. This is in contrast to Black Island, just to the West, which only has a small covering of snow.

A group of eight, including myself, set out for White Island early Monday morning in the Hagglunds lovingly known as H3 and H4. The route out to White Island was marked with flags for most of the drive, but once we reached the edge we were on our own. Dan, the Field Support Coordinator and our trip leader, fearlessly led the way up the ridges and over the frozen crevasses.

Carla and I in H4 before the ascent © Martin Meldrum

Carla and I in H4 before the ascent © Martin Meldrum

Along the top of the ridge we stopped to climb Mount Henderson, a small but interesting mound that looks over the south side of the island. Once we continued on, we broke through the cloud coverage and travelled up to Mount Nipha. This climb was definitely the highlight of the trip! The sun was low on the horizon over the clouds and displayed the most beautiful orange and pink tones that I’ve seen since we arrived.

Hike up to Mount Nipha © Martin Meldrum

Hike up to Mount Nipha © Martin Meldrum

View from the top of Mount Nipha © Antarctic Heritage Trust

View from the top of Mount Nipha © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Once we descended, we decided to camp at the base of Mount Nipha for the night. Everyone enjoyed a delicious meal of rice and hot curry courtesy of Chef Dan, which was much better than dehydrated food packets! The outside temperature was about -25ºC (without the wind chill factored in) and after a restless night of sleeping in the polar tents, I had a hearty breakfast of tea, oatmeal and apples. Shortly afterwards we packed up the camp and headed home to our Scott Base colleagues who were enjoying the quiet base in our absence. The White Island fam trip (familiarisation trip) was a wonderful break and a great way to say our final goodbyes to the sun over the clouds. I wonder if Scott and his crew felt the same way when the sun finally set the last time for them.

Map of Ross Island © Antarctica New Zealand

Map of Ross Island © Antarctica New Zealand

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