IceBite Blog: Saying Farewell to a Frozen World


Members of the IceBite team set out on a long hike over jagged terrain to Beacon Valley, visible in the distance.
Credit: M. Marinova

NASA’s IceBite project will spend three austral summers in Antarctica testing ice-penetrating drills for a future mission to Mars. A team of seven scientists recently returned from the first field season, installing scientific probes in the ice and frozen ground, and scouting for sites where the drills will be tested the following year. One of the team members, Margarita Marinova, wrote a blog of the team’s activities. In this installment, Marinova describes a grueling hike to neighboring valleys, and reflects on her return to civilization.

Dec. 12, 2009. Visiting the Neighbors

Every good field trip has a “death march” – that one super long hike to explore neighboring areas, or when you try to scale that peak which seems much smaller than it actually is. Today – our last day before going back to McMurdo, we set off on a hike to visit Beacon Valley below, and then the neighboring Farnell Valley. Beacon Valley is famed for its buried ice, which may be as old as 8 million years! This makes it truly ancient ice. Ice that is that old could give us a lot of insight into the climate and biology from that time. There is still a lot of discussion whether the ice is really that old. This is because it’s really hard to determine the age of ice, and there is a lot of melting and sublimation that can happen in 8 million years. Given the fame and potential importance of the sightsite, we wanted to see it for ourselves.

The distance from our camp to Beacon Valley is about 4 km (2.53 miles), but walking is made difficult by the large boulders covering the ground, as well as the hanging valley morphology of University Valley. Hanging valleys result when a largest glacier fills the main valley, and smaller glaciers fill the tributary valleys. The smaller tributary glaciers don’t have the chance to erode the ground down to the same level as the main valley. When the glaciers retreat, the tributary valleys look like they are perched above the main valley. To get from the hanging valley down to the main valley requires walking along the very steep wall. And we with every step you know you have to go back up on the way home!

IceBite team members (l to r) Marinova, McKay, Heldmann and Davila, standing on the frozen pond in Farnell Valley. The Farnell Valley glacier is in the background.
Credit: M. Marinova/auto-timer

After looking around in Beacon Valley and looking at the buried ice there, we continued on to Farnell Valley. Farnell is our neighbouring valley to the south. It’s much wider than University Vvalley, and has a depression near the head of the valley that is filled with ice. Before our exploration trip we weren’t sure what the ice was like – the map just showed ice. But from our trip we saw that it looks like a frozen pond. It would be interesting in future years to see if this pond melts every summer, if it is made of snow that was internally molten and recrystallized little by little, or if rare extreme warm events (once in a few decades) are responsible for melting the pond.

At the very head of the valley there is also a small glacier. I wonder how this little glacier comparesd to the snowpack that is at the head of University Valley. (A glacier is defined as flowing ice. So it needs to be thick enough that the overlying pressure makes the bottom deform and flow. Snowpacks are static and don’t move.) Interestingly, from digging a few pits during our hike, there was no clear trend of depth to ice-cemented ground with distance from the glacier at the head of the valleyFarnell Valley, as there is at University Valley. We are still not sure why that is. Being able to understand why these two neighbouring valleys differ like that would be important if we are to understanding permafrost and ice-cemented ground dynamics.

After going all the way up Farnell Valley, and eating our reward – a pack of Pringles – it was time for the long hike home. The big boulders everywhere made walking difficult. While Farnell and University Valleys are at about the same elevation, despite my best efforts to find a route, there was no way to go between them without going back down to Beacon Valley: the wall was way too steep! As we got back into University Valley though, we wanted to finish up some of our work on depth of the ice-cemented ground with distance from the snowpack. So it was time to dig pits again. Because we were so far away from the snowpack, the ice-cemented ground depth was expected to be much deeper: on the order of 70-100 cm (roughly 32-3 feet). A lot of our digging attempts were thwarted by the high density of large rocks that we couldn’t dig past.

After 8 hours of hiking and digging, we were finally back at camp. But since it is was our last day here, there are were still odds and ends to be finished up. After some warm food and numerous hot chocolates, it wa’s time to go out again and finish mapping a polygon that Jen and I are were working on. Good thing the sun never sets 🙂

Dec. 17, 2009. Back to Civilization

The glow of the midnight sun illuminates the IceBite campsite in University Valley.
Credit: M. Marinova

After a month of living in the field, it is almost startling to be back in “civilization.” Cars, plants and trees, the many people, garbage, flowing water, showering, grocery stores… With every action I can’t help but compare how I did that same activity just a few days ago.

After living for a month with minimalistic needs, all the scurrying and driving and shopping around me seems superfluous. I want to stop people on the street and ask them, “Did you look at how beautifully green the trees are?” (I live in Southern California – the trees are still green.) “Did you stop today to breathe in and think about the beauty of what’s around us, of how amazing our planet is?” (I live in Southern California – the trees are still green 🙂

It’s easy to get used to the conveniences of living in a city, of having running water and grocery stores full of food. Of having a warm apartment and a comfy bed to sleep in. It is because we have come so far in our technology and quality of life that we have the resources to send scientists like me to Antarctica to study frozen ground. But what I know for certain is that food will never taste as good as it did after a long day of hard work in the cold, and that taking a moment to look at the distant peaks aglow in the midnight sun set my heart on fire.

With every day I want to remember to truly explore the world around me and be conscious of everything I do.