Ice Diary 2: Great Scott, A Ghost

Ice Diary 2

Great Scott, A Ghost

29 November, 2002

mars_life
Close-up of Martian meteorite ALH84001, showing what some argue appears to be fossilized evidence of ancient microbial life.
Image Credit: NASA

Hello, my name is Danny Glavin, and I feel extremely lucky to be a part of the ANSMET team. As part of my thesis research, I studied how micrometeorites collected from the Antarctic ice could have delivered extraterrestrial organic material to the early Earth, potentially seeding the planet with the building blocks of life. One meteorite found in Antarctica by ANSMET that has received an enormous amount of publicity is the Martian meteorite ALH84001.

This rock was blasted off of the surface of Mars millions of years ago by a large impact, sent flying into space, and eventually landed in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica about 13,000 years ago. In 1996, a team of scientists from the NASA Johnson Space Center and Stanford University claimed to have found evidence for ancient Martian life in this meteorite. The debate over whether this meteorite actually contains evidence for life on Mars continues today. My personal opinion is that a Martian sample return mission that would give us several pristine "uncontaminated" samples will be necessary to resolve this "life on Mars" debate.

Over the last week in McMurdo I have been trying to find the words to describe Antarctica — other than simply "cold and white." Standing on the ice sheet at our "shakedown" camp about 12 miles outside of McMurdo, I had this overwhelming feeling of insignificance, with miles and miles of ice in every direction. Although it was a very bright and clear day, distances and dimensions were very difficult to judge. John Schutt, the reconnaissance team leader, asked me how tall I thought the Trans-Antarctic Mountains were in the distance. I guessed 5,000 feet, but they were actually 14,000 feet!

One of the most important things to be concerned about in Antarctica is drinking LOTS of water. Keeping your body hydrated is the first defense against becoming sick. Because it is so dry here, your body loses much more water than normal. Although I was told to drink between five to seven liters of water per day, I didn’t drink enough when I first got to McMurdo. A couple of days ago, I started to get a sore throat, cough, and stuffed-up nose. After visiting the local hospital, I was told that I had picked up the "McMurdo Crud." The flight surgeon at the hospital prescribed me some medication, so I am feeling much better today. I really appreciate the extra help from the other team members so that I could get some much-needed rest.

30 November, 2002

My body is sore. We have spent the last couple of days loading gear and food for our six-week expedition to the ice. So when the opportunity to go on a six-hour ride to a cold, windy point came up, my gut reaction was to decline. But then Cady Coleman, an astronaut on our reconnaissance team, started twisting my arm.

mount_erebus_camp
ANSMET Camp on Mt. Erebus. The lowest temperature measured terrestrially: -129 deg. F (Vostok, 11,220 ft. elevation, 21 Jul 1983, Antarctica). The lowest annual precipitation, 0.8 in. (Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station)

We left at 6:30 p.m. in a couple of large transports called "Deltas." They are designed to travel over the sea ice, but they don’t go faster than 25 MPH, and they don’t have any suspension or heat. We got to Cape Evans in about 1 1/2 hours.

Cape Evans is where Capt. Robert F. Scott launched his final run at the pole in 1913. The hut he built there has been perfectly frozen in time, and we were allowed to walk around inside. The table was still set, beds made, and a stack of seal blubber in the stables off to the side was still smelly. All the shelves were stocked with cans of cocoa and oatmeal. I couldn’t help but feel there were ghosts present in the building. Scott never made it back to Cape Evans, but there is a memorial commemorating his sacrifice and others in the quest to reach the pole.

Right outside the door was a Weddell Seal and her pup. They didn’t seem to mind all the visitors and alternated playing and nursing while everyone snapped pictures. I was overwhelmed by their cuteness, and only took about 30 to 40 pictures.

Fairly close to Cape Evans, a glacier coming off of Mt. Erebus is in contact with the sea ice. It forms a sheer wall of blue ice that stands over 500 feet tall. It was awesome in the true sense of the word. Despite this grandeur, the wind was howling and we were able to put our cold weather gear to the test.

We had just left Cape Evans and Cady was well into a story about her launch on the Space Shuttle, when I saw a small black figure moving quickly across the ice. I yelled, "Penguin!" – cutting Cady off in mid-sentence. We piled out the back, and a small Adélie penguin made his way right in front of us. He seemed to be in a great hurry because he kept slipping on the ice, his flippers and feet moving wildly. This penguin really made my day. When we get back, we’ll be asked if we saw penguins, and now most of us can say we did. Plus, he reminded me of my clumsy pet cockatiel at home. He was quite a character.

1 December, 2002

It’s strange to see this bustling community stop, but that’s exactly what happened this weekend as McMurdo station observed Thanksgiving. It wasn’t observed on Thursday or even Friday, when it was Thursday in the United States, but on Saturday. Everyone was given the day off and most saw it as an occasion to dress up for the dinner.

Antarctic_landscape
Scott’s hut at Cape Evans with glacier in the background. Each year, more than 800 scientists from all over the world journey to this world of ice to conduct all types of research.

Having a little time off has given us the opportunity to see some of the sights. On Friday afternoon, Jamie, Scott, Carlton, Nancy, Linda, Danny, and I went to Scott Base, the New Zealand base here on Ross Island. Scott Base is much smaller than McMurdo, but serves the same purpose. It’s composed of interconnected modular buildings, so it’s possible to travel between buildings without going outside. It’s also built up on risers to keep the snow from accumulating around it.

Today, Scott Messenger used his free time to run in the McMurdo Turkey Trot, a 5K race from the chapel to the ice runway and back. Dante, Danny, and I used the time to climb Ob Hill for an unbelievable view of Ross Island.

Tonight is our last dinner together as a team, then the Beardmore group will need to take their bags to be weighed at "Bag Drag" for tomorrow morning’s flight to Beardmore South Camp. We’re taking two flights to get there in order to unload the palettes of gear and food and camp for the night. Then, on Tuesday, we’ll start our 100-kilometer traverse to the Goodwin Nunataks site (A nunatak is a mountain sticking up above the ice of a glacier).

2 December, 2002

This is Diane DiMassa, pinch-hitting for Andy. Andy is somewhat depressed today — no not because the [Denver] Broncos lost, although that certainly isn’t helping. You see, the main field team was scheduled to deploy to Beardmore Glacier today, but the weather has turned against us for the first time this season. All flights in and out of McMurdo Station have been grounded.

Up until now, the weather here has been pleasant – cold, but actually pretty nice days considering what Antarctica can throw at you. Overnight and into this morning, a small storm passed through and the station went from nice weather, or Condition 3, to not-so-nice weather, or Condition 2. Below is a copy of the McMurdo Station Travel Policy. It explains the weather condition categories; it’s the visibility that is affecting us the most today:

MCMURDO TRAVEL POLICY – SUMMER (October – February)

  • CONDITION 3 is defined as having winds less that 48 knots, wind chills warmer than -75 F, and visibility greater than 1/4 mile. This is considered the normal weather condition in McMurdo.
  • CONDITION 2 is defined by one or more of the following conditions: winds speeds 48 to 55 knots, wind chills of -75 to -100 F, or visibility of less than 1/4 mile.
  • CONDITION 1 is defined by one or more of the following conditions: wind speeds greater than 55 knots, wind chills colder than -100 F, or visibility of less than 100 feet.

Andy is depressed because the sea ice runway has been swapping back and forth between Condition 2 and Condition 1 all day. I have mixed feelings about today’s delay.

Antarctic_landscape
Antarctica sunset, before the weather turns. Antarctica is called ‘The Window to the Galaxy’ because it has revealed so much information about planets other than our own.

As much as I would like the team to be able to get on with the meteorite hunting, I will be sad to see them go. I am on the reconnaissance (or Rekke) team. So when the main team leaves for Beardmore Glacier, Dean, Cady, Carl, and I will be left behind for a later deployment. It is likely that the main field party will be back in Christchurch, New Zealand before the Rekke team gets back to McMurdo, so I won’t be seeing those folks again until the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March. We’ve all been getting along quite well, forming friendships that will last a very long time, so I will be sad when they leave.

Another reason that I have mixed emotions about the delay is that I am secretly happy that the winds have picked up. (Don’t tell Andy!) You see, I’m not a geologist like the rest of the crowd. I’m a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, and I have set up equipment to get some data on wind energy. Since the ANSMET team is a deep field party, we have to be creative in ways to supply enough power for the needs of the team — for example, powering Andy’s computer so he can continue to post to this web site. I’m investigating the potential for small wind turbines to provide power in the deep field of Antarctica. My turbine system is happily collecting data on the sea ice right now (I hope), measuring the wind conditions and propensity for power generation.

I am tempted to run out onto the sea ice to check to see if everything is OK, but I really don’t have to. In the library at the Crary Lab is a small telescope. So, I can stand here and look through the telescope to see my set-up. Spin, little wind turbine! Spin!


andy_caldwell
Expedition chronicler, Andrew Caldwell.

In this multi-part Ice Diary series, all commentaries are attributable to Andy Caldwell unless otherwise noted, and reprinted by permission as part of his participation in the Teachers Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) program.

So far, meteorite hunters have found about 26 rocks on Earth that have been identified as having come from Mars (some of these broke apart upon entering the atmosphere, so the 26 rocks were found in about 40 separate pieces). For these rocks to have reached Earth successfully, their origin –often beginning billions of years ago– likely blasted from at least a two-mile-wide impact crater on Mars. Most remarkably, at any given moment, this interplanetary sample transit delivers about one Martian meteorite landing on Earth each month.

Since 1976, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET), funded by the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation, has recovered more than 10,000 specimens from meteorite stranding surfaces along the Transantarctic Mountains. ANSMET continues to be one of the few Antarctic research projects that invites graduate students and senior researchers from other institutions to participate in field work on a volunteer basis–including the Teachers Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) program. As a multi-agency collaboration, the NSF supports field operations, NASA supports storage curation, distribution and notification of recovered samples, and the Smithsonian provides long term curation facilities for the collection and assist in sample characterization.

Related Web Pages

Ice Diary I: Shooting Stars on Ice
Ice Diary 2: Great Scott, A Ghost
Ice Diary 3: Cheer for Team Meteorite
Ice Diary 4: The Hunt Begins
Ice Diary 5: MacAlpine Hills or Bust
Ice Diary 6: Contacting The Mother Pod
Ice Diary 7: Summer Christmas
Ice Diary 8: Where No One Has Gone Before
Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET)
Planetary Materials Curation (NASA/JSC)
Mars Meteorite Compendium (NASA/JSC)
AMLAMP: Antarctic Meteorite Location and Mapping Program (database of where meteorites have been found)
National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs
McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project
Ice Cube of Exotic Microbes
Antarctic Microbes Colonize under Mars-like Conditions
Cryobot (JPL)
Meteorite Repository (JSC) Rock Descriptions
NIPR Meteorite Collection (Japan)