Ice Diary 7: Summer Christmas

Ice Diary 7

Summer Christmas

"The end cannot be far".
Captain Robert Scott, storm-bound in a tent near South Pole, makes last entry in his diary, March 29, 1912.

23 December, 2002

Some days it feels like we are slaves to technology, constantly working on generating electrical power through solar panels and a wind turbine, or troubleshooting a computer problem. But it also makes our lives easier and connects us to the outside world. When we returned from our meteorite searching this afternoon, there was a mad rush to use the satellite telephone.

early twentieth- century British Antarctic explorer, Captain Robert Scott

When we do our searching, we employ GPS (Global Positioning System) technology. Nancy uploads the coordinates of each meteorite to a satellite, and hopefully we’ll see patterns develop. We also use satellite photographs of the area to determine the extent of the blue ice fields and the moraines.

We spent our morning inventorying our meteorites and searching the blue ice right next to camp, then after lunch we headed back to Quiche Moraine. Dante’s metal detector wasn’t as productive as yesterday and seemed to have a hard time detecting the meteorites. We finished the afternoon searching a small wedge of ice near That Moraine. We found two beautiful specimens, and Nancy found a glove Dante lost there last week. We came home with 39 meteorites, bringing our total to 253.

We finished the day with the "ANSMET Company Christmas Party," which consisted of our group enjoying the nice weather this afternoon and listening to Christmas music on Linda’s I-Pod and Dante’s computer and external speakers. Ahhh…technology again. We also signed up for times to use the satellite phone to call our loved ones because the satellite phone will be a precious commodity on Christmas and the day after (Christmas back home).

24 December, 2002

This morning we were greeted by light northerly winds, with mild temperatures (+15F) but also overcast skies and light snow. When the skies are gray, it’s impossible to tell where the horizon ends and the sky begins. The flat light also makes it hard to see any definition in the snow. When we drive our ski-doos over the snow in these conditions, we can’t see the sastrugi. Suddenly, the ski-doo is lurching this way and that and we never saw it coming.

However, this light makes it easier to spot rocks on the ice. When the sun is out, it’s easy to lose meteorites in the shadows of the ripples of ice or snowdrifts. Unfortunately, this light also makes the meteorites look like all the other little black rocks out on the ice.

Local fauna shows no influence of its extreme environment, as largely without large predators, there are no evolutionary restrictions on standing out from the crowd

We headed over to Jacob’s Nunatak today – we thought we would just explore to get a feel for where meteorites exist and where to do our systematic searching. Jamie led us to a spot on the west side of a yet unnamed moraine, and it turned out he parked us in a field of large meteorites. We found six just sitting near our ski-doos.

After a little more random foot searching, we hiked to the top of Jacob’s Nunatak. It sits about 700 feet above the ice, and much of it is bare rock sculpted by the wind. It felt weird to walk on a surface that is not snow or ice – it’s been a while! The view from the top was breathtaking. Despite the clouds, we could see for miles in every direction and got a good idea of where we would be searching the next few weeks. In the distance, we could make out the ice of the polar ice cap that comes into contact with the mountains.

Ice formations shaped by the blowing Antarctic winds that travel from plains to ocean unabated by ground cover

We hiked down and ended the day early. We joked that we needed time to go to the malls and do our last minute Christmas shopping and wrap presents. Many of us took advantage of the break to change our clothes, clean our tents, and take care of basic chores.

McMurdo is basically shut down today and tomorrow. They have only the essential departments open; Mac-Ops (to whom we call-in every morning), the hospital, fire department, galley, etc. The chaplains from the McMurdo Chapel plan to sing Christmas carols over the HF radio to all the field camps in Antarctica.

25 December, 2002

It was cold and windy this morning and I think most of us were thankful we weren’t searching today. Instead, today was dedicated to enjoying each other’s company and taking the opportunity to call our loved ones back home.

Jamie and I made breakfast burritos and coffee for everyone, and we packed the whole group in our tent. It was cozy, but still not as tight as the Quantas flight on the way down. After breakfast, we began our gift exchange. We’d brought small gifts ahead of time for the other team members, and the gifts were very creative – signed artwork, comic books, stocking caps, and ANSMET patches. Then came the items we’ll really use in the field, like candy and foot warmers.

This afternoon was spent reading, napping, playing video games, and watching DVDs. It felt good to relax after several consecutive days of hard work and successful meteorite hunting. Carlton Allen finished his "Christmas Tree" that he made from snow and ornaments. He started it last night and we each got to place an ornament on the tree." It reminded me of the tree in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" that grew more and more beautiful because it was so well loved.

27 December, 2002

Today was the kind of day I expected in Antarctica. It started out cold, windy, and overcast, and remained that way well into the afternoon. I really am making good use of the hand and foot warmers Carl gave everyone for Christmas.

Called by scientist, the window on the universe; called by extreme explorers, the end of the world

We went to Jacob’s Nunatak and did systematic searching all morning. The searching turned up a few meteorites, but less than we had hoped. So, after finishing the blue ice on the western side of Schuttaine Moraine (named after John Schutt) at Jacob’s Nunatak, we did our first walking systematic search. Overall, we’re getting pretty good on the snowmobiles at doing systematic searches, but we drive better than we walk. We were crossing each other’s paths and walking nearly random paths looking at rocks. We chose to do this because the rocks were clustered too tightly to see all of them from a snowmobile. This search yielded two more meteorites. We actually found enough meteorites today to break the 300-meteorite mark for the season.

We collect the meteorites very carefully. We have three meteorite collecting kits with us, so there is usually someone nearby packing a kit. The meteorite is first given a number with an aluminum tag and photographed with that number on a manual counter. The dimensions and fusion crust percentage are recorded. Only then can the meteorite be moved with a pair of sterile tongs. We do our best not to touch the meteorite or let it touch anything but the tongs, but accidents do occur, and if so we make a note of it in the record book. After the meteorite is collected, it is dropped into a sterile plastic bag and sealed with freezer tape. The meteorites are brought back to camp and put in a storage unit called an isopod. Then they are shipped to the Johnson Space Center for further analysis.

We take this care so that if anything anomalous is found, they can be sure that it wasn’t caused by us. In 1996, nanofossils of bacteria and other chemical signatures of life were reported to be in a Martian meteorite found by the 1984 ANSMET team. One of the biggest questions asked by skeptics was whether contamination happened after the meteorite landed in Antarctica. In the field, we have witnessed meteorites in liquid water at temperatures well below freezing. The rocks beneath the ice re-radiate heat and a thin layer of ice can create a mini greenhouse effect.

After we finished searching the Jacob’s Nunatak area, Jamie took us to a spot that overlooked our camping area and had an amazing view of the mountains and glaciers. We spotted a black object about a quarter of a mile away on a precarious icy cliff. We thought it might be a large meteorite. Jamie volunteered to check it out and strapped on a pair of crampons and headed up to the object. We watched intently through binoculars and telephoto lenses as Jamie approached the object. With a grand motion, Jamie picked up the object and revealed that it was just a large plastic trash bag. He brought it back for inspection and none of us could figure where it came from. But this had to be the most effort ever given to recovering a trash bag.

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. Dr. Ralph Harvey and John Schutt are members of each field party, serving as ANSMET continues to be one of the few Antarctic research projects that invites graduate students and senior researchers from other institutions to participate in our field work on a volunteer basis–including the Teacher 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.

In this multi-part Ice Diary series, all commentary is attributed to Andy Caldwell unless otherwise noted, and reprinted by permission as part of his participation in the TEA program.

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
Ice Diary 9: Climbing the Mountains of Mars
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)