Ice Diary 8: Where No One Has Gone Before

Where No One Has Gone Before
28 December, 2002

No day of meteorite collecting in Antarctica is routine, but a certain regularity has set in. Nancy says that this usually happens around this time — when you’ve been searching for a little over three weeks and still have almost three to go. I’ve noticed people in our group have questions about the upcoming pull-out, and I must admit that some of my thoughts have turned to my New Zealand itinerary and what I’m going to do first when I get back to work at the high school. I think all of us are looking forward to showers and sleeping indoors again.

Today started like most. We woke at 7:00 a.m., but the tent was about 10 degrees colder than normal. I heard the wind outside and was not as motivated as I could have been. We went back to Quiche Moraine, thinking that we would finish it up, but instead we recovered another 16 meteorites, and some don’t fit the pattern we thought we’d established. It looks like we still have some of Quiche leftover.

At 11:00, Nancy and Jamie led us back to the "Mouthy Ice," a large blue ice field on the plateau above us that is shaped on the satellite photo like a giant mouth. They try to mix up the agenda every day so that we don’t get bored searching the same moraine or ice field day after day. About the time we got up there, the wind died and the temperatures began to climb. We systematically searched for a couple of hours, but Scott was the only one who found a meteorite.

Ski-doos in need of field repairs in paradise.
Credit: Caldwell, TEA

Today we seemed to get several breaks during the time we were setting up each search sweep. Many of us would lay back on our Ski-doos and stare at the sky. When all the Ski-doos are shut off, it’s perfectly quiet and peaceful. The sky is very blue here, like the sky in Colorado, and for the same reason: elevation. Occasionally we see contrails left by the LC-130s going between the South Pole and McMurdo. The contrails curve to match the curvature of the Earth. The poles are the only places that this phenomenon is visible. Another phenomenon we see frequently are sundogs, rainbow colored circles around the sun caused by the refraction of light through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere.

The ice was hard on the Ski-doos. At one point, two of them had broken bogey wheels and another was having engine trouble. Bogey wheels act as the suspension for the snowmobiles and are easily replaced. I usually have a couple of spares under the seat of my Ski-doo.

We did most of the repairs on a patch of blue ice that was on the outskirts of our search area. Most blue ice is rippled and rough, but this looked like a frozen pond. If we had skates, we could have started a hockey game. We only found one meteorite here, but the area was beautiful – a large natural amphitheater surrounded by cliffs of a dark rock called the Ferrar dolerite. This is an igneous rock that formed 180 million years ago, when Antarctica separated from the Gondwanaland supercontinent.

The cliffs are impressive, standing over 500 feet tall and capped with pure white snow on top. At some angles, they almost looked like giant ice cream cones. We drove up on a moraine adjacent to these cliffs and searched the wind scoops for meteorites. Scott pointed out that since this place hadn’t been searched by an earlier ANSMET team, we could very likely be the first people here. Danny commented that we were going "Where no man has gone before…" It’s exciting to think that your footsteps may be the first in an area, or that you may be the first person to lay eyes on a particular rock.

We searched one more wind scoop on the way back and challenged each other to see who could climb the furthest up the steep ice face. Inside the wind scoop, the ice looks like a five-story ocean wave that froze right before it crashed. Scott and Danny cut footholds in the ice, and we climbed up and slid on our backs all the way down to a snowy landing at the bottom. The more complex the mind, the greater the need for play!

29 December, 2002

The word "sublime" is overused, but it applies to a region we passed through on our way to systematically search a large portion of blue ice. The area was filled with pinnacles that looked like they were created artificially for a museum display on Antarctica. We also saw a Fata Morgana, an optical illusion produced from a temperature inversion. As two layers of air meet, they produce an illusion that looks like a mountain or cliff on the horizon. Sailors used to see these and thought they were seeing storm clouds. These are often seen on the Antarctic coast and make large icebergs look taller than they really are.

Lunch in the serracs.
Credit: Caldwell, TEA

After a pleasant morning searching at Harvaine Moraine, the bottom dropped out of the thermometer. By the time we were having lunch, the temperature was +3F and the wind was picking up. This afternoon was one of the coldest I’ve felt since we began searching. Not even my toe and hand warmers could keep up.

We dropped down into a remarkably smooth area on the western side of the Mouthy Ice, just west of Jacob’s Nunatak. We found over 30 meteorites there, adding to the eight we found at the moraine this morning. It seemed like the people on either side of me were finding all the meteorites and I was finding none. My luck changed in the last hour of the day, when I found three. We all go in streaks, good and bad.

It’s funny, but we can always recognize the others on the Ski-doos at a glance, even though we’re all wearing just about the same thing. Nancy and Jamie wear blue jackets so they are instantly recognizable. Linda is the shortest and wears bear paw mittens. Dante and Danny look a lot alike because they both have dark beards, and they usually wear windbreakers instead of their parkas. Danny, however, wears a facemask and goggles, while Dante has sunglasses that make him look like a rock star. Carl has become a superhero we call "Blueman" because he wears a blue balaclava and goggles that cover up all of his facial features. Scott is his sidekick and has occasionally worn a blue balaclava as well. I don’t know how the others know it’s me. It might be my John Denver mirrored glacier glasses.

Dr. Cady Coleman, an astronaut with the Rekki team, arranged a conference call with the International Space Station last night. The entire Beardmore team filled our tent and we took turns asking questions of the astronauts on board. Our satellite phones were linked with Mission Control in Houston, who then patched us in to the Space Station. It was actually easier to understand the astronauts than the Rekki team over the phone. The highlight of the evening was when Scott talked in Russian with the Russian cosmonaut on board.

30 December, 2002

Last night after we returned from searching, the winds died down and the temperature rose. It was a very pleasant night, but then the winds picked up again around 6:00 AM. Instead of going to the "Lower Lip of the Mouthy Ice," as Dante calls it, we decided we would be warmer doing some moraine searching.

Search field. The numbers refer to the numbers of meteorites found on different blue ice fields or in moraines. Red numbers indicate areas that have been completely systematically searched. Blue numbers indicate areas where we have found meteorites but have yet to finish searching the area. Some blue ice, such as that in the lower portion of the image, we still have to visit. The image is oriented with north at the top of the image, and the image is about 10 km wide.
Credit: Caldwell, TEA

We headed back to Harvaine Moraine and finished it off within a couple of hours. We only found two meteorites, but now we’ve collected over 360 this season. We started to search That" Moraine, when the conditions had worsened — the temperature was just above 0F and the wind was gusting up to 15 knots. That gave us a wind chill of about -33F. The wind rushing through my parka was so loud that I had a hard time hearing if anyone needed help. At that point we decided to call it a day.

We are getting further into the Antarctic summer and it’s interesting to see the changes that take place in both the natural environment and in the operations of the US Antarctic Program. The greatest change of all is happening at McMurdo. They are having some bad weather today, but their temperatures are rising and the sea ice that surrounds Ross Island is thinning.

McMurdo sits right on the boundary between the annual sea ice and the permanent ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. In warmer years, the sea ice melts all the way back to McMurdo. The ice is now too thin to maintain the ice runway, so all the buildings have been moved and the operations and flights now take place out of Willie Field, an ice runway located on the permanent ice a few miles from McMurdo on the other side of Scott Base.

The thinning ice at McMurdo makes it possible for an icebreaker to come in. This icebreaker not only brings supplies, but also takes out all the trash produced by the US Antarctic Program. The icebreaker creates leads in the ice, and Minke and Orca whales often follow these to find fresh nutrients. Orcas often come close to McMurdo looking for penguins and new seal pups, since this is the time of year that Weddell seals wean their pups and start pushing them into the water. "Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water…"

A major misconception about Antarctica is that there is wildlife all over the continent. Actually, the coast is the only place where wildlife can live. There is almost no liquid water in the interior, and the conditions are too harsh. It’s a little strange sometimes, knowing that there are no plants or animals around here. I half expect to hear birds in the morning like when I’m camping back home. Or I expect squirrels to pick up any chips or peanuts that I drop at lunch. But those food scraps will remain there forever if I don’t pick them up. (I was asked frequently before I left if I was worried about polar bears. I am not. The closest wild polar bear lives about 14,000 miles away, near the North Pole.)



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.