Rediscovering Ross Island 2012: Awe-Inspiring Ice Caves

Written by Erin Phillips Writer

After a hearty Sunday brunch at McMurdo station, Ken, Paul, Dan, and I went out for an afternoon on the snowmobiles.  This outing would allow those of us with no prior snowmobile experience to become more comfortable with the machines, as we will be using them for sampling rocks in difficult terrain during the coming weeks.  We gathered our gear, bundled up, stowed hand warmers in our mittens and headed out across the sea ice (Plate 1).  It was a brisk ride; the minimum wind chill for the day was -22°F and the wind speed was over 30 knots for most of the day.  We all managed to stay warm on the ride to the Erebus Glacier Tongue, which took about 45 minutes.

Plate 1: Paul and Erin in windy conditions on the snowmobiles crossing the sea ice. Photo by Dan Rasmussen.

The Erebus Glacier Tongue is an elongate seaward extension of a glacier that is surrounded by sea ice at this time of year.  Its zigzag pattern looks like a chain saw blade sticking out onto the ice. When we arrived at its northern margin, Ken hopped off his sled and climbed up to a small hole in the vertical ice.  He broke away some snow and then disappeared into the hole.  A few moments later he poked his head out and told us to turn the snowmobiles off and come on in.  We all scrambled into the cave, a welcome shelter from the howling wind (Plate 2).

Plate 2: Paul, Dan, and Erin enjoy the relatively warm shelter of the ice cave. Photo by Ken Sims.

What we found inside was exquisite.  Intricate hexagonal ice crystals and long elegantly curved icicles surrounded us, and blue light bathed the spacious cave (Plates 3 and 4).  We were all mesmerized by the place.  We stepped and crawled gingerly through the cave to avoid disturbing the ice artwork.  I think we could have admired the scene for the rest of the afternoon, but the snowmobiles were getting cold and we didn’t want to take a chance on having them fail to start, so we reluctantly left the cave, revved our engines and pointed our motorized steeds back towards McMurdo station.

Plate 3: The ice crystals in the cave are like giant snowflakes and take the form of large hexagonal plates about 15 centimeters across. Photo by Paul Wallace.
Plate 4: Curved icicles in the ice cave are formed by the movement of the Erebus Glacier Tongue, which moves at about 40 centimeters/day or 146 meters/year. Photo by Paul Wallace.
A Professor at the University of Wyoming and a former tenured Research Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Dr. Kenneth W.W. Sims uses isotopic and chemical tracers to study geologic processes in the earth and other planetary bodies. Ken has over fifty peer-reviewed scientific publications focusing on the study of mantle melting, oceanic and continental crustal genesis, volcanology, hydrology, planetary core-formation, climate change and oceanography. Dr. Sims earned his BA in Geology from Colorado College, his MSc from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico; and his PhD in Geochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. Ken’s field experience ranges from ocean floor geology, using submersibles and remote sensing techniques to geological studies of active volcanoes at high altitudes in technical terrain. Academic awards include: the Estwing Outstanding Senior Award at Colorado College, an Outstanding Student Instructor Award from the UC, Berkeley, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Postdoctoral Scholar Fellowship, three Mellon Awards for innovative exploratory research and the Kincaid School 2012 Papadopoulos Fellowship. In addition to his academic career, Ken is an avid climber and has been an alpine guide for over three decades with extensive experience in technical, high altitude and cold weather mountaineering in Antarctica, the Alaska Range, and the Andes of Peru. These technical climbing skills have enabled him to collect young lavas and gather volcanic gas data inside active, remote volcanoes across the globe, including Erebus Volcano in Antarctica; Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua; and Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo Volcanoes in DR Congo. Using isotopic and geochemical data measured in these hard-to-get-samples Professor Sims’ ultimate goal is to better understand the genesis and evolution of Earth’s volcanoes, with an eye toward predicting future eruptions. Sims’ research and scientific expeditions have been featured in National Geographic Magazine; Oceanus; Popular Mechanics; New Scientist; several children’s books and magazines; NHK Japanese Public Television (Miracle Continent Antarctica- Mt Erebus), National Geographic Television (Man versus Volcano); and, the Discovery Channel (Against the Elements). Professor Sims is a featured scientist on National Geographic Explorer Site http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/kenneth-sims/ For Professor Sims’ complete Curriculum Vitae, Publication List and Mountaineering Resume see http://geology.uwyo.edu/kenwwsims.
  • Arlene


  • Rielee

    Paul, Dan, Erin,
    Have you guys found any cool rocks? You guys should send us some pictures of the rocks you do find.

    P.S The picture of you guys in the cave looks awesome!

  • Ashley and Peggy’s Class Laramie Montessori

    Those pictures are amazing, and all of the lower elementary classes enjoyed them. We appreciate you taking your time with the articles and pictures. We have a few questions: Why is it blue in the cave? How were you able to be in the cave without it falling down on you?

  • Hanning’s students

    To get started, my students have a couple of questions (actually many, but I am editing!)
    1. What is the key question that your team is interested in?
    2. What is the texture of the rocks you are sampling…glassy or coarse? Are the rocks vascular or non-vascular?
    3. What goes in to the planning of a research trip to Antartica?
    4. How do you prepare to adapt to the rigors of the environment (we didn’t understand the bucket thing)?
    5. How will what you are learning in Antartica influence our understanding of the world?
    Thank you for your time and for this opportunity for us to learn from your adventures!

  • Mary and Stella’s Kindergarten Laramie Montessori

    How do you make hot food in the cold weather? How do you get your food? Do you fish? Can you build houses there? How do you breath if it gets too cold? How do you stay warm in the cold weather? Did you try to eat the icicles?

  • Dear Ms. Hanning’s students (and everyone else),
    Thanks for your insightful questions!

    1. What is the key question that your team is interested in?
    We are conducting a field and laboratory based study to examine the hypothesis that volcanism on Ross Island is the surface expression of a deep mantle upwelling in the form of a mantle plume or hot-spot. The data that we gather from Mt. Terror, Mt. Bird, and Hut Point Peninsula (see Plate 3 of the first blog post), combined with our previous research on the Erebus volcano, will provide essential information on the nature of the mantle source beneath Ross Island and the causes of its volcanism, both past and present.

    2. What is the texture of the rocks you are sampling…glassy or coarse? Are the rocks vesicular or non-vesicular?
    Great question! The textures of the rocks we are sampling are varied. Many of the lava flows have a fine-grained matrix that surrounds large crystals that geologists call phenocrysts. This is called a porphyritic texture. Some of the rocks are non-vesicular and are very dense. Others have abundant vesicles and are known as scoria. The vesicles are simply little holes in the rock that were gas bubbles when the magma was erupted. Dan and Paul are particularly interested in collecting tephra, which is a fragmental volcanic rock that commonly contains minerals such as olivine that are conducive to the analysis of trapped melt inclusions of deep magma. These inclusions tell us about the volatiles such as H20 and CO2 in the magma.

    3. What goes in to the planning of a research trip to Antarctica?
    Planning for a research trip to Antarctica actually begins long in advance, when an idea for a project is hatched and scientists (Ken Sims-PI and Philip Kyle co-PI) write an extensive and detailed grant proposal to ask for funding to complete the project. After receiving word that the National Science Foundation had funded our project, planning for the trip began. Many months before our departure date, Ken filled out countless forms and did extensive planning for the supplies, gear, and transportation that we would need for our trip (many late nights). We all had to go through physical and dental exams beforehand to make sure that we were healthy. We made very detailed plans of where we would sample rocks and a tentative schedule for this sampling. We also prepared maps of our sampling sites. Much of the sampling gear we needed, such as rock hammers, sample bags, and GPS units, were provided here at McMurdo Station. While in Antarctica, there are lots of logistics to take care of, such as reserving helicopter time (again late night activities for Ken) and preparing our samples for shipping back to the US (long days for Erin and Dan), but the amazing support staff here at McMurdo is extremely helpful with these numerous tasks.

    4. How do you prepare to adapt to the rigors of the environment (we didn’t understand the bucket thing)?

    The “bucket head” exercise is designed to simulate whiteout conditions, which can be common in Antarctica. When I had the bucket on my head, I could not see anything and was very disoriented. This exercise showed us that it is important to avoid being caught outside during a whiteout and that if one decides that it is necessary to go outside (in the case of a lost person, for example), that he or she should be tied into a rope that is anchored to a point of safety.

    We do several key things here to ensure our safety in this harsh environment. When we got to Christchurch, New Zealand we were entirely outfitted with our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing. This ECW clothing is essential as the temperatures here are brutally cold. Our group also uses a lot of hand and toe warmers. Sunscreen and sunglasses are essential with 24 hours of intense sunlight, with the ozone hole overhead, and the reflective white snow.

    Training is also essential to survive in the extreme cold and also to protect the Antarctic environment. Phil and Ken have been here many times before so they do not need to do as much of this as the other members of the group that haven’t been here before. One part of the training is survival school or “Happy Camper School” in which we camped outside in the elements for a night and learned essential skills such as starting a stove and building a snow cave. There is also lots of environmental training that focuses on preserving the fragile and pristine Antarctic environment. We all believe that this is essential as this is one of the most pristine, unique and beautiful places in the world.

    When we get dropped off somewhere by a helicopter or when we get on a snowmobile and drive away from McMurdo Station it is essential that we have all the necessary equipment (e.g. survival bags containing tents, sleeping bags, stoves and food) and that everything is working properly. You certainly don’t want to forget your sleeping bag or find out that your stove does not work when you are in “the middle of nowhere.”

    5. How will what you are learning in Antarctica influence our understanding of the world?
    Understanding magma genesis is essential for a comprehensive picture of how the earth works. Volcanism at Ross Island occurs in the middle of a tectonic plate, and there is more than one mechanism that could cause this phenomenon. By testing our hypothesis that volcanism at Ross Island is the expression of a mantle plume, we can better understand the geology and tectonics of Antarctica and on a larger scale compare our results to other intraplate volcanic systems, such as Hawaii. Additionally, the lavas erupted from the volcanoes on Ross Island have alkaline compositions. Studying the geochemistry of these rocks can help us to better understand other alkaline volcanic systems around the world, some of which pose substantial risks to nearby populations, such as at Mt. Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Thanks for your interest in our expedition.

    Ken Sims and Erin Phillips Writer

  • Rielee,

    For the cool rocks see the blog I just posted.


  • Ashley and Peggy’s Class Laramie Montessori (and everyone else):

    Thanks for your feedback and questions once again. I miss Laramie and all of you (especially Mairin and my family).

    Why is the light in the cave blue? The light in the cave is blue because the ice absorbs some of the light spectra and transmits other parts of the light spectra (a rainbow shows how the light is made up of many different colors or wavelengths). Namely the ice in the glacier absorbs the red wavelengths and the blue light travels through. Complicated sounding, but easy to see when you look at a rainbow.

    How do I know that the roof won’t fall down? I can’t be 100% sure, but suffice it to say that I have been working as a mountain guide for many decades now and I use my good judgment and common sense to make these type of decisions. This cave looks very safe to me and if it didn’t we would not be in there.

    All the best,
    Ken Sims

  • Mary and Stella’s Kindergarten Laramie Montessori (and everyone else)

    Thanks for your interest in our trip and your great questions.

    1) How do you make hot food in the cold weather? We cook our food with a very hot stove.

    2) How do you get your food? From a large warehouse with all sorts of great of food, including Oreos

    3) Do you fish? No we do not. Though there are people down here who study the fish. Of course seals and penguins go fishing for their dinner and breakfast.

    4) Can you build houses there? Yes, but we sleep in tents when are out in the field. And when we are in McMurdo station we stay in dorm rooms in a very large building.

    5) How do you breath if it gets too cold? This is not a problem. But we stay bundled up.

    6) How do you stay warm in the cold weather? Lots of warm clothes, including clothing they call the ECW gear. ECW stands for Extreme Cold Weather.

    7) Did you try to eat the icicles? No. We try to not do any damage to the ice cave and leave all the icicles there. Also, when it is really cold out it is dangerous to eat ice and snow as this can cause frost bite on the lips and also lower your core body temperature. Though it is tempting sometimes.


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