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Rediscovering Ross Island 2012: Penguins in the Wind

Written by Glenn Gaetani. We (Ken, Phil, Paul, Erin, Dan, and I) left McMurdo Station to spend four days at Cape Bird sampling lavas erupted from Mount Bird, a 5900 foot shield volcano that makes up the northern part of Ross Island (see blog 1 for a map). The flight from McMurdo to Cape Bird...

Written by Glenn Gaetani.

We (Ken, Phil, Paul, Erin, Dan, and I) left McMurdo Station to spend four days at Cape Bird sampling lavas erupted from Mount Bird, a 5900 foot shield volcano that makes up the northern part of Ross Island (see blog 1 for a map). The flight from McMurdo to Cape Bird took about thirty minutes. It was my first helicopter flight, and the views were spectacular! Cape Bird was named for Lieutenant Edward J. Bird, of the HMS Erebus, and that name seems especially appropriate given that it hosts the second largest Adélie penguin rookery on Ross Island – home to approximately 30,000 breeding pairs (Plate 1).

Plate 1: Cape Bird Penguin Rookery. This photo shows only a small section of the expansive rookery. Photo by Glenn Gaetani.

Penguins seem to be constantly busy, and watching them kept us very entertained. Many of their adventures were narrated by Ken, using his special “penguin voice” (Plate 2).

Plate 2: Howling Penguins. Photo by Ken Sims.

We were based at the Cape Bird hut, but three members of our group (Ken, Phil, and Dan) set up tents because they preferred to sleep outside. The original plan called for us to spend two days sampling the summit of Mount Bird, using helicopters coming from McMurdo Station to ferry us to different points around the volcano.  The Antarctic weather refused to cooperate, however. The winds picked up during the second and third days – so that helicopters couldn’t fly – and by the fourth day we were stranded in a full-blown “Herbie”, which is a “particularly powerful and dangerous storm that affect the US McMurdo base coming from the South, through “Herbie Alley”, winds can be in excess of 100 knots” ( (Plate 3).

Plate 3: Penguins hunkering down during “Herbie”. Photo by Dan Rasmussen.

The winds were so strong that two of our tents were leveled, and we had to spend an additional day at Cape Bird waiting for the weather to clear (Plate 4). By the time the storm was over, much of the sea ice had broken up and floated away, leaving beautiful open water.  Despite the storm, we were able to sample a number of important lava flows along the beach, but without helicopter support we weren’t able to reach the summit. Fortunately, today the weather is spectacular and we were able to fly to the summit of Mount Bird and collect some key samples.

Plate 4: Ken’s tent during the peak of the “Herbie” with sustained 60 knot plus winds. Both Phil’s and Dan’s tents were leveled by this storm. Note that the tents were setup on permafrost and/or on top of lava flows so we had to rely on large boulders to stake out the tents. Ken used bigger rocks which is maybe why his tent survived. Photo by Paul Wallace.

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Meet the Author

Kenneth W W Sims
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 For Professor Sims’ complete Curriculum Vitae, Publication List and Mountaineering Resume see