Antarctica 2014: Success at Lewis Bay

After many delays, Ken Sims is finally on ice—antarctic ice. He is studying the origins of ancient, frozen volcanic islands around Antarctica by analyzing their rocks. Dangers abound, but Ken is willing to brave them for science.

A helicopter at the cliffs of Lewis Bay. Note the ice seracs overhead and avalanche debris below. (Photo by John Catto)

I am back in Antarctica to do what we could not do two years ago because of thin ice, and were not able to do last year because of the “partial” government shut down, which is to sample the volcanic sea cliffs of Mt. Bird at Lewis Bay on Ross Island.

This year we flew down even earlier in the austral spring to accomplish our mission. After a few delays because of bad weather, John Catto and I flew out to Lewis Bay and found that the sea ice was thick enough to land a helicopter on safely. So, we were finally able to sample the lava flows that make up these sea cliffs; the samples which my colleagues and I have now coveted for two years.

Collecting these samples was somewhat sketchy, requiring considerable caution and some luck. The transition between the sea ice and the cliffs had several melt pools and needed careful negotiation, but more concerning was the big ice fall looming overhead. This ice fall is regularly calving off and falling in avalanches over the cliffs, leaving big piles of ice debris. Getting in and out quickly was critical. Nonetheless, as luck would have it, nothing came off from overhead while we were sampling. And yes, indeed, it was cold; -24 degrees Celsius, but sunny and no wind, unlike the day before when we were out snowmobiling on Hut Point Peninsula. That day, it was -35 degrees Celsius with a constant wind speed of approximately 20 knots and gusting at approximately 35 knots!

These Lewis Bay samples are an integral part of our study to understand the origin of Ross Island’s volcanoes (Mt. Erebus, Mt. Terror and Mt. Bird) and the many small volcanic vents along Hut Point Peninsula. These samples are particularly important as they represent the oldest exposed rocks of this volcanic provenance and as such they will help us address why Ross Island is here. Is it formed by a deep mantle plume welling up, like the one that is forming the Hawaiian Islands? Or, is Ross Island here simply because the Earth’s crust is ripping apart along the West Antarctic Rift, like the volcanoes in the East African Rift?

Using these samples, samples we collected two years ago, and samples we will collect over the next couple of weeks, we are using complex geochemical measurements of radiogenic isotopes (little clocks in the rocks) to resolve this long-debated question. So, stay tuned…

Dr. Ken Sims sampling the sea cliffs of Lewis Bay. Note the large avalanche debris field behind. Photo by John Catto.
Dr. Ken Sims sampling the cliffs above the sea ice at Lewis Bay. Note the large avalanche debris field behind. (Photo by John Catto)



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