After many trials and near-misses, Kenneth W W Sims has finally obtained his volcanic samples on Antarctica’s Ross Island. Here, he recounts these challenges and those of past explorers.
Our fieldwork season in Antarctica is complete! All told, it has been a very successful trip despite less-than-favorable weather. In fact, it has truly been a weather-challenged season that has required patience and “binge working” when the weather allowed. For example, for my last sampling effort, when the weather finally cleared after five stormy days, Alasdair Turner (a full time McMurdo field mountaineer and professional photographer) and I jumped into a helicopter at about 10:00 p.m. and flew to Cape Crozier to sample until about 3:00 a.m.
When that was done, I went to bed for a couple of hours, got up at 6:00 a.m., ate a quick breakfast and then went back out sampling on snowmobiles to Hut Point Peninsula with McMurdo field coordinator Carrie Schaffner.* We rode around until we saw the next storm rolling in at around noon and headed back to McMurdo Station (approximately one hour away on snow mobiles).
To put a scientific spin on the weather this year, I had a conversation with Art Cayette, who is in charge of government oversight for meteorology in Antarctica. Art’s take on this year’s weather is as follows:
– The weather this year is “most likely” a manifestation of the El Nino Southern Oscillation (I say “most likely” because as scientists we can never be 100 percent certain when it comes to complex systems like weather and climate). Essentially, this El Nino effect is causing an inner loop of storms to circle around West Antarctica whereas on a normal year they mostly circle clockwise around the continent (see included animation).
– The “below minimum conditions” required for flying (conditions that do not meet the minimum requirements for visual flight rules) are 40 percent this month; above 10 percent is considered a bad year, and six–seven percent is a typical year.
Our trip to Cape Crozier was truly spectacular. That night (Oct. 23rd) was the last official sunset of the year and the receding storm provided enough cloud coverage to gift us with a stunning sunset and sunrise flavored with vibrant colors that lasted for many an hour. The Cape Crozier area has been dubbed an “Antarctic Specially Protected Area” (ASPA), which requires a special permit to visit. It is the location of both adelie and emperor penguin rookeries and has an amazing history of scientific exploration.
Most notably, in the winter of 1911, during Capt. Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition (1910–1913), three men—Dr. Edward Wilson, Birdie Bowers, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard—set out from Cape Evans in the middle of the Antarctic winter traveling on foot and dragging sledges weighing 757 pounds for over 6o miles each way. They did this for two reasons; first, to collect Emperor Penguin eggs from the rookery near Cape Crozier at an early embryo stage, so that “particular points in the development of the bird could be worked out” for Dr. Wilson’s scientific theories; and, second, to experiment with food rations and equipment to prepare for the coming summer’s trip to the south pole, a journey which would be Capt. Scott’s and Dr. Wilson’s last journey.
During their month-long winter adventure (June 22–August 1) Wilson, Bowers, and Cherry-Garrard endured 24-hour darkness, extreme cold, frostbite, starvation, and nearly died. The party survived a blizzard with force-11 winds and temperatures as low as -60 degrees C, lost a tent (which was essential for their return journey and fortunately found about a half mile away), and were ultimately forced to build a makeshift shelter out of rocks where they lay face down for three days waiting for the weather to clear. In the end, after truly risking it all in the name of science, they were successful and returned with three eggs that were eventually given to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, U.K. This incredible journey was dubbed “The Worst Journey in the World,” and is recounted in full detail in a book of the same name written by Cherry-Garrard, an essential read for any enthusiast of polar exploration.
While it was a hard month for getting my work done, patience prevailed as always and I was able to finally accomplish what my colleagues and I need for our Ross Island study. So, as I prepare to travel home I tip my hat once again to all the essential and fun-loving people in the United States Antarctic Program and the National Science Foundation that make this research possible. With the fieldwork accomplished, it is now up to PhD student Erin Phillips to measure the isotopes in these samples and work with the rest of the Ross Island team (Philip Kyle, Glenn Gaetani, Paul Wallace, Dan Rasmussen and myself) to interpret the data and write our scientific papers.
* Note—I had different partners on this part of the journey because my research assistant, long-time climbing buddy and adventurer photojournalist John Catto headed back to the U.S. to go to his sister’s funeral service, who unfortunately died while he was here in Antarctica. John was fortunate to make it out in a very limited weather window last Sunday (October 19th), after which there were no flights in or out of Antarctica for over a week.