Ross Island 2014: Journey’s End

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).

Figure 2) A typical stormy day in McMurdo Station, Antarctica this year. Photo by John Catto.
A typical stormy day in McMurdo Station, Antarctica this year. (Photo by John Catto)

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.

Video clip of a “satellite projection”, which is a computer simulation of predicted cloud movement.

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.

Figure 4) Dr. Ken Sims preparing to sample at Cape Crozier while helicopter pilot Keith Cox tends to his helicopter just outside the official ASPA. Photo by Alasdair Turner.
Dr. Ken Sims preparing to sample at Cape Crozier while helicopter pilot Keith Cox tends to his helicopter just outside the official ASPA. (Photo by Alasdair Turner)

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.

A cross on Observation Hill overlooking McMurdo Station. The writing on this memorial is a follows: “In memoriam Capt. RF Scott RN Dr. E. A. Wilson Captain L.E.C. Oats H.R.Bowers R.I.M. Petty Officer E A Evans RN Who died on the return from the pole march 1912 To strive to seek to find and not to yield.” (Photo by Alasdair Turner)

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.

5 Paul Murphy in Helo
Helicopter pilot Paul Murphy. (Photo by Ryan Skorecki)

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.

Figure 7) Helicopter pilot Ryan Skorecki having fun practicing drums in the “helo hanger” at McMurdo station. Photo by Paul Murphy.
Helicopter pilot Ryan Skorecki having fun practicing drums in the “helo hanger” at McMurdo Station. (Photo by Paul Murphy)

* 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.

Read More by Kenneth W W Sims



Meet the Author
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