Friday, October 31, 2008

New Harbor Flag Day

Camp does not feel settled until we fly flags on the roof. Since 1990, flags designed by school children have accompanied the camp's American flag. Boy Scouts visiting the camp have also flown their troop flags. I flew the New York State flag for about a decade (it eventually deteriorated), and once even flew the flag of Texas in honor of an exceptional man.

This year we introduce the flag of Macandrew Bay school in Dunedin, New Zealand. I have visited the students there to discuss our Antarctic research and to tell a few tales, and hope to see them again on my way home to the U.S. in December. Dunedin is Claire's home town, so she talks to the students about art in Antarctica.

Speaking of Claire, she recently had a flag returned to her that she made 22 years ago to mark an art exhibition held in Johannesburg, South Africa. It now flies on the West end of the Jamesway. See her blog entry for details.

We also sport flags made by Ms. Tina King's class in Tennessee (the orange flag), and Ms. Danielle Colletta's class in Yorktown Heights, New York (the blue flag with student's hand prints). They are sooooo beautiful! I'll have to show you more details in future posts.

 The flags are not just for decoration, though. The helicopter pilots love them because they show wind direction, which is an essential piece of information for safe take-offs and landings. The flags let us know how hard the wind is blowing when we are working or sleeping inside. Thrumming flags can signal the beginning of dangerous catabatic winds. If we are awakened by the flags flapping wildly at night, we rush outside and make sure the snowmobiles are covered and everything is tied down.
But most of the time the flags are warm reminders of home. They make camp a little brighter and a whole lot warmer.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Art/Science on Ice

Last night, Claire and I presented a talk about our art/science collaboration to the McMurdo Station community. It was the third time we've spoken together and, to be honest, the first time I've felt completely at ease.

In these talks, Claire and I set out to convey the genuine nature of our collaboration. Claire has worked in the lab and in the field "doing science" with me and, likewise, I have worked in her studio "doing art." As a result of this cross-pollination, we are adequately versed in each other's scientific and artistic processes. I think that this is why we can spawn new ideas, provide each other with helpful critiques, and jointly apply our technical skills. In a nutshell, we bounce seamlessly between each other's worlds.
The evening began with an introduction by the McMurdo Station manager, Terry Melton. The story of how Claire and I met at the Devon B&B in Christchurch followed (an interesting tale of serendipity), and then we launched into examples of Claire's art followed by some biological facts about foraminifera. The heart of the talk was a discussion of our InterfaCE project, which involves a process that Claire and I developed to study pseudopod ("false foot") structure and motile behavior of Foraminifera on textured surfaces. Claire's art provides templates for microlithographic fabrication of the substrates that the forams move along. (More thorough descriptions are found on Claire's website or mine.)  We finished by discussing the art/science work we're doing this season in collaboration with Katherine Glenday and Christina Bryer. This year's project involves the use of porcelain grains (derived from Katherine and Christina's pieces) as shell-building particles by the forams that we study. In a sense, it is a collaboration between me, Claire, Katherine, Christina, and Astrammina triangularis :-)

Our talk was structured to be a conversation, hoping to avoid too much didactic content. The approach apparently worked: The people we spoke with afterwards thought that the evening was unconventional, and opened their eyes to the commonalities of art and science rather than their differences.

How could it fail when I'm speaking with Claire about art, science, and Foraminifera?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Morning routine

Sleep doesn't come easy at Camp New Harbor. We work well into the night, and then don earplugs and slip into our sleeping bags. I wake up at 6AM to take medication, then crawl into the kitchen and make strong coffee. The running joke is that my coffee will grow hair on everyone's uvula (the dangly thing in the back of your throat), but to date no one has had to shave in there.

With coffee comes the daily dribble from the infamous New Harbor coffee pot. It's "infamous" because it never fails to dribble coffee on the tabletop, floor, or clothing. Sometimes all three, plus a bunny boot. This pot was purchased back in 1998 for use in the camp by my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Bill Stockton. He recently wrote to remind me that "the secret [to dribble-free pouring] was a medium rapid pour rate and a quick stop, but even that was tough. The shape of the lip of that thing is definitely bad." In 2005, Dr. Jack Harris joined our group and educated us about the Coanda effect, which explains our dribbler's bad habits.

After a pill and a dribble, it's time for morning check-in with McMurdo Station. Cecil has adopted this task and has multiple alarm systems in place to ensure that it happens on time. "Good morning MacOps, this is Cecil of project Golf 093 calling from New Harbor for our scheduled daily check-in. Five [or however many] souls are on board, and all is well. Have a nice day." Click.

Scratch eyes, and peek out into the world. I always look to the East at oft erupting Mount Erebus. If I want to fly to McMurdo that day, a clear view of Erebus usually means flights will happen.

I sincerely hope that Erebus is in full glory this morning...

Blasted dive holes

We make dive holes two ways: blasting and melting. Blasting involves drilling a small hole through the ice using a "Jiffy Drill" and a carefully sharpened drill bit. Explosive experts ("blasters") then measure the ice thickness based on the length of the drill stem, and insert the appropriate amount of dynamite. They are meticulous in their work, and always ensure that everyone is a safe distance from the blast site. Some ejected ice chunks are the size of refrigerators -- you don't want one of those landing on your head! The countdown is given, and then the blaster shouts "fire in the hole, fire in the hole, fire in the hole!" Cameras click and the explosion is heard, followed by echoes and whoops of excitement from long-shadowed onlookers.

The holes are then cleared of slush and chunks of ice, a process called "mucking a hole." Mucking is hard work that is made a little more tolerable by singing songs, telling stories, or wearing silly clothing. The last step is for a diver to drop into the hole to figure out if it's wide enough for safety. We insist that holes are wide enough for at least two divers to fit through 14-18 ft (~5 meter) shafts. After all, that's how divers must ascend through the hole in case of an emergency.

Blasting dive holes sounds destructive, but one must remember some simple laws of physics. The vast majority of the blast energy is dissipated by fracturing ice and ejecting it into the atmosphere. (Water is an essentially non-compressible fluid, so most of that energy goes upwards.) The underwater shock wave that is created does not damage marine life in the vicinity -- in fact, we collect our specimens right under the holes.

Still, there is concern that the ears of nearby seals may be damaged by blasting, so one of the first things we do is to confirm that none are in the area (e.g., hauled out on the ice through tide cracks). If there are, we do not blast. A simple rule to minimize our impact on the environment as we conduct our studies.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A dusting of snow

Today found a veil of snow on Hjorth Hill, which softened the appearance of the ice labyrinth. To the East, a blur of white obscured Mount Erebus.

Antarctic weather swings in extremes. The sun can beat down and warm your bones, while a sudden wind can sweep in to chill them. McMurdo has experienced high winds and blowing snow the past few days, keeping helicopters parked on their pads and holding our carpenter guests in camp for another two days.

Here, the only thing you can count on is unpredictability. And inevitability. The weather will change, and helicopters will come.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Home is where you hang your mask

A team of seven carpenters arrived yesterday; today we have a beautiful dive shack on the ice. It is a seven-section Jamesway tent, manufactured during the Korean War era. These tents were once the workhorse shelters of the U.S. Antarctic Program, but they are now being replaced by more energy-efficient structures. We like "our" old Jamesway, though, because it has withstood the abuse of heavy equipment, sea water, and the weather.

We also like the "carps" who worked very hard for long hours in biting cold ... without them, there would be no comfy dive shack, and sampling here would be much more difficult. Lesson: modern science is all about teamwork, and it takes people from many trades to get the results that lead us forward.

The first task is, of course, to pick a good spot. Two days ago, Shawn and I found a clear patch of ice. We then mapped out where we should position the floor sections of the Jamesway. This involved some math. In the top picture, Shawn doesn't look too confident in my arithmetic. (It turns out I was only a few inches off.)

A Jamesway tent is constructed of 4 x 16-foot plywood floor sections, each assembled from two 4 x 8-foot boxes. (That doesn't make a lot of sense without a drawing; I'll make a schematic later.) The first step in assembly is to lay down the floor sections and pin them together. The carps then set up the wooden arches that support the canvas walls (middle picture). These walls are really canvas blankets insulated with horse hair. The blankets are pulled taught against the arches using ropes; where they join together the blankets are held by a special belt. Equipped with a diesel-burning "Preway" heater, the dive shack is toasty warm for drying our suits between dives (and for warming us up after getting out of the -2C/28F water!).

Our next job is to melt dive holes at either end of the dive shack, and to set up the air compressor used to fill scuba tanks. A few more days of work, and we can begin sampling.

I can't wait. We are now about 2 weeks behind schedule, with warm days looming ...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Introducing Cecil

Cecilia Shin is one of our new divers. I'd describe her as a "compact ball of energy," eager to pitch in and help make things happen. Her family moved from Korea to the U.S. when she was four years old, and was raised in Los Angeles. She moved to Santa Cruz, where she met Steve Clabuesch. They've been happily married for two years now. Cecil and Steve are avid scuba divers, and I wouldn't be surprised if their wedding vows were voiced underwater.

The above photos show Cecil returning from her checkout dive at McMurdo Station, and blasting a dive hole at New Harbor. She's the third woman diver on my research program over the years ... I'm a very lucky scientist to be associated with such talented people!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sunset in the Labyrinth

Much of yesterday was spent navigating the ice labyrinth, trying to locate our dive sites and figuring out where to base dive operations. As the sun set behind the Kukri Hills, I spent a moment thinking about tomorrow -- both the real and metaphorical "tomorrows" -- and decided to focus on the tasks ahead. In the morning, carpenters and explosives experts arrive to blast dive holes and set up the dive shack. A total of 15 people, each with a job to do and a story to tell, will be in camp. It will be a busy day.

After aligning the solar panel to catch the last rays of light, it's time to say good night...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Explorers Cove Ice

I mentioned that the ice is in very rough shape. This picture shows Mt. Coleman in the background, and the ice surface in the foreground. Traveling on this ice will be difficult. I doubt the snowmobiles can navigate between all the humps, bumps, and blocks.

The weekly dribble

Greetings from the field camp at Explorers Cove, also known as "Camp New Harbor." Once again, the ice has lured me from home in Albany, NY ... and another research project begins.

Our science goal is to better understand how marine life becomes part of the fossil record in Antarctica. Three scientists have partnered to achieve this goal: Molly Miller (lead PI, Vanderbilt University), Sally Walker (co-PI, University of Georgia, Athens) and myself (co-PI, Wadsworth Center). Three expert divers are also key members of the team: Shawn Harper, Steve Clabuesch (dribbling coffee in the photo above), and Cecil Shin. Henry Kaiser - also a dive expert, as well as extraordinary musician and cinematographer - returns to help document our underwater study sites (and give me another guitar lesson). Claire Beynon - an artist and writer - also returns to help translate our science into formats that creative communities can enjoy. Together, I think we've assembled "The Research and Art/Science Dream Team."

One reason for this blog is to communicate weekly "happenings" from camp to K-12 teachers & students. A select group of teachers have collaborated with me over the years to engage students and develop curricula. I'm grateful to them for their hard work, and their profiles will appear here in future posts.

We are settling into camp life and there's tons of work to do, so I must be brief. Today we begin melting through the ice to make our first dive hole; others will be scoping out a site for our dive hut. The ice is in very bad shape, and working in the Cove will be extremely difficult. Everyone is up to the challenge, though!

And our infamous coffee pot has begun making dribbles...

Our best to you!