Meet the scientists making new climate discoveries (and fudge) at the South Pole
Check out the article by Lyra Pierotti on Grist.org about the SPICE Core.
Meet the scientists making new climate discoveries (and fudge) at the South Pole
The U.S. Antarctic Program's news organization, Antarctic Sun did a great story about the SPICE Core project. Check out the link below to be directed to their webpage. I participated :)
GREAT NEWS to report! The SPICE cores made it safely to the National Ice Core Lab in Denver, CO on March 4th. They made the journey from the South Pole via the resupply vessel and left the same day I left McMurdo (Feb. 2). They will remain at the National Ice Core Lab for processing this summer. I will be part of the Core Processing Line (CPL) that will take place in May-June of this summer and last for approximately 3 weeks. During the CPL, all the cores get remeasured and cut into pieces for various universities to do research with it. We'll get our samples back in Irvine around July! If you're ever in the Denver area, I highly suggest you contact the National Ice Core Lab and schedule a tour! You can walk through the freezers kept below -25 Celsius and see the archive of all the ice cores the U.S. has drilled. They store over 17,000 meters of ice (about 10.5 miles) in their freezers.
Now that I've been home for a few weeks, I've been asked several great questions from friends and family about daily life at the South Pole. One of the most common questions is: What did you eat?
Unlike my southern California diet of fresh fruit, fish and salads, food at the South Pole is...well, how do I put this politely, errr, not so fresh. The food and snacks that we ate Pole had to travel thousands of miles to get to us and in the process have aged, just a bit. Overall, the three warm meals prepared by the kitchen staff daily were quite delicious given the many limitations and products they were working with. Most of the meals consisted of a meat product, such as steak or chicken, a carbohydrate like rice or potatoes, and several side dishes. Fresh fruits and vegetables were available during short periods of time after a "freshie" delivery was made by the arrival of a C-130 flight from McMurdo. Freshies typically arrived every 3 weeks and were consumed very quickly!
Working outside in the cold temperatures causes the body to burn excessive amounts of calories. A typical person will burn around 5,000 calories per day and therefore, the food must be high in calories. Eventually, I became tired of having to eat so much. It literally became exhausting to have to chew so much food! I found that in the mornings, I was usually unable to consume enough food to stay warm and by an hour or two into my work shift, I was very cold and tired. I would go into the break room at the drill site and make hot chocolate and melt Oreos and Chips Ahoy cookies in it and then drink it. I know it wasn't a healthy choice, but it definitely had the calories I needed to stay warm.
Many of the snacks at Pole were many years expired. It is a common joke with people that have been on the ice about how old the food is that we eat everyday. Some of the Oreos were 9 years expired! They still tasted delicious though - they've been frozen the whole time.
Either way, the food was good enough to provide nourishment and old enough to remind me how thankful I am to eat fresh fruit and veggies everyday back here in SoCal.
I made it back to California yesterday morning. After 4 flights on 4 different planes and a combined flight time of 25 hours, I'm very happy to be home. When I left South Pole, the temperature including wind chill was -60 degrees Celsius. Here in southern California, it is currently 21 degrees Celsius (70 degrees F). I'm actually a bit too warm. My body is still adjusting to the warm temperatures, humidity, and darkness!
Here is the last picture I took at the South Pole. What a great adventure!
Stay tuned for more pictures and stories of my trip. Time to recover from the jet lag! :)
Thank you all for your support!
My two universities: Texas A&M where I received my Bachelor's of Science in Meteorology in 2013 (WHOOP!) and the University of California, Irvine where I am currently working on my Ph.D in Earth System Science.
One of the unique characteristics of Antarctica is that it's size changes during the seasons through the growth and melting of sea ice. Sea ice is really just want it sounds like - ice that forms on the sea. When the temperatures drop below freezing and stay that way for some time, the sea water actually freezes. In fact, the temperature must be a few degrees below freezing before the sea water begins to freeze. As anyone who have ever taken a gulp of water in at the beach knows, the ocean contains salt. For the same reason why people put salt down on sidewalks to prevent ice forming during winter, the same chemistry happens in the ocean water. As the ocean water freezes, the salt and other dissolved chemicals are left behind. This is one of the reasons why the polar ocean areas in the Arctic and Antarctic are important for the global ocean circulation. The cold, saltier water left behind from the formation of sea ice is more dense than warmer or just less saltier water and this cold, dense water sinks very deep down into the ocean. This movement of water is sometimes called the Ocean Conveyor Belt System. Everything in nature obeys the conservation of mass and energy and so more water must come to replace the water that has just been displaced. Without the formation of sea ice each winter, the global ocean circulation would slow down and this would have rather large impacts on the global climate system. This is one of the reasons why climate scientists are concerned about the demise of sea ice in the Arctic.
It is getting near the end of summer here in the Antarctic and there is still much sea ice around the continent. This sea ice is favored by seals as a nice resting location and currently the sea ice around McMurdo Station is dotted with hundreds of seals. I've only seen one lone penguin so far. Penguins need open ocean to hunt for food and usually only come around McMurdo when the sea ice has melted. This year the sea ice is still pretty solid so there has not been a whole lot of penguin activity. In fact, in order to allow the resupply vessel to reach the dock, an icebreaker ship had to lead the way to break up the sea ice. Residents said that a few days after the ice breaker cleared the way, there was quite a bit of marine activity including killer whales (orkas) and several penguins.
In the picture, you'll see a seal making their way up onto the sea ice for nice nap (or whatever seals prefer to do). In the front of the picture, toward the bottom, you'll also notice what looks likes mounds of sea ice. This feature is called a pressure ridge and is formed from the sea ice being forced up against the shoreline (or grounded land). This force causes the ice to fracture and be pushed up on itself. It's quite a beautiful feature.
The season has come to an end. We departed South Pole on January 30th after a very productive and successful 3-month season. The 2014-2015 season goal of the SPICE Core was to reach a depth of 700 meters, which we accomplished and then some. Our final depth was 736 meters. Of that, about 600 meters is making its way onto the vessel currently docked at McMurdo Station for its transport back to the United States. In June (or somewhere around there), the ice core processing line will take place at the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, CO. This is where all the samples of ice will be cut and shipped to funded labs across the U.S. Hopefully by August, I'll be doing my experiments on the ice that we brought up this season!
It is the last week of drilling here at the Pole. As of today (Jan. 21st), we’ve reached a depth of 690 meters! Only 10 more meters to go until we reach the season goal of 700 meters. At the current depth, the ice is around 10,000 years old!
In the picture above, you’ll see that the ice core is in a green netting. Any guesses as to why we’d put the ice core in netting? Well, it is because we have reached what ice core scientists call “brittle ice”. Brittle ice occurs with depth in an ice sheet where the tiny air bubbles that are trapped inside the ice are under high amounts of pressure. When we bring the ice up to atmospheric pressure very quickly, the tiny bubbles want to burst because they no longer have as much pressure pushing on them. By handling the ice core and moving it around, we can actually induce breaks and fractures in the ice because the bubbles are very pressurized. We want to reduce the amount of breaking because our goal is to preserve the trapped ancient air to study it! In order to prevent excessive breaking, we immediately put the brittle ice cores inside netting to help reduce damage to the core and ensure that if breaks or popping occurs, the pieces stay in the right spots. These cores are then kept in our ice storage trench over the winter to provide more time to relax the internal stresses and next year we will processes them and get them ready to be shipped back to the National Ice Core Lab (NICL) in Denver, CO. .
The core also has drilling fluid on its exterior and we don’t want to ship drilling fluid back to NICL for several reasons. The first is that the drill fluid is not cheap and we want to recycle and reuse as much as possible. Recycling the fluid keeps us from having to ship more all the way to the South Pole. Also, the drill fluid we are using does have a slight smell that we don’t want to get stuck in a freezer for many years. Therefore, to remove the drill fluid from the netted ice cores, my job is to vacuum the core! This procedure removes quite a bit of the drill fluid. It is also very relaxing for me – makes me feel like I’m at home cleaning my house :)
On average, we drill about 24 meters per day between two 10-hour shifts. Each run of the drill is taking slightly longer because the drill has move distance to travel each time it goes up and down the borehole. A typical run from surface, down to drill and collect a 2-meter long core, and back up to the surface takes close to an hour. It is amazing to think that the drill goes nearly half of a mile down into the ice sheet and back up with more ice core in just an hour! AH, ice core science and engineering are so amazing.
Hope you all are staying warm in you respective homes. It’s currently -48 deg Celsius here (-47 deg F)!
Until next time,
Mindy Nicewonger is a PhD candidate in the Department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine.
Banner photo: Mindy standing in front of the C-130 Hercules in McMurdo, Antarctica (Nov. 2014).