Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Oden, the Polar Sea and the Adélies!

Our team was finally in McMurdo! Work was already in progress. They had been busy throughout their journey and even on their flight down from Christchurch! Things would soon be getting busy for me as we prepare to leave for our field camp. But, after a big lunch at the Galley, I couldn’t go back to my desk. I needed a walk. Being familiar with my routine by now, you wouldn’t be surprised that I walked to Hut Point again. It seemed like the perfect stroll after a meal.

The Oden was working away at the ice right off McMurdo. It had carved a channel all the way to the ice-peer between McMurdo and Hut Point and would be docking there later in the day. I got a good view of the 107 meter long icebreaker that had steadily worked its way to McMurdo through the sea-ice for the past few weeks. It was followed and then joined by the U.S. Coast Guard Polar Sea. It continues to work on widening the channel cut by the Oden making it possible for larger supply ships to arrive at McMurdo later this month.

The Swedish Icebreaker Oden and the U.S. Coast Guard Polar Sea.

As my lucky stars continued to shine past the Antarctic Sun, I once again noticed a large group of Adélie penguins on the ice a little south of Hut Point that was making its way straight towards McMurdo. There were probably about 50 penguins in the group and there were more groups out on the ice big and small, all making their way to Hut Point! Soon it was swarming with penguins. It seemed like the birds were holding a convention! Some of the birds came right up along the shallower slopes of the land and were completely unafraid of the human crowd that was gathering to photograph them. Both groups of bipeds seemed to be curious of each other, but of course only one kind had cameras!

Adélies are the most common and smallest of Antarctic Penguins and were named so in 1830 by French explorer Dumont d’Urville after his wife Adélie. It is also after d’Urville that the French base on the Adélie Coast takes its name. Adélie penguins stand a little over 2 feet tall and feed mainly on krill and fish. There are over 2 million pairs of Adélies all across the Antarctic coast and they gather in huge colonies nesting in November building a nest of rocks and pebbles.

Selections from the Adélie album!

Our team is scheduled to leave for field camp to the Dry Valleys on Thursday, so this will in all probability be my last post until I return from field to add pictures from that trip.

Till then, enjoy the pictures and reading rest of the blog!

Saturday, January 6, 2007

For a Few Penguins More!

Returning from our field trip on the 3rd we learnt about an additional delay in our team’s flight from Christchurch – they wouldn’t be flying until this evening. Also, Jan 5th brought more stormy weather. Liz and I had initially planned on making another trip early yesterday morning. We reported as usual at Helo Ops and discussed the situation with Gifford and Marko, who would be the pilot for our trip. Marko wasn’t certain that he would be able to land in case of turbulence in the valleys and even if did, whether he would be able to get us later in the day was another uncertainty. We chose to cancel. Wisely so; as in a couple of hours the wind picked up to blowing in gusts over 50 miles per hour and carried the snow from the ice into town. It covered the sea-ice in a fog-like blanket of blowing snow probably few tens of feet tall! From town, I could look over Hut Point and barely see the Oden, which was now just a couple of miles out in the ice.

Jan 5th; the Oden is almost hidden in the blanket of blowing snow off Hut Point ridge.

Jan 6th; a few brave folks venture out in the winds at Hut Point to get a closer look at the Oden.

Today, Jan 6th, continued to be windy and overcast, although much less than yesterday and the flight arrival from Christchurch was delayed till late in the evening; but it wasn’t canceled! Finally, they were on their way to McMurdo. The Oden had moved in all the way to McMurdo and was moving back and forth keeping it from refreezing.

After lunch, I was headed back to the Crary lab, when I noticed a large number of black dots far out on the ice. I could bet they were penguins and they were moving away from town. I hurried into the lab and went up to the library from where, looking through the spotting scope I saw about twenty Adélie Penguins actually following the trail marked by flags on the ice leading away from town! Then miraculously, I spotted another smaller group of penguins right at the edge of the ice coming ashore just behind the Helo pads!

I couldn’t wait! I grabbed my cameras and rushed out towards the ice, where a few other lucky folks sat relaxing on the ground while six Adélies walked right up to them and started exploring the ground a few feet in front of them. I joined the group and members of both the avian and mammalian groups made observations about the others activities. We watched the birds call out to each other, excavate some stones and groom themselves. The show lasted for almost an hour until finally the done of a returning helicopter sent the penguins scampering off to the ice around Ob Hill, where they found a good spot to settle down for a rest.

It was indeed an incredibly lucky event. I had never imagined getting so close to a penguin that I could almost reach out and touch it!

The Penguin Gallery!

The Adélie Geologists!

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Dry Valleys - A Preview!

It seemed that our team wasn’t going to be able to leave Christchurch at least till Jan 05! Bruce, my boss, gave the ‘go ahead’ for Liz and myself to make a reconnaissance trip to Taylor Valley, which was Liz’s area for field work. She was studying the young volcanic cones that were similar in age to Mt. Erebus and associated volcanoes.

Liz fixed up a schedule with Helo Ops and we were slated to fly out of McMurdo a little after noon. We picked up backpacks from our ‘equipment cage’ from the Berg Field Center (BFC), had an early lunch, got another packed lunch to have when out in the valleys and reported at the helicopter terminal around 11:30 am. There, Gifford the Helo coordinator gave us a briefing on safety and after selecting appropriate sized helmets we were led to the A-star helicopter where we met our pilot Dustin.

I had never been in a helicopter before and boy, I was excited! Liz let me have the front seat next to the pilot, which was sweet. Dustin asked me to relax and said it would feel just like an elevator as we lift off and then it isn’t any different than being in the front seat of a car! Yes, a car without wheels, but with two rotors that could fly! I was expecting it to be a noisy machine to travel in but, the French-made helicopter didn’t make much more than a loud roar and after connecting the headset in the helmet we were able to converse quite comfortably.

Hobbs Glacier and Royal Society Range from the helicopter (helo)

As we left McMurdo we could easily look out north and see the Oden cutting its channel through the ice followed a few miles behind by the Polar Sea widening the channel and soon after the edge of the sea-ice giving way to the deep blue ocean. But we were heading west, flying over the sea-ice a little more than 50 miles to Taylor Valley. Dustin had been flying for more than twenty years and had been in Antarctica for the past few summers. He had a remarkable knowledge of the land and ice around McMurdo and we had a wonderful flight as we learnt many a thing about the ice, glaciers and mountains that we passed.

Bower's Piedmont Glacier from the helo.

Taylor Valley is about 5 miles across and almost 50 miles long running approximately E-W. We landed on the southern side of Talyor Valley about half-way in the valley, near the Solas glacier right on one of the eroded volcanic cones. Taylor Glacier and Lake Bonney lay ahead and below us. The Solas is one of many smaller glaciers that flow down the sides of the valley. They are thick tongues of ice formed along the saddles of the mountains that separate one valley from another.

Raised features on the sea-ice of smooth, blue ice resemble dunes.

We had a beautiful warm day to be out in the valleys and a few hours work later, we heard the roar of Dustin’s helicopter as it approached us and soon it was time to head back to town. It was an amazing day and a truly unforgettable one for me.

The Strand moraines obstruct the flow of the Bower's Piedmont Glacier.

Flying over the 5 mile wide Ferrar Glacier!

A glacier hangs over the Ferrar valley from the Kukri Hills.

Looking west into Taylor Valley. From front: Lake Bonney, Taylor Glacier, Ferrar Dolerites (dark bands).

A dolerite dike intruding granite in Taylor Valley is subject to the erosive power of wind.

The broken fragments of dolerite are sculpted by wind to form beautiful ventifacts with smooth faces.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

What's New?

McMurdo awoke to snow flurries and strong winds on New Year’s Day! And although some wouldn’t call this a good change in weather, it did feel like a welcome change at least for a short while – it covered the town in a thin blanket of white, making the town look a little less brown! The winds were picking up and it made sense to stay indoors, but me and a few more adventurous souls (Kam and Alain) decided otherwise and went out on our usual ‘after lunch stroll’ to Hut Point. Going there was easy as we were heading west, while the wind was blowing snow from the East. Once there however, we soon found it to be a lot windier; which we should’ve expected and to add to that, it looked like the snow fall had just gotten heavier. We could barely see the outline of Ob Hill, less than a mile away. And this was still considered relatively safe weather to be outdoors in the Antarctic! So, after spending a brief exciting time imagining what a ‘bad weather condition’ must be like we headed back into town.

Weather systems in the Antarctic are truly unpredictable and each new day could easily see the weather change overnight. The next day did just that. Unusually warm, about 4 degrees Celcius and almost no wind in the morning. Robo was glad that he could almost go out in a T-shirt and shorts! We walked again to Hut Point and could see the Swedish icebreaker Oden a few miles out, making its way through the sea ice to McMurdo. It was carving a channel that was being worked on and widened by the U.S. Coast Guard Polar Sea, which was following the Oden a few miles behind. Eventually, they would make a passageway open for cargo vessels to come in to McMurdo towards the end of the month. As we watched the icebreaker in the distance, a LC-130 aircraft passed by us flying low, making a flyby past the Oden, continuing to the Polar Sea and turning back and flying over us again to Willey Field.

The Swedish icebreaker Oden makes its way towards McMurdo.

Mr. Robertson looks out at the icebreaker, while a LC-130 flies past in the distance.

An LC-130 flying on its way towards the Oden.

Although things looked well in McMurdo, all wasn’t well. I and my colleague Liz, had arrived here early to get things setup and ready to go when the rest of our team (7 members) arrived in McMurdo, so that we could leave for our three week field camp to the Dry Valleys. Our team was scheduled to arrive today, but unfortunately, the C-17 had developed a mechanical problem and couldn’t fly until it was fixed. Hopefully, this would be done soon and weather co-operating they would be here in time for their snow school which was scheduled for the 5th!

I was also hoping that the warm weather would bring out more penguins but, for now we only had the company of a few Weddell Seals laying on the ice edge basking in the warm sunshine. There were a few clouds high up in the sky, but it was unusually clear on Mt. Discovery which seemed to glow in the soft light.

A Weddell Seal enjoying its afternoon nap.

Mt. Discovery glows in the soft sunlight.

Late that night, about half past midnight (technically Jan 03) the sky had suddenly come alive with clouds high up in the atmosphere being drawn out in an amazing pattern. The low midnight sun shone from behind this thin veneer of clouds, dramatically lighting up the mountains.

Mountain with a silver lining!

The sun and and sky transform the landscape below.

The midnight sun shines through the clouds.