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McMurdo Station Finally

After 10 days of delays in Christchurch, we finally made it to McMurdo Station and in doing so, I stepped foot in Antarctica for the first time!

Internet is very slow here at the station so unfortunately I can’t upload pictures to my blogs. Follow me on instagram (https://www.instagram.com/mostlyfrozen/) and twitter (https://twitter.com/KeepingIceCool) for pictures and more frequent updates!

We will be at the station for about 1 week while we go through training in field safety, emergency survival, and crevasses rescue. When the training is complete, hopefully the weather will be good enough for us to fly to WAIS divide camp and then onto our research site on Thwaites Glacier. 

We should be doing field work at that site until the end of January (about 4 to 5 weeks camping on the glacier!). During that time, I will be conducting radar surveys using a snowmobile to pull the scientific equipment along 20 km transects across the glacier.

Internet will be nonexistent in the field so I won’t be able to post much more until I return… maybe one more blog before we fly to our field site depending on weather and internet speed! I should be able to post on Twitter from the field site so check for that. Otherwise I should be back to CA in early February and will post lots of blogs and pictures about the field season then!

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Delays

I wish I was writing this blog from Antarctica but unfortunately I’m still in Christchurch, NZ due to unfavorable landing conditions at McMurdo Station. I’ve been on standby for the last three days and it could still be a while before I can depart. 

I met up with my field team (first time meeting in person!) and on Tuesday we checked in at the US Antarctica Program base to go through training and receive our issued clothing. I had fun trying on big red!

Going through some training at the clothing distribution center

Besides that, I’ve just been exploring Christchurch and trying to soak up all the summer weather here.

Hopefully my next blog will be from the ice! Stay tuned.

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A few days in New Zealand

I’ve had a couple days to explore New Zealand before starting the next leg of my journey to Antarctica. Here are some pictures I’ve taken over the last few days! Some of the highlights were a gorgeous lupin bloom at Lake Takapo, great glacier hiking near Mount Cook, and climbing some peaks near Queenstown. Enjoy all the photos! Tomorrow I report to the US Antarctica Program base in Christchurch for briefings and to pick up my gear at the Clothing Distribution Center. 

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Off to Antarctica!

Exciting news! Tomorrow I’m departing for 2.5 months of research on the Antarctic ice sheet. I will be traveling with a team of three other scientists and two mountaineers to conduct geophysics research on Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. You’ve probably heard about this glacier in the news.

Thwaites Glacier is one of the fastest retreating glaciers in Antarctica and considerable uncertainty remains in projecting it’s future ice loss and contribution to sea level rise. Here’s a video explaining why Thwaites is unstable and why it can raise global sea level.

I will be conducting radar surveys across the Eastern Shear Margin of Thwaites Glacier as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded TIME project (https://thwaitesglacier.org/projects/time). What is a shear margin? It’s the region where the glacier transitions from flowing very slowly to very quickly. You can think of this region like the bank of a stream. Take a look at the map below of Thwaites Glacier (The glacier drains into the ocean to the left.) See the rapid transitions from blue/green to red? That is the shear margin. The stars mark the field site locations where I will be conducting radar surveys.

Map of Thwaites Glacier with MEaSUREs velocity. Notice TIME1 and TIME2 are the names of the two field sites I will be camped at while conducting research.

Our research aims to study how the Eastern Shear Margin controls the stability and future evolution of Thwaites Glacier. At one site, we will be testing how hydrology influences the behavior and movement of the shear margin. At the other site, we will examine how the bed conditions could influence the flow of the glacier.

Getting there: Thwaites Glacier is one of the most difficult locations to get to in Antarctica. It’s known for particularly bad weather and challenging conditions. 

My journey to Thwaites Glacier starts from the SFO airport. From there I will fly to Christchurch, NZ where the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) offices are located in addition to the NSF offices, warehouse, and distribution center for field gear. After a few days of training and packing in Christchurch with my field team, we will take a US military aircraft to McMurdo station in Antarctica. We will be in McMurdo for a few weeks to prepare our equipment and do field training. From there we will take a flight to WAIS Divide camp, and then a smaller plane to our field site on Thwaites Glacier. Once on the glacier, we will be taking geophysical measurements across the shear margin for 4 to 5 weeks and we will use snowmobiles to traverse between field sites. 

 

I will fly from Christchurch, NZ to McMurdo Station. From there I will travel to WAIS Divide Camp and then to our field sites on Thwaites Glacier!

Similar to my summer in Greenland, we will be camping in tents on the ice while conducting the research. There will be no warm buildings, fresh food, or internet at the research site! There will be (limited) internet at the field stations in Antarctica and I will be taking lots of pictures, videos, and notes along the entire journey so get excited for many blogs to come! If things go according to plans, I should be back to California in early to mid February. 

Stay tuned for more updates in the next few days as I begin my journey down under!

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West Antarctica and its very own workshop

Antarctica is commonly divided into three parts: West Antarctica, East Antarctica, and the Antarctic Peninsula. From space, Antarctica just looks like one vast white landscape and indeed it is all one landmass underneath all the ice, but there are three geographically and climatologically unique parts. On the map below, you might notice the Antarctic Peninsula first. If the Antarctic continent were your fist, the peninsula is the “thumb” reaching up towards the tip of South America. The section on the left below the Antarctic Peninsula is West Antarctica and the massive region to the right is East Antarctica. Cutting the continent in two, and dividing west from east, are the Transantarctic Mountains. Ice to the west of this divide flows west and the opposite happens for ice to the east.

This map shows the major geographical features on the Antarctic continent and the USA and UK research stations to accompany the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA). For more information on LIMA and to access imagery go to: http://lima.usgs.gov

East Antarctica is much bigger than West Antarctica and the ice there is much thicker, reaching over 4.5 km thick in some places. Interior East Antarctica is also the driest and coldest part of the continent.

West Antarctica is thought to be much less stable. This has to do with both the bed topography below the ice and climate forcing. In some places, the ice is so thick it pushes the bedrock below sea level. In parts of West Antarctica where this happens near the edge of the ice sheet, warm sea water can infiltrate at the bed of the ice sheet and into the depression leading to accelerated ice loss. (Note: this mechanism is called the Marine Ice Sheet Instability, look it up). This is one of the reasons why West Antarctica is losing mass the fastest.

ESA–NASA Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise, Shepherd et al 2018

In fact, to research how the unstable West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) will affect future sea level rise and to understand how rapid global climate changes occur, the WAIS initiative was formed. Each year, this multidisciplinary program, brings together scientists from around the world for the week long WAIS Workshop.

This year, the workshop was held in Julian, CA a small desert town about 1.5 hours east of San Diego. While it may have been a bit ironic that it was situated in a desert, the week was spent discussing the latest research on West Antarctica through a series of oral presentation sessions and posters.

I had the opportunity to give a presentation on my research modeling the thermal characteristics at the bed of Thwaites Glacier. 

While most of the conference was spent in conference rooms, we did have one special appearance by a tamed wolf who was actually bred for friendliness as part of a biology study. This was not an official part of the conference but just happened to be taking place at a nearby farm. I have to say getting to pet a friendly wolf pup has now set the bar pretty high for future conferences 🙂

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The lesser known models of SoCal

I spent the last week and a half modeling in Los Angeles. Rather than making my way through Hollywood studios, I spent days glued to my computer screen as I ran model simulations of Antarctica using the ice sheet system model (ISSM) developed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).

Situated in Pasadena, CA on the northern outskirts of the LA area, this NASA campus boasts over 5,000 employees working on everything from glaciology research to the Mars 2020 mission and beyond. Among scientists, I think it’s fair to say that Pasadena beats out Hollywood for its modeling claim to fame. (If you’re curious what all of the upcoming missions are, check out this link: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions/)

My research visit was arranged to work with our collaborators who built and continue to develop the ISSM model. Much of my PhD research involves running model simulations of Antarctica so this visit was an opportunity for me to advance my capabilities using ISSM, report on my current research, and discuss the next modeling steps I plan to implement.

Here's an example of a simulation I did showing surface velocity in m/yr

Why run an ice sheet model? We don’t have many tools to explore what the world will be like in the future. Models are one of the few ways we can capture the current physical state and then run experiments into the future to inform ourselves about the impacts of possible climate scenarios. In my case, I run model simulations of Antarctica to examine how climate forcing could affect the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet, especially at the bed of the ice sheet where the thermal state is very important. Models enable us to predict what regions are most vulnerable to collapse and how much sea level could rise. Many of the news reports you’ve probably seen about climate impacts are ultimately from models like ISSM that work to capture the future state we will experience. 

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My summer of melt

I’m sure you’ve seen it. People have been asking me about it. This year Greenland has had record breaking heat and extreme melt, and headlines everywhere have been announcing it. This heated media attention over the last month has yet again put the Arctic and climate change in the spotlight. 

Here's one of the many surface melt streams I saw on the Greenland ice sheet

While I could echo news reports in this blog, I’m not going to. Instead let me add two additional pieces to the story about Greenland and melt. 

Part 1: A first hand account. I’ve only been to Greenland once — this summer — so I have no way of comparing the melt I observed this year to previous years. However I tried to capture what this year felt like. From my perspective on the ice sheet, this is what a record setting melt season looks like.

Part 2: What does melt mean for an ice sheet? A glaciologist could answer this question in a lot of ways because melt has many implications. At the most fundamental level, let’s explore some of the roles of meltwater.

Naturally, the lower part of a glacier melts. Even if the climate wasn’t warming, the section called the “ablation zone” is characterized as a region that looses mass via melting. To balance this, there is a region called the “accumulation zone” higher up on the glacier. In this zone there is no melt and instead the glacier gains mass via snowfall.

From the USGS

In a stable climate, the accumulation and ablation balance each other. Ice flows from higher up on the glacier where there is net gain to lower down on the glacier where there is net loss. In total, the glacier does not gain or loose mass. 

What happens when the climate is warmed? The balance is perturbed. The net ablation zone expands while the net accumulation zone shrinks. 

Image showing an expanding ablation zone in northwest Greeenland (Stef Lhermitte, TU Delft; MODIS Aqua)

Since there is more melt than snowfall, the glacier recedes until it reaches a new balance. If warmed enough, large sections of the glacier can be lost before it stabilizes again. In Greenland, I was in the ablation zone and this zone has been expanding over time.

Meltwater also plays a role in basal sliding. Glaciers can slide because of a film of water at the ice bed interface. Naturally, just from the heat due to the pressure of ice weighing down, ice right near the base of the glacier will thaw and a thin water film will develop. 

Increased surface melt due to warmer climate conditions can introduce more water to the bed and cause faster glacier flow. How does the water get from the surface to the bed? Over time melt ponds on the ice surface get big enough to cause cracks (hydrofracturing) in the ice and the water drains since it is more dense than ice. This water will eventually make it to the bed adding further lubrication for the glacier to slide.

Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

All this to say meltwater plays many important roles in an ice sheet. Some meltwater is normal for a stable glacier but too much can cause irreversible change. Now behind the news stories and pictures you see, I hope you think about some of the mechanisms of meltwater and what implications this has for a glacier profile.

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The scoop on ice camping?… it’s cold

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t anticipate quite how challenging it would be to simply live on ice for 3 weeks. Putting all research related challenges aside, the daily living routine demanded a lot of stamina and discipline.

For starters, I’ve never camped in such an alien environment for so long before. Wherever you’re sitting right now, let me try to bring you to this world. If you’re indoors, remove the building you’re in. In fact, remove every single building, every plant, every animal, and any other objects for as far as you can see in all directions. Flatten the ground to be a bumpy but relatively level surface and make it stretch out in all directions to the horizon. Now make the ground hard white ice. Turn the temperature down to about 32 degrees and put on a big parka, snow pants, heavy mountaineering boots, a hat, gloves and sunglasses. Look around. There’s now a white icy surface stretching as far as you can see in all directions. The only contrast against this white surface is a cluster of small colorful fabric tents flapping in the wind. You’re living here for 3 weeks. This is Earth but it almost feels like you’re on another planet. You pull out your phone to snap a couple pictures and in the process you’re reminded again that you have no service. Not that you thought you would have service, but just seeing those ‘no service’ words everyday makes you feel as if you’ve arrived in an alternate universe.

Yes, our camp is actually in this photo. It's a dot in the center.

Challenge 1: Wet and cold

With the temperature climbing just above freezing during the day and dropping below freezing at night, everything was perpetually cold and damp. Even inside the tent, there was no avoiding the icy floor. My hands and feet were frequently numb. I lived in my parka, only taking it off for a quick second to slip into my sleeping bag. Since there was no indoors and no heating, it was critical to constantly monitor body temperature. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many hot drinks and soup in my life.

Challenge 2: Where’s the bathroom?

There was merely a bin with a toilet seat sitting out on the ice about 100 meters downwind of camp. A tarp strung up by some bamboo poles served as a make shift curtain. The wind and cold did not provide any comfort when using the toilet. I found myself frequently in the “how long can I wait to go pee debate”. Even worse, was the rotating job to change the toilet bag when it got full. Further, the waste was burnt in an incinerator since we couldn’t take it out with us. What about a shower? There was none. That’s right, 3 weeks and no shower.

The toilet
Watch out for frostbite

Challenge 3: The tent moving ritual

Every 6 or 7 days you had to move your tent. But seriously, you really did. Over time, the ground around the tent melted away. The tent footprint served as a striking marker of surface melt. Over the course of a few days, the insulation provided by the tent sheltered the ice directly underneath. While the surrounding ice slowly and inconspicuously melted away, the ice directly under the tent remained and soon the middle of the tent would be elevated on a pedestal of ice a couple of feet thick. This really shrunk the space inside the tent making it an acrobatic act to simply get in and out. The ice below the tent became a slippery, lumpy surface. Rather than a restful sleep, I’d feel more like I’d just spent the night holding some sort of yoga pose – my head and feet awkwardly sloping down with a big rounded lump underneath my back.  

I just moved my tent off this huge lump of snow that formed under it.
Drilling in my tent so it won't blow away

Challenge 4: Cooking a meal 

Meals took place in a bigger dome tent. Inside, eight chairs made a ring along the tent wall. While the food was mostly, dried, canned, or otherwise preserved to last for a long time, everyone surpassed my expectations with their creativity and ability to pull together a decent meal. Dinners often turned into long multi hour group conversations since there was little else to do in the evenings. After dinner it was time to take the dishes out and wash them in a melt stream and then also brush your teeth next to a melt stream.

It got pretty crowded in here

Challenge 5: Attempting a workout

Being someone who usually spends multiple hours each day working out, I was a bit distraught by the lack of exercise opportunities. The ice surface was so rough that it made it impossible to walk fast without slipping. Even when I accumulated a lot of walking over the course of a day, it was at such a slow pace that I didn’t feel like I’d exercised at the end of the day. Additionally, because it was so cold and there was no way to shower, I didn’t ever really want to break a sweat. On a whim, I did bring a jump rope with me and I have to say, jump roping on ice worked surprisingly well to warm up and get my heart rate going!

I wouldn't be too surprised if I'm the only person crazy enough to use a jumprope on the Greenland ice sheet
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Radar: a window into the ice

I haul a large box antenna, a laptop, and a software refined radio (the receiver) over the bumpy ice surface, trudging off to a radar transmitter stationed about a kilometer south of camp. I jump over melt streams and weave my way through the maze of crevasses. Eventually I spot a small black flag on a bamboo pole waving in the distance and I gradually make my way in that direction. Interestingly, black is actually the easiest color to spot against the stark white surroundings.

Carrying the antenna to the start of the survey
The transmitter is in the blue box on the left.

When I arrive, I open up the box containing the ApRES radar – a phase sensitive, low power, light and compact instrument. From the outside, it’s just a yellow waterproof box that resembles an oversize briefcase. Inside, there’s a circuit board and a few cables to connect antennas, a laptop, and a power supply.

Looking inside the ApRES radar box

Working with my teammate from Stanford, I set up our transect. We turn on the radar transmitter, sending electromagnetic waves into the ice. As we walk away carrying the antenna and receiver, we hope that it will be able to detect the signal after the wave has bounced off the bed of the ice sheet.

In the middle of a radar survey. Inside the black box is the receiver. The blue box has the antenna.

These invisible electromagnetic waves are very powerful. While we can’t see or hear anything, these waves are propagating down through the ice. When they reach the transition between ice and bed rock, they reflect and travel back up through the ice to the surface. By recording how much time has elapsed while the electromagnetic wave travels down to the bed and back up to the receiver, we can calculate the exact thickness of the ice in the particular location. In this case, the ice-bed interface is over 1 km (0.6 miles) below us. 

Radar survey diagram - we walked away from the transmitter carrying the receiver and antenna in the blue box

We can also use this electromagnetic signal to recover properties of the ice column, like what the temperature of the ice is and how it varies spatially. This is important information for understanding the evolution and stability of outlet glaciers and how they may contribute to sea level rise.

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