The first three posts on this blog are from UMaine undergraduate Holly Thomas, who worked on our project in Antarctica last field season. Here’s her first update from the field!
(November 26, 2015)
Undergraduate Student, Holly Thomas, has just arrived on the ice and gives us an inside look on her journey from Maine to Antarctica!
Greetings from the South! (At least we think we’re in Antarctica – it’s sunny and 45 °F)
Welcome to the first entry in what will hopefully be a series of updates from research party I-177. Our group is comprised of fearless PI Dr. Gordon Bromley, geochronology guru Greg Balco of UC Berkeley, mountain man and safety specialist Chris Simmons, PhD candidate Margaret Jackson and excited undergraduate/designated rock carrier/hole-digger Holly Thomas. We’re in Antarctica with the intent of investigating past configuration of the East Antarctic Ice sheet (EAIS) – specifically during the Pliocene, a period from approximately 5.3 – 2.5 million years ago during which climate was warmer than that of present.
You may ask “Why are you subjecting yourself to months of frigid conditions, rock smashing and powdered milk just for the sake of deducing what things used to look like – why does that matter now?” Excellent question, to which I would first say SCIENCE! But this project is also particularly exciting because an understanding what this ice sheet looked like during the warm Pliocene can help us predict how sensitive the ice sheet might be to modern warming trends – which in turn could lead to understanding the future fate of the Antarctic Ice Sheet!
Now a bit on how our journey so far:
We arrived yesterday afternoon after a cumulative 32 hours of air travel. It’s no surprise that the logistics behind traveling to the southern-most continent are extensive and complex (read: tedious). The first leg of the journey brought us to Christchurch, New Zealand home to the International Antarctic headquarters where we are issued the gear necessary to stay (somewhat) warm while on the Ice. (Insider tip; “on the Ice” appears to be the cool slang for “on the continent known to most as Antarctica”). Some highlights from said gear issue include a pair of very chic bibbed snowpants, some clunky white moonboots and a massive down coat that I’ll fondly be referring to as “big red” from here on.
After being issued our gear we enjoyed a screening of the first 3 (3!) of what would prove to be a long and enduring video series on Antarctic protocol. We were then free to roam about the city! Those of our party who had visited the city shortly after the earthquake in 2011 were pleased to see that life was surely and steadily being breathed back into the once vibrant downtown. We strolled through a mall constructed entirely from old shipping containers and visited the impressive Christchurch Botanical gardens, enjoying some final bittersweet moments amongst any and all green plant life – which is appears to be in short supply below the Antarctic Circle. We retired to our rooms that night, not so eagerly anticipating the 5 am pickup time the next morning.
After being shuttled back to the Antarctic Center in the wee hours we were privy to yet another video and a quick briefing on the travel procedure. We were told to don all cold weather gear for the flight down in case of an unlikely emergency landing in some icy wilderness. This resulted in a rather comical parade of us all in our respective moon boots and big reds out to the awaiting LC130. After piling in we settled in for what would be the final leg of our journey south.
After 7 hours and several sandwiches later we stepped onto the ice! Though we had caught glimpses of the white expanses from the small porthole windows, nothing had prepared the first-timers for the somewhat enchanting desolation of Antarctica. Shades of white and gray stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, punctuated only by a few tiny distant signs of human life. A cloud-swathed Mt. Erebus, one of two active volcanoes on the continent, loomed over us as we boarded the snow cat that would take us to the base and we settled in for a ride across the sea-ice super highway (a small groomed and flagged track) that would deliver us to McMurdo Station, the US base in the Ross Sea region.
Upon arrival we were greeted by Greg and Chris who had arrived a few days prior. After a quick introduction from the station director and (you guessed it) another video, we enjoyed our first meal at the station, retired to our respective rooms and finally hit the hay to prepare for a busy next few days.
We’ll stay on station until (tentatively) December 5th. During this time we’ll pack up the mountain of gear needed for departure to our field site, attend a few more safety trainings and hopefully squeeze in a few jaunts into the surrounding splendor! Look out for another update within the coming weeks.