The Daily Work of a Polar Ice Core Driller – Video

Time flies, footage stays. A bit more than a year ago, I lived the life of an ice core driller in Antarctica. Here is the long-awaited ice core drilling video with some explanatory elements for everybody to share and learn, with great music of field mate Andy Menking.

All the best,

Bernhard

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The Ice Arrived!

Several months after drilling the ice cores on Taylor Glacier, they finally arrived at our lab. A moment to celebrate that nothing went wrong on the way, and before.

Arrival of the boxes with ice samples from Taylor Glacier at the lab.

Arrival of the boxes with ice samples from Taylor Glacier.

I have to admit, it was a pretty special moment when I drove to Zurich Airport that rainy late afternoon a few weeks ago to meet the ice core boxes I packed last December on McMurdo Station in Antarctica. So much work for a few tens of kilograms of ice and now it finally arrives at the lab… Good Times!

From the drill site on Taylor Glacier the ice was brought to McMurdo Station by Helicopter where it was stored in a first freezer. There, we prepared the boxes for their long journey in an on-board freezer of a ship from McMurdo to L.A., followed by a transportation with a freezer truck to the labs in the U.S.. Special care is required for this transportation as all could be lost by a gap of a few hours in the cold chain. As an example, one of the special safety measures is that always two freezer trucks are used for the delivery to the labs: One loaded with the boxes, the other one empty as backup in case the main truck breaks down. All of this is organized by the U.S. Antarctic Program and works perfectly. Thanks!

The ice that made it to Switzerland is part of a collaboration between the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and the University of Bern, for which reason our ice was brought to San Diego first. From there we had to organize the transportation by ourselves and had to work with carriers that are not used to handle such precious freight. It is always interesting to explain to a carrier that the freight does not have a “price” (which they need for their insurances), because this freight is just not buyable! Its effective price would be so high that no one would ever take the responsibility for the transportation. There is no other way to give a fictive price (way too low) and basically do the transportation without any insurance, a common way if you deal with shipping of research products.

Therefore, you take special care to minimize the risks during the transportation and we boiled it down to a fast transportation without cooling from San Diego via L.A. airport and Zurich airport to Bern within 28 hours. The boxes got loaded with cold packs such that they could stay cold for 48 hours without any external cooling. You probably understand now why it is a moment to celebrate when all the ice arrives as planned – still nice and cold – and you can place it in your freezer at the lab.

Happy Science!

Bernhard

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The World of Ice Core Sciences in Tasmania

The past week, ice core scientists from all over the world have met in Hobart, Tasmania, to share the latest results as well as ideas for future work. The ice core science expertise that came together for this second edition of the IPICS Open Science Conference is unique for which reason many colleagues call this conference the best in their field.

About 10 years ago the International Partnerships in Ice Core Sciences (IPICS) has formed and released a few white papers as a guide for future ice core research. In 2012, IPICS called for the first IPICS Open Science Conference in South France, which marked the first true international ice core meeting ever. The past week, all 18 member countries of IPICS sent their researchers again – this time to beautiful Hobart – for the second edition of this conference, which was again a very successful and fruitful one week conference with about 250 attendees.

Tas van Ommen from the host institute ACECRD opening the IPICS Open Science Conference 2016 in Hobart, Tasmania.

Tas van Ommen from the host institute ACECRD opening the IPICS Open Science Conference 2016 in Hobart, Tasmania.

The presented topics covered all fields of ice core research. Special sessions were hold for example about new insights from non-polar ice cores (from tropical and alpine regions), or where to find the oldest ice in Antarctica (expected to be as old as 1.5 million years old) as well as new results about ice flow of the large polar ice sheets (which is essential knowledge for future sea level change predictions based on ice sheet modeling). In total about 65 scientific talks were given and probably about 250 posters were presented, an ideal size for fruitful exchange.

Interesting progress in the search for the oldest ice in Antarctica could be presented and a couple of regions in east central Antarctica are now under closer investigation for possible drill sites for this prestigious project. Also a new approach to use trapped gas in ice cores to reconstruct past ocean temperatures gained some attraction. For the first time useful results from this kind of analysis of two different labs were presented, which seem to be able to deliver a lot of new insights into the energy budget of the climate system.

Besides the scientific topics, also the very recent announcements of strong cuts at the Australian Research Institute CSIRO were discussed. Many of our Australian ice core colleagues with whom collaborations have been undertaken over decades are now in danger to lose their jobs because political leaders in Australia believe climate science does not need observations anymore, but needs only research on climate mitigation. This political tendency away from observation oriented research towards research on climate mitigation is not only an Australian phenomenon. Unfortunately, this tendency forgets the fact that climate mitigation and observation is very strongly linked and only with the continuation of high quality observation, good mitigation is possible. There is the hope that the Australian government rethinks its plans during the ongoing hearings and they don’t waste the money they have invested over the last decades to build up the knowledge they now want to get rid of.

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A Milestone in Physics

This is very off-topic, but for a physicist just a must to share. The world of fundamental physics just has changed, because it is proofed: Einstein’s general theory of relativity is true!

Einstein has brought up several theories that changed the way we look at the fundamental forces in the universe. One of his later – and probably the most fundamental – theories is the general theory of relativity. It describes the way how gravity works – that mass bends the spacetime. This is fundamentally different to the thinking of “the other way”, which would be that there is a gravitational force (like magnetism) pulling two masses together. Yes, strictly speaking, it is wrong to talk about the gravitational force from now on. You can say “today, the spacetime feels very straight” if you want to say that you feel very light-footed today – but that’s just for nerds 🙂 .

What does it mean for our daily lifes? Pretty much nothing, but it is exciting to see a 100 years old theory finally to be proofed. The most prominent impact of the general theory of relativity finds application in the GPS network. The positioning system would not be as precise as it is if the theory would be ignored (see this Ohio-State Page for more details).

A scientific perspective on this groundbreaking finding and how it has been proofed can be found in these Nature articles:

http://www.nature.com/news/gravitational-waves-how-ligo-forged-the-path-to-victory-1.19382

http://www.nature.com/news/einstein-s-gravitational-waves-found-at-last-1.19361

Happy Science!

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Drilling Ice Cores – Time Lapse Video

On the Taylor Glacier we spent a lot of time drilling ice cores with the big Blue Ice Drill (BID). Here a little time lapse video of us drilling the top three meters of one of our many holes. Enjoy!

 

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Goodbye Taylor Glacier – Goodbye Antarctica

After three weeks of field work on Taylor Glacier, four of us left the field (incl. me) while eight are continuing until beginning of January. Here some impressions from an amazing time at an amazing place.

Spectacular Camp view

The spectacular scenery of our camp. Kitchen tent in blue, toilet tent in yellow.

Campt overview

Overview of our camp. The (really) small sleeping tents to the right, kitchen tent in blue, in the back our working area with the big science tent (laboratory) in yellow/grey and the storage tent in bright yellow.

Helo bringing fuel

A helicopter (helo) bringing fuel drums to our camp. All the logistic between McMurdo and our camp is done with helos. Even though we have seen tens of helos bringing and getting stuff, you never get sick of them. It’s amazing how precisely they can fly, even at strong winds.

Low-Tech ice core drilling at work.

Low-tech ice core drilling. We use this drill to explore the stratigraphy of the glacier at various places. This picture is taken at the glacier tongue where we found the oldest ice in Taylor Glacier so far (about 150’000 years old). It doesn’t look like, but it’s hard work, I tell you!

Sarah and Micheal with ice core

Happy glaciologists (Sarah and Micheal) holding an ice core section from 10 meters depth. This specific piece of ice has last seen the surface probably about 120’000 years ago (exact dating still work in progress), when it has fallen in form of snow about 150 km inland from where we are.

Helium balloon start

Another low-tech but efficient way to explore the stratigraphy of the glacier: helium balloon with camera. High resolution areal photos help us to better understand the folding of the ice.

Areal of balloon team

Areal photo of the exploration team.

Areal photo of melt channels

Areal photo of the melt channels at the glacier tongue – no, it’s not Mars!

Peter in the melt channel

On a day off, we find time to visit the spectacular melt channels of Taylor Glacier. Peter uses his crampon to stroll into the channel.

One of the mummified seals on Taylor Glacier, one of the mysteries of the dry valleys. They are several thousand years old and perfectly preserved in the dry and cold climate of the dry valleys. For some unknown reason, a seal made its way up the glacier and died. Ever since, it is perfectly conserved on the cold and dry glacier and slowly travels down the valley with the glacier flow. The theorie is that they wandered up glacier on the search of holes in the sea ice, not realizing that they go the wrong direction.

One of the mummified seals on Taylor Glacier, a mystery of the Dry Valleys. They are several thousand years old. For some unknown reason, this seal must have made its way up the glacier before he died on its journey. Ever since, it is perfectly conserved on the cold and dry glacier and slowly travels down the valley with the glacier flow. The theory is that the seal wandered up Ferrar glacier (which merges with Taylor Glacier) on the search of holes in the sea ice, not realizing that he is going the wrong direction… sad story.

Movie night at camp

Movie night in the camp. Sarah, Micheal, Kathy and Andy (front to back) enjoy the time after work inside the kitchen tent.

BID at work on Taylor Glacier

Our hungry Blue Ice Drill (BID) at work. Engineered specifically for the C14 work done at Taylor Glacier, this drill pulls out cores with 24 cm diameter. Each meter of core is 40 kg heavy and a pain to carry around. The good side? Lots of sample!

Cutting BIDs

The big BID cores hardly fit in a ice core box. That’s why we cut it right in the field. Peter and Vas (l.t.r.) are focused on making a straight cut – essential for good sampling and not so easy with a slippery, 40 kg heavy and round piece of ice.

Storing cores in the freezer

After cutting and bagging the ice, samples are stored in a freezer – yes, freezer! The strong Antarctic sun can melt the ice at the surface. We have to prevent this from happening. The colder the ice, the better the trapped gases in the ice is preserved for later analysis.

 

Bubbles in the ice

That’s what it is all about – the small bubbles in the ice which are air samples from the past. The composition of this air tells us a lot about the past climate.

The field lab melter in action

In the science tent Ed and Joe (front to back) melt small sticks cut from the big BID cores and run the melt water as well as the released gases through their sophisticated system. It’s pretty wild to build up such a lab for a couple of weeks at one of the most remote places on the planet, but it finally payed off.

Melter head close up

Close up of the melter head (golden piece) while melting an ice stick. The melt water-air mixture is sucked through the melter head into the system.

Filling the big melter

The other melter unit. In this big vacuum chamber almost one ton of ice can be melted at once. This pot is the main reason why we need the big BID cores.

Group photo

The complete field crew shorltly before we left the field (f.l.t.r.): Berni, Ed, Heidi, Peter, Vas, Andy, Jayred, Joe, Kathy, Sarah, Micheal, Andrew. It’s been a pleasure with you guys!

Reading Globi

… and THANK YOU READER for following this blog. It’s been a pleasure to give you insights in our work at the beautiful end of the world. “Globi und der Polarforscher” is surprisingly close to the reality, I have to admit :-).

To be continued…

Cheers, Berni

P.S.: Follow the Rochester blog for more reports directly from the field.

 

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Why we are interested in radiocarbon

The most spectacular work that is done on the field is probably melting every day 1 ton of ice in a huge vacuum chamber. Back in the lab, the released air from the ice will be analyzed for its radiocarbon content, which has fundamental implications for dating purposes and identification of sources of atmospheric carbon.

Picture of the melting chamber on the field

The big melting chamber on Taylor Glacier with a capacity to melt 1 ton of ice at once. Micheal is just taking care on the chamber during the melting process (see the flames underneath). [credit: Micheal Dyonisius, University of Rochester]

Radiocarbon, or C14, is a rare radioactive carbon isotope with a half-life time of 5730 years. Because carbon is found in almost all natural products, the activity of C14 in a material can be used to trace back the time when the carbon was built in that material. This basic concept lies behind the widely used C14 dating method (but works also with other radionuclides) und builds probably the most prominent dating technique for natural materials.

Not only dating is an application of C14, but also can we use it as an identifier of sources of atmospheric carbon at a specific point in time. In the application in our field work, C14 in methane (CH4) is measured and used to figure out whether the CH4 came from a recently formed archive (i.e. biosphere sources such as tropical and boreal wetlands) or an archive that has been sealed away from the atmosphere for very long time (i.e. carbon in the deep ocean and permafrost). For example, if C14 in CH4 drops during an event when the CH4 concentration is increasing, we know it must come from an “old” source, and vice versa.

Picture of filling the melting chamber

Vas and Micheal are filling up the melting chamber with one core piece just drilled near by. About 14 of these cores fit in the chamber. [credit: Micheal Dyonisius, University of Rochester]

One motivation to investigate this in the past is that the current human-made warming has potential to destabilize some old sources such as permafrost and clathrate hydrates and, hence, add to the release of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity. This so called positive feedback could have taken place in the past for example during the last glacial transition when the global climate changed from the last ice age to the current warm period. By identifying such events and their links to natural climate change, we can better asses by how much we have to take this effect into account for the current warming event.

The group from the University of Rochester around Vas Petrenko that leads this project (which is by the way also the flagship project of our field work), is the first group ever that analyses C14 of CH4 in trapped air in polar ice, and also managed to significantly improve the precision for C14 in CO2 and CO with their methodology. The reason for their significant step forward in the analytics lies in the large amount of ice/air from the same time period it can be taken from Taylor Glacier. At normal ice core drill sites the ice layering is horizontal and only a limited amount of ice is available for a certain time, whereas at Taylor Glacier the layering is vertical which allows accessing basically unlimited amount of ice from the same time period.

In a previous work done a couple of years ago, the team of Rochester could show that during a specific event about 12’000 years age, an “old” source was clearly active. In the current campaign they want to extend their C14 record on a much larger time span and also try to rule out an inherent problem to C14 in air from polar ice samples: production of C14 in the ice itself (in-situ production).

More details about the interesting work of the University of Rochester group can be obtained from their blog.

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The last warm period: an analog for our future?

In ice core research we would love to probe a time period that was warmer than today for better predictions of our future. However, these time periods have been rare in what we can cover with ice cores, with probably one exception which we want to probe on Taylor Glacier.

With ice cores it has been possible to probe the climate as far back as 800’000 years before present. This is an extremely long time range, but only during about 10% of this time, the globe was in a state of warm climate, as we are since the last 10’000 years. All the past warm periods were either a bit colder or equally warm than the present one, but none of them significantly warmer than the present one. This was the state of the art until a couple of years ago, when research started to find evidence that the last warm period (about 125’000 years ago) was probably the one exception.

With a few degrees warmer climate than what we have today (maybe only true for certain regions), this time period has potential to give us insight in our future climate and can serve as a kind of analog for where we are heading to with human-made global warming. It won’t be the perfect example, that’s clear, because greenhouse gas concentrations have not been as high as we are driving them to (they were about 30% below the current concentrations of CO2), but other mechanism seemed to have made the globe slightly warmer than today (at least regionally). To find out what these mechanisms were, how they worked, and what it meant for the climate is what drives our interest in this specific time period.

Arial Picture of Taylor Glacier with surface ice ages.

Taylor Glacier tongue with the surface ice ages along the main flow line. The intensified lines across the flow line indicate our main work sites with the main transect at the narrow part of the valley (ka = kilo annus = thousand years before present). [credit: PhD thesis Daniel Baggenstos]

125’000 years old ice is old even for Taylor Glacier standards (see picture for a reference of the ice age). With the past few years of fieldwork it was possible to identify and nicely date a well preserved section on the glacier that covers the time period between about 6’000 and 52’000 years before present (the so called main transect). This transect is part of a unique ice fold that extends over a large part of the lower glacier tongue. However, this main fold is highly disturbed on its edges and it has been proven difficult to find older ice on the glacier.

Nevertheless, the search for older ice further down the glacier tongue has continued and it has been possible to find shorter sections of ice that date back to around 70’000 years (the so called MIS 4-5 site) and even older ice around 125’000 years of age. The ice, however, is highly compressed and the stratigraphy disturbed such that the first attempt to retrieve a record for this period was not fully satisfactory. Therefore, we are revisiting this site and hope to drill a core a couple of meters away from the original site that hopefully contains the period in a better fashion. Due to the complex stratigraphy of the glacier, in particular at the sites down the glacier, it is to some degree a try-and-error work and some luck is needed to drill in a good section.

We plan to go twice to that site: at the very beginning of the season and sometime in the middle. The plan is to drill a few tens of meters away from the original site, bring the cores back to the main camp where we can do some analytics to see what we got, and then go back again to hopefully get the best possible core from that site. Regardless whether we find a slightly better site or not, the ice we will get from there will be used to address different questions. Two examples are given here:

By measuring the Krypton and Xenon content in the trapped air it is possible to reconstruct the global mean ocean temperature back in time. With these measurements – which rely on fairly large sample and are therefore easy to perform with ice from Taylor Glacier (see previous blog for details) – we will hopefully shed some light on the question how warm the ocean was back in the last warm period (was it warmer or similarly warm than today?).

Another focus is going to be absolute dating of a certain event around that time. Dating of the trapped air based on the radionuclide Kr81 (similar concept as explained in a previous blog) is possible at Taylor Glacier, only because we can take so large ice samples. This technique will give us an independent and very precise age for the trapped air and tell us at which point in time this event has actually happened.

More happy science coming soon!

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Heading out to Taylor Glacier in the Dry Valleys

After a week of training and preparation in McMurdo station we are flying to our field site: Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

The protection of Antarctica through the international treaties make visiting this continent a bit more complicated than other places, but the McMurdo Dry Valleys go along with one more layer of protection. The region is a so called Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) which is set up to protect the regions very unique and fragile environment (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McMurdo_Dry_Valleys and http://www.mcmurdodryvalleys.aq for more details). For us it means that we will be able to visit a very unique and beautiful part of Antarctica, and that we also have to take special care to minimize the traces of our work in the field. With the exception of holes in the glacier (in some places people say we make the glacier look like a Swiss cheese 🙂 ) we put a lot of effort in not leaving traces (from human waste through spilled oil to food waste… everything has to be collected and brought back to McMurdo).

Map of the McMurdo Dry Valleys

Map of the central McMurdo Dry Valleys [source: http://www.mcmurdodryvalleys.aq/]

The McMurdo Dry Valleys are mostly ice and snow free. The glaciers in the valleys are fed from the inland ice shield where snow can accumulate over time. In the McMurdo Dry Valleys it is so dry, sunny and windy that no closed snow layer can build up and the glaciers flowing into the valleys constantly sublimate at their surface (in very rare cases melting occurs). In glaciology terms this is a so called ablation region. Therefore the glaciers are not covered by a nice white and soft layer of snow, but they consist only of pure ice, hard as rock, slippery as hell.

Obviously it is not the most pleasant place to set up camp and live for a couple of weeks (besides the beautiful scenery), but it provides very unique access to ancient ice. The ice layers of equal age – which are horizontally orientated at the inland ice shield – are rotated by 90° at Taylor Glacier in a vertical orientation. This has very practical advantages because we can drill parallel to the layers and can get basically endless amounts of ice from the same age. In classical ice coring at an inland site you drill rectangular to the layers which means you have only a limited amount of ice per age.

Arial Picture of Taylor Glacier with surface ice ages.

Taylor Glacier with the surface ice ages along the main flow line. The intensified lines across the flow line indicate our main work sites with the main transect at the narrow part of the valley (ka = kilo annus = thousand years before present). [credit: PhD thesis Daniel Baggenstos]

It is a nice coincidence that the layering is so practical orientated for drilling and it is in fact surprising how well preserved the layering is considering the rotation of the ice, the long distance and curved landscape the ice has been flowing through. You can stand on the glacier and see certain layers by the naked eye and just walk rectangular to the layering to change the age of the ice you are standing on.

In fact you can very easily observe the dusty layer of the last glacial period on the google maps satellite images and in this way study the stratigraphy of the glacier on your computer (go on earth/satellite view; coordinates -77.760389, 161.715335). The little feature rectangular to the glacier flow direction you see at these coordinates is our trench of our main transect (you have to zoom a lot to see it…). Near this point we are going to camp. We use these satellite images a lot in combination with our on-site measurements to figure out where certain ice can be found. For some reason, the McMurdo Dry Valleys are very well resolved in the google maps satellite images. Have a look and play a bit the glaciologist :-).

Aerial Photo of camp 2014/15.

Photo from a helium balloon of the field camp (season 2014/15). [credit: Sarah Shackleton, UCSD] 

While we are out there we do not have any web access. We can communicate via a satellite phone and are in regular contact with McMurdo station. There is a little chance a blog from the field makes it online via a USB stick in the helicopter and the McMurdo IT people. So until the return most blogs are going to be prepared.

Stay tuned!

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Living in McMurdo

The biggest “town” in Antarctica is McMurdo Station where we stayed the past week to prepare our field work. Some people love it, others hate it, but there is no doubt that it is a very special place.

A view over McMurdo Station

A view over McMurdo Station.

When you arrive the first time in Antarctica you don’t know what to expect from a research station such as McMurdo. Everything is fascinating and all is new. But McMurdo is for sure an experience. The station can host up to 1300 people in summer (currently about 900), and whether you cook for the station or drill into ice somewhere in Antarctica, all the people here have some sort of mission for science. You meet a lot of different people which are all very excited about their work they can do here.

The people that run the station mostly live here for an entire season, which can be up to 6 months. That creates some need for a normal life, in a very abnormal place. Indeed, there is a lot of “normal” stuff going on around the station and after a couple of days it feels like living in a little town somewhere on a normal continent. There are gyms with a wide selection of classes to take, there are three different bars in town (even though they are all just next to each other), there are saunas, hiking trails, a hair dresser, a gift shop, a gear shop… You easily can loose track of all that is going on here.

Hiking group

An evening hike on one of the hiking trails around McMurdo with a part of our crew: Peter, Micheal, Ed, Joe (f.l.t.r.)

Observation tube

Micheal goes down the observation tube, one of the attractions of McMurdo. The tube goes through the sea-ice to observe the ocean underneath the ice.

underneath the sea ice

The beauty underneath the sea-ice found in the observation tube. Magical!

Cross-country skiing on sea-ice. It's pretty comfortably flat terrain, but the wind can be your enemy.

Cross-country skiing on sea-ice. Pretty fancy! Comfortable flat terrain, but the wind can be your enemy.

On the other hand there are the scientist that often use McMurdo station as the door to their field site (like us). For them McMurdo is the place to get all the training done required for the field work and to get all the equipment ready for the day they head out to the field. It is quite impressive how many different trainings the station offers, I probably have attended about 10 of them (Lab training, general safety training, field safety training, Dry Valleys special training, helicopter sling load training, ski-doo training, truck use training, communication training …).

Survival training

Training about how to use the survival kits.

Blue ice training

Training to set up tents on the blue ice.

The station also provides all the field gear we need and coordinates all the logistics (in our case helicopter flights) we need. That are the things we work on in between the trainings. Getting everything lined up within a week turned out to be a pretty intensive task. But also for us there was time to enjoy the normal life aspects of the station life and discover the beauty of the environment.

Field gear packing

Packing up the field gear.

Ice drill packing

Micheal is packing an ice drill.

Food packing

Everybody is packing up food for the camp.

A thing that easily gets forgotten after a few days in town is that all the waste that is produced here has to go off the continent. The international environmental treaty for Antarctica set up in the early 90’s requires each state to return everything they bring in, to bring out again to where it came from. The station puts an enormous effort in fulfilling this requirement. There is a whole department only for waste handling, there are bins for all the different waste all over the station and also all the waste we produce in the field has to go back to McMurdo and be processed by the waste department (even our toilet waste). The rule is “zero traces on Antarctica” and that requires a lot of effort from the visitors and organizers of the station. After each season a huge ice breaker visits McMurdo station to pick up all the waste that has been produced over the time.

Wastte bins.

Waste handling on McMurdo. Recycling is important.

In the next days we depart to Taylor Glacier, our field site, and we will leave McMurdo station behind us. We will return only for a few days when we are done with field work. Our crew and our equipment is ready to take off and we look forward to set the camp, but it has definitively been interesting in McMurdo.

Sun and ice

Sun and ice create the beautiful scenery around McMurdo.

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