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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Touch down in Antarctica

The first contact with Antarctica has something magic. It feels a bit like you land on another planet. Here are some impressions from the first contact with Antarctica.

Picture of check in to the flight to Antarctica

The regular checks and rules apply also for a flight to Antarctica: Passport needed, no large liquids, no sharps ect. in carry-on…

Entering the C-17 cargo jet of the U.S. Air Force to McMurdo

Entering the C-17 cargo jet of the U.S. Air Force to McMurdo.

The crew at C-17

The crew Sarah, Kathy and Micheal (f.l.t.r.) enjoy the flight in the C-17.

Picture of C-17 inside

Efficient packing of people and cargo. Leg space is actually pretty good here.

View on Antarctica from the C-17

The boarders of the remote continent through the mini-window of the plane. Magic!

Happy researcher

What an exciting moment: First contact with Antarctica!

Landing scene

Panorama view of landing scene. Yes, it’s mostly nice (but cold) weather here.

Bus to McMurdo

Bus line 1 to McMurdo.

Our new town.McMurdo Station

McMurdo Station. The biggest “town” in Antarctica with a capacity to host over 1000 people.

The beautiful view from McMurdo station during an evening hike at 20:00.

The beautiful view from McMurdo station during an evening hike at 20:00. In the background the Asgard Mountains are visible which host Taylor Glacier (our target).

Where else a sun dial makes sense than at a place with 24 hours sunshine.

Where else a sun dial makes sense than at a place with 24 hours sunshine.

All the best from unreal McMurdo.


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Getting equipped for Antarctica

In Christchurch (NZ) we get equipped with personal field equipment at the International Antarctic Center – a center run by the US, New Zealand and Italy. It’s an impressive infrastructure and works a bit like a separate airport for the flights to Antarctica with passport and security control like at any other airport.

Going on my Antarctic flight

The Antarctic “Passenger Terminal”

International Antarctic Center in Christchurch

On of the support US planes for Antarctica

The “Herc” equipped with skis

The big US C-17 with the Italian plane (right) for Antarctic support flights

The C-17 used as long landing with wheels is possible

Gathering equipment

My personal field equipment (besides the stuff I brought)

Finally everything has to be well packed

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The Journey to Antarctica

The southern tip of South America is the closest land to Antarctica and the Argentinian City Ushuaia probably the most famous platform for journeys (in general by boat) to Antarctica. However, we travel through New Zealand which is closer to our target area near McMurdo Station and we go there by plane.

Most tourist journeys to Antarctica start from South America and visit the area around the Antarctic Peninsula, but research trips can go through different hubs, depending where you want to go and under which country you do your research. The US programs have two main access points to Antarctica: Punta Arenas in Chile for expeditions around the peninsula including Palmer Station, and Christchurch in New Zealand for expeditions to McMurdo and South Pole station (see picture). The access route through Christchurch is the bigger one as it allows access to a larger area of Antarctica.

USAP Transportation routes

USAP Transportation routes to Antarctica [source: USAP Participant Guide]

I take off from Switzerland from where I take the route eastwards via Australia to New Zealand. In Christchurch, two days are needed before we can take off to Antarctica/McMurdo. The most important point here is grabbing the personal field equipment like gloves, hats, pants, jackets, boots, sleeping bag and mattresses. We have to bring our long underwear, socks and maybe some insulation layers, but the rest is provided. That’s a great service we can enjoy and makes the travel to Christchurch much less painful because you don’t have to accommodate this 10 kg of equipment in your luggage. How much you still have to pack can be learned from Matt Siegfried’s Nature Blog and his funny video (I love the rabbit! 🙂 ).

Christchurch is also the place where I meet the first members of my crew, but where you also could be hold back to go to Antarctica in case of a health issue. If something has appeared since the preparatory health checks, you are asked to report them and you could be forced to go to a doctor to clarify your situation before they let you continue. If you are unlucky, it could even mean you have to turn around and forget about Antarctica for now.

My flight with a US Air force transportation jet (C-17 or similar – yesyesyes!) to McMurdo is scheduled for the 9th of November, however, about 50% of all scheduled flights are changed, so chances are big the flight takes off a day or two later. In McMurdo we have about one week to go through several trainings before they let us go to our field work site Taylor Glacier.

Our program covers 7-8 weeks of field work, whereas some people of the crew are being exchanged (like me) after half of it. This exchange is the only scheduled crew transportation between McMurdo station and Taylor Glacier during the season, which means we are all staying and living on the glacier for the duration of our field work. This means also no showers, no internet, no laundry, no… but more to that later… (and also about what we do and why we do it and…. many things to report! – looking forward)

We leave the glacier in early December and go for another few days back to McMurdo to pack samples we have obtained from the glacier. Via Christchurch it goes than again back to reality.

Cheers, Bernhard

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Green Lights to Go!

Going to Antarctica is not easy. The remoteness and the special legal regulations of this place require special preparation.

It is actually only a few days ago that I got the green lights to go to the Antarctic field trip this fall, even though my effective preparation started already at the beginning of last July. The reason is the extensive medical preparation and controlling that is required by the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). The so called “Physical Qualification” (or short PQ) forms contain 14 pages and build the basis for your qualification to go to Antarctica. If you don’t deliver all the required details of this document and/or don’t pass the review done by UTMB (University of Texas Medical Branch – USAP PQ contractor… welcome to Antarctic jargon 🙂 ), you are not going, no matter what (there are a few examples where it didn’t work out – and not because people were not healthy enough). So it is essential to make sure this is not in your way.

The PQ contains a visit at a medical doctor, which has to check you for your general health and go trough a list of about 20 tests (15 different blood tests, heart tests…) and provide proof of each test. All the test results are needed in a printed version and added to you PQ documents. The same is true for your dental checks, which includes a dentist visit and an x-ray of each tooth. Again, all the papers must be collected (including the originals of the x-rays) and added to your packet.

The complete PQ file.

The complete PQ file.


This finally makes a document of about 30 pages with all your health details and easily takes a month to get all together. Then you send all of this UTMB and wait for an answer (the little nerve wrecking part of this is that you have to send it by post and original documents are required…). This takes a couple of weeks and in my case my doctor forgot to do one blood test in first place. This means you go again to drain blood, make the test, a week later you have the results and you send them again and you wait again… until the next message from UTMB. I had to repeat this exercise three times because of some other details of my PQ… You can now imagine why it can easily take 3 months to get your USAP PQ… The good side or it? Yes! I am healthy!

No doubt, it is a lot of bureaucracy (not to mention what it needs to plan such a field season from scratch!), but you have to keep in mind where you go. There is no hospital on Antarctica. Only in McMurdo – the biggest Antarctic station and our logistical hub – there is primitive medical care available. In case of a serious medical problem, first you have to make it to McMurdo (~1h helicopter flight in our case) and from there to Christchurch, New Zealand (~6h flight), to get proper treatment. And all of this service would be organized and paid by the USAP… understandable that all medical risks are being ruled out beforehand. Also, McMurdo seems to be quite a good place for germs to be spread because of the dense living situation there. That’s why we are particularly asked to wash hands and pay attention to this situation while we are there.

As mentioned at the beginning, it is not easy to go there… 🙂


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Follow my Antarctic Field Trip Blog!

In a few weeks I have the honor to participate a research field trip to Antarctica. Here I want to keep you posted about the what, why and how.

Antarctica is the most remote and isolated continent on this planet, but also – or just because of that – hosts many secrets for scientists to be explored. However, even for a scientist like me who works since several years with ice samples from Antarctica, it is not a matter of course to set a foot on this remote piece of land. In a few weeks I have the honor to go on an Antarctic field trip and join an US based research group to retrieve my first polar ice samples. With my blog ‘climatescientistblog.info’ I will try to keep you posted about the what, why and how of this work. Happy reading!

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Hello World!

If you ever have taken some programming class, you probably know what “Hello World” stands for.

It usually is the output of your very first program you write yourself and stands therefore for the very first step in a new world. So is it with this blog. It is the first I ever written blog from my side and I am looking forward for many more to come.

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