Ice-olation: perspective(s)

Since ‘stay-at-home’ has been established, I’ve reflected on its relation to deep field work in Antarctica – mainly because my current feelings feel strangely familiar…

Many recent news stories provide isolation ‘guides or how-tos’ from an Antarctic perspective. While useful for some, I do not have the authority or experience level to properly advise others on this topic…so I’m simply here to share my perspective 🙂

After discussing the concept with a few other Antarcticans, I realised that I had captured some of my mindset in the moment during my nightly video diary! As it turns out, since 2009 I’ve been recording a nightly recap of my day from my icy bubble (my tent). Topics are wide ranging: Uncertainty, hygiene, books/movies consumed, team successes and failures, meaningful chats both from afar and with my co-habitants, frustrations with being stuck in place.

After re-watching my video diary, I quickly realised two things: I hate the sound of my voice and I was extra-mindful of ‘normal life’ aspects of Antarctic life. I was sometime tired (of doing dishes), we didn’t go anywhere today, I read a book. I spent very little time on the more memorable moments: a great day in the field, successful implementation of a plan, a call home to Katelyn to wish her a happy birthday.

Of course, I chose to go to the ice and without a doubt, I’ve been life-changing fortunate enough to participate in a wide range of field work across the continent. As it turns out, heaps of other folks have a similar experience and a few of us got together to have a chat.

Linking up with the New Zealand Antarctic Society (https://antarcticsociety.org.nz/), we launched a webinar series to engage with our membership and the public. So I stuck my hand up, thinking I had a story to tell. What ensued was an incredible effort to a) learn how to technically launch a webinar (my wheelhouse = rocks) and b) to assemble a team of experienced Antarcticans to provide a wider perspective on the topic.

While we had our challenges, the end result (below) was pretty cool. I provided a ~20 minute overview of the ‘Deep Field’ and then we had a team chat. The conversation was driven by public questions and gave us a chance to dig into our memories for a response. The following video captures the webinar as it happened. We hope to have you join us on our next live webinar where we’ll be discussing the importance of the Antarctic Treaty…a very appropriate topic in this strange time!

Please share your deep field experience and how/if it relates to the current ‘stay-at-home, save lives’ lifestyle we’ve been thrust into. Deep field can be anything, really: your backyard, a backpacking trip, a sea voyage, your current bubble…anything that captures your awareness of your isolation on this big blue ball (or space if you are an astronaut).


Last day out…for now

After a few days waiting on weather, Shaun and I got out one last time for the 2019/20 field season. We managed to get to a rarely visited site along the Mulock Glacier and finished off the work we started along the lower Skelton Glacier.

Mt. Marvel

Each site had its own peculiar challenges…At Mt. Marvel, along the Mulock Glacier, that challenge was WIND. Regardless, the site is absolutely stunning. The mountain is made of a towering stack of old sediments, intruded volcanic rocks, ice falls and little sniffs of glacial erosion and deposition. We found a very nice staircase of sedimentary rock to hunt for perchies and managed to follow it up a few hundred meters above the glacier before facing a cliff. At the top of our staircase, we found stunning examples of glacial striations, a clear sign this site had be covered by ice in its past. After collecting a few erratics and bedrock samples, we happily left the brutal winds for more calm conditions.

Glacially shaped Beacon Sandstone, Mt. Marvel.

At Fishtail point near the mouth of the Skelton Glacier, the only real struggle was scientific…still no sign of glacial action. We collected a few more bedrock samples to finish our work from lower down on the same outcrop. A quick pitstop at The Pyramid petrol station and we were back at Scott Base. All in all, the day was a great opportunity to get out and collect more rocks…we even managed to sneak in a bar talk at the Tatty Flag!

Upper Skelton Glacier

Our last day on the ice was filled with some relaxation, tidying up and some great views of the animal life starting to emerge as the sea ice breaks up for the summer. A quick hike to Scott’s Discovery hut and Hut Point Peninsula allowed for some incredible scenery. Here we got to see lazy seals, groups of Adelie penguins swimming and jumping, and a family of Minke whales. Certainly, a great way to close down our season.

The Pyramid

In a great magical trick of Antarctic logistics and luck, I managed to make it back to Wellington about the same time as Katelyn who was coming back from Chicago. An incredible feeling to see your partner after a month away! ALSO, I managed to sneak back just in time to turn in my PhD thesis. The extended downtime at Scott Base and the incredible effort of my supervisors allowed me to basically turn up and hit print. A big thanks for all the support.

Spectacular glacial striations at Mt. Marvel

For now, I expect this blog to go a little dark as I take some time to rest and get ready for the year ahead. I’ll be posting short updates as I process the samples we collected this year and with any luck, share some initial results soon.

A fine day along the Byrd Glacier…

Byrd Glacier. The fjord here is ~25 km wide. Difficult to comprehend without a scale

With a break in the weather, we made a dash for another site within the Lonewolf Nunataks along the upper Byrd Glacier. These impressive perched nunataks are situated in the middle of a fast-flowing portion upper Byrd Glacier…similar to a large boulder in a middle of a river. This massive glacier drains an area over 1 million square km! That’s roughly the size of:

  • Spain + France or
  • State of South Australia or
  • 5x New Zealands
  • and way bigger than Texas…sorry not sorry Texas!

Amazingly all this ice is funneled from the South Pole through the Byrd Fjord. This fjord is over 25 km wide at its minimum and the bedrock below is over 2600 meters below sea level. Ultimately, the glacier dominates the western Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating chunk of ice. All of this nearly impossible to comprehend as we fly over it.

The day was unusual in many ways. First, the forecasted winds were 5 knots…we joked as clearly someone had left off the 3 or 0 as this area is historically very windy. Of course, the skilled meteorologist down here got it right. Our pilots could tell by their faster airspeed that we certainly had low winds. Once landed, we hopped out to a blissfully calm day on the edge of the East Antarctic plateau. While still a little chilly, we were very happy with the prospect of a calm day given our site was higher elevation than we’d experienced thus far.

The second unusual aspect of the day was the true pleasure associated with finding the site completely blanketed with glacial erratics. A cornucopia of lithologies from the East Antarctic bedrock was on display. Granites, gneisses, sandstones, remnants of forests and even ancient glacial deposits. As a glacial geologist, it simply can’t get any better. We quickly moved as a team to the tippity top of the site and got to work, having only 5-6 hours of ground time. We typically prefer to camp at a location to allow for extended discussion and a relaxed pace, but this seasons work was a late season reaction to a slight shift in logistics. Regardless, we are very happy with our support and outcomes thus far.

Perched glacial erratic found at the tippity top. This one is simply too beautiful to sample but it is probably going to win “Perchie of the year”

On the day, we sampled more than 20 glacial erratics over nearly 300 meters of elevation. These samples, when combined with erratics from another local nunatak, should give us the material we need to reconstruct the glacier through time. For now, sit back and enjoy some pictures and video from the day (along with some corny tunes). We feel very lucky to share this field work with you and look forward to a few more site visits before we head north for the year.

A quick note on place names: geographic sites around Antarctica (and the world) carry names which sometimes can honour those who discovered them, funded research or have contributed greatly to understanding of the area. Names can be controversial but there is close attention paid to appropriate naming conventions between all the countries that operate in Antarctica. Often we encounter sites during our field work that is not currently named and in that case, we offer an informal name. In the case of “Otway Nunatak” we allude to Peter Otway who, in the early 1960’s completed the first survey of a large section of the Transantarctic Mountains aided by a pack of keen sledge dogs. An impressive feat!

In fact, it was Peter who named the site Lonewolf Nunataks with the 5 prominent peaks in the group named after pups of his (Zaza, Erina, Grae, Tiger and Quet). It is international convention not to name sites after dogs but New Zealand has honoured their contribution by accepting these as official names in 2003. While we informally refer to this site as ‘Otway Nunatak’, it is primarily used here as a common name to distinguish the site as we work with pilots and logistics support. The imagery of Peter being led by his dogs up glacier is very heartwarming.

Also, there is an Otway Massif in the area plus we’ve recently discovered the site does have some strange history and geopolitics which we intend to avoid. For now, we’ll skirt the issue by adding informal usage disclaimer here.

Byrd is the word!

Happy New Year! We had a great little holiday break here on Ross Island as we welcomed in 2020. We marked the occasion with the 31st annual Icestock music festival OUTSIDE at McMurdo Station. The day was full of sun but a tad windy. The good tunes and high spirits made for a great time with new and old friends. It’s incredible to see the hidden talents and creativity of the lovely people here on the ice!

After a few weather delays, we started off 2020 right by making our first trip to sites along the Byrd Glacier. Along the way from Scott Base, we had incredible views along the Transantarctic Mountains. While a scenic ~2 hour flight, we had a chance to see a few sites we plan to visit in the near future…this opportunity allows our first look at sites we know very little about except from high altitude aerial or satellite imagery.

The main sites we are interested for this visit are called the Lonewolf Nunataks…its pretty clear why they are named as such. They are situated on the edge of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet plateau with no bedrock exposed further upstream. Again, as with Fishtail Point, we know lots about this site since the POLENET project had a continusly operating GPS installed here. Last year, when they pulled out the site after more than 10 years of collecting data, a couple friends went for a walk up the mountains and spotted some glacial erratics for us. This critical ground truthing gave us high confidence that the site contained the rocks we were interested in! And as you can see in the wee video, this site delivered…Thanks POLENET!

The whole reason we want to get to these sites is to tell the story of the ancient glaciers of Antarctica and what those stories can tell us about the modern and future behaviour of this massive expanse of ice. For this project, we are primarily interested in collecting glacial erratics. These special rocks were plucked from the bedrock at the base of the glacier and were entrained as the it flowed toward the sea. At its maximum in the distant past, the glacier was much thicker and has since thinned to its current position. During thinning, the glacial erratics are delicately dropped off on mountains flanking the glacier. We glacial geologist come along and collect those erratics along a mountain, from the tippity top to the tippity bottom, usually right down near the glacier.

Back in the chemistry lab, we crush the rocks to sand size grains and extract a rare ‘cosmogenic nuclide’. These nuclides are produced by high energy particles from far off exploding stars(!), a fact that still blows my mind. We have a good handle on how fast these nuclides are produced so if we can isolate and count them up, we can say with confidence when the rocks were dropped off. Taking samples along the entire mountain range and along the glacier allows us to reconstruct the glacier surface through time, similar to how scientists have done using satellites over the past 40 years.

For now, we don’t know the exact story these samples have to tell but we have come a long way in telling that story but observing and collecting them in the field. Further, we’ll plan to visit the Lonewolf Nunataks at least one more time to gather more information about a larger site just downstream. Stay tuned for more and send us any questions you may have.        

First field trip!

On December 23rd, Shaun and I had a great opportunity to get into the field and collect some rocks! We flew in a helicopter from Scott Base to a little rocky outcrop at the mouth of the Skelton Glacier. Our flight path took us straight over some amazing features where ice and rock mix to form a colourful mosaic of whites, blacks and blues. The surrounding rocks en route to Fishtail Point are mostly volcanic rocks which makes for a dramatic contrast to the white ice and blue sky.

Our focus for this year’s field work is to collect foreign rocks called glacial erratics, that were entrained in the glacier when it was much thicker than today. In some places around Antarctica, glaciers thickened as much as 600 metres (~1800 ft) above its modern position! The story goes that as the glacier thinned to its modern-day level, rocks melt out of the glacier and plop down along the rocky outcrops flanking the glacier. By collecting these rocks which are delicately perched on bedrock, we can use a chemical technique to extract rare elements produced by cosmic rays, allowing us to determine when and how fast the glacier thinned.

Our first priority was a site in the middle of the Skelton Fiord but upon landing, the 40-50 knot winds would have made for a terrible day! Our excellent helicopter pilot ultimately decided the winds weren’t good for the helicopter, so we safely and happily flew away. Lucky for us, our backup site was just down glacier with a bit more shelter from the blustery weather.

Upon landing at Fishtail Point, we found a comfortable place to land along the lower part of the outcrop and went rock hunting. We quickly realised that we had a mystery on our hands…zero glacial erratics in sight! No worries, we managed to put together a sampling plan to collect bedrock samples instead and got to work.

We started sampling as close to the modern ice surface as possible and progressively worked our way to the highest elevation along the outcrop. We sampled 6 locations covering about 150 vertical meters (~450 ft) and even managed to collect tiny rock cores for an experimental method that we expect will help us track the ancient glacier.

All in all, the day was a mysteriously good time and we ended with rocks in our pack. The flight home was filled with feelings of immense gratitude, a childish glee and all smiles.

We then take a couple days off to celebrate Christmas, a welcome break for folks who have been working hard since October. We had a quick visit from cheeky Anti-Claus (he can’t see good kids and he takes gifts from bad kids!) and filled our bellies with extra yummy foods prepared by our talented chefs. A few photos below to highlight some of their culinary skills. YUM! The time off allows for some rest and relaxation but for me, I’ll shift focus from field work mode to thesis mode (due Jan 15!)…a great challenge with numerous fun social opportunities here at Scott Base and McMurdo Station. For now, happiest holidays and lots of love from our team!

Holiday fun at Scott Base and McMurdo Station


Trained up & Ready to go…

A quick personal note:

  • Massive thanks to KJ for helping to deliver our content and work around our limited internet here at Scott Base.
  • A great challenge of working down here is keeping up with loved ones back home. The distance and isolation can create lots of difficult scenarios to manage but ultimately a great support network here helps it all along. I’d like to thank you for following along and I’ll ask you to continue to surge love to my family as we endure some difficult times.

Our first few days here at Scott Base are spent getting acclimatised, working on our field plan with Scott Base support staff and pilots and reacquainting ourselves with how to operate outside. We were also greeted by a small band of penguins on our first morning!

Getting acclimatised means eating and drinking enough to stay happy. Antarctica is the driest place on Earth. This means you must drink way more water than you think is necessary! We also eat a lot…we supplement breakfast, lunch and dinner with morning and afternoon tea which also serves as a. great meeting place to discuss further planning. As in ‘normal’ life I also keep ‘pocket snacks’.

Working on our field plan with Scott Base support staff is an ever-evolving activity. This is the nature of work here and highlights the need for flexibility. Upon arrival, we have a in brief which helps bring all team members up to speed and allows us to develop multiple plans of action. At our in brief, we were able to discuss scientific priorities and realistic expectations for how to achieve our goals. We identified our training and support needs and developed a handy checklist for our daily operations. Thanks to the POLENET team, we have excellent reconnaissance imagery for our main priority site which we can share with our pilots. This is particularly useful to minimise surprises at our first site visit.

In order to be prepared for unknown conditions such as glacier crevasses or quick changing weather, we practice glacier travel and team work. This includes having a play around with critical gear such as ropes (knots!), harnesses, helmets, crampons, boots and above all effective communication. With some guidance from our excellent mountaineers, we then practice glacier travel. Glacier travel is basically learning how to walk on a glacier as a group. The importance here is staying safe in what could be a dangerous situation. We minimise our risks by roping up and walking in a coordinated way. A ‘crevasse simulator’ is a great way to simulate a situation where a team member inadvertently falls into a crevasse. While this practice is done in optimal conditions it’s a great way to refamiliarize ourselves with the feeling of holding the weight of another person as they hang off an ice edge. The simulator is effectively a ~15 ft. hole dug out by a digger and

Finally, once we feel comfortable as a team we can test our sampling equipment before ‘game time’. Check out the video for a snapshot of our drilling operations…we hope to use this drill in the field to collect small rock cores which we expect will help us with our overall science goal of understanding the long term (thousands of years!) changes along some of the largest glaciers in the world. The test was successful on the local rock here on Ross Island but the true test will be on the rocks we plan to visit which are much harder and the conditions are likely to be a bit chillier.

As for now, we are ready to go into the field and will continuously update our ‘to-do’ list and work with Scott Base operations team to find a suitable logistical and weather window to conduct our first field visit. Stay tuned for updates and send us some good luck to get into it!

As always, got a question, ask it!

On Ice!

It’s been an interesting week for sure

…after receiving our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear and a very short one day delay in Christchurch, Shaun and I made it to the ice! We are extremely lucky as many were delayed by up to a week. Also, lucky not to have boomeranged…which is a very terrible experience involving waking up early, checking out of hotel, saying goodbye to ‘normal life’, checking in with NZ Defense Force/US Air National Guard, waiting, taking off for Antarctica with all the hope in the world only to turn back after a few hours in the air.

The flight was on a “Kiwi Herc”, a NZ Defense Force C-130. This plane is a beast. It also was completely packed with passengers which meant for some tight seating arrangements. This is particularly nice to remember the incredible legroom aboard my next airline coach flight. While the cramped seating would be maddening on a typical airline, it works really well here because of everyone’s incredible attitude. In fact, the very nature of any Antarctic work encourages team work, contributing to a shared experience and going a little outside your comfort zone. The semi-uncomfortable flight is simply part of the experience!

Overall, the flight takes about 7 hours and this time I had a window seat! Most of the flight’s scenery was big blue ocean (or the inside of my eyelids) but sea ice begins to appear as we approach Antarctica. Beautiful views of Mt. Erebus, Transantarctic Mountains and the Ross Ice Shelf seal the deal that we are in fact landing today and excitement begins to build. We made a super smooth landing at Phoenix runway and disembarked like kids at a candy store.

We were a bit surprised not to have the red carpet rolled out for us but we understood, after all, we landed at dinner time. After a short wait, our massive taxi arrived and promptly got stuck in some slushy snow thanks to Antarctica’s summer heat, which is near freezing. Check out the terrible little series of snapshots from this first part of the journey.

Over the next couple days, we’ll get all trained up in how Scott Base runs and how to thrive/survive in the field. We’ll also get to start planning our field work with all the amazing people who will help us achieve our scientific goals (mountaineers, pilots and logistics support, chefs, mechanics, builders, domestics, electricians, and many others). It will be a fun next couple days and I’ll attempt to capture some of it.

Any questions!? Ask below!


I’m starting this little blog to share our upcoming field work with you. I’ll make an attempt at describing why I’m researching in Antarctica, what it takes to get there and be productive and a little bit on everyday life at the base and in the field. The posts are primarily for family, friends and education outreach purposes. Follow along and ask lots of questions!

In short, I’m a geologist. My team uses detailed chemical information locked up in rocks to tell us about how the Antarctic Ice Sheet has changed over time. The opportunity to study in Antarctica is extremely special, so I’ve decided to share more of it with you.

Why do this?

  • Antarctica is the water tower of the world. It stores fresh water up on land and when it melts, it has the potential to impact sea level on a global scale. And by studying it’s past, we expect to be a bit more informed on it’s future.
  • Antarctica is difficult to get to and national governments provide funding and logistics to ensure the critical science gets completed. Given this massive support, I feel it’s necessary to provide one perspective on how the whole thing happens…