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Patience (and Contentment) in the Wind

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McMurdo Station is here for one reason: scientific exploration in the polar environment (and to maintain a geopolitical toe-hold on this continent , but that is an expose’ for another time).

When I wander around the labs of Crary Science & Engineering Center I have daily conversations with all sorts of researchers – biologists looking at the antifreeze and deep sea pressure properties of the Antarctic tooth fish, engineers soldering new optics or motherboards into R.O.V. (remotely operated vehicles), killer whale biologists trying to determine the distinct speciation of whales around this continent and the classic NASA scientists foraging for life forms in the most unlikely – and unkindly – environments on this planet in order to infer what might be dwelling on distant celestial bodies.

So goes the logic, that if life can adapt and persevere here, so too can it in Mar’s ancestral ice or on Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon. Like working on the moon, Mars or Europa, make no mistake about it, working here in Antarctica is difficult and expensive.

Although I am a “new guy on the ice”, I am not unfamiliar with working in cold, snowy, and otherwise inhospitable places. In fact, I enjoy it and thrive in such environments. Being 5’4″ x 5’4″ I am built like a coal-fired furnace and function like one. But the same low-torque driving energy that I engage the world with in most places, is not necessarily the most fitting, forge-ahead initiative appropriate to navigate through the opaque chain of command that lets (or prevents) science from happening here in the first place.

In other words, to be in a “wild” place where the wild is mostly inaccessible until permission is granted, transport is provided and forms meticulously filed in triplicate, is, ahem, a lesson in patience. Pile on the tempestuous weather and one has to question, well, why bother work in a place that is so unaccommodating to work in to begin with.

In a previous post, I confessed that I surrendered to this frustrating process in order to be less frustrated. And surrender I have. And now, more happy and entertained by the stop and go absurdity of this process, I am able to move on – in lieu of photography –  to take up a new practice: “Patience.”

Couched in terms of an adaptive trait, the notion of “Patience” is what I have been meditating on for the last month as I – and all the scientists I came to photograph – sit mostly idle (and festering) in Crary lab, eating again at the galley or sequestered in our dorm rooms reading or watching movies as the tempest of weather and politics swirls around us.

Like Weddel Seals sleeping head-on into the wind, drifts sculpted around its motionless head, I wonder if it is they that I need to take my cues from. They lie side- or belly-up for hours, digesting their fill of fish and crab, seemingly content with their exposure to the blank and brutal terrestrial elements. When they do move across the serrated sastruggi surface, they do so awkwardly, all painfully achieved in a clownish, blubbering and rolling motion that seems less efficient than if they just log-rolled themselves from place to place.

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What happens below the ice I do not know. I have, however, been lucky enough to witness a few seals make ephemeral, arabesque appearances in slushy surface holes, bent in full-body demi-plie’, where it is obvious they are most agile and in their element, naturally.

I, however, am beset with the paralysis of limbo, laying exposed to the elements as someone else (and the weather of course) dictates when and where I can and cannot go. In that state, I must channel the limbo of the seal, put my head into the wind and let the snow and wind sculpt a shelter around me. Patience is, from an evolutionary vantage, a damn good and efficient use of energy down here. Just short of hibernation, calm idleness seems to be a good vehicle to swim the chilly, upstream battle here.

The other evening I ran into Andy Young, a mechanic and all-round renaissance fella I met years ago in Boulder, Colorado and then again in Alaska a few times. He has worked here in McMurdo for 18 seasons in all sorts of capacities, and by his own admission, patience was the most significant take-home lesson of his time spent here.

“I’ve discovered that there are reasons behind reasons behind reasons that I will never be privy to. And that is ok with me, because I have come to understand that they are most often good ones,” he said.

It was freeing to hear that. Uncovering the origins of a decision here is exhausting, much like trying to unearth life at the depths of an ice-encased lake. Mysteries are not easily or immediately solved.

Point taken.

In addition to that conversation I have heard repeatedly from seasoned others that some research efforts are on occasion, total washes. More so there are tales of researchers waiting for more than a month to get into the field. Last season the Pine Island Glacier project (PIG) accomplished nary a notebook worth of real science. This year they are rumored to have achieved “150-percent” more science than they anticipated.

Here in the WISSARD project we have had to build scenarios that prioritizes which and what scientific instruments will be deployed down the bore hole based on the number of available days and hours that we are out in the field. At this point, given our repeated delays, we have scenarios spelled out that allow for  5-day, 4-day, 3-day, 2-day and yes, 1-day of science opportunities.

“One day of good science in the Whillans bore hole.” said Principle Investigator John Priscu, “is worth it.”

With more than 800-meters of ice to drill through still – and after more than $10,000,000 spent thus far, those few days of science are precious, to say the least.

Long terms research anywhere demands patience and perseverance. Here it demands even more. Apparently, the seals and the seasoned employees here know it and, for whatever it is that fuels their curiosity and research over the years, I respect it and willing to wait out the elements with them. When we get a chance to do our work, I trust that we will all do swimmingly, be it this season or, quite possibly, next season. Either way, we are gambling that our practice of patience pays off.

Crescents in the Ice

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If it got dark here in Antarctica we would be able to observe a waxing crescent moon emerge this week. The moon is rising and falling above us, invisible, out-shined by the ever-present sun.

The next sunset  and sunrise here is on February 20th.

But if you watch the shoreline there are sleek blue, vital crescents forming in the sea ice every day, rimmed by the sharp, fresh edges of ivory ice splitting apart.  When there is a strong wind, floating ice moves, fast.   At the heads and points of this island, the places where the volcanic rock is stubborn enough to resist the elements, ice bends to the pressures of the geography and snaps open.

Viewed from the ridge above, bent ice is old skin pulled around a bent knee. The anatomy of Antarctica is bare and naked frozen water and glacial ice for the most part, save for the cold depths beneath the rest of the rigid skin, spread out until another appendage of fractured bedrock interrupts the ripple off in the unintelligible distance.

Last spring I  spent time in New York City observing open heart surgery from the intimate vantage of a step-stool positioned directly at the head of the horizontal, anesthetized patient. I was scrubbed in and could stand  with my welder’s flip-down mask and hover directly over the open chasm of chest to watch the nimble hands of the surgeons repair and replace aortic valves. An old valve would be cut out, handed to the assisting nurse who would then hand it to me and my cohorts to touch and explore the sensual, delicate membrane, now riddled with plaque hard as porcelain and destined for the biohazard bin.

Sterile bright white sheets were spread in sharp contrast to the colorful, animistic organs below. The heart, now still, was soon to be reinvigorated, the chest closed and the skin sutured back together.

As I stand over the open leads of water, poised above the crescents of fractured, drifting summer ice, I cannot help but see the analogs of the two anatomical apertures. One availed a view to the heart. The heart. The other open to the plasma of ocean below. Both are vital, just below the skin; the skin we live in. The skin we walk upon, often as invisible to us as the rising crescent moon in this bright, austral summer sky.

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Full Immersion into McMurdo’s Full Monty Mayhem (and Hysteria)

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I’ve surrendered.

After so much angst and impatience there is nothing I can do now but to be patient, period.

My journalism zeal has been undercut  and eclipsed by humor, an adaptive remedy to cushion the SNAFU status quo of this place. I could get cheeky, snarky and cynical  (or more so than I was this past week. Pardon me, please). Or I could ride the high hog of surreality that only McMurdo could produce. I could slip fully and errantly into the vein of  gonzo journalist Nicholas Johnson’s (now dead) book Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of  Antarctica*. Or I could – and will – just ride out the snow-drifted, melting ice road of this complicated, far-flung  journey….choosing instead to journey on the higher ground of full-emersion, stand-in-their-bunny boots-journalism.

Or I could miss out….

Confession: last night was Saturday night and it went like this:

I put my camera/axe down. Took a steep run/hike up Observation Hill to wring myself of  bottled energy. A two-hour nap in the blue window-shade glow of my bottom bunk in the stale, hot air that  is unique to dormitory dwelling. A trip to the Science Cargo cage to retrieve a stored pair of cotton socks, a change of boxer shorts and a razor to shave. A quick swing through the station store to buy two bottles (the limit) of wine – one red (with cork) and one white (screw top), two heath bars  and a new toothbrush. A dash into the galley where I dished out a paper plate mixed with  red Linguini and yellow Penne pasta, all overloaded with tasteless sausage and feux Parmesan cheese finer than talcum powder. I double-plated the heap of carbos and wrapped the gelatinous mass in saran wrap and toted it back the dorm to indulge in some solo “me” time, sans gourmet. To escape the stale confines of dining in my bunk bed I descended to the lounge on the first floor of my dorm, a room half adorn with a pool table, the other half divided off with a sliding  accordion wall-to-wall blind to allow for TV/movie watchers to darken the room for a genuine theater experience.

It so happend that Mike the DOER engineer and Tim the Northern Illinois glaciologist had the same idea, save for their selection of Coors Light versus my silly white wine now mis-paired with my pasta – the  flavorless consequence of buying a red wine that  had a cork I could not uncork  for I, for some moronic reason, am traveling with a Leatherman multi-tool that does not include a corkscrew, for god sake.

Their movie selection: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a trans-sexual, avante garde rock opera romp; a film that even if it were viewed in, say San Francisco, could be considered edgy and cultish. But in McMurdo, it’s colorful,creative blend of anime, operatic punk music and unrequited, polyamorous love lamentations, deemed to be a laughable apropos selection and, ahem, an ironically fitting prelude to what the rest of my Saturday night had in store. (No shit, it did. Stick with me here…)

Movie, pasta, wine and beer pivoted to 8-ball pool and nips of Laphroaig scotch, followed by a dash to Gallagher’s bar for m ore scotch and the second set of a rock jam by a throw-together McMurdo band that pealed out a set of Zeppelin better than Zeppelin plays it nowadays. Two $3 Sierra Nevada green tops later (@Fancy/Roberto Mandolino) I became the freaker by the speaker, purging a little more of my Antarctica, going nowhere-fast-angst with my personal brand of hillbilly half-step interwoven with punctuated attempts at  swing-dancing with a red head gypsy named Amy from California/Oregon/Montana….who I chased out the door  – with invitation FYI – to go dance and perform in a video being “produced” in the yoga studio on the far side of the galley in building #155.

Yup, like I said, I surrendered to whatever was going to come my way here at McMurdo. And so I did, beginning with the uninhibited abandon of my Patagonia fleece jacket and wool tuk  for  a curly hot pink wig, velvet red cape adorn with a boa sash and, just to brighten the dance garb up a tad more, I tossed in a rainbow boa to make sure I hit the nines with my attire. Amy went for the lime green fairy wings .

Fifty costume-clad creatures  danced to electronica under pulsing christmas lights, kicked and tossed a half-dozen exercise balls as if they were hackysacks and  willingly received our cinematic marching orders, which we all performed before a sequined-clad female videographer.

I was deployed to be a club  “bouncer” and tasked to bounce some serious looking, company-man fella, who afterwards turned out to actually be a take-no-shit serious company-man armtwisted into playing a cameo of himself in our chaotic, crowd-sourced, cross-dressing theatrics.

So, dear National Science Foundation and editors at home, please be informed in advance that somewhere here in McMurdo Station, Antarctica there is fresh footage afoot that has captured my newfound surrender (and submission) to the adaptive behaviors that any do-gooding science  journalist needs to embrace in order to get the full flavor of Antarctic science support . I  made the leap of faith to the wily side and even consented to being on the sharp end of the camera, all in the spirit of getting to know my subjects  in and out of the scientific arena.

To be strung out in limbo here one must – (read “I” must) -adapt to the full monty of  McMrdo tomfoolery.

So,as it is as of this Sunday afternoon, I am still waiting here on this dollop of volcanic terrain; this  surreal refugia pinched between sea ice and monochromatic oblivion; now having conceded to stand in the shoes of Antarctica’s fringe-dwellers and gypsies, scientists and engineers, ice drillers, hard drinkers and Zeppelin rockers,  biogeochemists-turned-boogie-down-cross-dressers and to simply and joyfully roll with the vagaries of  repeated, averted attempts  to  launch ourselves into the field.

This is full-immersion journalism of the Antarctic kind, all peculiarly twisted together with a warp and weft of penguins, polyamorous cross-dressers, subglacial scientists, NASA physicists and in a geographically remote scientific station/social science experiment.

*Big Dead Place: http://www.amazon.com/Big-Dead-Place-Menacing-Antarctica/dp/0922915997

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Boomerang the Hercules Yesterday, Ice Fog Today

We just ‘boomeranged’.

Doug woke me up and said we are turning around and flying back to Pegasus. “There were too many low clouds; the pilots just told Slawek.”

What else can you do in a situation like this than to pull the hood of your parka back up over your head and go back to sleep, or at least have it synched tight enough around your mouth that nobody else can see you muttering epithets at the frustrating process that doing field work in Antarctica is.

Regardless, everyone is muttering pretty much the same thing inside the collars of their parkas. Even if their exclamatory sentiments did get said aloud, the white noise of our Hercules LC-130 cargo transport would drown it out. No matter how you spin it, we are headed back to McMurdo, remaking our beds, eating in the galley again tonight and then repacking our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) bags and trying to make the flight again tomorrow, both a drudgery and a fantastic use of raw and human resources from point to point.

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Matt, Grace, Slawek, Doug and I finally left McMurdo this morning in a $60K van, jacked-up and tweaked-out for ice travel, from McMurdo out toward the airport and then the hurdles of this place began in earnest. Slow going. More hurried waiting. Idle, merciless, try-to-go-with-the-flow bullshit, all of which burns an ungodly amount of fuel, resources and our personal drive to get out in the field and get to work.

This kind of science expedition is exactly that, an expedition. There are lots of mountains that go unclimbed; the same goes for field science – some days you just get rejected, which can amount to an enormous amount of data lost, unpublished papers and, naturally, less of an understanding of this planet we call home.

Dan shuttled us out towards the Pegasus airstrip in the van quick enough, at least until the section at 12-mile where volcanic dusts from Black Island had been blown in a month prior, sucking up the 24-hrs. o f available daylight. melted trenches into the ice shelf and turned our airport route and runway to hell.

Boomeranged_jtthomas-9984“I’ve never seen it this bad. It’s only my second season but even the other fuelies and shuttle drivers have told me the melt is never like this,” said Dan. “We have to use the magic carpet for everything coming through this stretch now.”

The “magic carpet” is a high density polymer sheets that, against snow, slide like tile on oil. And we are the genies sitting on top. In our case, the polymer strips are 8-feet wide and 40-feet long and stacked two or three feet high, all of which are cabled to the back of a 650-horsepower Challenger tractor with tank treads spinning around tensioned wheels and calipers the size of dinner plates.

The terrain here is marble flat so the horsepower can be exploited in a dead run. That enables Dan’s van, parked sideways and perpendicular to our line of travel, and Ivan, the 65,000 lb. Delta Antarctic people-mover to sit on the magic carpet together, distributing our weight over the failing snowpack.

The engine torques, the treads dig into the slush and this $500,000 tractor propels us a little closer to the Hercules waiting for us at the skiway airstrip.

After 1.5 hrs we make it the 14 miles to Pegasus where we then waited more than another hour before our plane was ready and loaded with our snow machines, food, sleds, seismic equipment, shovels, an Endurance tent, personal bags of clothes, kitchen gear, tools and barrels of pre-mixed fuel and MoGas.

All in all, counting the weight of the giant cam-straps (accounting for 20-percent of our total cargo) that hold our  palates of cargo  balanced in place, our manifest indicates that without us, calculated at 250 lbs each with our carry-ons included, we have a modest load of nearly 10,000-plus pounds of field equipment, intentionally kept conservative since we are headed to a raw, blank ice strip that has not yet been landed on this season.  (On a tarmac runway, this Hercules can carry as much as 165,000 pounds).

When it was ready, Shuttle Dan swapped the van for a Pistin Bully and hauled us across the knee-deep slush to the Hercules.

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Boomeranged_jtthomas-0499We boarded giddy and intent on the next landing to be at our field site., alas.

Matt and Slawek got to work looking at maps and data and GPS points on a computer. Grace listened in and we all took turns going up to sit in the cockpit, taking pictures of the crew members and the myriad of gauges, buttons and controls that are clustered together in an dizzying efficiency unique to airplane command centers.

Now, mission aborted, all of this stuff will be brought back and, if there is a need for the Hercules for another mission, all the palates of cargo will be unloaded and forklifted back into an empty storage container for the night. If the weather allows in the morning, it will be reloaded and strapped in the plane tomorrow while we bump along in a van and magic carpet back to Pegasus tomorrow, all with our fingers crossed.

The captain just came down from the cockpit, and with me sitting closest to the front on the nylon bench seat , he  leaned in close to my ear and offered an apology for our aborted mission. “It [the weather] was worse than she [the meteorologist] told us the forecast was. We could not see a thing from 3,000′ to the ground. Socked in,” said the captain.

I relayed the details of the exchange  to Doug and we both went back to making notes and pondering the realities that we have been here nearly a month and the story we came to get has yet to begin in earnest. Today was a tease; a journalistic blue-balling of our hopped up excitement to get into the deep field and actually witness (and help with) the science that is our primary interest here.

But this is Antarctica and no matter how many resources  – fuel, cargo planes, Challenger tractors, magic carpets, etc. –  that are at the disposal of grantee scientists here, weather and geographic isolation dictate the logistics and the possibility of doing good field science.

Tomorrow morning we will eat at the galley again at 5:30 am, drag our bags to the fixed-wing flight center, don our hot ‘Bi g Red’ Parkas and other ECW gear and go through the whole van, magic carpet, Pistin Bully process again, hoping that the ground fog and clouds that scuttled todays trip does not recur tomorrow or the next.
Today is the next day….and here we sit, pinned in McMurdo by ice fog.

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I can see some windows  of blue above, but the apertures to the clear skies are ephemeral – the biting winds make sure of that today. So I walk around McMurdo and ponder the consequences of yet another delay. Today is Saturday and tomorrow is  a no-work/no-fly  day here at McMurdo. Monday’s priority ASC planes trump ours, which means Tuesday is now the earliest we could fly. But the Traverse team arrive at the WISSARD drill site tonight and that changes the logistics of everything. We are no longer the first team in the field and our roles are now shifting as radically as the weather.

Standby?

Yes, standby. Sit tight. Be patient. Roll with the punches. Whiskey maybe.

In lieu of those options I cannot sit tight inside and bide my time, especially because the winds and fog have painted in some personality to McMurdo. I do not like blue skies on photography days. I like them on travel days, namely so I can get to where I think the weather might go south and rough up the landscape and our moods, complicate our work, motions, gestures and communication. Weather  imposes itself into out theater; into us and we bend and conform to adapt.

Adapt? Yes, I must, so here I sit waiting for the curtain of clouds to spread to allow  us to get onto the stage, the place where the  flood and spot lights can come up and down and up again, signifying that there is movement in this world and with our place in it. We crave anything but paralysis.

It’ s the light, of course, and the emotion that comes with it. Blue skies to me are suffocating  and uninspiring; I feel like I am dwelling in an overmedicated world aglow in a post-card, rosy stupor. It’s a paradox really. When the skies are blue, to my eye, the world becomes a sterile, a drool-on-yourself  kind of too-pretty to be attractive.  Save those days for picnics and weddings. Out here the ice and  mountains are nothing if they cannot collide  and fight with the skies.

Ernst Haas, the late great color photographer, found it almost impossible to make photos  in the American West.  “There is too much light.”

Tomorrow I hope there is too much light and  fewer clouds and fog so my team can get out into the great white  surface of Lake Whillans and then let the gray roll in like cinematic fog. I am more than ready to feel the rich spectrum of  what  this expansive place is able to throw at us.

Let the mountains fight the skies; we will be there to bend, adapt and to do our best to understand the collision of this monochromatic terrain that, ironically , surrounds and sustain us in it’s own quiet, remote way. This  icy continent is a distant vital appendage on the planet, but it has a pulse and also functions as a barometer of our collective, globalized actions. It is not unspoiled per se. But it virgin enough to feel – and provide  evidence of – our far-reaching, atmospheric impacts and actions.

When we can, we will land at Whillans and palpate the chilly skin of this inhospitable austral terrain and observe what it has to say about life here…and everywhere.

 

The Water Column, Vol. 1 – December 24, 2012

Seals, Penguins and Skuas, Oh My….(an abbreviated Christmas Eve post)

From the upstairs of the Crary Science & Engineering Center here in McMurdo Station, Antarctica you can look out onto the frozen expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf and count the number of Weddel Seals (Leptonychotes weddelli) strung out along the unfrozen leads with your naked eye.

This morning I counted 31. At mid-day there were 42. Right now, here on Christmas Eve, I can see at least 57 in the austral summer sun.

Later tonight (after a bit of eggnog and grog) I will go back out and take another amateurish count and take measure of the vitality that is mostly buried beneath the monochromatic shield of ice.

I confess, I am smitten with these critters and it is a comfort to witness their cameos in a place where there is such infrequent evidence of, well, life.

Here in the conference room there are several spotting scopes of varying magnifications set up on tripods along the southwest facing windows. With those you can zoom into see the colors of the seals, watch their rubbery gestures and even infer a bit of their personalities between naps.

Of course I want to walk out to them, introduce myself and have a little face to face with those whiskered, insulated orbs of fur and flippers. But that’ s not how things work here on the ice. Their is a respectful, albeit bureaucratic, dance to be done first. And that goes without mentioning the fact that summer ice likes to flex its jawbones on occasion and inhale warm blooded stumblebums like me.

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Today when I first put my eye to the glass of the spotting scope nearest my desk, the first thing I saw played out like a cartoon. An Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri), which I first mistook for a smaller Adelie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae), was hustling upright through the maze of idle seals and just he/she was hastily clearing the herd, it ran smack into mottled gray seal and bounced off like soccer ball.

Slapstick au natural.

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I snorted out loud in the library, prompting Dr. John Durban, a population ecologist who specializes in Killer Whales, to come take a look at the Antarctic comedy show at play. It was he who informed me that the clumsy penguin I witnessed was an Emperor Penguin, not its smaller cousin, the Adelie.

size-adeliepenguin-160-2582-cb1291750747(Some dude and an Adelie Penguin, size comparison, poached from the National Geographic website)

He glanced through the glass for half second and announced “Emperors. Did you see them tuck their heads? Emperors. Definitely Emperors. And the color markings. Emperors.”

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(Same dude with an Emperor Penguin)

John is gregarious Scotsman who now resides in San Diego where he endures the oh-so-pedestrian duty of making junkets to northern and southern latitudes where he then takes helicopters onto sea ice to shoot two-pronged, barbed satellite tracking tags from spearguns at Killer Whales from spitting distance. (Oh, the monotony of  his work. It must be such a horror and an ill-fated result of some malicious High School guidance counselor. Ahem.)

As it tuned out, the cluster of penguins on the opposite end of the seals were indeed Adelies, belly sliding toward the ice pier out near the Scott’s Hut ( http://www.google.com/help/maps/streetview/gallery/antarctica/scotts-discovery-hut.html ) We, however, were not the only people ogling the show, which lead shortly afterward to a steady march of people out to  view the little buggers waddling close to shore. Me included.

But by the time I gathered by cameras and waddled out to Hut Point, the marauding band of Adelies were gone and only the Weddels remained, dotting the ice like a reversed domino cube.

I hunkered down in a leeward alcove just below the wind-worn wood crucifix at Hut Point and toyed with my camera. But even with a long lens the seals were still amorphous domino spots, leaving me to take a mid-day smoke of my pipe instead of attempting to make images of flat terrain in flat light.

But just a I began to load a pinch of loose tobacco into my corncob travel pipe, a Brown Skua (Stercorarius antarcticus) careened by like a muscle car destined for a the wrong side of a curve. If I had pulled the pipe up to my lips I am afraid to say that that rugby player of a gull would have cracked me in the choppers at who-knows-how-many miles per hour and promptly wrung me of my Christmas cheer.

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On my first day here in McMurdo I was warned that these fat bullies of a bird had the balls to pilfer food from people as they walked from the galley to their labs. “Cover up your plates with your hand or, better yet, stick your food inside your parka. The Skuas are watching from the rooftops.”

So tonight, if St. Nick makes a swerve through these latitudes, I hope he has his ginger snaps stuck in his big red pockets or he’s going to end up laying as flat as a domino with his whiskered distant cousins on the ice.

To be continued and embellished with more links and photos when the internet connection allows…Merry Christmas Y’all.

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The Water Column. Vol. 1 December 19, 2012

Water. Ice. Engineering.

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So much of my life’s focus – both personal and as a photojournalist – has been on landscapes without nary a trace of  human engineering present. In other words, remote and wild places.

However, many of my forays take to me to places where relic old copper mines or whole human settlements, for instance, have been reclaimed by brute geologic shake-ups and climatic sucker-punches.

More often, I venture to places where the human and the ecologic fabric is poised to be transformed by ambitious engineering schemes – hydroelectric dams in particular –  into megawatt-producing, manufactured landscapes.

Antarctica, naturally, fits the bill as a remote wild setting. Engineering here is pursued with the exclusive intention to yield global scientific knowledge. (At least for this moment in history).*

The WISSARD ( http://www.wissard.org/about ) project is an effort to surgically drill through several miles of glacial ice into arcane fresh waters encapsulated below;  a process designed to pierce the frozen skin of earth to probe the plasma beneath for its physical, chemical and biologic properties.DOERMarine_jtthomas-6877

My roll here at the deep austral latitudes is to bear witness to grand engineering and scientific effort that is, by design, meant to leave not a single strand of invasive DNA or contaminants behind in or below the frozen landscape.

In simple terms, the overall scientific objectives here target the need to further understand subglacial ecosystems, and naturally, how they are connected to and interact with marine  and atmospheric ecosystems.

To achieve any of the basic goals, sophisticated  engineering – including lots of stainless steel instruments, UV-purified hot water melted from the Antarctic snow and a pair of massive diesel-powered Cat generators  – will serve as the backbone of the effort to reach Lake Whillans two miles beneath us.

In addition to the superlative terrain we are working in, both the drilling team from the University of Nebraska and the engineering team from DOER Marine are blowing my  bunny boots* off with their respective skill sets, acumen and intentions.

DOER (http://www.doermarine.com/) has a quiver of coring, monitoring and remotely operated imaging rigs they have built from scratch in California and delivered to the austral ice.

Mike and Rudi are the masterminds and elbow-grease engineers at the helm of the ops for DOER Marine here in the field, presently fine tuning the coring instruments that they crafted in California.

Most of what they normally develop are ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicles like hydraulic arm and camera-equipped submarines). But for the WISSARD drilling efforts, all of the water-tight, pressure-enduring sensors, detectors, cameras and water samplers had to be crammed into vertically segmented steel pipes, containing everything from motors to circuitry to transformers, all designed to fit down into a narrow diameter hole some 10,000 feet bored through the ice.

In the expansive space of the Antarctic coast, stepping into the DOER storage container-turned lab and machine shop, is an exercise in refocusing one’s eyes from the macro to micro. Outside the reflective brightness of Antarctica line of site is unlimited even with squinted, goggled eyes. Inside their windowless shop, the minutia of their engineering dangles from from steel flanges and the hinged steel hoods of the coring pipes.

Upon entering, Rudi stood back quietly observing Mike as he plunged his arm into the pipe, untangling an oil filled box from its electrical umbilical. He removed it gingerly, wrung the gasket sealed black box over and over in his oiled hands and couple times and cracked its seal open as if it were a peanut.

“Simple stuff really,” said Mike.

I thought otherwise. As someone prone to performing mechanical surgeries that turn into autopsies of once-functional devices, I am not exactly worthy of considering any kind of electrical engineering, ahem, simple.

Dennis Duling, Frank Rack and their team of  collegial Nebraska drilling team are a group of sharp-minded, smooth-tempoed workhorses with an unshakable temperament for shit that is prone to break. So when a thread is crossed on a high-pressure valve and does blow as gasket, one of the guys simply saunters off across the snow to a mobile machine shop to fabricate a new piece without any of them having an elevated heart rate in the throws of the proverbial hiccup.

So to be at 77-degrees South Latitude with only a utility knife in my camera bag, I am humbled by a group of guys (and a 22-year old robotics-whiz kid named Emily, who I am reserving for another blog post) who are rewiring, reprogramming and re-plumbing multi-million dollar drills and submersible devices in the freezing firmament of Antarctica is an opportunity for respect.

And as of yesterday, the drill team, engineers and scientist have successfully reamed nearly 80-meters through the test site here on the Ross Ice Shelf to the ocean water below – an essential test-run before packing up the shipping containers-turned ski-clad portable laboratories and hauling them 700 miles to the sub-glacial headwaters of Lake Whillans in the interior of the continent.

Our trans-continental traverse is due to commence on December 28th.

Drilling_jtthomas-6428

Links:

GBASE: http://www.wissard.org/wissard-science/science-projects/gbase

LISSARD: http://www.wissard.org/wissard-science/science-projects/lissard

RAGES: http://www.wissard.org/wissard-science/science-projects/rages

*Science and the Antarctic Treaty: http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/antarct/anttrty.jsp – All work presently being conducted on the continent by all members of the Antarctic Treaty  is intended for peaceful, non-military scientific purposes. However, there are persistent rumors that resource countries like China are intent on pursuing extractive industry on the Antarctic continent and in its coastal waters.For a good synopsis: http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/science/threats_mining_oil.htm

*Bunny Boots: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bunny_boots

30221

The Water Column – Vol. 1, December 10

My blinders have been on preparing for a departure to, of all expansive places, Antarctica.

The summer is starting there along with its hyperbolic stretch of daylight (the next sunset is February 20th) – it will, in general, be 2:30pm the entire time I will be on the continent.

For a photographer that is not exactly the golden hour.

But for me any time in a geography such as Antarctica is an inspiring and privileged time; this time being my first to venture to the southern pole.

My primary responsibility is to bear witness to scientists doing science for all sort of fundamentally scientific reasons. Truly and, well, profoundly.

The mob of parka-clad scientists I will be accompanying intend to drill (with hot, melted ice) through several miles of glacial ice and surgically pierce the barrier of the ancestral fresh waters below…without contaminating it. And, as some (legitimately) worry, to contaminate this atmospheric side of the ice with arcane pathogens (that are poised to cathartically launch themselves into the air like The (Hollywood, celluloid) Thing.*

By all estimates, there is a lot of water beneath the ice, encapsulated by the vast niveal dome above. In that water, so goes the hypothesis, there is a lot of water with an archaic chemistry and, more importantly, a biology unknown to us. Furthermore, to push the superficial science of it, those highly compressed, light-deprived critters may – or may not – serve as analogs to critters from a galaxy far, far away…

So, as my journey south begins and my preparatory blinders are falling, I am reminded that almost all of the conversations I have flitted through as of late – the important and relavant ones – are about water.

Specifically, my friends, family members, journalism and science cohorts are talking about water – river water, fresh water, flood waters, the lack of water, ocean water, bottled water and Sandy’s water. Water to fish in. Swim in. Drink. Revel in. Cleanse in.

Water is prolific, literally and metaphorically.

Water, water, water.

In Western Colorado, upstate New York, Central Pennsylvania, Montana, North Dakota, in the freshly revealed waters of the Arctic Ocean and off the shores of Florida, New Orleans, China, Kamchatka, Venezuela, and on and on and on…all of my conversations – with scientists, neighbors, friends and bar-fellows is about water.

Water and oil. Water and gas. Methane in the water. River water and methane. Water and life. Water and death. Water and watersheds and drinking water and hydropower and irrigation….and on and on.

“Fracking” is the word of the year. The decade. It is the boom of the boom. And it will be the bust of the bust, I predict.

Drilling is the driving mechanics of fracking, straight into remote, ancestral gasses locked in the messy geologic substrate. The drill bores the hole and then water – water delivered from the same or another watershed – is pumped into the hole to force the gas outward and upwards for capture.

I am headed to Antarctica – and away from the Fracking that is happening in my back yard.

The science I am chasing in that part of the world is presumably more elegant and intended to yield knowledge. Fracking is designed to be an efficiently engineering feat designed to yield cheap energy.

Energy for us.

Energy for us to buy.

Consume.

Progress by.

So, what’s the difference in these forms of mining into the firmament for water and gas?

That is some what I am going to reflect on in the months ahead on the ice.

Stick with me, I will take us deeper.

*In all seriousness, serious caution is being taken not to permit rabid Sea Monkies from invading our ecologically nascent surface water.

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