Posted by: sioglac | Apr 17, 2014

Ground truthin’

I have to get something off my chest: I’m an observationalist. What does that mean? Well in my research, I make direct measurements of what a glacier is doing (for example, with a GPS unit) and use these observations to test hypotheses that I (or we as a community) have about the way glaciers work. In glaciology, observations are relatively rare (though this is changing!). It’s not easy to take a lot of observations of, say, Antarctica because Antarctica is: (a) really far away, (b) has a pretty rough climate to work in (coldest, highest, driest continent on Earth, or as every training I have ever taken says, it’s a harsh continent), and (c) is dark 24 hours a day, 6 months of the year. To that end, I consider myself extremely lucky to have an incredible set of observations that not only contains year-round data, but also contains multiple years of data. While related to the topic at hand, that’s just a tangent for this post.

One way I really like using what few measurements we have of Antarctica is to “ground truth” remotely-sensed observations (like from an airplane or, more often, a satellite up in space) or models. Remote sensing and models are incredible techniques we use in glaciology to understand how glaciers and ice sheets work on scales we could never cover with direct ground observation alone. Case in point: it takes (at least) 2 months of my time every year to make sure not quite two dozen GPS units are functioning well in a “logistically simple” (read: super easy) area of one ice stream in Antarctica—imagine how long it would take to instrument the whole ice stream, let alone the whole ice sheet. My Master’s advisor, however, instilled in me a healthy sense of skepticism about both remote sensing and models: fantastic tools if their methods are verified and their limitations are known. That, in a nutshell, is what ground truthing is. In other words, you can leverage a pretty limited (in both a time and a space sense) set of observations on the ground in Antarctica to test whether the observations satellites continually make are precise and accurate and/or whether the outputs from models are consistent with what the ice is doing in real life. In this way, you can take a relatively small set of difficult-to-make observations and use them to put your trust into methods that draw much broader conclusions than you ever could with your one, small dataset.

With that in mind, you can imagine how excited I get when a new issue of Journal of Glaciology comes out and I find a ground truthing study. [I'm borderline giddy when I find one; in other news, I'm a big ol' nerd.] One article in the most recent issue easily takes the cake for best paper I’ve read in a long time. Seriously, how cool is this:

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 10.03.51 AM


“As a second result, the upstream end point of the computed trajectory emerges very close to the glacier surface in 1926, giving a new and global validation of the glacier model in space and time.” How the authors managed to type that sentence without ending it with about a million exclamation points is beyond me. I also love that they tagged the article with the keyword, “glaciological model experiments.” As my aforementioned Master’s advisor responded when I emailed this article to him, “Tough way to validate a model… ‘So, I was wanting to validate my model, and wondered if you could help me…’” Sorry Bob. If I was only in for a Master’s with you, I don’t think I’d be ready for that kind of, um, commitment to model testing. But I do enthusiastically support this type of ground truth study!

The paper delves into the model in quite a bit of detail (A pretty good paper! Give it a read if you are so inclined.), so we’re going to skip to my favorite section:

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 10.04.06 AM

A mystery remains!!

I have on many occasions used investigating a crime as a metaphor for how a glaciologist does his/her research. You use a very small set of clues to piece together a hypothesis, then use a slightly larger (though still extremely small) set of clues to test if your hypothesis is right. Jouvet and Funk blow my metaphor out of the water with the establishment of a new field: Forensic Glaciology**. I cannot wait for the day that I’m flipping through the channels on TV and find an episode of CSI that calls in some glaciologists to help them with their case. It’s going to happen and, to those of you in Hollywood, I happen to know a glaciologist down the road in San Diego who could make a guest-star appearance for you…

Give me a ring, CSI. I’m ready for my closeup!

**Yes, I know this isn’t the first time glaciology has been used to investigate corpses, but it is the first time (I think) corpses have been used to validate modeling work. See here for another fun example of forensic glaciology.


Posted by: sioglac | Mar 31, 2014


Pictures are the best, right?? I told myself when I got back from the ice this season, “I’m definitely posting my pictures from this season before February is over!”

Well that didn’t happen. But they’re up before March was over.

You can always see Scripps Glaciology’s pictures by heading to our homepage ( and clicking the Picasa link on the right side (embarrassingly enough, that’s exactly how I peruse my own pictures too). If you are an old-hand at this and only want to see the pictures from the 2013-2014 Antarctic field season, here’s a link directly to those pictures:

Leave any questions you have about anything you see in the album as a comment here and I’ll be sure to respond.

“What’d you say? You put up pictures?? Meh, back to sleep…”

Posted by: sioglac | Mar 27, 2014

“The future starts today, not tomorrow”

To get things started with ScrippsOnIce v2.0, I’m not going to summarize my paper that was just published based on some of the data I’ve been collecting in Antarctica. Or Sasha’s paper that came out late last year about how quickly the subglacial plumbing can change. That will come in the future. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a pretty crazy meeting I have the honor of attending this May. Coincidentally, this all started while I was out on the Whillans Ice Stream, so let’s hop in the wayback machine to this past field season in Antarctica… Read More…

Posted by: sioglac | Mar 24, 2014

Programming Note

I’ve been thinking for quite awhile about the future of this blog. I obtusely referenced this struggle in a previous post from McMurdo and I think I’m finally ready to come to terms with it. A field blog only works if you (a) go to the field a lot (check!) and (b) constantly have new stories  from the field (……). I love my work out in Antarctica (there is a reason I keep going back after all), but to tell you the truth, it’s a bit repetitive: kick it in New Zealand for a few days, get stuck in McMurdo a week or three, fly to the Whillans Ice Stream, drive over 1000 miles on a snow machine, dig some holes, collect some data, come home. It’s been three years of that. Each year, I find myself with more responsibilities and, as a result, less time to write from the field. But I don’t even know what I’d write if I had time: I feel like I’ve told all the stories already. Plus out on in the middle of nowhere Antarctica, all the pictures pretty much look the same (not that I stop taking them).

So where is all of this going? We’re opening this blog up to be more than “our glaciology field blog” (though I’m keeping that tag line). I was inspired by the original Scripps Glaciology graduate student Jeremy Bassis (now professor at University of Michigan). He told me that in his lab group, once a week (or maybe every other week? I don’t remember; it was awhile ago) everyone is barred from using a computer. They read books, print out journal articles, derive equations on paper, and *gasp* don’t watch videos of cats on youtube. We’re gonna have the bizarro version of Jeremy’s unplugged vision: I’m going to reserve part of an afternoon every other week to update the blog on the going-ons of Scripps Glaciology, glaciology as a field, or just generally cool science. Already in 2014, our group has done some amazing work (6 publications in 2014 already?!) and I think you all should at least hear about the tasty end-product of the sausage factory I’ve been intermittently describing over the past two and a half years.

Sound good? We’ll get things started tomorrow (okay maybe Wednesday) with some prettttyyyy exciting news in the work life of Matt. Stay tuned.


This just about summarized about what happened to this blog :(

Posted by: sioglac | Dec 26, 2013

Fingers crossed

I think what I have come to dislike the most about delays in McMurdo is that when you say bye to friends and colleagues, someone always has to say, “Well I hope I don’t see you tomorrow.”

We're goin' to WIZ.

We’re goin’ to WIZ.

Posted by: sioglac | Dec 23, 2013

337 days later…

Better late than never, right?

Last time we talked, I was giving updates from my time in McMurdo Station, Antarctica, waiting for a plane to come whisk me away to the beautiful Whillans Ice Stream and I guess I never gave you any updates since then. Well whisk me away it did. Team GPS then had 12 days to do about 21 days worth of work. It was a crazy, crazy field season, with little time to catch your breathe and write a blog post (though I suppose I’ve had 325 days since then…). Team GPS finished almost everything we wanted to accomplish in those 12 days and Drill Team drilled into Subglacial Lake Whillans and kept the hole open for four days of science.

Given how compact the season was and how much could have gone wrong due to factors out of everyone’s control, it ended up being wildly successful. WISSARD was named the 12th (!!) top science story of 2013 by Discover Magazine, while Helen and I were featured in a UCSD Alumni Magazine article. Since it’s actually impossible to put into words how cool it is to find myself right in the middle of a project like this, I’ll leave it at this: WISSARD was deemed a better science story than scientists successfully performing a Vulcan Mind Meld. Any year you beat out Star Trek technology is a good year.

I’ll do a full round up of the awesome science that is coming out of the 2012/2013 field season some other day. Feel free though to peruse pictures of last year here. Then there’s the whole story of The Shutdown, which is definitely a post unto itself, so we’ll skip that for now, and move onto the present. Guess what I’m doing right this very instant…

Can’t fly a plane through that stuff.

If you guessed “sitting in McMurdo, waiting for a plane, like every other year,” you’d be right. In fact, my tales of being stuck waiting for a plane have started to become something of McMurdo lore. The newest chapter of our legend: after 2 weeks of absolutely perfect weather in McMurdo (mid 30s, no wind, no clouds), our team is scheduled as a primary flight to our field site last Friday. Thursday evening, at about 8PM, with no warning at all, these clouds that look straight out of a horror movie come rolling in over island, engulfing first just the airfield, then all of McMurdo in a dense ground fog. Those in charge of planning flights into and out of McMurdo are now convinced I’m cursed. Lovely.

So like every year, we wait.

This year there are many silver linings: our group had an unplanned overlap with some friends we wouldn’t have seen otherwise (like Hilary, whose blog you should be reading religiously), we get to have an unexpected Christmas Dinner in McMurdo (which I can only imagine is as good or better than the unexpected Thanksgiving I had here two years ago), and, best of all, I got to make my first ginger bread house. Ever. In my life.

It’s penguins curling with Santa’s helicopter in the background. This is what happens when your team has a helo pilot and a Canadian on it.

As a quick programming note, it’s been hard to write posts about my time in McMurdo this year because I think I’ve covered everything I’m doing in past posts. We pulled food, packed cargo, recreated some, and ate a lot. I guess I may be a bit jaded at this point, so you should head over to Carolyn’s blog at to check out her take on McMurdo going-ons. She’s a UCSC graduate student down here with the team and it’s her first time in Antarctica. Read up on what she has to say!

Posted by: sioglac | Jan 20, 2013


5 on a Basler.
3 on a Basler, 2 on a Herc.
5 on a Herc.
1 on a Herc, 4 on a second Herc.
1 on a Herc, 1 on a second Herc, 18 on a Basler 4 days later (at the earliest).
1 on a Herc, 1 on a second Herc, 1 on a Basler by himself.
1 on a Herc, 8 on a Basler.
1 on a Herc, 6 on a Basler.
1 on a Herc, 1 on a second Herc, 6 on a Basler.

These are all the different configurations that the GPS Team has needed to plan for in the past two weeks. Seriously. At one point I had to plan on being “put-in” (aka dropped off in the middle of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with only white in every direction) as field team leader. At another point, I had to teach Slawek and Grace how to service GPS stations since I was going to be put-in possibly a full week after them. Yes, you read that right. I’ve been as high as “Leading a Field Team” and as low as “Last Priority.” My theoretical put-in plane has been as empty as, uh, just me (with, no joke, a personal flight attendent, who assured me after the flight was canceled that he would have been as unhelpful as possible) and as full as 18 people on a (retrofitted) DC-3. It’s been a strange 22 days in McMurdo to say the least. I might as well wallpaper my room with “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters. Maintaining an even keel and being generally flexible is the name of the game.

So what’s the current situation out here? Slawek was put-in last week with 3 of the 7 drillers along with the cargo and personel that are needed to build and run the main drill camp. The same day as his flight, we had 2 other planes land at SLW with most of Team GPS’s science gear (we had 3 planes land at SLW within an hour of each other. We almost need our own air-traffic control tower…). Grace is going tomorrow with the rest of the drill team on the second Herc, which has my checked luggage on it and our gear to have an independent camp. I’m going tomorrow with the first flight of scientists (6 of us), which will have the last of the WISSARD science cargo on it. Then, Tuesday and Wednesday, the rest of the scientists will fly out. That’s the current plan. That being said, our “current” plan seems to change on the hour, so stay tuned.

I haven’t posted recently because either: (1) if we decided on a plan that seemed post-worthy, by the time I found a computer, the plan had changed already, or (2) I’m sitting around entertaining myself with any trivial task while I wait for a flight.

Things that have happened:

  • I went to Hut Point to tour Scott’s Discovery Hut, only to have 6 penguins try to tour the hut with us. If you aren’t friends with me on Facebook, follow WISSARD on Facebook, or read Betty’s blog, I guess you haven’t heard about that yet. Incredible is an understatement. Watch some of my video here and here. I’m kicking myself for not bring my DSLR to the ice this year.
  • Fox News did a not-too-bad article about us, which you can find here. However, their headline is ridiculous. To quote Susan, we aren’t trying to win a race and DEFINITELY not trying to start a war. Let alone a war that was mostly a nuclear arms race…
  • I edited a proposal, finished up the analysis part of a paper from last year’s data, so I can start writing ASAP, edited a paper that is in its final stages, and edited a paper that is in its beginning stages. There should be some solid papers coming out in the next 6 months…
  • Instigated a Mario Kart for Nintendo 64 party.
  • Signed up for the McMurdo Marathon, only to have it canceled. This was a good thing since I’m coming back from an calf/achilles tendon injury, but  am also willing to do just about anything to avenge my 2nd place (or 1st loser) finish during last year’s 5K. I probably would have just injured myself again, so this was for the best.
  • Attended the 3rd Annual 7th Continent Mustache and Beard Competition as well as the 2nd annual Mustache Roulette. I’ll get some pictures of that up ASAP. Two of my female “townie” friends who are wintering-over here had their heads shaved in the name of charity. (Aside: people that work non-science jobs in McMurdo are oh-so-lovingly referred to by scientists as townies, while non-science McMurdo workers oh-so-lovingly refer to scientists as Beakers. Some are offended by these terms. I, perhaps obviously, am not. I use them ironically and love my townie friends equally as much as my beaker friends. Sometimes I feel like coming down to Antarctica is more like a grand sociology experiment than anything else.)
  • Witnessed a blizzard in McMurdo. Shin deep snow. Snowball fights abound.

Transport to the airstrip in 7 hours. Next post will be from Whillans, I hope!


Posted by: sioglac | Jan 14, 2013

Tut tut, it looks like rain

Well I’m still in McMurdo. The traverse (our heavy machines that dragged our heavy drill equipment and labs 610 miles to the field site) made it to SLW (they left in late December). The team that was supposed to get there first (you know, me), however, still hasn’t. Weather weather weather. Oh and a med evac somewhere else on continent. Oh and the Prime Minister of New Zealand is coming later this week.

So now we wait for a good day to fly. We did fly once. Last Friday, Team GPS took off with all our gear and flew for 2 hours across the Great Ice Barrier (the Ross Ice Shelf). We descended toward the landing site through the typical cirrus clouds. And we just never quite found the bottom of it. The pilots (rightfully!) don’t descend past 3000 feet without seeing the ground and we surely could see none of that. A quick circle to check again and back to McMurdo. Read more about our ” boomerang” over at JT’s blog.

Now that the traverse is on site, hopefully we will have a better idea of the weather on Whillans is and can get out ASAP.

Until then, I’ll be writing or editing papers. And crossing every limb, doing every rain dance (or anti-rain dance?), and generally shaking my fist at the sky until the weather submits to my wishes. Such is life for deep field scientists in Antarctica—I’ve only been in McMurdo for 2/3s as long as I was last year.

On the outreach front: I’m now famous. Explorations Magazine did a piece on WISSARD and included a few pictures I took, which you can read here. There’s also a rumor going around that there will be an article about us in Science Times this week. The McMurdo Rumor Mill, however, is a doozy, so you never know.

Posted by: sioglac | Jan 9, 2013

Hurry up and…


It’s that time of the year again, when I’m in McMurdo waiting for an airplane to drop me in the middle of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. After being a backup mission (or as the rest of the world would call it, flight) on Wednesday, then being an aborted primary mission today with poor weather on Whillans, it looks like we likely are back to backup tomorrow (though there is plenty of time for this to change!).

[EDIT: primary mission! 0715 transport!]

In honor of today being my 12th full day in McMurdo, which puts me at exactly half the amount of time I spent in McMurdo last year, I thought I’d take a stroll down memory lane. If you want to see what I’m up to nowadays, read my blog post from last year. It’s mostly the same, but here are some key updates and/or differences:

  • The Coffee House is now rarely open in the mornings. It’s consistently open from 6:30PM-10:00PM, which is strange since I’m not exactly looking to drink coffee at that point. I’m looking at drinking coffee at 6:15AM when my flight is canceled… That being said, the espresso is free this year! [EDIT: I still grab a coffee at 7:30PM. Better late than never I guess...]
  • Paul never updated his website while waiting for his flight last year.
  • Instead of the 3.6 lbs of food per person per day we had last year, we have 6.17 lbs this year. Though that’s artificially high because we packed our frozen food in heavier boxes this year, so I’d guess we’re around 5.8 or 5.9. We should have enough food to invite friends from the drill camp over for dinner!
  • Instead of being here for Thanksgiving, I was here for New Years.
  • We “bag dragged” already (meaning we checked our bags for the flight), so we only have a small subset of our belongs while we wait this time.
  • I have no 5K to run.
  • Instead of doing the hardest puzzle on the face of the planet, we did an adorable puzzle of penguins skiing. I would post a picture, but my camera is packed in my room. Maybe tomorrow.
  • On that note, I saw penguins this year, instead of not seeing penguins last year!
  • Many of the hilariously old projection TVs have been replaced by spiffy flat screens that have, *gasp*, DVD players instead of VCRs.
  • Instead of Leo showing up in McMurdo weeks after we did and getting to his field site within 72 hours of his arrival on continent, it’s my Masters advisor (Bob Hawley) who is playing the slide-through-McMurdo-as-quickly-as-possible card this year.

While we’re talking about things that are different from last year, while Team GPS is only 5 people, Jill (a WISSARD principal investigator (PI) and friend from Dartmouth with whom I helped “decorate” her Danish colleague’s camp last year) calculated our maximum camp population will be 55 people. FIFTY FIVE. That’s 20% bigger than Palmer Station (one of the 3 US bases in Antarctica). And it’s probably bigger than half the towns in Wyoming. Hard to comprehend.

Posted by: sioglac | Jan 7, 2013

My science in Antarctica: maintaining GPS

I explained what took a bulk of my time last season, but still haven’t shown you pictures of what I do for my science when I’m down in Antarctica. That seems silly. And by showing you pictures of what I did last year, you’ll see what I’m going to do for the next month! Killing two birds with one stone here… Without further ado:

We have 23 permanent GPS installations across the lower ice plain of the Whillans Ice Stream. I made a map of where they are with big red dots for the WISSARD webpage. It looks like this:


GPS stations are the red dots. The drill location for WISSARD is the green star. According to my colleague Sasha, subglacial water flows from left to right along the blue lines. I trust him. Tick marks are 10km (~6.2 miles) in both directions.

We drive on snowmobiles from red dot to red dot to check each GPS station individually and to download the past year of data. Here’s what our skidoos look like:


BRP Skandic, with kinematic GPS unit mounted on the rear. A machine with which I am intimately familiar. Those are my big driving mittens. Yes I have driving mittens.

The first and most important thing we do when we park at a GPS station is check the physical infrastructure. There are two major things that go wrong. The first is the strong Antarctic winds can wreak havoc on anything in its way. This is what our GPS station closest to the drill site looked last year:


The wind snapped the ~1/4 inch metal wind turbine mount. There was a light breeze this day and the turbine was just clanging against the metal post when we got there. Not a noise I was expected in Antarctica

Here’s the other major issue we deal with:


A GPS station after 3 years

After 2-3 years, a GPS station can be completely buried on the Whillans Ice Stream. When we find this, we have to dig the whole thing out. This includes 4-8 3-foot long metal anchors that were buried under the snow when the unit was first set up. These anchors can be up to 6 or 7 feet below the surface and are frozen in the ice, so they need to be dug out entirely (as in you can’t just find where it is then yank the cable attached to it). We also have to dig out the large grey box that houses the GPS unit itself. Oh there are 4-10 car batteries in there too. Because of its dark grey color, the box heats up in the Antarctic sun, melting surrounding snow. The outcome is that this box, multiple feet below the surface and containing hundreds of pounds of batteries, can be encased in a few inches are hard, refrozen ice. Not the most fun thing to deal with. Here’s what the scene looks like after an hour or two of digging:


Shovel in one of the anchor pits for scale. Finding exactly where the anchor is below ground isn’t easy. We still have to dig the main box out too.

After everything is dug out, we pull out the solar panels and GPS antenna and “redeploy” the site on the surface:


Fresh GPS install. This should be good to go for 3 years or so.

Now that the station is accessible, we can download the data and update any software that needs it (the easy part!):


Inside the grey box. The yellow thing is the GPS unit itself. If you look closely, you can actually see the data copying onto the computer.

We double check everything is on and working, then we’re off to the next station, which can be up to 30 miles away. Easy as 1, 2, 3, right?? I guess no one ever said that maintaining the largest on-ice network of GPS stations in the world would be easy. (For those that will argue about that claim, I will note POLENET is on rock, not ice.)

Just for fun, here’s another picture of GPS work I did last year:


Most Antarctic vets see this picture and think it’s a runway. It’s not. This is what it looks like after Lucas and I drove for 12 hours continuously across the flexure zone of the Whillans Ice Stream (deemed the 12 hour experiment. Whether its a geophysical experiment or a sociological one, I have yet to determine). I named it the Whillans Highway. This should probably in Google Street View.

All this fun with GPS couldn’t be done without the help of the fantastic people at UNAVCO, so a big thank you to them.

Last but not least, I get back home to the US and process the data:


Continuing to monitor subglacial lake water levels. My advisor Helen discovered “active” subglacial lakes using ICESat data (the blue line) and I am continuing to monitor what the lakes are doing with GPS data. We now have 10 years of data for Subglacial Lake Whillans


Subglacial Lake Mercer lake level since 2008. We think the lake might have flooded this past year! It is VERY exciting that we might have a high resolution dataset documenting it.

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