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.

Posted by: sioglac | Jan 6, 2013

Lost: Grace’s Seal Pup

Grace, our seismologist extraordinaire on Team GPS, went with me for a casual walk last Thursday to the store at Scott Base (the New Zealand base ~1.8 miles away). At the store, Grace fell in love with an adorable little seal pup and immediately decided it would go everywhere with her.

Real seals just outside Scott Base

Real seals just outside Scott Base

The seal pup found a great little seat in the back of Grace’s backpack:

An adorable little guy

An adorable little guy

When all the graduate students associated with WISSARD photo portraits, Grace graciously allowed me have my picture taken with her furry little friend:


A bearded scientist with his friend’s baby seal

After our photo shoot, we head to Sunday dinner, where Grace realizes she lost track of her little bud. After much searching, she gave up and sadly picked her food. Where could the seal pup have gone??

We went back to the office after dinner and Grace found this:

photo (2)

Oh my gosh!

We’re at a loss as to what to do. Some evil, evil soul kidnapped the cutest seal puppy on the planet and requested cookies as ransom. But cookies only exist in McMurdo on Wednesday, when we are hopefully in the field. Does the FBI work in Antarctica? Since this could be an international incident (with the puppy seal being a New Zealander and all), are we supposed to involve the CIA?? Can anyone figure out who the evil seal kidnapper is?????????

Be on the look out. Rewards for information leading to recovery…


Posted by: sioglac | Jan 6, 2013

And on the 80th day…

Background: Today is right around my 80th day spent in Antartica during my life.

Fact: The longest, grammatically-correct sentence in the English language using a single word is, “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” (yes I know this off the top of my head).

Hypothesis: If you lose the “grammatically-correct” modifier, I believe I just set the record for longest sentence in the English language using a single word. A shortened version of it is: penguin penguin penguin penguin PENGUIN PENGUIN PENGUIN PENGUIN PENGUIN!!!!

I just saw my first penguin. Through a telescope, but I don’t care. A whole slew of Adelie teenagers, waddling and sliding every which way.

It’s been a quite a long week getting our team ready for our field deployment (as soon as tomorrow) and I’ll fill everyone in on that soon. But in the meantime:


Posted by: sioglac | Dec 30, 2012

The field team and Doug’s first article

If you are an astute reader, you will notice I changed the tab at the top of the page that detailed members of the field team. The tab now sends you to a page about our 2012-2013 GPS/seismo team. The team is 5: Slawek (field leader), Grace, Doug, JT, and myself. Slawek and Grace are from University of California, Santa Cruz. Doug and JT are outreach folk — Doug is a writer who has published science related articles in all sorts of magazines, while JT is an incredible photographer. Click that tab to check out some more details about everyone.

The other part of this post is Doug’s first article from this field season is online over at It dovetails very nicely with some conversations I’ve had with family and friends. Read it here.

Back to work!

Posted by: sioglac | Dec 29, 2012

Another video: Combat off-loading

You know the feeling of getting somewhere and feeling like you never left? Arriving back in McMurdo Station is like. Multiplied by about a million. It could be because of its constant stuck-in-the-80s feel, or maybe just because it’s the same people, doing the same thing every year. Regardless, I definitely feel right at home writing a blog post in the same office (Crary 234) I wrote so many in last year.

Anyway, I haven’t even been here 24 hours yet and I’ve: met to plan out food, pulled dry food from the food room, pulled frozen food from the freezer, pushed all the food plus some other stuff through the cargo system, and took my Happy Camper refresher (the Happy Camper course from last year, condensed into 4 hours). My brain is mush right now, so no more thoughts on the day (though you can read about the food pull last year here. Biggest difference is we only took 240 chocolate bars this year, instead of the 503 the first time).

I write this because my friend/WISSARD outreach guru Susan asked about how planes drop cargo off at the field site. “Aha! I have a video of that!!” I thought I described this last year, but I can’t find the post, so a short summary…

The New York Air National Guard drops cargo off on the ice the same way they would in a combat zone: without stopping. It’s called a combat off-load and its the equivalent of pulling the tablecloth out from under the dishes on a table. Only replace the tablecloth with a 130,000 pound LC-130 aircraft (colloquially called a Herc). They touch down, unlatch the cargo, then speed up and the cargo falls out the back. As you’ll see in the video, there’s a reason we can’t have fresh eggs in the field. Here’s the video, taken by Ben Petersen (I was driving upstream to Subglacial Lake Whillans at the time).

Pretty cool, eh?

A quick programming note: I’ve finally made it big time! My blog is listed as an official blog on the WISSARD webpage. Waaahoo!

Posted by: sioglac | Dec 28, 2012

Some video from last year…

Greetings from Christchurch! For those that follow on twitter, you already know that I made it safe and sound to New Zealand and started taking care of the most important tasks. I have some pictures to show you of the trip thus far and our CDC experience, but that will have to wait until I’m at McMurdo. Instead, I threw together a short, ~3 minute video from last year.

Now why, 11 months after the field season ended, did I decide to spend some time to edit a video and post it on the internet? Well mostly because I just rediscovered that I took so much video last year. But also because I do realize that I did not give you much of an idea of what day-to-day work was like last year and this was what we did for more than half the season. I talked a little about our active seismic work, but as my 9th grade English teacher taught me, why tell when you can show.

A schematic of how active semisic data collection works, from Aberystwyth University’s website.

Background: last year, we shot 50,000 meters (~31 miles) of active seismics. This method consists of laying down a line of some really sensitive microphones called geophones on the surface and detonating a small amount of explosives in the middle of the line. In a highly over-simplied, once sentence explanation: the energy from the explosion radiates out from the source and bounces off the bedrock beneath the ice. The geophones hear the energy that bounces back, which not only can tell you about how thick the ice is, but can also tell you a few of the properties of the rock underneath the ice.

It’s a very informative data source, but extremely work intensive. For the experiments last year, we placed geophones every 20 meters (~65 feet). Geophones are extremely sensitive to noise like wind and blowing snow, so they have to be buried about 12-18 inches beneath the snow surface. The geophones are linked to a computer via a long seismic cable. We had two computers, which can record 48 geophones at once, each housed in a conestoga wagon (yes, like Oregon Trail). For each “move” (one position of wagons, cables, geophones), we have 96 geophones at our disposal. Because you want geophones on either side of a single explosion, we would only do 4 individual explosions per move. After completing these shots, we would dig up the first 48 geophones and move them to the end of the line. We continually leap frogged like this this 960 meters at a time, for all 50,000 meters.

A hilariously terrible schematic I just drew of our seismic experiment set up. This is just ONE of TWO conestoga wagons we had. If the second 48 geophones were to the right of these, we'd fire the last two explosives of this line and the first two of the next before the next move.

A hilariously terrible schematic I just drew of our seismic experiment set up. This is just ONE of TWO conestoga wagons we had. If the second 48 geophones were to the right of these, we’d fire the last two purple arrows of this line and the first two of the next before moving all the geophones in this picture.

Enough explanation! Here’s what a single active seismic shot looks like in 3 minutes. I originally meant to put this to silly music, but I thought you might appreciate the sounds of Antarctica.

Some random notes on this:

  1. We aren’t collecting this type of data this year. This is only related to last season! Sorry for the delay.
  2. Assuming we dug 1 foot to bury each geophone, then dug another 1 foot to remove it, as a team we dug just under 1 vertical mile. That’s like standing on top of a tall mountain in New Hampshire and digging to sea level. Yikes.
  3. I definitely have to stop writing and pack. Transport is at 8 AM tomorrow to the CDC for our Ice Flight!
  4. Our thoughts are with our Ellsworth colleagues who made the tough decision (on Christmas nonetheless) to call it a season. Terrible news.

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