Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Beauty of Antarctica

Since work is a bit slow right now (not that we aren't busy, just not with anything of particular interest to share), I thought I would show you some examples of the beauty of the McMurdo area. This is definitely one of the reasons I am willing to come back here, in addition to this being a place to do good research. McMurdo Station itself is not that attractive a place (you can find lots of pictures of it online) - the land is simply volcanic rock with a light covering of snow (right now - in a couple of months it will be mud and dust). Many of the buildings are left from the Navy days when McMurdo was a military installation, so it resembles an aging, bland harbor town.

The scenery, on the other hand, is quite beautiful (at least in the eyes of most of us; if you like trees and green things, you won't like it here!).  McMurdo is on the southern side of Ross Island - to the south of us is Mt. Discovery (an extinct volcano) and to the west is the Royal Society range of the TransAntarctic Mountains. Both are quite photogenic, especially with the low sun angles we currently have here.

Mt. Discovery yesterday morning. The shadow on the lower slopes is cast by
Mt. Erebus, which is to our north, between us and the sun. The vehicles in the
foreground are working to prepare the ice runway that will be use starting in October.

Of course, the low sun angles this time of year make for some spectacular lighting. It is impossible to capture every beautiful moment, but here are a couple of recent examples. The colors are real - I have not manipulated these images and I think the camera captured them well.
Sky toward sunset - the purple is the very thin polar stratospheric clouds I described in a previous
post. I liked the reflection of the sky colors in the windows of the lab in the foreground.

The western sky after sunset last night, looking toward the Royal Society Range.
The color beneath the mountains is ice fog!

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not comment on the awe-inspiring night sky here.  Unlike what we are used to seeing in the Northern Hemisphere (when we can see the stars, that is ), the Southern Hemisphere is dominated by the Milky Way. The first time I saw this, I literally fell over. We have been fortunate to have some very clear nights this week. Last night I decided to go out for a look with a colleague. I borrowed a tripod from the lab and decided to experiment with my new camera. You can judge the results for yourself below (and this is just a tiny piece of the sky, so imagine seeing this kind of stuff from horizon to horizon).

Does this need a caption??

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A little more about the science

We've had a truly beautiful day here today - the sky was clear and blue (although we do not see the sun here in McMurdo for a few more days because we face south and have some big obstructions to our north) and after lunch, we noticed an abundance of polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) to the west.  People also know these as nacreous clouds or mother-of-pearl clouds.

PSCs are one of the key players in stratospheric ozone depletion. They are naturally occurring clouds residing 12-25 km (7 - 15 mi) above the surface and are composed of either pure water (if they are very cold, -85 oC/-121 oF) or a mixture of nitric acid and water (nitric acid trihydrate or NAT), around temperatures of -77 oC/-107 oF. PSCs provide a surface that catalyzes reactions between gas-phase molecules that would not otherwise react with one another. This, in turn, leads to conversion of chlorine-containing gases (derived from chlorofluorocarbons) into forms that react quickly with ozone. So, seeing PSCs means ozone depletion is occurring overhead. As you can tell from the picture below, it is also awe-inspiring, because they are beautiful.
Polar Stratospheric Clouds west of McMurdo - 27 Aug

For the PSC aficionado - this photo contains both Type 1 (NAT) and Type 2 (ice) PSCs. The Type 2s are the ones that are iridescent or brightly lit; the Type 1s are the hazy, grayish ones surrounding the Type 2s. You would not necessarily know that from the photo, but we were treated to the most gorgeous purple glow as the sun continued to set, confirming the presence of the NAT clouds throughout the sky.

Another piece of science being done here is the regular launching of ozone sondes - small balloons that carry a package to measure the profile of ozone from the surface to somewhere up in the ozone layer - 25 to 30 km, or wherever the balloon bursts. Terry Deshler's group from the University of Wyoming is doing this work, so I tagged along yesterday to photograph one of their launches. They'll be launching an ozone sonde about every 3 days to watch the progression of the ozone depletion over the next 6 to 8 weeks.

Inflating the ozonesonde balloon. Most of the
balloonis contained in that white bundle on the tarp.
Releasing the balloon - the person on the left is holding the sonde. He'll wait for the balloon to get overhead before letting go.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The purpose of our trip

Now that I've posted a couple of general items, I suppose it is time to talk about why we're here in Antarctica in the late winter. As many of you know, one of my fields of research is stratospheric ozone chemistry and Antarctica is "ground zero" for studying ozone depletion as it is happening. In fact, the annual Antarctic "ozone hole" is beginning to grow overhead here as I type (well, not really that quickly, but definitely faster and faster as the days go on and as the amount of sunlight increases).

This year, there is a special project taking place from McMurdo Station to study the "ozone hole" - it is called Concordiasi and it is coordinated by colleagues from France (at Meteo France and CNES, the French Space Agency). The folks at CNES have developed a special type of high altitude research balloon - called a super-pressure balloon - that can carry a smallish payload to the stratosphere and stay aloft for a long time  (perhaps as much as 6 months!). We are privileged to be part of the team of scientists flying instruments on these payloads. My group will be measuring ozone - in the "ozone hole" as it is developing!

So, there is a group of 12 scientists and technicians from France who will be coordinating the balloon launches and gathering data back from the payloads (via satellite). And there are three science groups - ours, one from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, and one from the University of Wyoming. We'll  fly instruments together with the Wyoming folks (who will measure the cloud particles linked to ozone depletion). The NCAR group has a separate payload of so-called driftsondes, which are small devices to measure temperature, humidity and pressure profiles when dropped by parachute from the orbiting balloon gondola.

The bad weather here has delayed us a bit  - there is a lot of preparation work yet to be done, especially building the launch site out on the sea ice. But, we are aiming for our first launch to take place on 2 or 3 Sept, weather-permitting.

You can learn more about Concordiasi from this article published in the Antarctic Sun, which is the "local" newspaper.

Today's visual is a time-lapse video shot by my post-doc Lars, showing some of the French group unpacking and setting up their equipment.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

It's all about the weather

I have avoided saying much about the weather until now because there's something of a superstition here about it. One should definitely not comment too much about how nice it is - warm (relatively speaking), calm, etc. - for fear that will change for the (much) worse. So, now that it's bad weather, I feel comfortable talking about it.

First, to be clear, "good weather" in Antarctica this time of year would generally not be considered good weather anywhere else. The August-September time period (known here as WinFly, short for Winter Fly-in) is widely acknowledged to have some of the nastiest weather. Not necessarily the coldest, but certainly the windiest (wind chill is a big concern) and often the stormiest. Average temperatures for August are a maximum of -4 oC (+25 oF) and a minimum of -49 oC (-56 oF). The peak wind recorded for August was 100 mph!

Yesterday, a storm started here. It's been snowing pretty much continuously for at least 36 hours. It is hard to know how much accumulation there has been because the wind is blowing like crazy (sustained at 20 mph, with gusts up to 35 mph or so). It's not really that cold - the air temperature is around -23 oC (-9 oF) - but with the wind and snow, it's pretty nasty out there. In fact, the visibility is terrible, which means that work outside of town has shut down completely.

To make it easier to communicate about the weather here, they have established a "condition" system. Condition 3 means it is safe to be outdoors, even for recreational travel. Condition 2 means that either the wind chill or visibility have gotten to the point where only those who really need to be outside (for work) should be. And Condition 1 means no one should be outside (in fact, we are confined to the buildings we're in if Condition 1 is called). Right now, the station itself is at Condition 2, but all of the surrounding areas are at Condition 1. It's really starting to feel like "authentic" Antarctica, rather than the warm, calm, clear days we had right after we got here!

Observation Hill from Crary Lab on a clear day
(yes, that's the moon) - 1/3 mi away
NSF Chalet building from Crary Lab, today
300 ft away

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Getting here is half the fun!

So, the first questions that people usually ask (after what the heck are you doing there?) is how do you get there? How long does it take?

First a little geography - McMurdo Station is located on Ross Island (almost 78 S and 166.5 E). This is on the New Zealand and Australia side of the continent, not on the South American side. So, getting here first involves a trip to New Zealand, where the US has maintained a logistics center since the 1950s. On this trip we flew from Denver to Los Angeles; LA to Auckland, New Zealand (north island) and then Auckland to Christchurch (south island). Yes, it's a long trip - about 24 hours or so, airport to airport. But, the good news is that the LA to Auckland flight left LA at about midnight, so we got plenty of sleep during the trip.

Once in Christchurch, you usually have a day or two of activity. We arrived on Wed, 18 August and checked into a nice B&B that the US Antarctic Program (USAP) uses regularly. On Thursday, we (and a lot of our fellow travelers) had an appointment at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) to get our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. That is about 35 lbs of clothing designed to protect you from the elements and make living and working here comfortable and safe. It is generally an amusing experience to try on all of these clothes and to realize that most of the time you're going to feel like the Michelin man (or the little brother from the movie A Christmas Story). This year, we also were all given flu shots at the CDC. Apparently there was a pretty serious outbreak of flu a couple of seasons ago and they are trying to prevent a repeat.

On Friday, 20 August, we all got up around 3 am and took shuttle buses back to the CDC (which is located near Christchurch airport). We repacked bags and got into our ECW gear for the flight (it's required to wear it). The CDC personnel had arranged for a mobile coffee cart to come around 4 am (seriously, the guy had an whole coffee bar in the back of a van!), which was really helpful! Caffeinated and bundled up, we all checked in our luggage, got boarding cards and eventually went through security - just like a normal flight. Then onto more buses and off to the airplane. The USAP contracts with the US Air Force to fly C-17 transports to Antarctica now - it's a pretty nice way to go. There was so much cargo in the plane, though, that I couldn't get a good picture of the interior. We were all seated along the side walls and the center was filled with materials, crates, gas cylinders, luggage, food, etc..

Outside the passenger terminal, 5 am

Passenger seating in the C-17

One great thing about this trip was that the weather was perfect! It was so nice, in fact, that the flight crew invited us up onto the flight deck (2 at a time) to see the view. I couldn't photograph from up there very well, but here are some images taken out one of the side ports. Be sure to look at the shadows - the sun was really far north!

A break in the sea ice (called a "lead")
Looking north - look at those shadows!

First few of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains

Then, 5 hours after we left Christchurch, we landed at the Pegasus runway (a permanent runway on the Ross Ice Shelf). It was about noon local time and really quite warm (maybe -30 C, warm for this time of year!). It then takes about 45 minutes to get to McMurdo by bus... more on McMurdo itself in another post!

Folks arriving off the C-17

Antarctica?!!? What the heck are you doing there?

If I had a dime for everytime someone has asked me that question.... But seriously, welcome to a little blog I'm going to try to keep for this season's visit to the highest, driest, coldest, windiest continent on Earth. My postdoctoral researcher, Lars Kalnajs, and I are at McMurdo Station, Antarctica to participate in a special project to study the ozone layer here. Over the next few weeks, I'll let you know more about the project and about life in McMurdo. Feel free to send questions, too, if there's something you want to know more about.

For now, though, I'll leave you with a link to the McMurdo Station Webcam (which works most of the time - except days like today, when it is covered with snow).