Saturday, January 08, 2005

Well, I’m afraid that all the good luck we’ve had with weather down here over the previous two field seasons has come to an end. A low pressure system the size of the state of Texas has parked itself over us and shut down all air operations for the past week. Blizzard conditions, low visibility, and high winds have been the norm, rather than sunshine. No helicopters have been flying, so we were unable to reach Beaufort Island or even Cape Royds. Penguin researchers at Royds have been unable to return to McMurdo, and in fact even a “rescue” mission to replace some tents blown down by high winds at Cape Crozier was turned back twice. As far as fixed wing operations, no LC-130s have flown in or out, meaning that folks who were due to return home early last week are still here, and now dozens of folks are stacked up in Christchurch, on standby each day while they wait to get a reasonable day to fly in. Weather can really shut down operations down here even with the level of technology we now have on hand, for if the weather isn’t flyable, most folks can’t get out to do their work. We’re not alone in cooling our heels. A couple of other investigators that flew in with us from Christchurch were due to be put into deep field camps (to look for meteorites and to study glaciers) early last week, and they are still here too.

Meanwhile, we have gotten more information about the logistics surrounding our work at Beaufort Island, if we ever get there! The helo landing site is up on the glacier, and we will need to descend a small ice cliff to reach the beach, so I checked out ice axes, crampons, and a rope from the BFC for this task. Penguin biologist David Ainley suggested that we should anticipate a challenging trip down the island to reach the Adelie colony for sampling- along the foot of the ice cap and above the jumbled sea ice. But he also informed us that a small, satellite colony of Adelies has been founded on the north end of the island where the abandoned sites are, so we may be witnessing a re-occupation sequence, an event of significance to the work we’ve been doing. But I’m afraid at this point I’m getting pessimistic about reaching Beaufort, since we are running out of time before we’re scheduled to leave for Mario Zucchelli Station, and when we return the sea ice will most likely be gone. If we don’t get a shot flying on Monday, we may not get there at all.

So what do grantees do when they can’t get into the field and are stuck in McMurdo? Well, since we have fully networked computers in the lab, I have been working on a GIS project to map all our sites and occupation histories for the Ross Sea region, and as you may have noticed I redesigned my web page! Steve and Jurek both completed papers and submitted them for review. And Steve had time to prepare a couple of study specimens from birds that were stored in the freezer here at McMurdo- a skua that was run over by Ivan the Terror Bus a few days before be arrived, and an Adelie penguin that died at Cape Crozier last season. Also, there has been a bit of scientific challenge to grapple with- a mystery bird mummy was found by meteorite hunters up on the polar plateau, and it was sent down to McMurdo for Steve to examine. Because of the white coloration, the initial identification was of a snow petrel, a species common around the continental margin, but it is unusual for any bird to be on the polar plateau. When Steve saw the bird it was clear the initial identification was wrong- snow petrels have black beaks that are very different in shape. The intriguing part of this story is that it is impossible to say how old such a carcass could be; freeze-drying on the polar plateau could preserve an animal perfectly for perhaps millions of years, and we were excited by the possibility of finding even an extinct species. To research the identification further, I assembled this montage of probable species from images on the web that Steve suggested as possibilities for our mystery bird. Thus our latest thought is that it is an Antarctic fulmar, perhaps a variant but probably modern, based on the sharp hook at the tip of the beak and its overall shape. Other than this brief bit of excitement, we have watched a lot of bad movies, and stared out the window at a snowy helo pad. The latest forecast is for the system to begin breaking down this afternoon, with unlimited visibility by tomorrow, so perhaps flying Monday may work out. Stay tuned and I’ll write more as events warrant it.

Addendum, Monday, January 10, 2005

Sunday turned out to be an active day, so I thought I’d add to my last update with some new images. In the morning, the annual Scott’s Hut 8 km race was scheduled, so I decided to enter. The turnout was impressive for a stormy Sunday, with 74 entrants and some stiff competition. The race course made the best use of the available roads around the base, and made two laps around Scott’s Historic Hut interspersed with a LONG two-mile hill up to the highpoint between McMurdo and Scott Base. The winner had come down from the South Pole Station (elevation 10,000 feet) the night before, so was in perfect aerobic shape to run a 25 minute 8 km. The race was fun for me but painful for my untrained body, and although I couldn’t quite out-sprint one of the other scientists at the line, I was pleased with my race results. Next, Jurek agitated for a trip to the McMurdo bowling alley. We had watched the movie The Big Lebowski the previous night, and Jurek was enthusiastic about trying out the sport. The bowling alley is one of the more famous parts of McMurdo base and has quite a history, opening when the Navy ran the base in the early ‘60’s. As it turned out, Jurek rolled the best game, throwing the only two strikes, and won! I fear he may return to Poland to turn pro rather than write more scientific papers. Finally, we decided to take Stephen out to tour the inside of Scott’s Hut. On the way to the firestation to pick up the key, we saw this impressive new fire rescue vehicle. I finally remembered to bring my slave flash unit to light the inside of this dark hut more effectively, so I got some better images than from previous trips. Here you will find links to a few: Stephen in Scott's Hut, Stephen examining some of the supplies, posing, and examining some of the clothing on display, Jurek photographing the hut and checking out the back storeroom, as well as seeing what’s cooking on the stove, some Special Cabin Biscuit crates, supply shelves, a meatlocker with remains of mutton and penguins, and a clothesline with pants that should be dry by now.

On the less amusing side, as I write this addendum the blizzard outside continues. Our flight plans for today are again scrubbed. We have now pushed back our flight to Mario Zucchelli by a couple of days for a few more chances to fly to Beaufort Island, but time is running out fast.

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