Tuesday, December 23, 2008

WAIS - Dec 22, 2008 - Bess

Name: Bess Koffman

Date: 22 December, 2008
Location: WAIS Divide Science Rac-Tent
Time: 1940
Latitude: 79°28’1.2”S
Longitude: 112°5’6.0”W
Elevation: 1,759m
Borehole depth: 630 m
Temperature: -21.5°C (COLD °F)
Wind speed: 2.5 kts
Visibility: unlimited
Clouds: a few straggly ones
Wind direction: 354 degrees, N
Relative Humidity: 69%
Precipitation: none
Animals: just the crazy swing-dancers in the galley last night
Breakfast: Eggs, home fries, bacon
Lunch: Grilled cheese with tomato soup
Supper: pork loin, canned corn, mac & cheese

Bess here again. I realized I haven’t really introduced myself, so I’ll do a brief introduction here. I’m working on the WAIS Divide project as a graduate student at the University of Maine, in Orono. I study dust and trace element chemistry in the ice, and am particularly interested in how the chemistry of iron affects phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean. Iron effectively fertilizes the little plants in the sea, much like you would fertilize your lawn to make it grow greener. I look at where dust comes from, how big it is, and how much iron it contains. My background is in geology, along with geomicrobiology (studying bacteria that live in/on rocks). I got my undergraduate degree from Carleton College in Minnesota, a wonderful liberal arts college nestled among cornfields. I’ve worked as a field science technician in Antarctica, in Maine, and in Nevada. I’ve also done a lot of outdoor education work, particularly with NC Outward Bound and the Chewonki Foundation. So my interests have been outdoors-focused for my whole life, and working here in West Antarctica is the icing on the cake.
So yesterday here at our field camp was a day off. Folks tend to sleep in a little then gather in the galley (kitchen/dining room) for coffee and breakfast. Our meals are reheated, or scavenged from the shelves of snacks, bread, and cookies that the cooks leave for us. After a half-cup of coffee (thanks to Patrick, our Starbucks guru), I headed over to the Rec Tent to see about playing mandolin. I’m working on learning to play the mandolin, because I love bluegrass music and I love being able to make music with other people. As I was tuning the mandolin, John Fegyveresi came over and pulled out a guitar. He helped me learn a new chord, A minor, and together we played a little. It was really fun. Soon I surpassed my experience level with the mandolin, so I sat back and just listened to John play guitar—he’s really good! We sang a few songs including “Take me home, country roads” and “Wagon wheel,” two great folk songs. The live music filled up my soul and made me smile.

Later, I went skiing out on the skiway (where planes come and go) with Natalie, Tim, and Eddie. I learned some new skate-skiing techniques, and Eddie helped me with my form. I raced back to camp to set up the galley for a dance class. One of the mechanics, Jake, is a really good jitterbug dancer, and together we decided to teach everyone what we collectively know about dancing. Yesterday was our first dance class, and we went over the swing and the jitterbug. I was really impressed with how quickly everyone learned both steps and spins. Pretty soon we were showing some aerial moves—flips and high kicks—and complex spins such as the pretzel. Before I knew it, people were flipping left and right! It was amazing. We had six couples dancing, and had to keep moving tables out of the way in order to accommodate everyone’s moves. Sometime in the next week we hope to teach a salsa and merengue lesson—I can’t wait! Yesterday’s dancing will probably be one of the highlights of my season down here.

Today was a big day: we began 24-hour ice core drilling. This means that us core handlers are working three shifts, around the clock, to process all the core. I’m on the first shift, which runs 7 am to around 4 pm. Today we had a lot of good-looking ice core come up, but we also noticed that the core is starting to get more brittle. Ice gets brittle because it’s under such great pressure at these depths, that when you bring it up to the surface, some of the air bubbles can explode, fracturing the ice. The ice is really sensitive to warm temperatures, bumping and jostling. It will even break with no provocation! We have to treat it very carefully to keep it from breaking. This ice will remain in a cellar below the drilling arch, where it will stay very cold and still for at least a year before it gets shipped back to the U.S. This will allow it to “acclimatize,” which we hope will make those bubbles less sensitive to bumps and bruises. As we progress through the season, we expect the ice to get more and more brittle. Our goal is to push through to deeper ice that is under such great pressure (imagine two miles of ice crushing it!) that the air bubbles actually become incorporated in the crystal matrix of the ice. When this happens, it’s called clathrate-hydrates and the ice becomes blue and clear, not opaque like it is now. So, stay tuned to find out if we get that deep!