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  • Geosciences Ph.D. student Thomas Bauska will spend the next three months at the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) research station, helping an international team collect a 3 kilometer core. This blog is not only a chronicle of his day-to-day life, but a means young people interested in science to communicate with a researcher who is working actively on one of the most important issues we face - climate change.

    Your questions answered, Part 2

    Posted December 30th, 2009 by
    A one-meter section of ice core that contains ash from a volcano Basuka and others guess erupted 8,000 years ago

    A one-meter section of ice core that contains ash from a volcano Basuka and others guess erupted 8,000 years ago

    Here are some more of Thomas’ answers, this time from the Hood River class. Enjoy, and don’t forget to follow up with him on experiments!

    Which direction does a compass point to when you are at the South Pole? North, right? But is north “down”? We weren’t sure exactly where the magnetic South Pole is either. Can you video tape this if it’s notable?

    This is a very interesting question.  One I would like to follow up with an experiment. Maybe your class could help me out?    Here’s what I know.  The magnetic South Pole is not near the geographic South Pole, in fact it has been moving rapidly away from the pole for sometime.  If you look at a map of Antarctica you might be able to find the Russian research station called Vostok in East Antarctica.  The station was originally placed over the magnetic pole.   The magnetic pole now sits somewhere off the coast of eastern Antarctica.  While the pole may have moved, scientist later discovered a huge lake under about 2 miles of ice at Vostok.  There are plans now to send a probe down to the lake to look for life.  It may be possible that highly specialized microbes evolved to survive in the cold, dark waters of the lake.

    Back to the magnetic pole.   A compass should orientate itself along the magnetic field like it does at most other locations, so it will point towards the magnetic pole.  I believe the declination at the WAIS Divide is very large, around 50°, because the magnetic pole is so far away from the geographic pole.  More interestingly, the compass also needs to be corrected for inclination.   The magnetic fields are very steep near the poles, so steep that to get a good reading from your compass you might need to point it towards the ground.  If anyone can think of an experiment with a compass I would be happy to video tape it.

    On more note on the magnetic field.  Before drilling commenced I helped dig out a magnetometer.  This device was being used to measure fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field on the order of hours to days.   Solar storms can cause the earth’s magnetic field to change, which can in turn affect things like radio transmissions and power grids.

    We read that you saw a seal when you were over at McMurdo. Have you seen any wildlife near WAIS? What species?

    Almost all the wildlife in Antarctica lives on the along the coast.  The waters around in Antarctica are rich in nutrients and are able to support lots of marine life. On the continent itself, seals, seabirds and penguins  are basically the extent of the fauna.  No animals call the interior of the continent home.  Occasionally, though birds will fly over WAIS Divide.  I saw a group of 5 petrels fly over camp and a lone skua was spotted outside camp.   Both sightings occurred after fairly large storms, so the birds may have been blown in by the wind.

    How did you feel about the civil war game? We are all Beavers here, so don’t worry. Except Courtney and Pierce who are Ducks fans. Uh oh, I’ve started an argument…

    I proudly flew my State of Oregon and Oregon State University flags during the Civil War.


    We’ve just started drilling and already we’ve had some exciting cores.   One in particular contained a layer of ash from a volcano.  These ash layers are very important to note because they help us figure out the age of the ice.   For instance, we can measure the chemistry of the ash and see if it matches up with any known eruptions.  Additionally, if we can find the same eruption in another ice core we can compare the records.    Though we are only speculating at this point, it is believed that this ash was from an eruption of Mount Takahe about 8000 years ago. Mount Takahe is just north of WAIS Divide towards the Amundsen Sea.  If this is the case, the same eruption was also noted in the Byrd Ice Core.

    Your questions answered, Part 1

    Posted December 10th, 2009 by
    The WAIS galley, where the researchers eat their meals.

    The WAIS galley, where the researchers eat.

    “Since the sun is up 24 hours a day, is the amount of light the same or does it dim  a little?  Is it hard to go to sleep?  Does the sun feel warm on your skin?  Is it weird going to bed while it still light out?”

    This is a great question.  The angle of the sun does change during the day and plays a surprising role in the daily swings in temperature.  Though I can barely perceive the actual change in the position of the sun above the horizon, I can definitely feel the effects of the change in solar radiation in my tent.    When I go to sleep around 10:00 pm my tent is about 10°F.  When I wake up at 6:00 am, the combination of my body heat the solar radiation has warmed my tent to up to a balmy 60°F.    Now, the times are quoted are in McMurdo time, which is significantly west of WAIS Divide.  You probably need to add a few hours to get the proper local time.

    As we approach the winter solstice (December 21st), the sun will get higher and higher in the sky.   The highest point it will reach is 34° = (90° – (Latitude of WAIS Divide – Tilt of the Earth) =   (90° – (79.5 – 23.5).   One thing I’d like to do is monitor the position and angle of the sun over time with a sun compass.

    Maybe someone could figure out a way I could record my observation over a long period of time?

    “Can you get a suntan?”

    I wish I could get a suntan, unfortunately I usually end up with a sunburn. The sun is very bright here and snow reflects a huge amount of the light back up to your face.  If the sky is clear it is so bright that you have to wear the darkest commercially available sunglasses, otherwise you risk getting snow blindness.   If I walk into a building with my sunglasses on I will often run into things because it is so dark (but at least I look while I’m doing it).   Additionally, The UV index in Antarctica is through the roof because we are under the ozone hole.   A couple of times I’ve spent all day outside working in the snow and have gotten slight burn on my face even after I lathered up with SPF 50.

    Seriously?  “How cold do you keep your freezer there since it so cold outside?”

    It’s funny you asked about a freezer.  All the food we have is kept in a huge snowcave. The ice cores, on the other hand, have to be kept at -25°C. In order to maintain this temperature we actually have to cool the building in which we handle the ice cores.  That’s right, we brought AC units to Antarctica.  One of the sayings we’ve been toying around with as a motto for our team is something like “Scott, Amundsen and Shackelton brought stoves to keep warm in Antarctica, we brought freezers to keep cold.”    The other big joke we have is that when we are working with the ice cores inside the building, we actually have to go outside to warm up.

    Ice Caves

    Posted November 30th, 2009 by

    Visiting an ice cave near Mt. Erebus that has formed inside a glacier.

    Last day in McMurdo, before WAIS

    Posted November 30th, 2009 by
    Some of the odd ice features you get with the combination of drifting snow and ice

    Some of the odd ice features you get with the combination of drifting snow and ice

    We’ve had a break in the weather this past week and a number of  flights that had previously been delayed have been able to make it into the camp. I am still in McMurdo but I have a flight scheduled for Monday the 30th. While my time in McMurdo has been fun I am much more excited to get to work. Because of all the various delays we will have to work very hard to catch up.

    During the downtime in McMurdo I was able to participate in various recreational activities and tours that our offered. The highlight for me was  trip to the pressure ridges near Scott Base. The pressure ridges form where the ice shelf meets the sea ice.  An ice shelf is essentially a glacier that is floating on the ocean.  The ice forms on land but then flows down towards the sea. The point at which the ice is no longer contacting ground but instead floating is called the grounding line. Understanding the the way a glacier interacts with the ocean in relation to its grounding line is very important in estimating sea level change. When pieces of an ice shelf break off to form icebergs they do not affect sea level because that ice has  already been displaying its liquid volume. This is same principle of bouyancy that can be illustrated by watching the water level in a glass as ice cubes melt (okay, admittedly not that exciting), but what you’ll see is that level does not change. If an ice shelf begins to disintegrate beyond if grounding line and ice that was previously on land is now calving into the ocean, then you will have an increase in sea level. Many scientist are concerned about the collapse of ice shelves like the Larsen B because the ice shelves may provide a buttressing effect on the ice stored on the continent. The loss of the ice shelves may then accelerate the loss of the grounded ice.

    But back to the pressure ridges. What we saw on the tour was sea ice buckling against the ice shelf. The sea ice, which is

    Pressure ridges, with Mt. Erebus in the background

    Pressure ridges, with Mt. Erebus in the background

    water that has frozen on the surface of the ocean, abuts the ice shelf and is stressed by tides and currents. The product of these forces are large cracks in the sea ice and sail like structures where the ice has jutted up. The cracks in the sea ice are a great place for seals to surface and consequently a great place to see some Antarctic wildlife. We saw one seal from a distance but we didn’t approach it because we don’t want to stress the animals down here.

    In addition to the pressure ridges I also got to visit an ice cave that has formed inside a glacier. Check out the video to learn more about that trip.

    At Happy Camper school

    Posted November 24th, 2009 by

    Over the past two days I’ve been attending “Happy Camper School” where I learned how to set up a camp and survive out in cold, windy Antarctica. I made a short video about the camp and my accommodations for the night.

    Also, if you wondering, the camera battery got really cold during the night and died. I, on the other hand, was quite warm and survived the night though unfortunately I didn’t have a camera to prove it.

    I’ll try to do some more videos about life at McMurdo Station, so please write in with questions and hopefully I can answer them.

    First Antarctica pics

    Posted November 19th, 2009 by
    Boarding the C-17

    Boarding the C-17

    En Route to Antarctica

    En route to Antarctica

    C-17 landing on ice

    C-17 landing on ice

    Looking out toward the Royal Society Range

    Looking out toward the Royal Society Range

    McMurdo Station

    McMurdo Station

    In Antarctica…and cold weather gear

    Posted November 18th, 2009 by

    Yesterday I finally made it to Antarctica after waiting for a flight from Christchurch, New Zealand. Christchurch is the staging point for most people headed to the Antarctic continent and McMurdo Station. People head to the Antarctic Peninsula and Palmer Station usually take off from Chile.

    Before leaving for Antarctica everyone is issued Extreme Cold Weather gear from the Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch, New Zealand. The gear is bulky but definitely does its job of keeping you warm. Check out the video of me putting on all the gear.

    My flight from Christchurch was on a C-17 flown by an Air Force crew based out McChord AFB, WA. Myself and the 12 other passengers flew with about 50,000 pounds of cargo which included a 25,000 pound tank of liquid helium. I suspect the liquid helium is used to fill weather balloons with gaseous helium. After 5 hours of uneventful flying over the Southern Ocean we touched down on the sea ice landing strip in McMurdo Sound. The landing may have been the softest I’ve every experienced though it was still disconcerting to think that we weren’t actually on solid ground but rather on floating ice that may be only a few meters thick.

    McMurdo is a perhaps one of the strangest communities on the planet. Currently, there are over 1,000 people “in town”. Right now, I am sitting in the science library, which resembles any small town library with the exception that the view out the window stretches out over the expansive sea ice of McMurdo Sound which leads up to the Royal Society Mountain Range. It’s truly an awe inspiring sight that conjurers up feelings of being at the ends of the earth.

    Myself and my team members are now waiting to complete a two day Antarctic survival school called “Happy Camper”. We expect to be in McMurdo for at least a week so look for more posting about station life as I become better acquainted with the peculiarities of this remote locale.

    Ice Cores: Time machines for studying the Earth’s past

    Posted November 17th, 2009 by
    More about my research. Just click on the poster for a larger view.

    More about my research. Just click on the poster for a larger view.

    Where I’ll be…

    Posted November 17th, 2009 by
    A map of WAIS Divide

    A map of WAIS Divide

    About me and the ice core project…

    Posted November 17th, 2009 by

    Who am I?

    I am PhD student in geology at Oregon State University where I study how carbon dioxide has varied in the past.  You can learn more about the OSU ice core lab. I grew up in Boardman and St.  Helens, Oregon and went the college at the University of Chicago.

    What will I be doing?

    I will be helping drill an ice core in Antarctica.   My primary job will be to inspect the core after it comes off the drill to note breaks and fractures and package to core so it can be shipped back to the US.

    Where do ice cores come from?

    Ice cores come from the coldest regions of the world where snow falls every year and very little to no snow melts during the summer.  Most ice cores come from Greenland and Antarctica but some are taken from the highest mountain chains of the world like the Andes and the Himalayas.

    What is special about this ice core?

    This ice core is located at the top of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet (WAIS) where the flow of ice has formed a divide.   A divide is high place on a ice sheet where the ice will flow in different directions, much like a continental divide.  The ice at this divide flows to the Ross Ice Shelf and glaciers that terminate in the Amundsen Sea (sea map).   The ice core is thus called the WAIS Divide Ice Core.  The accumulation rate of snow is high in this region which means the site is very stormy but also means the record we will recover will be very high-resolution.  One of the main goals of this project is to recover the highest resolution and best dated record of greenhouse gases over the last 80,000 years.

    What can we learn from ice cores?

    Ice cores allow us to look back at climate conditions of the past.  Snow that falls at an ice core site will trap material present in the atmosphere such as dust, aerosols and volcanic ash.  As the snow compacts to ice, it will also trap air from the atmosphere in tiny bubbles.   The layers of ice that are deposited every year lay on top of each other like the pages in a book.  Thus the deeper the core goes, the older the ice gets.

    What can ice cores tell us about how the earth has changed in the past?

    Ice cores show us that, over long periods of time, the earth’s climate changes naturally.  Paleoclimate records show us that the earth has warmed and cooled over the last 600,000 years and the main greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4, and N2O) have also increased and decreased.  Generally, we see that the earth is warmer when the greenhouse gases are higher.  Today, though, greenhouse gases are much higher than scientists have ever measured in ice cores due to the burning of fossil fuels.  Ice core scientists study how climate has changed in the past to better understand how to the climate might change in the future.