Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Freezing Man!

The Freezing Man

Hey Deep Reeders,

A friend just posted on facebook that a blog post is a struggle between coherence, accuracy, and humor - a good observation, and a solid guideline to follow. Since my last entry lacked both coherence and accuracy to extract maximum crazy with a side of comedy, i'll err on the side of coherence and accuracy for this update.

I've been in Antarctica for 3.5 weeks now. It's hard to believe, but I only have 16 days left here! I feel like I'm just starting to get the hang of the scene here - both scientifically and socially - and i'm almost done already. After two weeks, my back is still sore, but much improved over the first few days. I even completed my first run since the injury today- 5 miles at an easy pace. I'm currently planning a logistical mountain of travel/moving/work/ conference/papers etc for the next two months as well. After this season is finished, I will be going to Christchurch-New Zealand, Sydney-Australia, Hawaii, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Charleston-SC, New Jersey, Boston, and then finally back to Santa Barbara to stay. In that time I'll take some time for travel, enjoy Xmas in Hawaii, New Years in San Diego, sign a rent form in Santa Barbara, ship some stuff east, ship some stuff (and my car) west, present at a conference, turn in my hardcopy thesis, submit a paper, write another one, and perform as a cruise ship lounge singer. Well maybe not the last one... phew.

But enough of my boring task-mastering. You're here for pictures and stories of The Ice, and I shall provide! On to- FREEZING MAN man man man.......

On Thanksgiving, the galley staff put on a masterful dinner with limited supplies and no freshies (veggies and fruits - since no planes had landed in a week)- 3 TIMES IN A ROW!! To accommodate everyone, they did dinner at 3, 5, and 7pm. We signed up for the 5pm slot, and brought our own bottles of wine to accompany the turkey and gravy and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, and my favorite - cranberry jam! 3 guys even made their own turkey costumes and ran through the galley giving dissaproving warbles and gobbles at those eating their kindred souls. That night, after a great performance by the talented Condition Fun band sung songs in honor of McMurdo life, we headed down to Freezing Man!

Freezing Man is kind of like a mini tiny little itty-bitty burning man, held inside our gym here. It's all about self-expression and fun and art and dancing and great costumes, and fun equipment to play on like a sit-in-spin and a giant swing, and lots of great music. Oh and a hug deli, where you walked up and ordered the type of hug you wanted. Like the bromantic, or the field of wheat where you ran in slow motion towards each other, or the british royalty shoulder pat, or the classic bear hug and many more. It was a wonderful vibe, and I played with glow sticks all night. Without further verbage, here is Freezing Man in pictures.

Stay warm reeders!

Big Dance Party! PANDA HAT!

That screen was to dance behind, so only your shadow was seen - like those ipod ads.

Double Devils

Collaborative Art

One of my labmates showing off her slick hula hoopin' skills

The Mad Doctors! Myself with Doc Martin (yes, his actual name) who fixed my back up.

And when I left, the midnight sun (literally in this shot) greeted me with a spectacular view across McMurdo sound

Sunday, November 27, 2011

It's field trip time!

The Magic School Pisten Bully

Ok Kids... Everyone have permission slips and a bag lunch? What's that Sam? Your parents didn't sign the slip? Gee, that's too bad Sammy, go sit in study hall all day. The rest of the class, follow me!

Oh, nevermind kids, it's Condition 2 out there - let's try again tomorrow. Instead, let's do data entry, horray!

10 days later.....

Alright, it's looking a lot better out there, but don't forget your booties (and Big Red) 'cause it's cooooold out there today. It's cooooold out there every day. What is this, Miami Beach? Not hardly! (-props if you got the reference, sometimes it feels like Groundhog Day down here)

Alright! Everyone pile into the Piston Bully, let's go for a ride!!!

Feel free to stretch out in style in all that luxurious room in the back of the truck.

Enjoy the view out the window before the frost and snow covers it up completely!

Oh NO! Traffic Jam - Antarctic Style... Bonus points if you can figure out what they are!!
*hint* They aren't groundhogs... Ok, everyone hop out for some quick pictures.

ppsssst Ned! What Phil.... Let's take the PB for a joy ride! Great Plan! Those scientists will never suspect us!

10 minutes later....

Well that took a little while but it looks like the traffic is dissipating. Ok, everyone back in the Bully!

Uh....guys? Where'd we park?

Ah Found it! Ew....someone left a "present" on the seat.... Anyways, on to Danger Crack!

Here we are at 'D' Crack! Gotta make sure it isn't too wide to cross - everyone remember, it can't be less than 72cm deep for more than 91 cm wide to cross in our trusty PB! That's what they told us in the orientations!

Put yer' backs into it!

Echo Drill baby Drill!

Horray! It's safe to cross, finally on to our field site. Time to clear the ice, kids. Breaker bars, scoopers, sweepers, and shovels away!


Alright the seal is out to take a nap, time for some science! Everyone got their plankton tow ready?

Good, now put the net out nice and easy! How deep? uh... the field guide says... umm....hmm...well... oh i don't know - just dunk it under there a few times. We'll get something.

Good job today kids. Field trip was a success, now pile back in for an exciting cramped 2 hour ride back in to town at 15mph! Let's hope we beat the storm coming in...

Class dismissed! And back in time for dinner! Until next time kids!

Disclaimers- Photos are not in order, and are not representative of any particular field day. I know that isn't the same seal. Penguins did not actually joyride our PB. Yes, the piston bully is magic. Apologies to Bill Murray. Penguins void in Arctic. Sales tax where applicable.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Harsh Continent...

A monument to some of the many lost souls that met their last here. Everything I go through pales in comparison to the truly heroic explorers who pushed the limits of human survival to learn and discover this beautiful land.

Hey Reeders,

Sorry for the radio silence for the last few days. It's been a pretty intense (in tents?) few days down here. Although the term Harsh Continent is mostly used ironically down here to describe the lack of some luxury items - like good beer and good coffee - or amenities - like fast internet and swimming pool, Antarctica really does deserve the title.

It is the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth - and it has demonstrated each of these traits with gusto over the last few days. While the average summer temps here can be in the high 20s (F) or even on rare occassion above freezing, it rarely feels like that because the wind kicks up pretty strong. Yesterday it was 16F, with a 22mph sustained wind. That may not seem too bad, and it isn't with the right gear, but it was snowing!!! This is a rare occurrence down here, but it does happen. And snow blown into your face in those conditions is a bit nippy. At least i'm not at the south pole, which is currently -28F (wind chill -47F). Brrr.

It's easy to overdo it here, because there's no way for your body to really adapt. They do remind us during all the orientations to recall the indigenous human population of this continent is 0. I learned this the hard way. After a lot of exertion - drilling, digging, driving, working and staying out late, I paid for it. Last thursday I felt a nasty spasm in my back - enough pain that I was worried I had cracked a rib. Fortunately, after a visit with the truly awesome medical staff here, I found out I had only strained my intercostal muscles - those between your ribs. I've been on tylenol, ibuprofen, and muscle relaxants since then to manage the pain. X-rays are all good - nothing serious like pneumothorax (air embolism) or internal bleeding or a fracture, but the pain is impressive. Sitting, standing, turning, pulling a door open, all make me feel like someone is stabbing me in the side. For the first couple days I would spasm at random, which i'm sure was amusing to anyone watching me walk like a marionette. Good news, the pain is starting to subside now - which indicates that nothing is torn (cartiledge or soft tissue) but simply strained. The estimated recovery is another 3 days of significant pain, and then 1 more week till I should be back to full speed. Unfortunately, it has put a halt to my marathon training, but I will refocus - carefully and safely - when I repair. In the mean time, i've been staying out of trouble, avoiding field work, and doing a bunch of lab work.

That is....until tonight when I might have caught the dreaded "Crud"! It's basically inevitable that at some point here you'll get a respiratory sickness. It's known at McMurdo simply as The Crud. We are all overworked, living and operating in close quarters, so once one person gets anything, we all will. Tonight I started getting the tell-tale signs of a dry scratchy throat and a little stuffed up sinus. I've dosed up with Vit C, nasal spray, Ricola, lots of water, multi vits, and grit. Hopefully I can outwill this - i'm not looking forward to a hacking cough with a strained back muscle.

But with all of this griping, I can't express how amazed I am that I am even here. I mean where else could I see things like this?

Mt. Erebus - the most southern active volcano in the world, with a penguin in the foreground. Yes, it's that little dot on the snow in the mid-left. Really, I promise!

See? Told you it was a penguin!

Now, that should just be a postcard. I should charge you just to view this awesome shot. ;)

Hanging tough,

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Researchin' the Urchin

Our spiny Sterechinus friends

Hey Reeders,

It's time to do some science down here! I've been here for about 10 days now, and I've gotten decently settled into the rhythm of the endless (literally) days. I get up around 6-7am, take a shower and get our gear ready (which can take 30-45 minutes if we're headed out to field sites), then get some breakfast before the line closes at 730. Then it's on to the day! Often times I'm not leaving the lab until 9 or 10pm, so the days tend to be long, and often action packed. Some days are pretty chill however, as evidenced by the fact that i'm currently doing laundry and getting this blog entry in. I'll go over a standard day at some point, but for now I'll give you an overview of the system and what we do out here with Sterechinus neumayeri, an Antarctic sea urchin commonly found in coastal areas all around the continent.

The Question - Ocean Acidification

Every good project needs a good question. Ours is this: In a world of increasing CO2 imput from anthropogenic means, what will happen to animals as the ocean becomes more acidic over the next 100 years.
CO2 is responsible for increasing temperatures worldwide. You already heard that part of the equation. What you might not have heard yet is that CO2 is also (and even less debatably) increasing the acidic content of the ocean. As CO2 equilibrates between air and the ocean surface, more CO2 is added to the bicarbonate buffering process. The equation is pretty simple and looks like this: CO2 + H2O <-> H2CO3 (bicarbonate) <-> HCO3- + H+ (carbonic acid). So, you can see if you put in a bunch of CO2 (with water unlimited in the ocean), the equation is pushed to the right, ending with an increase in carbonic acid. This is dangerous part. As carbonic acid increases in the ocean, the pH drops.

Ocean pH has ranged from 8.0-8.3 over the last 25 million years, with fairly slow (10000-100000 year) changes between these values. Now, while that may not seem like a large shift - remember the pH scale is log based, so each .1 shift is actually 30% more acidic. In the last 50 years or so, the pH of the ocean has dropped .1, meaning a 30% more acidic content of the ocean in 200 -2000x faster than the natural fluctuations of ocean!! And, the scariest part - it's accelerating. Projections put 2100 values somewhere between pH 7.8-8.0 - the lowest recorded in the last 25 million years.

"So what?" - you might rightly ask. Well, the problem is, many animals (including coral, bivalves, crabs, lobsters, and yes our spiny friends the urchins) have calcite shells. These are formed from calcium carbonate (CaCO3). There's some more chemistry involved that i'll skip here (wiki actually has a pretty good overview of the cycle if you're interested), but essentially what happens is, in the presence of CO2, and high acid content, CaCO3 either cannot form, or simply dissolves. So, the shells of these marine inverts either couldn't form or would dissolve away if the ocean became too acidic. "How acidic is too acidic for the animals to survive and grow?" - you might ask next. Well, GOOD QUESTION! That's what we're here figuring out. Using sea urchins as a test animal, and controlled increases in CO2, we're looking at the responses of developing larvae to increased concentrations of CO2 in the seawater - up to very high levels (equivalent to a pH as low as 7.6). Once we raise the larvaes under these varied conditions, we process them for a battery of lab tests - heat shock tolerance, respirometry, proteomics, genomic microarrays, protein content, etc. So, now that you know what we're doing, let's get to the how we do it - with pictures!! -- END SCIENCE CONTENT WARNING

Urchin Collection!
Unlike pokemon, in fact, we do not need to catch them all. But we do need a few hundred for all the projects here. So, how do you think we get them? Well if you watched the intro video you'll know- you should if you haven't yet, i'll wait. It's right down there... in the intro section- no, not the trip down entry, the one...yeah that one - click on the link... yeah i'll wait - it's only like 10 minutes, i'll go check on the laundry...



Laundry's switched to dryer...


Ok, you got it? cool right? We dive for them! Not me personally, although I'd love to get trained up on it. But a couple people associated with our group - who have already taken off actually - grab the urchins by hand during dives. We usually collect a couple hundred of them per dive, at a site called Cape Evans. Field trips will be a different post, as well.

Looks dark down there.... and cold.

Here Steve (red) and Henry (pink - also the guy who made intro video) get ready in their drysuits while the rest of us dive tend.

This is Henry's camera - I loaded this one especially for Dan Schmidt to see. The camera was a gift from Werner Herzog to Henry Kaiser for his work on Encounters at the End of the World. If you haven't seen this awesome documentary yet, you should. It's an artist's eye on a scientist's life down here - I'm doing a lot of what happens in the film, and it still amazes me to watch it.

Lab Work
Once we collect all our Sterechinus friends, we head back to McMurdo and right to the big adult holding tank, where we put all our catch (save those that have spawned on the way over) into the shallow flowing water table.

They love kelp! They munch on it, and carry it around on their backs as both a lunch snack and camouflage.

After the urchins are set and happy, it's time to spawn them. We use KCl to overload their musculature (all the muscles contract) and they release their eggs and sperm. Through a careful testing and mixing process (which unfortunately I was too busy to grab pictures of this time 'round), the fertilized eggs are placed into our experimental buckets. Some are in static culture without added CO2 for bulk material, method proofing, practice work and so on, and most are in treatment buckets with low medium or high (depending on the color tubing you see) levels of CO2.

As they grow through larval urchin development stages (blastula, gastrula, pluteus, etc), we continually check on some of them under a scope to make sure the kids are alright (bonus points if you can get the movie reference in addition to The Who song - if not, google it, i'm being clever here and want full credit).

The larval lab set up

Urchin babies under the scope - so cute. This is 12 hours after fertilization - 4-cell stage, after two cell divisions.

After the urchins reach the stages we're interested in, we freeze a subsection of them for each our downstream processes - of which i'll be most involved in the proteomics and genomic microarray work. And that's it for the sci lessons of the day. Thanks for your attention, there will not be a pop quiz.

Also, bonus picture - the wet lab has a touch tank which all the groups toss in animals that they don't need from collections for everyone to gently.

Here's a fun game to play: 5 points per animal identification down to family, 20 points per species name. Oh also all the points are worthless. Go.

Time to check the laundry again....

Sunday, November 13, 2011

BACK 2 (snow) SCHOOL

Shovel training. Seriously.

One thing about this place is it's orientation load. It's pretty dizzying when you think about what you need to do to get cleared for work here. On one hand, I understand. This is a hazardous continent for real. But for the FNG it can be a bewildering array of trainings and orientations for your first couple weeks.

So far I've done:

Antarctic Overall Safety Video
Gear Instruction and Issue
C-17 Flight Briefing
McMurdo Station Briefing and Introduction
Internet Protocols and Confidentiality agreements- I'm on gov. servers here
ASMA- Antarctic Special Management Areas (for travel in especially sensitive regions)
Lab Safety
Lab Tour
Helicopter Safety
Sea Ice Training - how to navigate dangerous cracks in the ice and profile without meeting a watery end for you or your transport
and Happy Camper - which i'll describe in detail below.

Still to do:
Comm Training - Its called MacOps here - glorified class to teach me to use a walkie-talkie
Piston Bully Driving
Skidoo Training
Outdoor Safety Lecture - for the cool hikes around the station

And this is just really the minimum to make me a functioning lab member. I could also get machine training, carpentry orientations, crane operations, etc etc etc. While most of these videos can be pretty yawn inducing and repetitive at times, the need is there, and is MUCH better to be safe than flying an early trip back with a broken arm or worse.

By far, the coolest (well coldest orientation) was Snow School - also known as Happy Camper. We spent a night in tents (and a few brave -crazy? - souls in snow trenchs also known as coffins because well...that's what they look like) and learned all sorts of survival skills if we get caught out and have to live a night on our own out in the field. I had two awesome instructors Jules and Chandra, and 19 chilly compatriots to share the evening and the tasks of survival with, and we really had what is known as "Miami Beach" weather for it - 20-25F and 5-10knot wind. Balmy. So enjoy the pictures of my school of cool.

My walk to school was a little chillier than I remember, but the scenery was much improved over New Jersey.

Once we found a good spot for instruction, one of the first things we had to build was a snow wall to block the wind. And Mongols. You never know when they'll strike...

Next came the tents. The large triangular ones are Scott Tents, after the great Antarctic explorer. The smaller ones are Alpine, or Mountain tents - portable, but with less protection. I spent a chilly night in one of those - from the condensation of my breathing, there was snow on the inside of the tent from my breath, and everything outside of my sleeping bag was frozen. Fortunately my pee bottle was in with me to keep me warm and so i didn't have to clean up frozen pee!

We had to get the snow blocks we carved out from somewhere, and our quarry became our kitchen. Mmmm who wants rehydrated rice and beans!? Me!!! It wasn't actually that bad, and really anything warm was a blessing out there. The Hot Cocoa was the best.

This is where you go after dinner. Ladies and gents both sit to pee here, since the toilet seat is special foam so you don't freeze to it...

I almost didn't caption this because i thought it'd be funnier to have people try to figure it out.
Give it a shot.... Caption below...

Give up?

It's called the infamous bucket head scenario. When Condition 1 strikes on the ice, vis can drop to literally a foot or two, with 80 knot winds and driving snow. So we put these buckets on our heads to simulate a true whiteout condition rescue of a victim trapped outside. I tried it too, it is very very disorienting - hard to hear, impossible to see, you have to use memory and touch only to move, and without much guidance (flags, ropes, buildings) it's pretty hopeless. In our scenario, we were ~30 seconds too late to rescue our poor victim.

But after all the scenarios, this makes it all worth it. What an effin' beautiful continent.

Friday, November 11, 2011

First Antarctic Update - the trip here!

Under a frozen sky

To begin with, it’s 12:45am out right now, and the sun is high in the sky. I’ve spent the last 5 days in Antarctica, but in some ways it has felt like months. I have had plenty of firsts already: flying in a C-17, snow & ice camping, snow wall&kitchen construction, sea ice traversing, penguin sighting, Weddell seal sighting, and all under the midnight sun. Let’s step back a week to where it all started.

A week ago, I got on a plane from Santa Barbara, California bound for Christchurch, New Zealand. My travel buddy, Emily, was a grad student in my new lab, led by Gretchen Hofmann out of UCSB. Joining that lab and getting to California is another story entirely. But, on November 3rd, Emily and I set out on a long journey to get to Antarctica, and our first stop was… LAX. Yes, an airport barely over an hour’s drive from Santa Barbara (w/out traffic) was our first destination with a brain-numbing FIVE hour layover. Sooo, I got to the airport in SB at 4pm, so that I could get to LA in time for my 11:30pm flight, when in actuality, I could have left 4 hours later, driven to LA and been fine. Thanks contractors for scheduling that little snafu.

Anywho, after a couple rounds of drinks at Chili’s Too - which reminded me of a cross between TGIF Also and Chevy’s As Well, with a hint of Applebee’s Furthermore – I did a little duty free (Whisky) and book (Dune) shopping to entertain myself during bright nights in Antarctica, then began a relatively pleasant, but achingly long, flight to Auckland – roughly 13 hours – followed by an uneventful but slow moving customs check and baggage claim and a trance inducing 3 hour layover in Auckland Domestic terminal (a terminal that lacks music, announcements, televisions, stores, or food options other than a vending machine offering 4 dollar coca-cola), followed by a soul-killing 90 minute flight to Christchurch where all I could think about was that I never wanted to be happily reminded how to use a seatbelt again in my life, until we touched down, got our bags, got a brief lecture from a US Antarctica Program Rep, hailed a shuttle and checked into our nearby hotel. If that run-on sentence made you uncomfortable because of its length, you begin to understand how I felt when I got to Christchurch more than 24 hours after I left, and “lost” an additional day because of the Int’l dateline.

Emily and I were in Christchurch for two days before we had to fly down. The first night we tried to find a thai place that had been recommended by Gretchen previously (the rest of the team was already down in Antarctica). We ended up finding a Vietnamese place instead, and found out that the Thai place was closed permanently. It was decent enough (I was also starving), and after good food and a fantastic beer – Monteith’s Black – combined with 4 hour time change and little sleep on the plane, I passed out by 9pm. The next morning, we got some breakfast and I did some orientation videos for Antarctica. As an aside, orientations must really make someone influential in Raytheon warm and tingly, because at McMurdo station, you are oriented to literally everything, but that story I’ll tell soon. After that we went to get milk. Yes milk. 6 liters of it, +2 liters of cream, for an ice cream social event at the station which wouldn’t happen without this milk. You see, McMurdo runs out of funny things you might think of as “essentials”. Milk, flour, red wine. None of these are available on station right now. So to save the social, we picked up Milk. After getting the lactose laiden load, we proceeded to the CDC. No, not the center for disease control, but the clothing distribution center. Where I get my famous red jacket, plus a myriad of other gear, that you can see here.

South Pole Stylin'

After that, we did a little sightseeing downtown including the beautiful botanical gardens and the devastated downtown. Most of the center of town is blocked off still from the earthquake in February. Military guard the condemned buildings and it gives you the feeling of a zombie scene, or at least that of a terrible outbreak. After successfully finding a thai place for dinner, we walked home (almost a 2 hour walk!) and saw our last sunset for a loooong time.

The flowers are a little bigger in New Zealand. Either that or my travel buddy is shorter than average.

We saw these signs everywhere - showing the date that the building was cleared and closed. In the reflection, a church has crumbled.

The next morning we got up, got a shuttle to the CDC (which doubles as the passenger terminal on the C-17 transport), and boarded our flight to Antarctica. This plane is BIG. After a 6 hour flight in a bulkhead seat with an awesome footrest, and a tour of the cockpit (!), we arrived at the ice runway in Antarctica! My icy journey was set to begin.

The most expensive footrest i've ever used - a helicopter.

Yes, that plane landed on ice, and yes, it is really that huge.

And with that, I will leave the story for now and get some sleep as I must be up for MORE orientating tomorrow on the sea ice, but I’ll leave you a little teaser picture of things to come. Enjoy!

Yeah, i'm friends with penguins now.