[meteorite-list] Ice Diary 1: Shooting Stars On Ice
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 10:18:28 2004
Ice Diary 1: Shooting Stars On Ice
February 19, 2003
Summary: The "Ice Diary" series explores the adventures of a dedicated group
of meteor hunters. The National Science Foundation, NASA and the Smithsonian
collect and curate extraterrestrial samples scoured from the South Pole.
During the season when the sun never sets, this 12-part expedition series
follows their quest step-by-step, as they chase astrobiology's most precious
stones: the Martian samples.
21 November, 2002
The adventure has begun. Getting to Antarctica is no easy task. The easiest
was flying Denver to Los Angeles in a spacious, uncrowded airplane. In LA, I
met the rest of the team except for our guides, who are meeting us in
McMurdo. We boarded a Quantas 747 that didn't have one empty seat. I sat
next to Dr. Nancy Chabot, our team leader and a good friend.
It's difficult to sleep under those conditions, but a 12.5-hour flight is a
long time to pass, so I did my best, and felt a little sore and tired after
the experience. We landed in Auckland early Wednesday morning, completely
bypassing Nov. 19.
So far, meteorite hunters have found about 26 rocks on Earth
that have been identified as having come from Mars (some of
these broke apart upon entering the atmosphere, so the 26 rocks
were found in about 40 separate pieces). For these rocks to
have reached Earth successfully, their origin
--often beginning billions of years ago-- likely blasted from
at least a two-mile-wide impact crater on Mars.
Most remarkably, at any given moment, this interplanetary
sample transit delivers about one Martian meteorite landing
on Earth each month.
Since 1976, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program
(ANSMET), funded by the Office of Polar Programs of the
National Science Foundation, has recovered more than 10,000
specimens from meteorite stranding surfaces along the
Transantarctic Mountains. ANSMET continues to be one of
the few Antarctic research projects that invites graduate
students and senior researchers from other institutions to
participate in field work on a volunteer basis--including the
Teachers Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) program. As a
multi-agency collaboration, the NSF supports field operations,
NASA supports storage curation, distribution and notification
of recovered samples, and the Smithsonian provides long term
curation facilities for the collection and assist in sample
New Zealand is beautiful, with rolling green fields and sheep...lots of
sheep. The air is sweet and moist, but cool. It's summer here, but it feels
like a fall day in Seattle. The people couldn't be friendlier, with a smile
and an accent that melts your heart.
Today we each tried on our extreme cold weather gear. After putting on layer
after layer, you couldn't really recognize who was who. We are scheduled to
leave at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow on a C-130, dressing in all of our gear in case
we should go down and can't be rescued for a while. There's a good chance
that the flight will be delayed, because we hear they are running behind at
McMurdo and can't get people out for 2 to 3 days. Given a choice between
spending more time here or in McMurdo, New Zealand wins.
22 November, 2002
I'm writing from a crowded bench seat in the hold of a "Kiwi" C-130. The
American C-130s were out of service, so the New Zealand Air Force is flying
us down. Have I mentioned recently how great the Kiwis are? A C-130 is a
4-turboprop cargo plane that was not designed with comfort and passengers in
mind. I heard Dr. Dean Eppler, a member of our team, saying that the reason
the Army uses C-130s for paratrooper training is that it is preferable to
jump out than to stay in one very long. My body feels like I bought the
cheap seats at a baseball doubleheader.
We woke to a rainy morning in Christchurch, but were relieved last night to
hear that our flight had been delayed from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.
Nonetheless, many of us woke at a very early hour simply out of anxiety and
excitement. As we exited the shuttle to the airport, Dr. Danny Glavin
commented to me that he was a little anxious about the flight. I think Danny
spoke for all of us, and I felt better knowing I wasn't the only one.
The next few hours consisted of "hurry up and wait." We dressed in our ECW
(extreme cold weather) gear and waited until afternoon to board the
airplane. Apparently, something had to be fixed.
The C-130 has few windows, but occasionally we have the opportunity to get
glimpses of icebergs through the clouds. We have a ritual where we stand and
stretch every hour on the hour. This is a 7-hour flight and would be longer
if our C-130 were ski-equipped like the American version.
24 November, 2002
We arrived at McMurdo on a runway carved out of pure ice late Friday night.
I was a little anxious about landing on ice, but it was actually one of the
softer landings I've experienced.
I'm not sure how they stop the plane. If they didn't reverse the engines I
believe it would drift for quite a while.
This is an amazing place. It is cold here, with daily highs in the upper
teens, but not uncomfortable. After a while you realize that nothing is
alive out here. There are no plants, and the only animals we've seen are
large birds, called skuas, that feast on trash. There aren't even
houseplants in any of the buildings. There are no children in McMurdo
either. As a teacher, it s hard to adjust to not seeing anyone under 18
years of age.
But this is a vibrant community. Three major groups populate McMurdo:
scientists, support staff, and military. The scientists are people like the
ANSMET team, most of whom are just passing through on their way to another
site. McMurdo has complete lab facilities for any scientific group, though.
The military is here to handle the transport of goods and services to and
Over 1200 people work here as support staff for the scientists. The majority
seem to be in their 20s, but they range in age. They work all sorts of jobs:
maintenance, galley, communications, and so forth. Most of these people have
worked very hard to get here. There are stories of medical doctors who
worked here as truck drivers just to see Antarctica. There's also the story
of a woman who was a powerful lawyer, but came here and worked in the
cafeteria just so she could see Antarctica. Without this support staff, our
expedition would probably not be possible.
One of the first things we did in McMurdo was familiarize ourselves with the
town. To do this, Dan, Dante, Cady, Diane, and I got certified to drive the
vehicles used here. These are not normal vehicles. They use jacked-up 4WD
Ford F-350s and 4WD Econoline vans. We took one of the vans for a spin and
filled it up with gas. Not even a fill-up is normal in Antarctica.
Everything is paid for by the National Science Foundation, so we simply
pumped the gas and drove off. I kept checking my mirror to see if we were
being pursued for not paying.
Helicopter are constantly flying in and out of town, along with the C-130s
that take off and land right on the ice sheet. That will stop by
mid-December, when the ice begins to break up. Then they'll have to land on
In many ways, McMurdo reminds me of a mining town high in the mountains.
It's kind of like Leadville, CO, with the climate and atmosphere of young
people. McMurdo has the basic requirements of a town: two places to get
carbonated beverages,"a coffee shop", and even a bowling alley (one more
than we have in Castle Rock, CO). It also has the southernmost chapel in the
25 November, 2002
Almost everyone who comes to Antarctica is given survival training after
arriving on "The Ice." For ANSMET team members, we must do a bit more. This
includes a complete "shakedown" overnight trip that will take us on
snowmobile about 12 miles from here. There is a great deal of preparation
that goes into this.
John Schutt and Jamie Pierce are our mountaineering guides and safety
experts for our expedition. This truly is an expedition, much like the ones
held in the early part of the 20th Century. Despite our technology and
knowledge, the same dangers are here that existed 100 years ago. Jamie and
John made that very clear to all of us yesterday, giving us a lecture on
what can happen to us in the field. There are many hazards in the work that
we'll be doing, but as long as we're smart and prepared, the risk should be
reduced. However, as John and Jamie showed us, a little first hand
experience goes a long way.
Jamie needed to demonstrate methods for performing CPR and the Heimlich
maneuver, and he used me as the model for this. I trust Jamie, because he is
confident and experienced. But at one point Dan Glavin came over to get a
feel for where to press when doing CPR, and Dean Eppler nearly had a heart
attack himself. He was worried Dan would start CPR on me, which can be
deadly to a healthy subject. Luckily, Dan knew this too.
We spent the afternoon learning some rope techniques that could save us if
any of us should fall into a crevasse. We learned how to put ourselves on a
rope securely, and how to climb a rope if necessary. Afterwards, we learned
about setting up a pulley system to rescue a victim. I pointed out that we
teach the mechanical advantages of pulleys in the 9th grade course, Intro to
Physical Science. This brought a good laugh - here was a room of scientists
and experienced mountaineers trying to figure out something that 9th graders
26 November, 2002
We needed to be ready by 7:30 a.m. to start loading gear into a truck to
bring to the ice edge. This isn't glorified car camping. This means bringing
tents, sleds, food, climbing equipment and a host of personal items about a
half-mile to the sea ice and the ski-doos.
Once at the edge we learned the art of loading a sled so that it doesn't tip
easily. These sleds are large and designed to be pulled by a strong little
ski-doo, but it really makes you appreciate the early Antarctic explorers,
who towed sleds with dogs or by themselves.
About an hour into the traverse, we stopped at "Castle Rock," a large black
rock sticking right out of the snow. Being from Castle Rock, CO, I wanted to
compare and contrast this with the one back home. While the Castle Rock I
know from home is a conglomerate sandstone about 35 million years old, this
one is probably only a few thousand of years old and is made of a rock
called Hyaloclastite. This igneous rock forms quickly when magma comes in
contact with ice.
Speaking of volcanism, as our ski-doos rounded the corner outside of Scott
Base, the New Zealand base adjacent to McMurdo, I caught a view of Mt.
Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world. A plume of steam was
rising from the top, producing a long thin cloud against a crystal clear
blue sky. This day was cool, but comfortable, and with all of us wearing our
gear it felt down right warm by afternoon.
We set up camp on the flanks of the volcano, on the Erebus glacier tongue
that extends from the volcano to McMurdo Sound and the Ross Ice Shelf. From
this elevation, you can see for hundreds of miles. The Ross Ice Shelf is the
size of Texas and full of trapped icebergs and pressure ridges. But from
here it looks as flat as a calm sea.
After camp was set up, we went to a crevasse area and went over the basics
of roping up and crevasse rescue. Jamie Pierce and John Schutt are really
gifted teachers. They set a good pace and gave us practical experience. But
mostly they made it fun with their personalities and stories. We learned
everything from how to set up an anchor in the snow, to how to set up a
pulley system to raise a victim from a crevasse.
I think my favorite part of the day was when we roped up and walked through
a field of crevasses and serracs, large chunks of falling glacial ice. At
one point, Jaime disappeared into the crevasse on purpose, forcing his team
to orchestrate a rescue. I couldn't stop laughing because he looked so funny
going over the edge.
It was getting pretty late, but it was such a nice evening (and the sun
never sets during the summer), so we gave the ski-doos a real shakedown at a
place John calls the Wall of Death. You plunge your snow machine down an
embankment and right up a steep wall that underlies a cornice. Then you race
up the other side, hoping to "catch a little air."
27 November, 2002
The tents do such a good job of holding in heat, I was almost disappointed
that it was so warm (32 F) when I woke up this morning. I've camped in
colder weather many times. My tentmate, Jaime, made breakfast and tried to
radio McMurdo. We were actually so close that our signal bounced off the
ionosphere and passed right over the base. So he had to call a team at the
South Pole and have them radio McMurdo to let them know we're fine.
We continued our crevasse training by lowering Dr. Carlton Allen of the
Johnson Space Center into a crevasse. I hope his wife, Jackie, doesn't kill
me for allowing this to happen. Then we used our training to "rescue" Carl
from the ice. We constructed pulley systems that worked so well that Dr.
Scott Messenger and I were able to pull him out with relatively little
effort. Scott and I are not exactly burly, so it's a real testament to the
power of the simple machine. It's amazing how often we use what we learned
in 9th grade Intro to Physical Science in our lives!
We headed out early in the afternoon and stopped by the Happy Camper school.
This is where most of the people at McMurdo learn how to survive if caught
outside. They build a number of snow structures that fill multiple roles.
Igloos look cool (literally) but take a lot of time and effort. A good
alternative is a snow dome, where you pile and pack snow on your gear, then
pull out the gear and dig a tunnel to the dome. An ice cave or trench is a
good structure to make in a hurry if one doesn't have lots of gear, but can
be the coldest of all.
Arriving in McMurdo meant about two more hours of unloading gear and running
it inside. We were exhausted, so some members of our team went to bed by
9:00. But a few of us felt we needed to celebrate with a "carbonated
In this multi-part Ice Diary series, all commentaries are attributable to
Andy Caldwell unless otherwise noted, and reprinted by permission as part of
his participation in the Teachers Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) program.
Received on Wed 19 Feb 2003 12:39:10 PM PST