Below is a description of how we accomplish field work in Antarctica


Getting to Antarctica Scientists get to Antarctica by submitting a research proposal to the National Science Foundation's Division of Polar Programs. If the proposal is selected for funding, the authors are notified to begin planning for fieldwork as much as 2 years in advance. About six months prior to leaving for Antarctica, all field team members must pass a series of medical and dental exams. Travel to Antarctica begins on a commercial airline flight to Christchurch, New Zealand. The day after arriving in Christchurch team members report to the clothing distribution center to receive their extreme cold weather gear. A flight to Antarctica is usually scheduled for the next day. Flights are shared between the US and New Zealand Antarctic programs, which use a combined fleet of LC-130 Hercules (8-hour trip) and C-17 Globemaster (5-hour trip) aircraft.

Getting into the Field Flights to Antarctica land on ice runways at McMurdo Station, which is located on the southwestern shore of Ross Island, an active volcano in the Ross Sea. Fieldwork for nearly all American scientists is coordinated from McMurdo. At maximum capacity in mid summer (Dec-Jan) the base houses about 700 support personnel and 200 to 400 scientists. Once in McMurdo, groups deploying to remote locations gather and test their camping gear, prepare communications equipment, and pack food and fuel necessary to last the duration of their field season. The trip to the Dry Valleys takes about an hour by helicopter. Camps in the Dry Valleys range from small tent camps of 3 to 10 people up to established camps with permanent buildings housing 30 to 40 people. Communications with McMurdo by radio or satellite phone are required on a daily basis for reasons of safety. Re-supply, camp moves, and exchanges of scientists are arranged with the helicopter coordinators in McMurdo. Most field seasons last 2 to 3 months. At remote tent camps scientists will take no showers, receive no personal phone calls, and have no access to email the entire time they remain in the field, sometimes as long as 15 weeks.

Camping in the Dry Valleys Geologist's camps in the Dry Valleys are simple. Our sleeping quarters are Scott tents, which are pyramid shaped and made of canvas; for cooking and for our science equipment we use Polar Havens, which are large dome-style tents. The tents are all heavily braced because of the severe katabatic winds that flow down from the polar plateau. Once or twice a year we have to fix broken lines and re-set tents because of wind damage. Cooking is done on regular Coleman stoves. The food is stored outside in small plywood crates that we previously packed in McMurdo. It's the same canned food and dry pasta you find in any grocery store. A helicopter re-supplies us with food and fuel about every two weeks. We sort all of our trash for recycling and pack it into labeled bags. Our toilet facilities are in the open, just a barrel and a funnel for liquids and a 5-gallon bucket with a seat on it for solids. All of our waste is flown to McMurdo and eventually shipped northward. The temperatures range from - 25 to -15 C when we go into the field in late October. The temperature stays constant most days because of the 24-hour daylight. By mid December temperatures on sunny days get up to - 5 C. It snows very little and almost all fresh snow will either evaporate or blow away within a just a few days of falling.

Field Research We have two main scientific goals while we're in the field. First, we try to establish what climatic and associated glacial changes have occurred in Antarctica. Second, we try to establish when these changes took place. To do this we map glacial deposits, paying special attention to their relative stratigraphic order. We also measure bedrock striations and examine rock types to get ice-flow directions in order to understand changes in glacier configurations. We establish the timing of events primarily through 40Ar/39Ar dating of volcanic ash. Volcanoes have been present just offshore of the Dry Valleys for millions of years and they occasionally produce large volumes of volcanic ash. If the ash ends up as layers within or between tills, it creates a time marker. When we find an ash bed, our first job is to determine if the ash is in its original setting. This is critical because it's always possible that winds or glaciers have recently picked up and moved long after it might have originally fallen in the Dry Valleys. We also use exposure-age dating. This dating method relies on the fact that rocks resting at the Earth's surface are constantly bombarded by radiation from space. The cosmic radiation causes atoms in the rocks to breakup into different, often unique isotopes, which can be counted to give an estimate of exposure time. Many of the oldest exposure-age dates ever calculated for terrestrial surfaces come from the Dry Valleys because the cold and dry climate results in extremely low rates of erosion. Although ash deposits are rare and exposure age dates are often difficult to interpret, careful fieldwork has produced a well-dated glacial record that extends back 15 Million years.

Recently we have focused on looking for fossil plants, animals and soils that we can use to precisely reconstruct paleoclimate conditions. Until just a few years ago, these deposits were unknown in the Dry Valleys. They are now providing a first-ever window on climate conditions just before the ice sheet expanded and the polar climate became established during Miocene time. Based on the ecology of living counterparts found farther north, the composition of the fossil assemblage suggest that summer temperatures averaged about 5 C in the Dry Valleys 14.07 million years ago.  With the success of this new research direction, we have expanded our search for fossil sites throughout the Dry Valleys. One recently discovered site holds multiple layers of soil sandwiched between several tills. The soils have so far yielded wood and leaves of low-growing shrubs, mosses, insects, and numerous seeds and spores.  Based the dating of volcanic ash deposits nearby, these fossils are more than 19 million years old.  We are currently working to publish our results and have brought on a new grad student to explore what other climate information these deposits might hold.