The sun was up all night long. Marci Beitch unwraps the scarf covering her face and crawls out from under her sleeping bag, which is supposed to protect against temperatures of up to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Beitch rises to her feet. Removing the plastic door of her tent, she steps out into the snow where a cluster of yellow tents dot the landscape. A 10 meter tall bright red crane fills her vision, standing above a hole in the center of the camp. Bracing against the cold, Beitch gets ready for another 10-hour work day at the bottom of the world: Antartica.
“There really wasn’t an average day,” Beitch said, in retrospect.
Beitch, a UC Santa Cruz graduate student, was one of about 50 researchers who called Antarctica home Jan. 21–31 during the 2012 and 2013 field season of the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD). The project brings together professors, engineers and graduate students from nine institutions to meet once a year in Antarctica. They set up base above Lake Whillans — a subglacial lake 800 meters beneath the ice. This year was the first that they transported, assembled and employed an environmentally-friendly drill to reach the lake.
For UCSC glaciologist Slawek Tulaczyk, the research literally opened up new worlds. While Tulaczyk gazed at the framed picture of a barren Antarctic field that hangs on the wall of his air-conditioned office, he recalled the expedition’s purpose.
“The first focus of the project is to study microbial life, which survive in environments deficient in light, organic matter and oxygen,” Tulaczyk said. “This will allow scientists to better understand conditions of habitability for other planets and how genetic mechanisms enable microbes to survive under difficult conditions. The second focus is to study mechanisms of motion for the West Antarctic ice sheet, as this will allow scientists to better predict future changes in global sea levels due to a warming climate.”
Antarctica offers a short window of “hospitality” — November through the end of January — for any research to be safely conducted. The window was used sparingly for preparation, yet little time remained for actual research.
The core project took place over a five day drilling period from Jan. 21–26 and a five day data collection period from Jan. 27–31. This story serves as an inside look at the rigors of collegial research, as it was done before the clock’s minute hand effectively sealed the hole at 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 31 — the project’s deadline.
Building Toward Antarctica
The expedition begins here, in the forested region of UC Santa Cruz.
UCSC has played a role in the WISSARD project from its very beginning when Professors Slawek Tulaczyk of UCSC and Helen Amanda Fricker of UC San Diego first developed the idea of drilling into Lake Whillans around 2007. The professors pitched their idea to other U.S. scientists and successfully pushed The National Science Foundation (NSF) for most of their funding, which came through several grants including ones made to UCSC, Montana State University and Northern Illinois University. Tulaczyk then joined with UCSC professors Andrew Fisher and Susan Schwartz to plan the project as a team.
Tulaczyk said UCSC’s temperature data will be shared with other universities that took part in the project. Seismic data collected by UCSC will be kept exclusively for the Earth and Planetary Sciences department to study for a couple years before it is released in a public database.
In early summer of 2012, UCSC instrument engineer Dan Sampson began coordinating with instrumentation specialist Robin Bolsey and UCSC undergraduate Kyle Johnson to prepare the necessary instruments for subglacial research.
“The idea was to put together as complete a geophysical [instrument] package as possible,” Sampson said.
While Sampson and Bolsey designed the equipment UCSC used in Antarctica, undergraduate students from the Earth and Planetary Sciences department helped improve instrument designs and prepare cables and storage boxes.
The team used National Science Foundation (NSF) grants to construct several instruments from scratch, like a sediment piston corer to snatch sediment from the lake and a seismometer to detect minute vibrations in the ice sheet.
“The undergraduates had no comprehensive engineering background,” Sampson said, “but their feedback as sophisticated users was invaluable in providing suggestions for improvement and they were an intelligent bunch with a lot of good ideas.”
Undergraduate students Krista Myers, Nick Geier and Connor Williams coiled miles of cable to place inside a 20 foot storage container at the edge of the woods behind Baskin Engineering.
“What we did was mostly to help reel the cables onto a large reel,” Myers said. “We’d reel 800 meters on this huge crank reel that we would
it was fun. We got to jam to some KZSC while we were reeling away for hours.”
Myers said while undergraduates didn’t receive school credit for their summer work, it did give them the resume-worthy experience of working on an international research project.
Stepping Into Snow
With the summer almost over, undergraduates helped pack and ship instruments and miles of cables sent in October and November. All supplies landed on the shore of Antarctica at the McMurdo Station. From there, many instruments were flown to the field site while monster truck-sized snow tractors hauled platform equipment across 600 miles of frozen tundra.
Professor Tulaczyk and UCSC graduate students Marci Beitch and Ken Mankoff learned how to operate instruments in the deep-field — a term researchers use for Antarctic sites which don’t offer the safety of a nearby permanent station with ready access to heating, water, food and emergency care. In Antarctica, being even 2 miles away from a permanent station is referred to as the deep-field. This camp found itself 600 miles away from safety.
After six years of planning, Tulaczyk, Bolsey, Sampson and the grad students found themselves in one of the world’s most inhospitable places separated from their data by half a mile of ice.
“It’s different from almost any other place on Earth,” Tulaczyk said. “It’s like another planet.”
University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers operated a hot water drill for five days to open an 800 meter deep borehole to the lake. Researchers rushed for five more days to conduct research at the borehole by the end of Jan. 31— the calendar end of Antarctic summer and the date NSF mandated researchers must leave the site to avoid encroaching harsh weather.
The man-made borehole began to slowly freeze over, and due to the Jan. 31 deadline, the hole could not be re-drilled and continually used for research.
Beitch recalled that working at the borehole in the middle of the night exposed researchers to minus 20-degree temperatures.
“I remember a very cold night,” Beitch said. “I was working until 4 a.m. or so at the borehole, during which a cup of very hot water developed an icy surface in less than an hour. One other day a freezing fog blew over the camp and little beads of fog were freezing to my eyelashes.”
With eyes framed in ice the researchers continued their work.
“Scientists were sending measurement and sample collection instruments down around the clock,” Beitch said. “Some were working up to 20 hours. There was no regularity to the days out there. It was like ‘Okay, I’m working a shift from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., I’m going to sleep from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then I’m going back on another shift.’”
Tulaczyk, Bolsey, Sampson, Beitch and Mankoff often deployed the instruments for other universities when those university team members took a break.
“We had a very collegial team on the ice,” Tulaczyk said. “Nonetheless, some difficult decisions had to be made as there was insufficient time to accomplish all the science experiments. We were able to prioritize and cut tasks but we walked away from the field season still talking to each other.”
To combat the monotony of endlessly lowering and pulling cables at the borehole, the drill team blasted music from a boombox.
“We played James Brown continuously,” Beitch said. “That heated us up, for sure.”
UCSC graduate student Grace Barcheck missed out on the soul-infused cable pulling, instead venturing out of the camp to set up GPS and seismic-recording devices 100 kilometers downstream from the Whillans ice flow.
Barcheck and two researchers formed the safety minimum of a three person group as they travelled on well-packed ski-doo snowmobiles. Riding for hours on what Tulaczyk likened to a mechanical bull, Barcheck finally pulled her ski-doo into the downstream site. The group spent nearly a whole day pitching camp and the next four days setting up seismometer and GPS instruments. After the planned five days ended, subtle isolation anxiety began and the group rode their mechanical bulls back to the site.
“We came back and we were all really excited to see civilization,” Barcheck said. “[The main camp] consisted of containers and some more tents, but it was such a relief to have more people around. It’s not that I didn’t like the people I was with, but isolation is very strange.”
Working for the Play
Work in the frigid camp stopped on the last night of sampling, as researchers packed up supplies. Some exhausted researchers took up reading, guitar playing, chilly walks and cross-country snow skiing, which the deadline had earlier ruled out. On the last night, Mankoff took out a big marker and scribbled on the empty packing boxes to transform them into oversized playing dice.
“We didn’t actually play craps with them,” Mankoff said. “But we were going to try to play backgammon. When we had a short amount of downtime, people were having fun.”
After the fifth day the borehole started to freeze over as the experiments and James Brown music ceased.
The minus 20 degree Fahrenheit winds retook this deep-field site in Antarctica, as the researchers flew to McMurdo station on the Antarctic coast and from there toward the warmer comfort of home.
In that now frozen borehole the UCSC researchers left a three-component, short-period, high-gain seismometer, a string of geophones and a fiber optic temperature sensor to record future data, but what they took from that borehole is both more understandable and more meaningful.
“The UCSC team hadn’t planned to bring back samples of the sediment or water this season,” Beitch said, “so we did not get the permits to do so. The only things we were able to take from the field were the relationships, the fun times and the laughter with these incredible people that we got to work with. Being a part of such groundbreaking, or ice breaking work was so cool. It just epitomizes the word cool.”