Thursday, May 22, 2014

Greetings from the new BU GLACIER Fellow


 Hi there!

I'm Andrew Christ, the newest PhD student in the Boston University Antarctic Research Group.  I am a glacial geologist interested in the history of Earth's climate.  This past year I've grown immensely as a young scientist through coursework, research, and field experience.  Last November through January, I embarked on a incredible expedition to Antarctica.  While I have spent a great deal of my life in the outdoors, camping for seven (7!) weeks in the Transantarctic Mountains was truly remarkable.  Below are some pictures I took during the expedition.

Our field team striking classic Antarctic hero poses like the early explorers.
While 98% of the Antarctic continent is encapsulated in glacial ice, the McMurdo Dry Valleys are largely ice free.  Even more unique, the Dry Valleys are so cold and dry that no lifeforms more complex than lichen, algae, and microbes can survive.  This strange environment felt more like an alien world than Earth.
Sampling rocks along side the Stocking Glacier in Taylor Valley
During our expedition we collected rocks, sediment, and ice in order to understand how glaciers fluctuated during the Pliocene, a time period 2.5 to 5 million years ago when the Earth's climate was warmer than it is today. 
Our campsite on Mount Discovery, an extinct volcano


  At the end of the expedition I traveled with my PhD advisor, Professor David Marchant, to Mount Discovery, a volcano in McMurdo Sound to decipher how large the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was during the last ice age and when it retreated.  This November I will return to McMurdo Sound with Professor Marchant to continue this work.  We will keep this blog active during our expedition giving live updates of our fieldwork.  
One of many Antarctic selfies- this was on a very windy and cold day. 
The stunning sea ice pressure ridges near McMurdo Station
 This coming year I will be a BU GK12 GLACIER Fellow where I will work closely with classes from local Brookline and Reading middle schools to assist in teaching science.  I hope to integrate my own research and experiences in Antarctica, and bring the field to the classroom.  I look forward to growing my teaching skills and enriching science education at the middle school level.

In the coming weeks, look for additional posts as we prepare for our 2014 expedition, which leaves from Boston around November 1st.   I’ll upload project goals and let you know how you can reach us in Antarctica.  We will be working closely with middle schools from Brookline and Reading MA, but we welcome inquiries on how to participate in the Boston University Antarctic Research Group from other schools. 

The glaciers of Wright Valley and the Onyx River, the longest river in Antarctica
Also, I’ll post  new information about BU’s new initiative in climate science, spearheaded by our Antarctic Research Director, Professor David Marchant.  Dave has plans to integrate climate-science education in STEM sciences across three colleges in the university:  The College of Arts and Sciences, The College of Communication, and the School of Education.  18 faculty from across the colleges have already committed support to what Dave calls:

Seeding a Cultural Change in Undergraduate STEM Education: Climate Science as a tool to integrate research, science education, and outreach

Look for updates in this program over the summer! Interested middle-school and high school students who want to learn about this program should contact me directly!




Monday, March 25, 2013

Questions from Pierce School

Another school that sent us a bunch of letters with questions was the Pierce School.  Their letters were awesome and super creative, and a real treat to read - it looks like they are a bunch of budding scientists!

In addition to the questions I answered for the Curley School (students at both schools were interested in learning more about Antarctic extremes, the types of animals that live there, and the importance of our work, so if you want to see my answers to those questions go to the previous post), the students at the Pierce School were very interested in some of the questions about life.

Q1: How did you decide to become a geologist?

I love this question!  Just as with people working any job, scientists all have various reasons why they chose to work in their particular field.  The difference with scientists is that they generally love what they do because they are doing/imagining/discovering things no one has ever dreamed of before!  Don't believe that scientists love their jobs more than other people?  The government surveys its employees to see how much they like their jobs - people who work for NASA love their jobs more than any other department!

Anyway, this is my personal story of how I became a geologist so if you are thinking about becoming one as well (woooo!), know that this is just one path and you get to write your own story.  I grew up wanting to be a scientist because I wanted to explore the world and learn how things work.  However, geology never crossed my mind until college.  My family loves the outdoors and so we went hiking and camping a lot, which gave me the chance to see all sorts of geology - fossils from extinct animals that lived in an ancient sea (in Ohio of all places), scrapes on mountaintops from huge ice sheets that used to cover the northern US.  Though I was developing a love of science and of the outdoors, I still didn't know I could combine the two.  When I started college, I began pursuing a degree in physics because that seemed cool, but when I began physics research I was stuck inside on beautiful sunny days.  Still, I didn't realize geology was something I could do.  The 'aha!' moment struck literally on top of a mountain.  I had been hiking all day and when I reached the top I took a break and started chatting with a random person I met up there.  She began telling me all about how everything we could see from our mountaintop perch had formed, and that I too could learn about it.  I was hooked and immediately reorganized everything to accommodate my new study.  I have absolutely no idea who this woman was, and am sorry that I cannot thank her for changing my life.

Become a geologist and get to see the world!  And get goofy haircuts because no one is around to make fun of you...

Q2: What do you do in your spare time in the tent?

First of all, we don't have very much spare time - we work most of the day, all seven days of the week.  We get up, eat breakfast, work until dinner, then compile our data until we go to sleep.  Right before we go to sleep, we sometimes read or listen to music just to unwind from a long day.  Breakfast and dinner are laid back (lunch is just a quick snack sometime during the day), so we can relax a bit then, which means chatting and maybe listening to music on our iPods.  We do take a day off each for Thanksgiving and Christmas, which we might spend hiking, reading, or cooking a fancy meal.  If the weather is bad (hurricane-force winds, for example), we can also be forced to stay inside the tent.  Some of these days we can still get things done in the tent, prepping experiments for when the nice weather returns, but if we run out of work then we just sit, chat, read, listen to music, and hope the tent does not blow away!  I spent a bunch of free time writing this blog and making videos for it.

When the weather gets bad, why not take some pictures of it?  Here I have set up one of my cameras to take a time lapse of a storm rolling in.  It is set up on rock sample boxes that look unstable, but when full are 80 pounds each!  The rock box labelled "DINNER" is because we bring food out in the boxes, then send our rocks back in the empty boxes.
Despite the large amount of work, we do definitely still have fun and goof around - the weather was warm (by Antarctic standards) and  had absolutely no wind, so we thought it would be funny to sleep outside.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Questions from the Curley School

While we were in the field, we received an envelope full of letters from the students in Ms. Murphy's 7th grade science class where my friend Ms. Hendricks helps teach.  We were thrilled to get the letters after the two of us had been in a tent for a month.  There were so many questions, I will just address some of the most common.

First some numbers:
Distance from Curley School (Jamaica Plain, MA) to our field site - 9,596 miles
Hottest temperature we felt - 33 F
Coldest temperature we felt - 2 F
Coldest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica - -128.6 F (Vostok Station)
Fastest wind ever recorded in Antarctica - 208 mph (Belgrade II Base)

Q1 - What sort of animals did you see/live there?

Antarctica is much too inhospitable for most life, so it is uncommon to see animals anywhere other than the coast.  McMurdo Station, where we arrive before reaching our field site, is on the coast and therefore gives us the opportunity to see seals and penguins from afar, and skuas (a seagull-like bird) that fly into camp.
Weddell Seals (dark blobs on the ice) are one of the few animals that can be seen from McMurdo Station.  During the summer, they come up through cracks in the ice and sun themselves to warm up.
In the interior of the continent the only animals that can live are a small springtail flea.  There are also some microbial communities in the ponds that stay liquid due to their extremely high salt concentrations.  However, our field site is far enough from the coast and high enough elevation that it is too cold for most living things.  In one of our sites, there is nothing alive (as far as we know) while the other supports a few small lichens that live on the rocks.

Lichens cling to a dolerite boulder, causing its surface to bubble up.
For months, this was the only non-human living thing we saw.
And just to clear up any confusion, THERE ARE NO POLAR BEARS - they live in the Arctic, so if you want to see them go to Canada.  Movies always confuse this, so you can remember that polar bears live north of the equator while penguins live south of the equator.

Q2 - Why does your research matter?  Why do you have to go to Antarctica to do it?

These are great questions that we actually have to answer to the National Science Foundation in order to be allowed to do our research.  One of the main points of our research is studying how Antarctica and its huge supplies of ice respond to climate change.  We go to Antarctica to look evidence that glaciers have changed size over the last 15 million years and try to date these changes so we can compare them to what other scientists found out the climate was at those times in order to predict how the continent will respond in a modern world where climate is changing rapidly.  Basically we want to find out if the Antarctic ice sheets are likely to melt because if they did it could raise sea level up to 200 feet!

Boston under 50 m sea level rise, such as might happen if Antarctica  fully melted.
Image generated by http://geology.com/sea-level-rise/ - check out your hometown!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The wandering south magnetic pole


This post is a response to a question from the 8th grade class at Saint Columbkille Partnership School in Brighton, Massachusetts.  They wanted to know about the South Magnetic Pole and if the magnetic field down here was weird.  I knew a little about it, but I wanted to do some measurements of my own to determine where it was.  Here is what I found:

There are two types of Pole on Earth that each come with a North and a South; geographic poles and magnetic poles*.  The geographic poles are what we usually mean when we say “North Pole” (where Santa lives) and “South Pole” (where Amundsen-Scott Station is).  They are defined as the points around which the Earth rotates (if you are cooler than I am and can spin a basketball on your finger, the South Geographic Pole would be where your finger touches the ball).  These points of rotation stay fairly constant through time, so they are the poles we use when making maps.  Therefore, the North arrow on any map you pick up will point towards the North Geographic Pole.

The magnetic poles are basically where magnetic compasses point.  Their location is much more complicated and changes through time since the magnetic field is created by the churning of Earth’s Outer Core, a molten layer of nickel and iron deep inside.  This churning is complicated just like any fluid moving around (think of how crazily the smoke from a fire curls around), causing the magnetic poles to wander around, up to 100 miles a year.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the magnetic and geographic poles is that their locations are similar but not identical.  For instance, you know that the South Geographic Pole is kind of in the middle of Antarctica, but did you know that the South Magnetic Pole is currently outside the boundaries of Antarctica?  It has not always been this way though; around 100 years ago, the first people to reach the South Magnetic Pole (one of whom also was named Alistair!) reached it on foot since it was still on land.  At any location, the difference between geographic North (what  you would find on a map) and magnetic North (where your compass points) is called the declination.  This is an important number if you try to navigate using a map and compass, so people who still sometimes use compasses (airplane pilots use them as a backup) need to know the declination of their location.

The difference between the location of the two types of pole can be confusing if you are trying to navigate by compass.  This is an image of me using a special geology compass called a Brunton Compass.  When you aim the pointy end of the compass at something, the white end of the needle points to a number that tells you the angle between that direction and magnetic North.  I am pointing it towards geographic North (determined from maps), so the number (reading 175o) tells the declination.
*There are other poles as well, such as the Pole of Inaccessibility, which is the point on a landmass farthest from any shoreline.  The Russians, in an attempt to one-up the US base at the South Geographic Pole, established their base (Vostok; you might have heard of it because of the drilling project at Lake Vostok, which is a lake buried deep under the ice that might harbor strange life) at the South Pole of Inaccessibility.

Science you can do at home

1.       If you know the magnetic declination (remember that this is the angle between the magnetic pole and the geographic pole) in two places, you can use a map to recreate that angle and find the current South Magnetic Pole.  I was curious to see if this was possible to do accurately, so I took one reading in Christchurch, New Zealand and second in the Antarctic Dry Valleys.  However, I do not have a map of the area around Antarctica with me, so I will post the data I took and rely on you to see if my readings were good enough to get a close approximation of the location of the magnetic pole.

In order to do this, first find the locations on a map.  Then, using a protractor, draw a line at the appropriate angle from a line of longitude (they run straight North-South).  The intersection of the two lines should be close to the actual location of the South Magnetic Pole.  You can check the actual location on the internet.

Christchurch, New Zealand – Compass says (magnetic) South is 23 degrees to the West of (geographic) South

Dry Valleys, Antarctica (Latitude: 77.87427, Longitude: 160.53845) – Compass says (magnetic) South is 175 degrees (yes, that is what I measured) to the East of (geographic) South

2. You can also measure magnetic declination at your house, if you have a compass and know which direction geographic North is (where the North Star is, or near where your shadow is at noon).  I have no idea what it is anywhere in the US, so if you feel so inclined, post your location (city, state, latitude/longitude; whatever you want) and the declination you get.

Monday, January 28, 2013

New Section Up: Scientist Interviews

People are always curious what kind of people come down here, and especially what kind of scientists are here.  The short answer is all kinds!  For the long answer I figured it was best to have everyone else explain their work, so I decided to interview some folks.  The first is Claire Porter, a good friend of the BUARG, and you can check out her (and soon other) interviews in the Scientist Interviews section above.  Enjoy!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Weather from 2012-13 Field Season, Part 2: Crazy snow

As you saw in a previous post, we had crazy amounts of snow this year.  People working in other parts of the Dry Valleys also reported extremely high amounts of snow.  We collected a bunch of data on the amount of snowfall because we were curious about it.

Relative Humidity

This measures the amount of moisture in the air compared to the amount that it can hold and is measured by our met stations (see previous post).  Therefore, as the relative humidity approaches 100%, it is more likely to snow.  Take a look at our data below and see if it is true that the times it snowed (indicated by gray boxes) are the times when the relative humidity was close to 100%.



Snow!

And now the data you actually care about - the amount of snow accumulated during our field season.  We set out a catcher to help measure the amount of snow that had fallen, but it was not completely accurate because the snow would sublimate away, so we had to use short periods of collection to estimate the full amount of snow.  Based on the methods we used, the data are probably accurate to within a factor of 2-3, which still is a ridiculous amount of snow to have gotten (we have pictures to back it up!).  The Dry Valleys typically receive 0.4" of water equivalent (if you melt down the snow, it would have as much water as 0.4 inches of rain) each year, so compare that to the amount we got in four weeks.  Crazy!