Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Arrival in Antarctica and Preparing for the Field

Last Friday, Professor Marchant and I boarded an Air Force C-17 cargo jet and flew south from Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.  Unlike commercial airliners, passengers sit along the walls of the fuselage and large cargo pallets take up most of the room in the plane.  The walls of the C-17 are not sound-proofed so once the engines are fired up, it's very noisy inside.

Most of the flight south is over the Southern Ocean meaning the views from the windows are mostly blue, but once we pass over the Antarctic continent, the vast East Antarctic Ice Sheet and Transantarctic Mountains come into view.  It is quite a stunning sight as peaks are fully encased in ice and the entire landscape has no colors other than white snow and blue sky.
The glaciated Transantarctic Mountains in Northern Victoria Land, Antarctica
The flight lasted about 5 hours and before we knew it we had landed on the Ross Ice Shelf and arrived in Antarctica.  There was some special cargo on-board that was unloaded before the passengers.  The C-17 doors opened in the rear of the aircraft and forklifts came to retrieve the cargo.
Unloading cargo from the rear of the C-17

The C-17 on the ice runway.

We then boarded a large "people mover" that slowly rolls over the fragile ice road towards McMurdo Station.  At McMurdo, we have been busy preparing for camping at remote field sites in McMurdo Sound and in the Transantarctic Mountains.  This includes testing out our tents, stoves, satellite phones, and radios, picking up enough food to survive on our own (including plenty of chocolate!), setting up a communication plan with McMurdo Station for safety, and organizing helicopter flights to our field sites.  We have been busy!

Tomorrow, Professor Marchant and I will fly via helicopter out to our first field site on Brown Peninsula, an arm of Mt. Discovery, a large, extinct volcano adjacent to McMurdo Sound.  We will spend a couple of weeks camping there collecting data to determin the extent of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet during the Last Glacial Maximum (the peak of the last Ice Age).  We will keep you posted with our progress.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Traveling to Antarctica for this year's expedition

On November 3rd, Professor Marchant and I began the long journey towards McMurdo Station Antarctica.  We departed Boston in the afternoon and headed west towards Los Angeles; there, we boarded a 14-hr flight across the Pacific to Sydney, Australia.  Following a long, jet-lagged layover in Sydney we flew over the Tasman Sea to Christchurch, New Zealand, the jumping-off point for Antarctica.  After all is said and done, we will have been in transit for roughly 40 hours.

Our stay in New Zealand will be brief.  After we pick up our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear we will board military aircraft in Christchurch and fly south towards McMurdo Sound.  If all goes according to plan and there are no weather delays, we should be in McMurdo by Friday afternoon.

This season our team will consist of five people: Professor Marchant, fellow Marchant graduate student Sean Mackay, Professor Douglas Kowalewski (Worcester State University and former Marchant graduate student), Kowalewski's student Austin, and myself.  While everyone will be out in the field for weeks, I will be out the longest-  I'm sure I will have quite a beard by the end of the expedition!

This season we will be spending time on the volcanic islands of McMurdo Sound making detailed glacial geologic maps and collecting rock, sediment, and ice samples.  Below is a picture of what our work and the area looks like.
Andrew Christ collects a boulder for cosmogenic nuclide dating on Mount Discovery in January 2014

While we are working in the field, I will be updating this blog and answering questions.  To submit a question simply post a comment on a post, and I will respond as I am able to.  In order to post a comment you must have a Google account or any of the blogging profiles listed in the comment dialog box.  I'm particularly looking forward to hearing from the 6th graders at the Michael Driscoll School in Brookline, MA - go Dragons! - and students of the Coolidge Middle School in Reading, MA. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Field Preparations & News from the BU Antarctic Research Group

Field Preparations 


Preparing for an Antarctic field season begins nearly as soon as the previous one ends.  In Boston we process and analyze data collected in the field, informing us of what data or experiments need to be collected or conducted next.  A couple months after a field season, our rock samples arrive (last year we received 2000 lbs of rocks we collected!) after traveling by cargo ship and truck from Antarctica to Boston.  By the end of the end of the summer, barely 6 months after the last field season, we begin packing up equipment to ship to Antarctica by cargo ship.

This year our group sent multiple ground penetrating radar (GPR) units, rock drilling supplies, and other equipment that we will use during the upcoming field season.  The GPR is a geophysical instrument that emits and receives energy waves that allow us to map out the stratigraphy of surficial materials, including glacial drift, glacial ice, ground ice, and permafrost.  It's a useful tool that collects a great deal of data that, after many months of data processing, reveals the near-surface anatomy of the Antarctic Dry Valleys.

After carefully documenting the equipment, we packaged it and sent it to Port Hueneme, California.  Our scientific cargo along with other researchers' equipment will take the slow boat to Antarctica.  This total journey is 3,000 miles by truck across the United States and over 8,200 miles by ship across the Pacific Ocean.  When we arrive by airplane on the Ross Ice Shelf in November, our equipment will be there for us to use in the field.  Until November we will be planning out our strategy for the quickly approaching field season!
After 3,000 miles by truck (above) and and 8,200 miles and 112 degrees of latitude by boat (below), our equipment arrives at  McMurdo Station, Antarctica

BU Seminar Series on Climate Change

This fall Professor Marchant launched a new undergraduate program that brings students from the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Communication, and School of Education, to study climate change through a prestigious grant awarded to him by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  As part of the new program, BU is hosting a Seminar Series on Climate featuring prominent climate scientists, science documentary producers, and media specialists to discuss a wide range of issues related to global climate change.  These lectures are free and open to the public- if you are in the Boston area your attendance is welcome and encouraged!  Details about the seminar series are included in the image below.
Click to enlarge for details

Job Postings: Two tenure-track Assistant Professor positions in Climate Science


The Department of Earth & Environment at Boston University is undertaking a major expansion in the field of climate change and invites applications for two tenure-track Assistant Professor positions beginning July 2015. We seek scholars trained in a wide range of specializations including climate dynamics, recent climate history, hydroclimatology, and climate impacts and adaptations. We encourage applicants with interests in broader questions of the impacts of climate change on society (water resources, food, health, energy, land use), as well as those who complement existing strengths in remote sensing, coastal processes, and landscape evolution. We anticipate hiring additional scholars with expertise in climate change over the next several years. The successful applicant will be expected to supervise graduate research in Ph.D. programs, teach at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and maintain an externally funded research program. We seek applicants whose research complements strengths in the Department and around the University. For more information about the Department, see http://www.bu.edu/earth. A Ph.D. at the time of appointment is required. Please apply online at https://academicjobsonline.org/ajo/jobs/4439, including a curriculum vitae, a statement of research and teaching interests, and the names and addresses of at least three referees. Should you have questions about the position, please feel free to contact Anthony Janetos, Search Committee Chair, Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University, 685 Commonwealth Ave, Boston MA 02215; email: earth@bu.edu. Review of applications will begin on December 1, 2014. Women and underrepresented minorities are particularly encouraged to apply. We are an equal opportunity employer and all qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability status, protected veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by law. We are a VEVRAA Federal Contractor.

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 stratovolcano

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.