Thursday, November 10, 2011

Getting more smarter....

One nice thing to do in the "off time" down here is talk to folks and ask them what they do.  The variety of backgrounds in this melting pot puts New York City to shame.  One of the largest groups is obviously the science community.

On Wednesday and Sunday evenings these groups do their best to reach out to the non-50 pound brain types and attempt to explain just what they are doing with your tax dollars.  As in most fields, some people are better speakers, presenters than others.  Last night was one of the most interesting briefs I've seen yet.

Believe it or not, someone came up with the idea to go diving here.  "But it's frozen!" you say.  Yes, however we are on Ross Island and we are surrounded by ice on all sides.  It is where the polar ice shelf meets the Ross Sea ice.  Underneath the sea of white however is a thriving underwater world unlike ANY you have ever seen. There is still that whole, 15 feet of solid sea ice in the way.....
A Spryte tracked vehicle
The dive teams go out with a variety of tools varying from hand augers, to 3 ton track vehicles with 4 foot wide drill bits to good old fashioned high explosive shaped charges to help motivate the ice out of the way.
First you start with a l-o-n-g drill bit....then add 25 feet of det cord...

a diver in a dive hole
Voila!  Dive hole!

So back to last night's science lecture!  Antarctica conjures up images of lots and lots of snow, ice, glaciers, penguins and very little to see, but one thing you would never imagine doing here is scuba diving

right? Well, think again! Even though the freezing temperatures that routinely plunge below -40°C (-40°F) and hurricane-force winds have created extreme conditions which have resulted in a land virtually devoid of life. No insects, no plants, no major terrestrial flora or fauna exist here. Yet, life thrives below the thick ice in the icy waters and McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea has some of the most spectacular diving in the World.

Curious Emperor Penguins checking out a dive hole

Most of the diving in McMurdo takes place during the summer months of September to February (especially December and January) where temperatures are a more bearable around 30°F (−1 °C). Divers break through the 1.3-3m (4-10ft) thick ice using boring tools like a diesel powered auger, ice saws, ice chippers and even high explosives to make a hole about 1.3 m (4ft) in diameter and a portable hut is placed over this. The hut placed over the hole is mostly to keep the hole from freezing over again and it also provides divers a warm place to suit up. With freezing temperatures and winds outside the portable hut exposed scuba equipment is at risk of becoming inoperable if not careful.
a Weddell seal
What are YOU doing here? Looking up at the ice ceiling and a Weddell Seal.
The water below the thick layers of ice remains a near constant temperature of -1.8° C (28.8° F) and once under, divers can experience an unbelievable visibility of 300m (990 ft)! Once a divers eyes adjust to the one percent of sunlight that makes it through the ice, they describe the experience as flying over a darkened landscape of hills, valleys and sheer cliffs and if one were to look up a spectacular glowing blue cover with a moon like crater that is the ice and hole, is their reward.

 One of the lead divers who's been doing this for 9 seasons now down here gave us a glimpse into the specific project he was supporting down here which centered around ocean acidification here in the Southern Ocean and it's impact on a couple of the more delicate little critters that reside here on the ocean floor.

The Ice shelf off of Mcmurdo station
Without getting to deep into the science he wowed the crowd with his cinematography from another world. His name is Henry Kaiser and originally came here 10 years ago with a dive background but was on an artisan grant from NSF as a film maker.  He asked to work with the dive locker and the rest has been history.  He puts a great spin on his work via unique perspectives and his own music that he writes (and played live on his guitar for us last night as well!).

A video he shot a few years ago was made into somewhat of an "Antarctic Classic" by Werner Herzog called "Encounters at the End of the World". It's a collection of great shots around the continent, but focuses on the ethereal images from under the ice, here's the trailer to the film:
Here's some video he shot this week about 1/2 mile from here in McMurdo Sound:

This is a video he shot and put together last week for the Long Beach Aquarium in California.  It is a neat 10 minute overview of life around here with some fantastic imagery and some odd-ball scientists.

These experiences are great to learn about what we are all supporting down here and they really help bring together groups of people from diverse backgrounds in one place to better know each other. As I find meet more and learn what they are doing (at least the interesting ones) I will be sure to pass them on.

For now...take care! Back to work!

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