Part 4: Initial Fieldwork

Friday 9th November

Ian Hey amonst the snow snakes – blowing snow, snaking over the land

And so fieldwork begins. Today we have had exceptionally good weather. -08°C, clear, sunny, no wind. Yesterday was rather windier with many snow snakes that I spent ages (rather unsuccessfully) trying to photograph.

Today and yesterday we have been working on the ice shelf ridges; walking, sampling and mapping east and west along the southern margin of Ablation Lake. There is lots of see, with fabulous ice pinnacles characterising the ridges. They are formed like sails, and could be very old, sculpted by the prevailing northerlies. Today, Ian and I continued collecting cosmogenic nuclide and textural samples (for the famous pebble counts), while Mike started on the structural analysis of the ice-shelf moraines. The ice has so little debris in it, that the moraines must take many years, possibly thousands, to form.

Saturday 10th November

Fetching snow to melt for drinking water

It has been relatively warm and sunny the last few days, and I have burned my nose! Max temperatures up to -03°C, but mostly around -10°C. We need to keep our Nalgene water bottles inside our sleeping bags at night to prevent the water from freezing, so that we have water for breakfast in the morning. They make good hot water bottles. The temperatures at night inside the tent have been as low as -07°C (I know this thanks to my clever Suunto watch), and the tent is often full of ice from our breath when we wake up.

Today Mike did some measurements of structures in the ice shelf. Photo credit: Ian Hey

I am getting used to the BAS sleeping system. By the end of the trip, hopefully I will have passed Ian’s test of getting into your sleeping bag within 30 seconds! The sleeping system consists of: 1 wooden sleeping board, 1 karrimat, 1 thick thermarest, 1 sheepskin rug (I am definitely going to get one of these for sleeping on when camping back in the UK!), 1 double-down sleeping bag (essentially two sleeping bags, one inside the other; there is a definite knack of getting into these that I have yet to master), and finally a fleecy liner. I also wear thermals, socks, a buff (over my nose in particular) and a hat to bed, and with all that on, I am very toasty in my bag indeed. We are at -70°South and in 24 hour daylight, but the light doesn’t bother me. I just pull my hat over my eyes and snuggle deep into my sleeping bag.

Ian uses the primus stove

I have one side of the tent, with the pots box, primus stove, and tent box on my right. Ian is in the middle, and Mike has the far side of the tent. I have definitely won on the space, and have more than the others; I encourage sharing. Boots, gloves and socks hang from the top of the pyramid, along with wetwipes (which freeze otherwise) and other paraphernalia. My washbag needs to be kept off the floor of the tent where it is next to snow, and each morning I need to defrost any items I wish to use (like toothpaste). E45 cream is my favourite as it has paraffin in it and so doesn’t freeze.

Each morning we wake at about 7 AM and Ian primes and lights the primus stove, using our Nalgene hotwater bottles for the water. We have a cup of tea and melt more snow to make porridge. We also pack away our bulky sleeping bags into our P-bag and use them as a back rest. I generally have two sets of clothes – day clothes and night clothes. Even though they are dirty, I feel that it is good for my morale to get dressed every morning!

Melting snow takes a long time, and by the time we have had two cups of tea each, porridge, and filled our thermos flasks to take out for the day, it is 9.30 AM. We set off for our day’s work, and return anytime between 4 and 8 PM, depending on the weather and where we have been. Lunch each day is biscuits brown and tinned fish or cheese and abundant chocolate (Dairy Milk).

As soon as we get back to the tent we light the stove to make more water, and prepare some biscuits brown with marmite (for Ian and I) and jam (for Mike), as we are invariably ravenous. After a first cup of tea we melt more snow (all of which must of course be cut, sawn into pan-sized blocks, and stored in a dry bag near the door of the pyramid, between the inner and the outer tent) for a second drink and to add to our dehydrated Pack N’Go ration packs. Tonight, however, our routine varied because Ian dug up some chicken from the freezer and treated us to chicken breasts, pasta, pesto and sundried tomatoes, and dehydrated peas and onions.

After dinner we always melt more panfuls of snow (one pan is about 2 litres) for more drinks and to fill our Naglene bottles and thermos flasks for the morning. It is very easy to become dehydrated and our days are quite physical, so in the evening we drink as much as possible. I try to stop drinking by about 9 PM, otherwise I must get up in the night and go outside into the cold and wind! We are normally tucked up in bed by 10 PM. In order to have enough water to drink, the stove must pretty much be on all the time we are in the tent. This of course means that there is not enough water for washing, and it becomes an extremely precious commodity. We clean the plates and spoons with the minimum possible, using old tea bags as little scourers. This works well until they split, depositing tea dregs all over your nice clean bowl…

A drained lake among the pressure ridges

Today we were visited by a twin otter as we had requested some items from Rothera – a file for the chisels, more sample bags, new carbon monoxide monitors (cooking in the tent puts you at risk of CO poisoning, so we use monitors to ensure our safety), and new handsets for the radio as ours doesn’t seem to be working. Mike and Ian walked out to meet the plane, and I walked on my own to Moutonnée Point and back. As we are on the flight path to Fossil Bluff we have seen a number of aeroplanes. They often fly low over camp and wiggle their wings at us, which makes us feel loved!

Ice crystals in lake ice, with the crystals etched out by the wind.

Sunday 11th November

Another bright and clear day. We walked for 1.5 hours to the head of the valley, around and over Ablation Lake. Although it wasn’t far, it was hard going over soft snow. We may need to go and collect the skis. It is a hard decision because it takes half a day to get there and back, and it is more weight to haul back. We need to eat as much as possible to make uplift easier!

Looking down from the head of Ablation Valley

Mike and I had a very productive day mapping and sampling, and have several interesting hypotheses for the glaciological phenomena that we have observed. We need to be careful sampling rounded granite boulders, as they may originate from the Cretaceous conglomerate bedrock. Ian went and searched out ground control points to aid my map making and correct positioning of our aerial photographs. He joked that he was getting paid to go orienteering, a hobby of his. We communicated via small hand-held VHF (Very High Frequency) radios. He was finished earlier than us and headed back to camp to do some sorting, cut some snow blocks, and to start boiling water. He seems to have infinite energy!

The walk back took 2 hours, with heavier bags with rock samples in and snow that had softened in the sunshine. Mike and I returned to camp around 7 PM, exhausted but happy.

Monday 12th November

Today was a little dank and cloudy, so Mike and I stayed close to camp, mapping and conducting moraine transects with the Abney level. This was a new experience for me! It involves me walking to a break of slope with a 30m tape, and measuring the distance. Mike uses the Abney level to record the angle between me and him. Eventually, we will have an excellent cross-profile transect of the moraine. We will do several of these transects throughout our study area.

We have been having difficulty making the differential GPS work (dGPS). We have been unable to charge it with the generator. Following advice from the BAS engineer Tom Stroud over the radio, we have taken it into the tent to try and warm it up before charging. This seems to work and we have some power, so I will try and use it to map moraines with tomorrow. Ian has promised us bacon sandwiches for lunch and has taken bacon out of the freezer to defrost, so I will need to come back for lunch! A tasty treat awaits.

Mike and I have formulated several competing hypotheses to explain the occurrence of granite erratics at altitude of up to 120 m in the local area, and more work is required to test them. There is a lot of exciting science to be done here.

Tuesday 13th November

Dramatic clouds

Today was warm (about -04°C) but with a strong cold wind, gusting hard. Pressure has stabilised after yesterday’s rapid fall, but the ferocious clouds on the horizon may suggest a weather change. I think we are in for a fierce night.

This morning I attempted to use the dGPS Rover. Now that we have successfully charged the batteries, it appears that the main problem is getting the rover to track satellites. It also will not lock onto the base station. I cannot make it work. I will ask for advice over the radio; it is all very frustrating.

Mike measuring pebbles in the relative comfort of the tent

This afternoon we abandoned attempts to work in deteriorating conditions and counted some of our ever increasing pile of stones. We have collected many textural samples, which consist of bags of 50 pebbles and bags of the sediment (bulk samples), that we will analyse for particle size and microfossils upon our return to the UK. The pebble samples are processed in the field. For each pebbles, we identify the rock type (lithology) and measure the length, width and height of the pebbles. Then we identify its angularity or roundness; this is the degree to which the corners have been rounded off during the pebble’s transport. We also make a note of any special features, such as glacial scratch marks, whether it has facets (smooth sides, often indicative of glacial transport), and whether there is a chemical crust. Ultimately, these pebble samples provide a more quantitative description of our sediment. It also tells us something about the sediment’s genesis, as different processes result in typical pebble shapes. For example, pebbles from scree or cold-based glaciers are usually very angular, while pebbles on energetic beaches or streams are well rounded. Pebbles in wet-based glacier moraines are usually more rounded than those in cold-based glacier moraines.

Ian writing down pebble measurements

For lunch today we had a real treat – Ian defrosted some bacon from the larder as well as some bread, tomato sauce and cheese. We fried the bacon, and had a bacon and melted cheese sandwich. For dinner: manfood, followed by rehydrated fruit, custard and crumbled biscuits.

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