Past & Present


Dr. Steve Emslie

Principal Investigator

UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology


Dr. Emslie's

Antarctic Research Blog 2015-2016

SDE at Esperanza

Follow along with Dr. Emslie and his graduate student, Ashley McKenzie, as they complete field work in the Ross Sea region, Antarctica, beginning in December 2015.


20 December 2015

I am now at McMurdo Station after a long trip beginning in Wilmington, North Carolina, on 11 December. I flew from there to Los Angeles (LAX), then waited for a night flight to Sydney, Australia, that was a 15 hour flight. In Sydney, I waited two hours for a flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, and after this last 3 hour flight, I arrived in Christchurch Sunday afternoon, December 13, at 5 pm local time. Note that I missed Saturday, December 12, completely because my southbound flights crossed the international date line. Thus, the time change was enough to lose an entire day!

I had two nights in Christchurch to recover from this travel before flying to McMurdo Station. On Monday, I went to the U.S. Antarctic Program Clothing Distribution Center at the Christchurch airport where all personnel deploying to Antarctica go to check out their cold weather clothing they will need on the ice. I have included a photo of this center and the clothing here:

USAP clothing room

All the clothing is designed for layering from thermal underwear to fleece, to wind proof coats. Heavy insulated boots protect the feet from the cold as well. Here's a picture of me in the field with all of this clothing, keeping me warm and comfortable even in freezing temperatures and cold wind:

Steve Emslie on Finger Mountain, Dry Valleys, Antarctica

After the clothing issue, I had time to visit downtown Christchurch. This part of the city was devastated by a strong earthquake in February 2011 that destroyed many of the buildings. It will take a long time to rebuild and only part of this work is done. Here's a picture of the cathedral in the main square that is still being repaired:

Christchurch cathedral

On Tuesday, December 15, all of us flying to Antarctica were taken back to the airport where we checked in and boarded a Hercules LC-130 military cargo plane. These planes are flown by the New York Air National Guard and they do an excellent job in getting us across 2400 miles of mostly ocean to the Antarctic continent. The flight takes over 7 hours, but is relatively comfortable in the spacious cargo area of the plane:

Boarding the LC 130 in Christchurch

Inside the LC 130

After arriving at McMurdo that evening, we had a welcoming briefing, were given our room assignments, then had dinner in the large galley. This station can have up to 1500 or more people here in summer, between support staff, administrators, and scientists, so they are prepared to house and feed a lot of people. Tired from our long journey, we slept well that night and began our training sessions the next day. These sessions are required before field work can begin and include an outdoor safety program as well as training on station safety, recyling, laboratory use, and helicopter operations (how to approach and board them when working in the field).

All of this training went well and by Friday, December 18, we were cleared to go for our first trip by helicopter into the Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free area in Antarctica located across the McMurdo Sound from the station (about a 30-40 minute flight). Mountains block glaciers from entering these valleys off the polar plateau, so they remain dry and contain many interesting features: sedimentary rocks with fossils dating millions of years old, lakes of various sizes and depths, and some glaciers that spill over from the plateau and enter some of the valleys from the edges.

I am here with two Italian scientists, Laura Selbmann and Fabio Baio, who are sampling sandstone rocks in the Dry Valleys to examine endolithic lichens. These lichens grow inside the rock as the conditions are too harsh for them to grow like normal lichens on the surface of the rocks. I am helping them with this work in the Dry Valleys and in exchange I will be going with my team to the Italian Station, Mario Zucchelli, next month to do my work from their station. So, it's a great collaboration and logistical exchange that occurs frequently between countries that conduct research in the Antarctic.

Our first field outing was to Finger Mountain in the Upper Taylor Valley. A beautiful scenic spot, Laura and Fabio were able to find suitable samples of endolithic lichens immediately and were quite excited. Here are a couple of photos of them sampling and to show what the lichens look like in the rock, thin bands of black, orange, and green. These lichens are only found in the Antarctic.

Sampling lichens at Finger Mountain

endolithic lichen

We continued this sampling at several other locations on Friday and Saturday, shuttled between sites by our excellent helicopter pilots. The scenery was spectacular and here are two photos of the areas we visited. Note the helicopter in the first photo:

University Valley and helicopter

University Valley view towards Beacon Valley

Today is Sunday, so a day off for the pilots and for our field work. It's a good day to relax and catch up on field notes and for me, this blog. The rest of my field team will arrive on an LC-130 from Christchurch this evening and include Ashley McKenzie, my graduate student, Rachel Murray, my field camp manager, and Xiaodong Liu, my Chinese colleague and collaborator on this project. I will continue to update the blog with our work as it progresses. We have had a great start this week, though!


25 December 2015 Christmas Day

Over the past five days, we have been able to go into the field three more times before the holidays. On Tuesday, 22 December, we flew to two new sites where my Italian colleagues could sample for more endolithic lichens. Several inches of snow had fallen in the higher elevations, so our first site near Mt. Electra overlooking the head of Wright Valley (the largest of the Dry Valleys) had several inches of snow covering the landing area on top of the sandstone formations. We were able to find a suitable place to land, thanks to our able pilot Harlan, and Laura and Fabio began to collect more samples. Here's what this area looked like and because we were so far up the valley the first photo shows that we could see the polar plateau in the distance to the south, while the second photo shows Wright Valley looking east:

Mt Electra area

Mt Electra area to north

I also used my GoPro camera to record Laura sampling and explaining the endolithic lichen community. This video is now on Youtube and can be viewed at:

After sampling here, we moved over to another site on the south side of Wright Valley below Siegmund Peak. Here, numerous layers of sandstone were exposed and the formation, weather by wind and freeze-thaw from moisture, looked very much like those in the western U.S. in Utah and Arizona. While Laura and Fabio sampled more endolithic lichens, I was excited to see thousands of trace fossils of Devonian worm burrows. These fossils are known from many areas of the world, and from the Dry Valleys, but this deposit was extensive and deep, more than I have ever seen. These worms lived and burrowed in mud bottoms of shallow marine environments, leaving traces of their burrows preserved in the mud that was eventually buried and turned into rock. The entire hillside was covered with them, exposed by erosion after ~400 million years. Interesting to see that these same rocks, thriving with life that long ago, now have a different kind of life in them today in the form of the endolithc lichens. Here's some photos of this fascinating place, probably the first ever for this location:

Siegmund Peak area

Devonian worms Siegmund Peak area

Devonian worms Siegmund Peak area

On Thursday, 24 December, we returned to Finger Mountain and Univeristy Valley for some additional samples, but also went to Victoria Valley, another Dry Valley, to sample sediments in the valley itself. We landed by a large frozen lake, Lake Victoria, where the ground was covered by polygon formations that are common in these valleys. These interesting features are formed over hundreds to thousands of years in areas where deep sediments are slowly moved and sorted by freeze-thaw action and frost heaving over time. Believe it or not, similar features have been observed on the surface of Mars! Here are some photos from the air and ground of these polygons and the lake:

Victoria Valley

Victoria Valley polygons from air

Victoria Valley polygons

Victoria Lake, Antarctica

On Christmas Eve, while waiting to fly out that morning on the helicopter, the Christmas spirit was alive and well around the station. Because there are so many field camps away from the station, a group of helicopter tecnicians and staff dressed as elves and flew to the various camps to wish them a Merry Christmas:

McMurdo elves

Some of these people work at national parks in the U.S. during the off season, so if you have been to Yellowstone National Park you may have met some of them there!

Now it's Christmas Day here at McMurdo and the first time I've spent Christmas at this station. Everyone is relaxing and enjoying the holiday with parties, hiking, and a big Christmas dinner planned for this afternoon and evening. Everyone is pitching in to help with these events so that the kitchen staff can have a day off too, and I will do my share and help wash dishes for an hour later this afternoon. The rest of my field team is here now too, having arrived last Sunday evening, so I will take them on a tour of one of the historic huts located near McMurdo that was built by Capt. Robert Falcon Scott in 1902 during his first Antarctic expedition. I will post more about it, and another video, in my next blog entry. Merry Christmas!


26 December 2015

Christmas Day at McMurdo Station was a real treat. First, the weather was perfect--sunny, no or little winds, and temperatures around 30 to 32 F. Great day for hiking some of the many established trails around the station and area. Because Ashley and Liu had not been to the historic hut at Hut Point, we went there in the afternoon with Rachel and two students from another group. I had checked out the key to his hut and was guide qualified to lead a private tour. The hut was built in 1902 by Robert Falcon Scott on his first expedition to the Antarctic. This expedition is known as the Discovery expedition, the name of his ship, and the hut is called the Discovery Hut. They were able to anchor their ship right beside Hut Point since the water is so deep there and off load their supplies and this prefabricated hut in February of that year. While they used the hut only for storage of supplies (food, fuel) and as a staging area for their attempt to reach the South Pole the following year, they used the ship for their winter quarters. The hut is still well preserved and is now maintained by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust. Many original artifacts still remain in the hut, including some from subsequent expeditions that used the hut up to 1916. Here's what is looks like today:

Discovery Hut

While there, I took the opportunity to video a virtual tour of the inside of the hut. You can view this 7-minute video on Youtube at:

After a nice afternoon of touring the hut, hiking, and enjoying the day off, we had a sumptuous dinner that the cooks and galley staff had prepared special for this day. It was an excellent meal and great way to end the day. Here we are at dinner in the galley, decorated for Christmas, with me in the back, Liu (unfortunately out of view to my right), then Ashley, Phillip (visiting from another group), Rachel, Laura, and Fabio.

McMurdo Christmas dinner

Today also is a day off for the station, but we will be back to work on our field camp preparations. Tomorrow, we will make one last trip to a new site in the Dry Valleys that Laura and Fabio want to sample. After that, we will be preparing for our move to the Italian station by 31 December.


2 January 2016

On 27 December we had some low clouds and fog in the Dry Valleys, visible from the station, so we were unable to go into the field that day. However, the next day was clear so I was able to go with Laura and Fabio one last time to sample endolithic lichens. We went to some cliffs with sandstone outcrops far to the north of the Dry Valleys at a place called Battleship Promontory. This was an important place for them to visit as they wanted to deploy some sensors for temperature and radiation within the rock itself, where the lichens grow, to better understand their ecology. You can see from the below photos why this site is named Battleship. On the ground, it felt like we had landed on Mars. There was a strong icy wind and no life visible anywhere. The cliffs reminded me of scenes in southern Utah:

Battleship Promontory

Battleship Promontory

Battleship Promontory

Soon after arriving Laura found a suitable place to sample and I helped Fabio with the instruments. He drilled small holes in the rock to insert the sensors at different depths, where the lichens grow, plus an air temperature sensor. These instruments will remain here for one year and will be recovered next season:

Fabio deploying instruments

Battleship Promontory instruments

After we returned from this trip to Battleship Promontory, I joined my team (Ashley, Liu, and Rachel) at our 'shakedown' camp behind McMurdo Station. That afternoon, they took all of our camp gear and tents to a site behind the station to set it all up and try it out. We wanted to make sure we had all we needed for our actual field camp later. So, this was a good exercise to make sure we didn't forget anything important. We even spent the night in the tents and packed them up the next morning with a list of items we still needed for the camp. Here's a picture of the camp with Liu quite pleased with it and Ashley in the back of the truck with all of our gear. The tents are known as Scott Polar tents and are a design that has been used in the Antarctic for over 100 years of exploration. They are made of thick canvas and hold up very well in strong winds, but each tent weighs about 100 lbs. Our total camp weight is about 800 lbs!

Liu at shakedown camp

Ashley in truck with camp gear

After the shakedown, all we had left to do was to organize all the gear and get it ready for cargo--weighing and labeling each item and placing it in a pile to go to the air terminal where it will be loaded on a small plane, a twin otter, for transport to Mario Zucchelli Station, the Italian station north of us up the coast. From there, the Italians will take over our logistics and move us to our field camps. We also had to pick out all the food for our camp and there is a food room at McMurdo where we do this. It is well stocked and we obtained enough food for twice the amount of time we plan to camp. This was done for safety reasons in case bad weather delays our pickup from the camp at the end. We'll have enough food with us to make it at least another week if a delay did occur. Here we are sorting and packing our food in the food room:

Ashley in food room

photo by Rachel Murray

Now we are ready to go to Zucchelli Station and our twin otter flight is scheduled for Monday, 4 January. There have been lots of other activities at McMurdo in the mean time. While New Year's eve and New Year's day were work days here, they are taking the weekend off as their holiday. Today then is a day off and there will be a series of events including a chili cookoff and an outdoor stage with live music later in the afternoon called Icestock. So, we will relax and enjoy ourselves with a little time off and begin our field work on Monday.


9 January 2016

We are now at Mario Zucchelli Station as of 5 January, arriving via a flight on a twin otter. Our internet access is more limited here, so I will not be able to post many photos until I return to McMurdo. However, we have been able to get some field work done near the station at both active and abandoned penguin colonies. Some of the abandoned sites in this area are up to 7000 years old! We excavated one of these sites and found a partial mummy of a penguin chick. Here are some photos, with Ashley excavating the mummy:

Adelie Cove colony

Adelie penguins at Adelie Cove.

CI Site 6

The field team looking at an abandoned penguin site. Note the concentration of small pebbles left over from old penguin nests.

Ashley excavating

Ashley excavating a penguin mummy from an abandoned colony.

Meanwhile, we are still waiting to go to Cape Hallett for our field camp. Bad weather north of us is delaying our travel to that camp. I'll update more later!


11 January

We are still at Mario Zucchelli Station waiting for weather to clear so we can move our camp to Cape Hallett.  I should mention that this is a very comfortable station.  It is used by the Italian Antarctic Program only in the summer and there are about 70 people here right now.  They have several helicopters and one twin otter that they use to move field parties to various locations for their research.  Laura and Fabio are here visiting more sites for endolithic lichens. The station also has a very good chef, from Sardinia, and from previous visits I have always thought that this station has the best food on the continent!  It’s true as we have had fantastic meals here, various pastas, fish, vegetables, and salads.  Saturday night is their pizza night and they make many different kinds to choose from.  So, we are really enjoying the hospitality here while we wait for the weather to clear!

Mario Zucchelli station

A rare nice sunny day at Mario Zucchelli Station.

There has been lots of bad weather in the Ross Sea this season, so it is impacting all of us doing field work, but at least we have been able to continue working at sites near the station so we are still getting some data.  On Saturday, we went by helicopter to Inexpressible Island to the south of us, only a 10 minute flight.  Here, there is another active Adélie penguin colony, larger than the one at Adélie Cove that we visited a few days before.  As at Adélie Cove, the chicks are still downy and only a few are starting to form crèches, or groups that form without adult penguins to watch over them.  At this stage, the chicks are independent and both of their parents can go to sea to gather food (mostly krill) for them and return to feed them in the crèche.  That routine will continue until the chicks molt out of their down and into their first true feathers and then they go to sea for the winter by the end of February. 

Inexpressible Island penguin colony

Inexpressible Island penguins

We collected samples around this colony and I hiked the upper terraces to the south, locating and mapping pebble concentrations that represent old penguin breeding sites.  There are dozens of these here and previous work has indicated that they date as old as 5000-6000 years.  If we do not go to Cape Hallett this week, we will return here for more samples. My Chinese colleague, Xiaodong Liu, also can sample sediments here near the active colony. He is investigating the geochemistry of penguin impacted sediments, so will take sediment core samples at various places around the colony.

Inexpressible Island old colony

Note the pebble concentration from an old penguin breeding site here.

You may be wondering why this island was named Inexpressible.  There is some interesting history to that name.  In Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to reach the south pole (known as the Terra Nova expedition after the name of his ship), he arrived in the Ross Sea in February 1910 to establish a hut and base at Cape Evans.  His objective was to spend the winter at this hut, then go for the pole in summer 1911-1912.  However, he also wanted to add to the scientific knowledge of the area and he had two parties of men explore other regions during this expedition.

One of these parties of six men, known at the Northern Party, was dropped off at Cape Adare at the entrance to the Ross Sea, to spend the winter there and then explore the coastlines to the south the following summer, traveling on foot and pulling a large sledge with food and supplies as they completed these trips before returning to their hut.  They were then to meet up with the ship and be taken further south for additional explorations along the coast.

Their winter at Cape Adare was harsh as this place receives many storms, strong winds, and blizzards.  They built a wooden hut next to another hut that was built there in 1899, the first hut on the Antarctic continent, so they had some shelter already there.  After a long hard winter, they were picked up by the Terra Nova in early January and dropped off at Evans Cove near Inexpressible Island to begin their sledge journey and explorations to the south.  They found many interesting geological features on this journey, even petrified wood, and collected rock samples. The ship was supposed to come back and pick them up at Inexpressible Island by mid February, but day after day went by and no ship was in sight.  A strong storm system lasting several days made them think that the ship was blown seaward and couldn’t reach them, so they continued to wait on Inexpressible Island. This island is at the base of two large glaciers so receives lots of cold katabatic winds year round.  It was because this place was so cold and barren (except for the penguin colony) that they named it Inexpressible. 

Cape Adare penguin colony

The large penguin colony at Cape Adare. It is the largest Adelie penguin colony in Antarctica.

As February ended, they began to realize that the ship was not coming (there was no radio communication in those days), so they started to build a shelter from the winds by digging a cave into a large snow drift.  This took them several days of work to build it large enough for six men, plus they had to gather food for the winter too—penguins and seals were the only source for that.  They made several food caches and were very depressed at first as they came to terms with the realization that they would be spending another winter, but this time in this snow cave instead of a much more comfortable hut.

Inexpressible Island snow cave site

Site of the snow cave as marked by a sign and historical marker on Inexpressible Island. The large snow drift they used is now gone.

sign at snow cave

seal remains at snow cave

Penguin and seal bones surround the area of the snow cave, food for the men there and still present after over 100 years.

It was another long hard winter, much worse than the one spent at Cape Adare, because the cave was cold, uncomfortable, and did not have much room. They could not even stand up completely as the roof was only 5’6” above the floor.  Two men would cook each day while the rest could only lie in their sleeping bags and they rotated these duties daily.  Their food rations consisted of one biscuit (a sort of large thick cracker) per day plus occasional penguin or seal meat and blubber. The blubber was also used for the oil in their stove and lamps.  This routine continued day after day for several months before they were finally able to leave the snow cave at the end of September 1912.  Traveling southward once again, they finally reached Cape Evans and Scott’s hut in November and learned of the tragic news about Robert Falcon Scott, who died with four other men on their way back from the pole.  It’s all a very fascinating story and we were glad that we could see the snow cave site and know about these events that occurred over 100 years ago.


15 January

Yesterday we had a long day as we finally had good weather to take two helicopters to Cape Hallett and Cape Adare. We needed two helicopters because we are going too far from the station for just one to safely explore the area. Wherever helicopters fly in Antarctica, there must be another one within 100 miles just in case one needs help. It was long flight, over two hours, to get to Cape Adare in one helicopter while the other went to Cape Hallett. I wanted to revisit Cape Adare ever since I discovered some abandoned penguin colonies there in 2005, high up on a terrace above the current active colony.

We landed on the upper terrace and Ashley and I immediately began to find abandoned sites scattered all over the area. In fact, the most distant ones were a kilometer up the terrace from where the penguins can first gain access to it after a 300 m climb up a steep slope! It was very impressive to find so many abandoned sites. If all these sites were once occupied about 1800 years ago as I found for some of them in 2005, then this ancient colony combined with the active one below would have been a 'supercolony' of over 200,000 nests!

Cape Adare upper terrace

While sampling and surveying this upper terrace, we also found an historic campsite used by Scott's Northern Party in 1912. They setup a camp here so that they would have a high vantage point to look for their ship to pick them up that summer. The remains of their camp include a rock circle (rocks used to hold their tent down in the wind), and some old canvas covering a storage bin made of rock. We didn't touch anything as this is an important historic site. However, between here and Inexpressible Island we seem to be running into the remnants of the Northern Party wherever we go!

Northern Party campsite at Cape Adare upper terrace

We were just starting to sample sites on the upper terrace when fog started to roll in. Our pilot, not wanting to get stuck there with no visibility to fly, had us pack up and leave before we could fully explore and sample the sites. We hope we can get back again next week as this area is fascinating and we can spend a lot of time sampling there! Today, though, we will rest and catch up on all our samples and notes.


17 January

The last few days have been real nice weather around the station, but not farther north where we want to go to revisit Cape Adare. However, we have sites we can work on close by and we returned to Inexpressible Island yesterday to sample more sites there.  Liu, my Chinese colleague, was busy collecting sediments to study for the past record of seals and penguins from small lakes around the modern and ancient penguin colonies. 

Ashley and I decided to sample one small abandoned penguin site located high on a terrace above the modern beach.  It turned out to be a shallow site, but it produced some old bone and eggshell that we can radiocarbon date later.  I made a video here too, showing how I excavate a penguin site and then backfill the pit so that it is difficult to see where I had dug.  It helps keep our environmental disturbance to a minimum. I will post this video after I return to McMurdo and have more internet access.

Inexpressible Island Site 5

Today we were invited over to the new Korean Station, Jang Bogo, located across the bay from Zucchelli Station. We had to shuttle over in the helicopter, a five minute flight, and we were greeted by their station leader.  Their station is very new and modern, plus energy efficient.  It was opened in 2014 and holds about 50 people at full capacity.  They power the station with wind, solar, and gas generators.  Typically, the wind and solar cover about 20% of the energy needs to run the station in the summer.  We also had a great Korean lunch with them, excellent food and everyone enjoyed the visit including a dozen or so of our Italian friends. 

Jang Bogo Station

After we returned to Zucchelli, it was calm and sunny out and we took a walk down to the bay where pack ice was still present. Here we saw numerous Weddell seals sleeping and relaxing on the pack ice or the beach, as well as some Adélie penguins swimming around and seemingly enjoying the day as well. 

Weddell seal on ice

Weddell Seal by Zucchelli Station

Tomorrow we will go back to Inexpressible Island one last time to complete our sampling there, then hope to return to Cape Adare on Tuesday if the weather cooperates. 


21 January

Since my last entry we’ve been able to spend a couple more days at Inexpressible Island. The weather there was unusually nice, with little to no wind and sunny skies.  So, we sampled two more abandoned colonies while Liu took a sediment core sample from a small pond near our abandoned sites.  He wants to study the geochemistry of the sediments and how runoff from the ancient penguin colony changed the organic content of the pond. He has used this methodology successfully before to show how the organic content of the sediments increases during periods in the past when penguins were present, and can therefore track penguin occupation history in an areas where sediments like this preserve.  The below photos show how he samples with a thick plastic pipe that he pounds into the lake sediments, then extracts it with the sediment core inside. He was very happy with the amount he was able to sample on this particular day!

Liu sampling

Liu sampling2

Meanwhile, Ashley and I excavated the sites nearby and found lots of feathers, eggshell, and some bone preserved within them.  The sediments were old and dry and probably date from 3000 to 4000 years old, based on dates from other sites sampled here in previous years.  While excavating, we found a penguin chick skull and it is shown in the photo below.

II Site 6 chick skull

Inexpressible Island is a beautiful place and the active penguin colony below us numbers about 30,000 nests.  You can see lots of penguins on the beach where large ice flows and pieces of ice bergs are moving by with the winds.  Here’s one nice photo of what it looks like there, plus we took the opportunity to do a group photo of the entire team. Left to right is Xiaodong Liu, Ashley McKenzie, Rachel Murray, and me.

Inexpressible Island beach

The field team on Inexpressible Island

Today is another day with bad weather coming. It’s starting to snow and will close in more with this storm front this afternoon through tomorrow. So, we will work on our data and samples and wait for the weather to clear over the weekend. We are still hoping for another clear day to head north and back to Cape Adare!


25 January

We’ve had a series of good and bad weather days since the last entry and today it has been snowing at the station all day, so no operations are taking place. It is supposed to get better tomorrow and maybe good enough on Wednesday to try going to Cape Adare again.  We had a good day yesterday and we all went to Cape Hallett and Cape Adare, but unfortunately the fog shrouded the upper terrace at Cape Adare and we were unable to do work there. We landed the helicopter above the fog to wait a bit and see if it would clear, but it only got worse so we were forced to leave.  So, a long day flying with no work to show for it. This often happens in the Antarctic when weather can change quickly and affect all operations and plans. Here is a picture of Cape Adare with the fog:

Cape Adare fog

Now we are approaching the end of our season. We will try once or twice more to reach Adare, but after that operations will start to shut down and we will head back to McMurdo, then back to New Zealand.  Even if we don’t get to Adare again, we have lots of samples and data from other sites, so it has been a successful season in that regard.  Stay tuned for more news in a few days…


29 January

As January comes to an end, we are completing our work at Mario Zucchelli Station.  The other day, Liu and I hiked back to Campo Icarus, where we excavated sites when we first arrived here and where we found the penguin mummy. I used my GPS to map more of the pebble mounds, taking advantage of nice weather and sunny skies.  It was interesting to think about this area once covered with breeding penguins and what it must have been like several thousand years ago.

Campo Icarus

The area at Campo Icarus, near Mario Zucchelli Station, that was once covered with breeding Adelie penguins up to 6000 yrs ago.

Yesterday we flew to a place I had never visited before, just to see if anything could be found there. The day turned out to be much more interesting than expected and we are excited about what we found.  The location was Cape Irizar, an isolated wind-swept and snow-covered rocky cape just south of the Drygalski Ice Tongue and about 50 miles south of the station.  Not much is known about this place except that I found one paper that cited two radiocarbon dates on penguin guano indicting a previous occupation there at about 4000 to 5000 years ago.  So, I thought there might be a small pebble area where this guano was collected and that’s all.  What we found was much greater than that!

Cape Irizar

Cape Irizar as we approached it from the north.

After flying around the cape to reconnoiter, we landed near the top. It was very rocky and I didn’t expect to find much at first. The ice-free area was larger than I expected, though, so we began to hike around and survey the area.  As I was moving downslope on one side of the cape, I came across the first small pebble concentration that indicated a former penguin breeding site.  Looking further, I found four small concentrations clustered here so I called the team over to start sampling them. Meanwhile, Ashley and Rachel had also started finding lots of penguin bones on the surface over where they were, south of me. This was puzzling, as no penguins breed near this area today (the closest living colony is Inexpressible Island, 40 miles north and on the other side of the ice tongue).  In addition, there is no longer any easy access to the upper areas of the cape from the beach, so I don’t see how penguins could have accessed this cape in recent years. 

Cape Irizar looking north

View to north, with Drygalski Ice Tongue in the distance, from Cape Irizar.

Cape Irizar landscape

On the ground at Cape Irizar.

Cape Irizar abandoned colony

An abandoned colony, with pebble concentration, on Cape Irizar.

So, we setup excavations first at two of the pebble concentrations I had found.  We encountered very dry dusty sediments in these excavations, a good indication for old sites, as well as some penguin bones, feathers and eggshell.  The sites were shallow too, only about 10-15 cm deep, so represented a relatively brief occupation in the past.

Cape Irizar site excavation

A penguin humerus and scapula, well preserved in the dry, dusty soil in an abandoned penguin colony excavated at Cape Irizar, perhaps 4000 yrs old.

Not expecting to find much more, after finishing the excavations we began hiking around the more southern part of the cape. Here, we found many more pebble concentrations closer to what was probably the beach access point in the past.  I estimated at least 30-40 more sites here!  Even more surprising was the amount of penguin bones on the surface, similar to what you find at an active colony. Some of these bones were covered in lichens and some looked fresh, with algae on them in meltwater. It appears that as the snow cover on the cape is melting, it is exposing more of these bones on the surface.  We even found sites with dried chick mummies on the surface and collected two of these.

penguin mummy at cape irizar

A mummified and complete penguin chick carcass on the surface at Cape Irizar.

Another interesting observation at Cape Irizar was all of the lichens, mosses and algae we found here. It covered the rocks and parts of the ground, perhaps thriving from the soil enriched by nutrients from the penguin guano. It was very colorful and impressive.

Cape Irizar mosses

Colorful mosses and lichens on a moist patch of ground at Cape Irizar.

So, the big question now is how old is this site?  It can’t be too recent in age as the access to the top is too difficult, and the sediments in the pebble areas are very dry, but the bones look fairly recent in age. Could it be that the cape was covered by permanent snow for hundreds or thousands of years, preserving the abandoned site intact, until being exposed in recent years with warming temperatures?  Answers to these questions will have to wait, but we are very curious about it.

Today is bad weather again around the station, so there are no flights or movements to the field. We are catching up on data and notes again and will plan a return to Cape Irizar and other ice-free areas near it on Sunday.  Even if we don’t get to Cape Adare again, at least we have some exciting results from this area!


3 February

Not much has changed since my last entry. Bad weather continues to keep us from doing field work. It has also delayed our departure for McMurdo Station. We were supposed to return there yesterday, but we woke to strong katabatic winds coming off the glaciers at over 50 knots (=57 mph)! These winds are too strong to safely fly small airplanes or helicopters, so we have to wait until they die down before a flight can be scheduled to pick us up. 

katabatic winds

Katabatic winds have sculpted the snow on top of this ridge near Cape Adare. Note the blowing snow on the right.

katabatic winds

Here, you can 'see' the katabatic wind in the form of blowing snow, moving down the face of this mountain by Mario Zucchelli Station like a waterfall and blowing off the ridge in front.

Katabatic winds are caused by warm air above the polar plateau, causing more dense, cold air above the ice to flow downward with gravity. It flows faster with steeper drops down glaciers and valleys, but also the speed is dependent on the amount of warming above the plateau.  These winds are almost always present, but usually very light in summer and worse in winter.  Sometimes, though, they strengthen without much warning and can last for over 24 hours or more.  So far, they have not been too bad here and will hopefully dissipate by tomorrow so we can fly back to McMurdo.


5 February

We are now at McMurdo Station! After waiting for winds to die down and weather to clear for several days at Zucchelli Station, it finally did so yesterday morning. A twin otter flew from McMurdo and picked us up by early afternoon. We were sad to leave all our friends at Zucchelli--they have all been so kind and nice to us and there were lots of hugs all around. We then loaded our gear and went out to the ice landing strip.

Zucchelli Station ice landing strip

A twin otter sits by the ice landing strip at Enigma Lake, Mario Zucchelli Station.

It took about two hours to reach McMurdo Station, so we were there by 3:30 pm, time enough to get some things done in our lab before the day ended. We have been packing all our samples (sediments, penguin remains, etc.) for shipment back to the U.S. (and to China for Liu's samples). That took most of the day today too, so we are tired and now will rest before our flight back to Christchurch, New Zealand, which has been changed to Sunday.

It's been a great season and, despite not getting to Cape Adare for the amount of time I wanted there, we did find lots of other sites and collected many samples. We will try to reach Cape Adare again next season. Meanwhile, here are some links to some Youtube videos I was able to upload once we got to McMurdo:

Discovery of the 'supercolony' at Cape Adare:

How I excavate abandoned penguin colonies:

An explanation for glacial erratics, or large boulders carried by glaciers and deposited when the ice melts:

Thanks for following my 2015-2016 blog and see you next year!