“Everybody’s got their own good reason why their favorite season is their favorite season… I live for every one, I live for every one.”
Free Antarctica souvenir to the first person who tells me which awesome song from which awesome band has those lines… seriously. When submitting the name of the song and the band, please also include your mailing address and whether you prefer a magnet, patch or sticker. If you don’t want to post your personal details in the comments area, please post just the song and band name (to prove you were the first) and then e-mail me the rest. This contest is open to international participants but void in Utah. Because I hate Utah. (Kidding… Parts of Utah are beautiful, and one of my favorite charities is located there. But the contest is still void in Utah, as are most fun things.)
The above lyrics have been bouncing around my head of late, because I can really feel time speeding by here.
A couple weeks ago, my supervisor said “you’ve crossed over” which, quite frankly, was kind of creepy. When I asked for a little detail, he explained that I had passed the halfway point of my time in Antarctica. (And if you’re thinking “wow, her boss is counting down the days until she leaves,” let me explain that supervisors have to do a mid-season evaluation for everyone, which is why they keep track of such things.)
Outside, time is marching on as well… the Observation Tube has been closed for the year due to increased instability of the sea ice (a science-y way of saying the dang sea ice is thinnin’ and meltin’ and ain’t right fer bearin’ the weight of tubes ‘n’ people ‘n’ stuff).
The trails that were covered in snow when I got here are now a mix of bare volcanic rock and stretches of glass-like ice. With the sun up 24 hours a day, there is enough radiant heat to melt snow. But as the sun moves around the horizon (it’s doing a slow spiral upward, to peak on the winter solstice), as soon as the melted snow is in shadow it re-freezes, resulting in smooth sheets of ice that are lovely to look at, especially from up close because you’ve just wiped out.
The skua have arrived… badasses of the animal kingdom, such as it is, down here. Skua are large brown and gray, albatross-like birds that aggressively scavenge. They’re notorious for hanging around the exits of the galley and swooping in to steal food right out of people’s hands. When not harassing us aliens, they sit in the middle of roads, on outside stairs, pretty much anywhere they please, with a smug expression, as if to say “Feeling lucky, punk? Touch one feather on my head and you violate the International Antarctic Treaty and will be on a plane out of here before you can say ‘the skua was looking at me funny!'”
Things are still extremely busy at work, but have also settled into a routine. Not that I’m bored. While my job may be mundane, I have been doing a lot of fiction writing (yay! My crippling writer’s block appears to be over!!) and reading (wow… thanks to everyone who sent me more books than I can possibly finish by February, all of which, you will be happy to know, will be donated to the McMurdo Library when I leave. Your generosity will continue to make people in Antarctica happy for years to come.). And whenever I feel the least bit mopey, all I need to do is take a step outside and remember “holy crap, I’m in Antarctica!”
Works every time.
One thing that has been disappointing, I’ll admit, is a scheduling change about a month ago that makes it tough for me to attend the science lectures. I can go to them, but have to leave early to be on time for work. Invariably I have to get up and go just as the geologist is saying “I think you’ll see on this next slide that what really makes the gneiss formations fascinating is-”
So I was beyond superexcited* when they announced a special early morning science lecture for MidRats**, of which I am now one. And the lecture topic was: Fossils in the Dry Valleys. Yes, Fossils. Dry Valleys. Paleontology and glaciology, two of my favorite ologies. It’s like peanut butter and jelly! Rum and ginger beer! Marzipan and, uhm… marzipan! Delicious.
* Yes, “superexcited” is a word. At least on my blog it is.
**The term “MidRats” is a relic from McMurdo’s days as a naval base. It’s the night shift, the folks who are entitled to eat the meal served at night – Midnight Rations.
The lecture was made even better by the tag-team style of its presenters, a paleo-ecologist and a glaciologist. Both were engaging speakers who had more energy than most at 0800 hours, and would hand off the PowerPoint remote with comments such as “so, I bet you’re wondering how old these moss mat fossils were. Hey, how old are they, Allan?”
The Dry Valleys, by the way, are a unique geological feature about 60 miles from here. They are a row of valleys stretching between mountain ranges with such kickass names as the Asgard Mountains. Despite the presence of numerous glaciers (and iced-over lakes), the valleys themselves are free of snow and ice, their rocky surfaces scoured by katabatic winds that can howl at more than 200 miles an hour. The DVs own all kinds of “-est” honors, such as largest snow-free area on the continent, closest environment on Earth to that of Mars, likeliest place the aliens landed and built their warrior training grounds, etc.
The glaciologist told us he was walking through an area near Mt. Boreas looking for something, anything to study. So he’s walking. And walking. You got the idea he was starting to rethink his career choice. And then he really put his foot in it.
No, seriously. His boot suddenly kicked up a fine, powdery substance. He looked down and realized he was stepping on tiny plant fossils that were all that remained of a lakebed. Time to call in his buddy the paleo-ecologist, who discovered incredibly rare and breathtakingly well-preserved fossils of semi-aquatic moss and, upon further inspection, beetles and mandibles from teeny tiny flies.
So, I bet you’re wondering how old these fossils were. Hey, how old are they, Allan?
At this point, the glaciologist (I believe he is officially a glacial geologist, though I’m not sure what the difference is) explained that they used nearby stratified layers of volcanic ash to date the fossils, extracting microcrystals and then destroying them with lasers to release the argon gas within, which allowed them to radiocarbon date the ash layers and say, with about as much certainty as good scientists will allow, that the various groups of fossils were between 14.1 and 13.9 million years old.
I know, my brain hurts just thinking about that whole process, too.
The more they poked around, the more evidence they discovered of a dramatic climate shift. Between 14.1 and 13.9 million years ago, an eyeblink in geological time, they estimate, based on the sequence of taxa present in the layers of fossils, that there was a 20 degree Celsius* drop in average temperature.**
* For those of you who think Celsius is a vegetable or a Roman emperor, that’s very roughly a more than 60 degree Fahrenheit drop.
** For any climate change deniers out there, before you can say “see, it proves me driving my SUV to the mall and back four times a day has nothing to do with global warming,” I have this to say: screwing with Mother Nature’s temperature like we’ve done in the last couple hundred years has very different consequences than Mother Nature herself deciding to put on an extra pair of socks. The Earth does go through climate cycles on its own, over millennia, causing the extinction of species, among other things. But, as I learned in the lecture last month about evidence of climate change, the increase in greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution, and more specifically, since about the 1950s, is off the charts when compared with anything seen in ice core samples dating back millions of years. So not only are we mucking about with the planet’s thermostat, we’re doing it with a baseball bat.
Okay, thinking about climate change and how politicians have hijacked the issue to suit their own short-term ambitions makes me nauseous, so back to that darling pair of scientists (and they were darling… especially the paleo-ecologist, a man probably in his late 60s and, as he put it, overdue for retirement… he had a slight English accent, heard mostly in the vowels, and fabulous white hair, high cheekbones and a long, straight nose. He looked like Odin. Except with two eyes.).
When they started really picking apart the layers of fossils, they realized there was a progression of species present that corresponded exactly to the development of life in Arctic alpine lakes, but predated any evidence of that, leading to the question: was the first tundra in Antarctica? (Antarctica itself has only been a big frozen wasteland for a short time, geologically speaking. As recently as 14 million years ago it looked like the forests of South America do today.)
There was much more to the lecture, including satellite images that showed geological clues about how the flow patterns of the Taylor and Ferrar Glaciers, near their area of study, have changed course over the (millions of) years, and slides of shockingly perfect Nothofagus fossils… I’m a big fan of Nothofagus, also known as Southern Beech, because I’ve been fortunate enough to see it in New Zealand and Chile and know that I’m looking at a living remnant of the supercontinent of Gondwana. And that makes me happy. Seeing fossils of it in Antarctica made me even happier.
Alas, without the slides and jovial Odin-like delivery, I cannot do justice to the presentation. So you’ll have to be content to look at some pretty pictures:
And, hey kids, if you like reading this blog and looking at the pictures, please show your support… Not by sending me a Christmas present or holiday-ambiguous care package (for which I am never expectant but always grateful), but by making a donation to NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. I had never heard of it until a colleague here mentioned she was doing it (the idea is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November). I ended up participating, and was shocked to find that all I apparently needed to cure my two miserable years of writer’s block was the incentive of getting a PDF “Winner’s Certificate” for finishing on time.
The NaNoWriMo folks also run the Young Writer’s Program… I have been fortunate to have a mom and a brother and tons of friends who have supported my fiction writing (mostly by nodding politely as I drone on and on about plot details and characters’ quirks, and by understanding that I become an asocial insomniac when the fever hits). But a lot of young writers out there don’t have that kind of support network. So please join me in helping them.
If at any point in the donation process you are asked how you heard about NaNoWriMo, please tell them AllegedMastermind (my NaNoWriMo username) sent ya.