It’s been exciting the past couple days! After being stuck in McMurdo Station due to bad weather on Monday and Tuesday–the helicopters won’t fly when there’s too much wind or storms rolling around–we finally were able to get a period of weather good enough for us to leave. Bishwo (a Nepalese graduate student from Brigham Young University) and Zach got ready to catch their helicopter ride to F6 camp in the Dry Valleys when things began to look bad–another weather delay. The weather also continued to keep Diana, Uffe and Byron (a professor from Brigham Young University that’s been on our team for many years) from flying down to the Beardmore Glacier to collect soil samples for one of our other projects.

Fortunately the weather quickly lifted and Bishwo and Zach were called back down to the heliport where they weighed their gear in to let the pilots know how much cargo was on board. Once they had all their equipment they got into the helicopter and then took off–after all the delay, fieldwork at last! The glacier team wasn’t so fortunate, though, and remained stuck in McMurdo for at least another day.

The helicopter flew out over the sea ice and after a half-hour flight over the frozen Ross Sea the pair finally made it to F6 camp on the shore of Lake Fryxell. There’s a permanent hut set up there with a kitchen, entryway and lab area: there’s an outhouse on the side of the building and everyone sleeps in tents. In order to minimize impacts on the Dry Valleys, nothing aside from the huts and other necessary items is left here and all trash and waste must be sealed into containers to return to McMurdo. The research based out of here involves both our work with soils (such as the stoichiometry experiment we described last entry, which is also what Bishwo and Zach flew out to add nutrients to) and work on the many streams that feed into Lake Fryxell from the surrounding glaciers. This work is all conducted for the long-term ecological research site stationed in the Dry Valleys, and involves researchers not only from Colorado State University but also Brigham Young University, Dartmouth College, the University of Colorado and many other universities around the country. Research sites are spread all around both the camp and the lake, making it very much a science-based area.

Little hut, big valley!

This was also Zach’s first trip into the Dry valleys, and you can see how excited he was to finally be there!
Shock at seeing the dry valleys for the first time

Once they had landed and gotten their gear offloaded Bishwo and Zach realized that there was another problem. In all the confusion trying to get the helicopter flights out, somehow the last half of the water and nutrient solutions hadn’t been loaded–they wouldn’t be able to work on the experiment without it! A quick call back to McMurdo notified the helicopter crews of the issue and the solutions were to be sent out as quickly as possible. To make use of the time available, Bishwo and Zach walked over with Becky (a member of the soils team from Dartmouth College that had made it out to F6 camp earlier in the week – her blog is here) to check some of the other experiments. The group wanted to be sure that nothing had blown away or broken in the year since the wormherders had last been in Antarctica. Once the team had checked and made sure that everything was still in place and in working order, they went into the hut to get a cup of tea to warm up. While enjoying the tea, a helicopter could be heard getting closer and sure enough, the supplies had arrived and work could begin!

The crew carried the 35 (heavy) 10 L jugs of nutrient solutions over to the stoichiometry plots and got ready to pour the solutions on the appropriate plots. Becky has worked on these plots for several years and so she helped oversee Bishwo and Zach while they carried the solutions over to the plots. They started by adding only water to the plots indicated by Becky that weren’t getting any additional nutrients (the control for the experiment to make sure that any changes in the soil animals were due to the nutrients and not the water that was added).

Once at the indicated plot, they double-checked to make sure they were in the right plot by reading the copper tag anchored on the ground and checking the two plots next to them matched what was shown on the map. Bishwo and Zach then placed clear plastic cones down to outline where they were supposed to pour the liquid and then carefully watered the plots. Each of the different solutions had to be poured on 8 separate plots, and so once they had the water poured they moved on to the carbon and nitrogen solutions, then the phosphorus and carbon/nitrogen and finally the carbon/phosphorus solutions. Here you can see Bishwo carefully applying carbon solution to one of the plots:

The solutions had to be slowly poured onto the plots, so that the water would seep into the soil and not just run off the surface and away from the plots. All of the liquid needs to soak into the soil and completely wet the top 5 inches in order to provide the nutrients to all the animals that lives in that space–if the water were poured too quickly, it would run off the plots and be wasted or could contaminate nearby plots and ruin the experiment. Notice the careful positioning of Zach and Bishwo’s feet as they bent over the cones to pour the solutions without stepping in the plots!

While they had been engrossed in getting the plots treated with the solutions, storm clouds rolled in and it began to snow–no helicopter was going to be able to fly in the storm. The afternoon in the camp was fun and our team got to meet the “stream team” and four “GK-12” graduate students (their blog is here) from the University of Colorado who were also working out of F6 camp, bringing the total number of people to 9. Everyone played cards and chatted when word came over the radio just as dinner was being prepared around 7:30: There was a helicopter at another camp just to the west that was going to stop at F6 to pick up Bishwo and Zach and bring them back to McMurdo! They quickly rushed to get their gear outside and when the helicopter arrived packed on all of the now-empty jugs and their backpacks and then they were off!

The helicopter quickly flew over the valleys to the edge, where they meet the sea ice. The weather between the Dry Valleys and McMurdo Station wasn’t good enough to fly through, and so the helicopter pilot decided to “boomerang” back to camp. Just in time for dinner!

It snowed off and on all day, with up to an inch of snow on the ground at times. The Dry Valleys are an extremely cold desert (even though they’re cold, they’re also very, very dry as the name suggests) and the snow would disappear quickly–the air is so dry that a lot of the moisture evaporates off before the water in the snow can even get into the soil. Look how different the valleys look covered in snow:

In the afternoon the snow began to clear up, and at 5 pm the helicopter they had tried to go home on the night before took off to refuel and then returned to bring Bishwo and Zach back to McMurdo. They got picked up around 5:45 and after a smooth ride made it back into McMurdo around 6:15. Just in time for dinner!

Now that everyone’s back in town, we’re looking at all of the samples under the microscope to see what nematodes and other soil animals are living in the soil samples we collected. This weekend Zach and Bishwo are going back to F6 camp to work on some of the other experiments there, and Diana, Byron and Uffe are hoping to finally go far south to the Beardmore Glacier with Ian, one of our team members from Waikato University in New Zealand.