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Antarctica: Teachings of “The Ice”

By Dave Risk

What scientific trip would be complete without some new insights into natural ecosystems, and oneself?  I learned that:

1. My bladder can, on occasion, hold more than a litre of urine. One may wonder how I learned such a thing, but it should be obvious when one considers the environmental sensitivity of the Dry Valleys. Absolutely nothing may remain behind during field work – our waste included. During our time in the field, we captured everything, including our pee, which was decanted from our personal 1L jugs (carried with us as required) into larger containers. Mine was labeled both with a “P” and a handwritten “Gravy”, which is how I distinguished it from that of others. As a team, were were able to monitor our collective urine production volume, and hydration status, and said topic occasionally became a discussion item in morning meetings. We did a lot of sharing. Anyways, I learned that sometimes a 1L container unfortunately just isn’t enough on some mornings! For those wanting to know about #2 (not item 2 below), you can ask me directly.

2. Patience. Remote field travel involves extensive waiting. My travels from Nova Scotia to the Dry Valleys took about 8 days of “Hurry up and Wait” travel, involving multiple itinerary adjustments, lost bags, etc. In the field, our chopper often couldn’t get to us because of weather over the Ice Shelf. So, one must be patient, and after all that, the success of a field campaign is still in the end determined by weather. Certainly some of our field movements in the Dry Valleys were restricted in this year’s weather, and some things didn’t perhaps get done as thoroughly as was hoped for. So, one must be lucky. I thought often about the massive waits endured by early Antarctic explorers like Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen. Over-wintering in coastal Antarctic huts (I visited Scott’s) would be a test of boredom to the extreme. Overall, my excursions this year to 70N and 80S emphasized that remote travel is not an adrenaline activity. Even in our age of modern transport, endurance and patience are the requisite skills. Having good people around really helps.  Though we like to think of early explorers as thrill-seekers, the reality would have been exactly the opposite. They were conservative, calculating, and most of all patient – in ways that I would probably never even understand.

3. Time travel. For several years, we’ve been running this project to document biological activity in Antarctic Dry Valley soils. We have done so by measuring emissions of gases (mainly CO2) breathed out by living microbes. The biological emissions in this amazingly near-sterile environment have proven to be scanty at best, and clouded by competing variations in CO2 from several processes including 1) geology, 2) soil water CO2 solubility, 3) wind, and 4) freeze/thaw. This year added to our understanding of these processes, and will contribute to a larger paper on teasing apart emissions from each of these sources. But, this year we also tried something new, which was to deploy one of Forerunner Research’s new waterproof GP CO2 sensors (http://www.forerunnerresearch.ca/GP.php) in a pond.  Continuous measurements in the water showed that photosynthetic algae organisms would ramp up quickly in response to available sunlight, even in ultra-cold ice-covered waters. Decomposer microbes would ramp up closely on their heels. Despite the fact that their temperatures were similar, the variations in CO2 that we observed in the pond were several times higher than in adjacent soils. One can’t help but draw comparisons to early life on earth, where water bodies were teeming with life, but the land surface was devoid of biological activity, and dominated by geochemical processes. I wasn’t just transported in my imagination to that earlier time in the earth’s evolution, but I was observing these patterns and processes in real time, almost exactly as they might have manifested themselves over a billion years ago. It makes sense that the searches for life, and water, on other planets should be closely intertwined. More on this as we write up the results.

Admittedly, my all-time highlight of my winter vacation may have been my last minute ski trip on the Ross Ice shelf, which I squeezed in during the last night on base after hurriedly packing. Maggie and I had gone for a ski a couple of weeks earlier when we arrived on base, but conditions were less than optimal as the warm Christmas weather made for corn snow conditions. But, at the end of my trip, the Ice Shelf roads to the airfield (8 km) were well frozen and freshly groomed, like a 50 m wide ski skating track. It was sunny, windless, and FAST. Mount Erebus and Castle Rock were looming above. The drivers of the occasional balloon-tired US Antarctic Program trucks were giving me huge waves. I was in a long sleeve shirt, without gloves.  For a fairly rabid XC skier, it’s hard to imagine a better bucket-filling evening. My life is now complete.

This is the end of my Antarctic 2015 blogging. Aside from the photos that appear in these posts, I’ll dump my images to http://basil.stfx.ca/photo in a folder called “Antarctica 2015” or similar. I also have about an hour of video footage, which I’ll mix down at some point in collaboration with anyone who would like to help. Monitor my @drisk_eh twitter handle the @FluxLabX handle (also visible on the http://www.fluxlab.ca webpage scroller) for updates on the progress of these forthcoming media posts.

Thanks for reading!

Antarctica: Team Awesome

By Dave Risk

So, you know that I’m headed to the Antarctic Dry Valleys, and with a team of scientists.  But, who are these folks, and what are they trying to accomplish?

Charlie Lee. Microbiologist specializing in extremeophile microbes. University of Waikato (NZ). Our Commander-in-chief and acronym aficionado who can also take a good joke. Lover of Antarctic science in all its forms. Project goal: To coordinate a multidisciplinary project using cutting edge tools to examine the distribution and activity of biological communities, winds and microclimate, and mechanisms of sediment redistribution.

Ian McDonald. Microbiologist specializing in extremeophiles. University of Waikato (NZ). Eleven-time Dry Valley veteran has it all mastered, and can DJ the best electronica mess-tent dance party in the Dry Valleys. Project goal: Support our science as the senior overseeing logistician.

Marwan Katurji. Meteorologist specializing in localized flow in complex terrain. University of Canterbury (NZ). Not easily fazed except by delayed dinners. Frequently gives understated nods from across the room that, without words, say “That’s the way it is, my friend”. Project goal: To fly UAV across and down our Dry Valley to map small scale wind fields.

Paul Bealing. Technologist specializing in geo-informatics and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).  University of Canterbury (NZ). A modern day MacGuyver, lover of Ukranian vodka, and old motorcycles of any nationality. Possibly the Southern Hemisphere’s quickest-draw wit. Project Goal: To keep the Canterbury UAV off the ground.

Jayne Belnap. Specialist in arid-region surface processes. United States Geologic Survey (USGS) Moab. A delightfully positive shoot-from-the-hipster American, who has seen it all, and knows no limits. A true curiosity kid. Project Goal: To establish the role of wind in redistributing Dry Valley sediments, and healing human landscape scars.

Maggie Lau. Extremeophile microbiologist specializing in harsh region (poles, deserts) microbial communities. Princeton University (USA). The quick learner, quiet observer, and detail master, nothing slips past Maggie. But she is not all business and is always good for a big (100 lb-er) belly laugh. Project Goal: To step in seamlessly for a missing team member, and co-pilot a UAV with multi-spectral camera that she’s never flown let alone seen, and conduct related ground truth sampling of several kinds.

Len Gillman. Forest ecologist come pinch-hitter UAV pilot. Aukland University of Technology (NZ). Chillaxed rock-climbing university administrator, exposed this trip to the mind altering stress of piloting (and landing) a high speed computer controlled drone for which he had received only a couple days training. Alternated between joke-making from the camping chair, and teeth clenching – but he pulled it off! Project Goal: To capture spectral images that would allow for identification of map algal mats from the sky.

Dave Risk. Soil gas emissions expert specializing in harsh regions and instrumentation. St Francis Xavier University, Canada. Poor sod obviously went too far south for his winter vacation this year. Frightfully limited wardrobe as a consequence of a long lasting luggage snafu, but did just fine thanks with 2x underwear purchase before heading to The Ice. Project Goal: To Check on an existing instrument that measures microbes breathing, and to undertake related spatial sampling campaigns.

For a portion of our field work, we also had two honorary members embedded in the group:

Trey Ratcliff. http://www.stuckincustoms.com  A computer science graduate photography wizkid artist who is sought as much by fun as he seeks fun himself. Discovered red wine only in his forties and won’t likely ever look back. Project Goal: Experience one of the remotest places, and capture images that mortals cannot even see.

Stu Robertson. http://www.peacein10000hands.com  A Kiwi videographer and photography artist. An artistic olympian who will adapt, stretch, or contort – whatever it takes to get the prize. A great storyteller that in Antarctica could be bested only by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen themselves. Project Goal: Live his dream of visiting Antarctica, and return with unforgettable media.

While the bios that are a bit tongue in cheek, they emphasize both the multidisciplinary nature of the team, and the personalities of the actors in my Antarctic drama. Charlie (and Craig Cary who wasn’t along but is heavily involved) both recognize the types of work needed for these unique regions, and have worked hard to put together international teams to get ‘er done.  Personally, I met Charlie and Craig 4 years ago when they found me at a meeting in Norway, and we have collaborated ever since. This process is very representative of the way that science works. And, throughout the project we naturally developed areas of overlap – where our individual work could be enhanced by additional imaging or sampling of the same sites in different ways. It’s only good luck that our team was so colourful, but for that I’m especially thankful.


I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Antarctica New Zealand and Scott Base as partners. ANZ supports all logistical demands of NZ government funded Antarctic research. Working in the Antarctic is challenging.  Basically, ANZ makes sure that the scientists are provided for, safe, and can do their work without worrying about the minutiae of gear shipments, helicopter logistics, tents and gear, climbing equipment and vehicles etc. These services are provided almost free to the scientific teams. As such, New Zealand punches above its weight in Antarctic research. While the U.S. has some similar mechanisms for Arctic research, Canada does little more than contribute some additional funds for work that is done in our own north. Here, it is generally up to individual researchers to make all their own logistical arrangements – which can be extremely challenging (and discouraging). Both ANZ and Scott Base are extremely well run. They are environmentally conscious, work smart, allocate their funds to the right things, and work collaboratively with the other international bases in the region including the U.S., the Italians, and others.

Antarctica: The Ross Ice Shelf

By Dave Risk

I have now officially completed my Antarctic Field Training. Our most excellent 1.5 day course was taught by Benji Nicholson. Ben’s normal job is as a paramedic in a beachside Australian town (who worked for a year in Jasper), but he jumped at the opportunity to come down to Antarctica and work for a season assisting researchers, mapping ice crevasses, etc. Our Field Training course involved introductions to hazards and gear, followed by camping on the Ross Ice Shelf. It was great to get outside for the night, as I had been feeling rather cooped up from days of traveling, and nearly two days in the station. Camping was just the thing. Though visibility wasn’t the best, it was otherwise great weather, being just above freezing and with only the mildest breeze. Before dinner, we scrambled up a steep little ridge route called Castle Rock, which would presumably have a really nice view if we weren’t in the clouds. We have some good laughs that evening in our kitchen wind break, followed by a coma-like sleep (despite the continuous sunlight).  Overall, the course was great and I liked the sensible team-based approach to field risks. I may adopt some aspects of the Kiwi approach in my own field courses.


After our return to Base in the Hagerlund, Jayne and I boomeranged immediately (now that we’re allowed to be on our own) to see the pressure ridges that form at the juncture of sea ice (a few metres thick) and the ice shelf (60 m thick) which is the sea-rafted extent of the Antarctic ice. Because of tidal action and currents, they collide and form mountains, similar to our pack ice on the Northumberland Strait. The formations and colours are great. There were a bunch of seals around scratching their noses (but little else).

As for science, we’re still somewhat in prep mode for Dry Valley deployment. The helicopter was flying today, which is great news. Two veteran members of our team went out to collect data from a meteo station in another Valley, and will return this evening. The Hercules flights to and from NZ are also going today, which means that my gear should arrive tonight. When it does, we’ll finalize weights and dates for our fly-out to the Dry Valleys. As the heli wasn’t flying yesterday, we’re a bit worried that our departure will be pushed back a bit. We’ll see. But, at least it seems certain that I’ll have gas sampling equipment!

I’ll probably have only another day to write before I go into the internet-free zone of the Dry Valleys. Well, it is internet free at least for us. The Americans broadcast the interwebs through the Dry Valleys for their scientific teams. Ah, the ubiquity of modern communications…

Research Experience in Carbon Sequestration (RECS)

By Jacquelyn Hurry

This summer I was one of 33 students was chosen to participate in a fully funded Research Experience in Carbon Sequestration (RECS) held June 1-10.  RECS is a 10-day interactive program that combines classroom instruction, site visits to carbon capture facilities, and hand-on field activities. Twenty-two globally recognized Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) experts and two RECS alumni collectively covered topics that ranged from capture technology, policy, CCUS deployment strategies, MVA monitoring, and communications training.

June 1, I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama the ‘cradle of the American Civil Rights Movement,’ and checked-in at the University of Birmingham Camp Hall where I met fellow participants.  This year RECS was hosted by Southern Company, which one of the nation’s largest generators of electricity and serves 4.3 million customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi.  In addition to providing energy, Southern Company is proactive in reducing their CO2 emissions through various CCUS technologies and partnerships.

Day 2: Our first stop was Alabama Power’s Plant Miller.  After a solid afternoon of presentations we toured the plant and capture demonstration facility.  As a bonus, during our southern BBQ lunch the EPA released its plan to cut carbon emissions from the worlds’ largest emitters, coal fired power plants. It was a bit ironic that we were watching Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator, announce the Clean Power Plan while we sat at one of the largest emitters of CO2!

Day 3: We traveled to the National Carbon Capture Center (NCCC, http://www.nationalcarboncapturecenter.com/ ) located within the Plant Gaston utility site. The Department of Energy (DOE) established the NCCC in 2009 as a test center for emerging capture technologies.  Here researchers from all over the world can test their capture technologies including pre-combustion, post-combustion, and oxy-combustion CO2capture processes at multiple scales.

Here Carl Carman, one of my colleagues from the Illinois State Geological Survey and fellow RECS participant, and I posed for a photo in front of the NCCC before our tour.

Day 4: We traveled to Alabama Power Headquarters for presentations on public engagement, relation strategies, and communication coaching exercises. This experience was one of my favorite days of the course. We were split into groups and given different topics of public concern dealing with CCS.

My group’s topic dealt with farmer accusations of dead animals caused by leaking CO2 in their pond. Sound familiar…Kerr investigation? This was great for me because I was able to provide solid talking points for Davina Bird, pictured below, on Weyburn. After each group finished the exercise we watched the recorded video and were given valuable feedback.

That night a group of us went to Dreamland BBQ for dinner, and it was so messy it was good! 

Day 5: Geology with the Dr. Pashin!!

After learning about the rocks and depositional environment, it was time for some Roadside Geology of Birmingham. Nicolas (University of Southampton), Carl (ISGS), Stephen (QUEST), and I ditched the bus and jumped in the car with Dr. Jack Pashin and took a selfie! Don’t worry I did not sing the selfie song.

My roomie, Davina Bird, West Virginia University, and I.

A handsome group of RECS rock stars!

After our field visit we headed to the Tuscaloosa Core Lab. That afternoon we departed for Mobile, Alabama. #Bama

Day 6: We learned about CO2 Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) site characterization, permitting, standardization, and to always expect the unexpected. There were over 100 Gopher tortoise burrows that were encountered along the pipeline easement that would connect the capture COto the oil field. The Gopher tortoise is on the endangered species list, so making turtle soup was out! It would have cost $5k for each burrow to relocate, so instead the pipeline was drilled much deeper under the burrows. We were told to try to avoid drilling/monitoring activities near endangered species. We headed to plant Barry CO2capture unit for a tour.  CO2 captured at Plant Barry is transported via 12 + mile pipeline to the Citronelle Dome where it is injected for EOR.

Day 7: Saturday we enjoyed a day off at Dauphin Island. Off-shore oil wells stretched for miles and miles in each direction.

After hanging out at the beach we went for a nice cruise on the Duke.

Day 8: After some group work Sunday we departed for Meridian, Mississippi.

Day 9: We travelled to Kemper County Energy Facility. We were given an overview of the facility and learned about the Transport Integrated Gasification (TRIG) technology that Kemper will use to convert lignite coal into natural gas.

RECS 2014 in front of the Kemper Project!!

After Kemper we headed over to tour Liberty lignite mine. Here is a model of what the surface mine looks like.

Here, I’m checking out a huge tonka truck with Stephen Harvey, from QUEST Canada.

Two RECS alumni and good friend Marko Maver, University of Sheffield, enjoying the view

We had a lot of fun touring this site. I felt like I was in the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097523/) because the equipment was massive. Nope, didn’t budge!

Learning about the slackline.

And another group photo at the Liberty Mine.

At the end of the day we wrapped up our activities with an awesome group discussion and then headed back to Birmingham.

If you are a researcher interested in CCUS or a young professional in the field, I encourage you to apply to RECS (http://www.recsco2.org/). It’s been a one of the most valuable experiences of my graduate career thus far and I am grateful for the opportunity. There is not another CCS program that can compare to the knowledge RECS provides and the relationships it builds in 10 days. Thank you RECS!!  #recs2014