To Antarctica, Part 7: Drills (big and small), Skidoos (and ski-don’ts), ice SCUBA (-2˚C), and Seals (Weddels!)


The Hof-men, gearing up for a day out in the field

First off, I’ll answer a question I’ve gotten a lot: How’s the food?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAActually, the food is pretty good. It’s buffet-style, with usually enough options that you can find something that you like. There is now 24-hour hot pizzas to go, as well as an amazing baking staff that makes lots of pastries from scratch! Anyways, moving on to the meat of the post…


October 12 – Hole-drilling!  We use  holes in the sea ice to access the seas underneath in order to install/retrieve instruments or collect animals. As biologists, getting to our critters is a crucial part of our work here, so getting these holes drilled is a top priority!



This is the massive drill that we use to drill the holes in the 6 foot deep sea ice. It’s called a redrill, and is dragged by a tractor our to our site. Contractors from Fleet Operations work the drill and make the holes for us.

Our first hole is right outside of station, about a mile out onto the ice. This is the perfect site to make sure that the redrill is working properly, and to get a good first practice run at the drilling!

After successfully drilling the hole, we drag a hut over the hole. This serves two purposes:

  1. The warmed hut keeps the hole from freezing back into ice!
  2. The warm hut is a perfect place to work!



Ready for diving, netting, etc…

After dragging the hut over the hole, we clear out the ice and snow with nets. 30 minutes later, we have a perfectly blue hole, perfect for science!

That’s one hole drilled! We get back in our Pisten Bully and rocket off on the sea ice (top speed 12mph) to the next site – 2 hours away.



The day continues with picture-perfect weather. Blue skies, white snow. It’s impossible to capture the wide expanse of the flat scenery around you as you trundle across the frozen seas of McMurdo Sound.

Unfortunately, one of our three hole-drilling sites was inaccesible due to sea ice cracks. As the tides push the sea ice up and down, and glaciers, icebergs, and vehicles move the sea ice around, it develops cracks that can become unsafe to cross. In order to analyze a crack, we drill into the sea ice to measure the thickness and run the necessary calculations for each vehicle.

Making my advisor drill the hole while I take a photo!

Making my advisor drill the hole while I take a photo!

We instead drilled two of the three holes and headed home after a successful day out on the sea ice! I came home absolutely exhausted at 10:00pm, and passed out after eating lots and lots of pizza.

October 13 – Skidoos and dives!

We started the morning with snowmobile training! We learned how to inspect the skidoos before riding, and how to maneuver safely with them across the sea ice.


Jay, posing by his sweet ride



We will be using the snowmobiles to travel to distant sites on the sea ice on a regular basis, in order to collect and analyze plankton samples.

After snowmobile training, we surface-tended for an under-ice antarctic SCUBA dive! Amanda, a postdoc in our lab, was getting certified to SCUBA dive here  in order to collect the Antarctic sea urchin for her own research projects.


Diving in these conditions requires a significant amount of gear and preparation. Divers here use drysuits, which form watertight seals at the neck and wrists to keep your body entirely dry. Fleece and synthetic garments under the drysuit keep the diver warm even when surrounded by near-freezing seawater. Some divers even wear electronically heated shirts!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The dive went great – both of the resident Antarctic divers were very impressed with Amanda’s diving. She is now authorized to dive for her own project here in Antarctica.

October 13 – Seals

Today, we decided to organize our field gear and set up our dive hut! You might remember that first hole we dug on Sunday with the hut on it?

The ocean glows from under you as the ice transmits a blue-tinted light. When you block all of the windows in the hut, you end up with a spectacular irridescent light coming from below. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt isn’t uncommon for Weddell seals to use our dive holes for breathings. Weddell Seals are remarkably adapted for deep diving, and can stay under for as long as 80 minutes on a single breath. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPrevious post: Part 6: To Antarctica: -50˚C wind chill, Sea Ice training

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To Antarctica, Part 6: -50˚C wind chill, Sea Ice training


October 9: 

It’s cold here. really cold. really really cold.

I was raised in San Diego and am currently based out of Santa Barbara. “Cold” means 50˚F. For the first two days here, walking outside without a beanie gave me a slight brain freeze. Spending 30 seconds outside without gloves was a bad mistake. I’ve never been anywhere this cold for any amount of time.

The temperature since I’ve gotten here has hovered around -20˚C ~ -30˚C with wind chill. The wind here changes temperatures significantly.

This is our lab space here in the Cracy Science Labs. Small compared to what we have at home, but still very usable. But onto the bad weather…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is what a typical overcast day here looks like. Here is an image of Crary Lab from the outside, with the street name “Beeker Street”. Scientists here are called “Beakers”, a somewhat derogatory term stemming from the days of high military presence on the base. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA And here’s what it looks like when the wind really picks up. Those trucks are probably 30 feet behind Gretchen and AK, and are starting to become obscured by flurries. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA And finally, a photo of our dorm! That’s Kevin, a stone’s throw from our barely-visible dorm building. The white-out conditions make it so that you can’t see the next building over. The whole base was declared “Condition 2”, which is a warning condition that restricts travel outside of the base to certain locations. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOctober 10: Sea Ice Training.

This is the part with the great photos! 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo the weather cleared up the next day.

(understatement. It was GORGEOUS OUT. first blue skies!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe headed over to the Mechanical Equipment Center (MEC) for Sea Ice training today. Skidoos will have to wait till tomorrow 🙂

McMurdo Station from the Sea Ice

McMurdo Station from the Sea Ice

As I stated previously, the ocean in front of McMurdo Station is annually covered in a 6 foot thick sheet of ice. It’s currently Spring in the Southern Hemisphere, so the extent of this annual ice is as its thickest and furthest. For our research, we travel on this ice over the ocean to collect organisms and ocean chemistry data at different sites.

Working on the sea ice can have its hazards, but they can be avoided with good preparation and diligence. Different parts of the ice contract and expand, forming and sealing cracks that can be obscured by snow – just like plate tectonics! Ridges and rifts form and reform, and must be measured each time to ensure that your vehicle can travel across them safely.


Our Sea Ice class members

Our sea ice class is designed to teach us just that! We travel over the ice on marked paths, inspecting cracks in the ice by measuring the width and ice thickness.

We all pile into the Hägglund (Swedish military transport vehicle, top speed 15mph), and take off on the hour ride to our sea ice cracks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


The good ol’ Hägglund.


Mt. Erebus


Marked sea ice trails


We get to a crack that needs to be assessed for safety. The first step is to shovel away the 3 foot deep snow to expose the sea ice. Then we pull out an engine-powered echo drill with a 6-foot drill bit to punch holes in the sea ice. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Dr. Jay, drilling down into the sea ice


Kevin, manning the echo drill


Yes, it’s a 6-foot drill bit.

After learning how to analyze sea ice cracks, we extend our survival knowledge by learning how to pitch a tent on the sea ice. You can’t hammer tent stakes into solid ice, so you drill angled holes in a V shape to thread the rope through. It creates a surprisingly strong hold!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We are now certified to travel out onto the sea ice! Tomorrow we ride!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Previous post: Part 5: To Antarctica: We made it!

Next post: Part 7: To Antarctica: Drills (big and small), Skidoos (and ski-don’ts), ice SCUBA (-2˚C), and Seals (Weddels!)


To Antarctica, Part 5: We made it!

I’m a bit backed up – this post will start on October 7th and go on as far as I can today. 

October 7 – We had been delayed a whole week in Christchurch, NZ (our original “ice date” was October 1) due to poor weather in Antarctica. Finally, our fourth attempt…


Bags stacked up in the Clothing Distribution Center

Because the last week of flights were cancelled, there were roughly 4-500 contractors and scientists living in hotels in New Zealand, waiting for their ride down south. As this queue amassed, the bags of cold weather gear in the locker room started to get piled higher and higher.


Members of the Todgham Lab, apprehensively waiting for our flight

We went through the usual motions – checking our bags and waiting in the departure lobby. We then learned that the flight before us that morning had already been cancelled due to bad weather, but that they were hoping to get our flight safely to Antarctica during a window of good weather.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn addition, our plane for the ride was, again, the C-17 military transport jet – incredibly powerful and ruggedly built to land in rougher weather than normal commercial aircraft.


There's no way I can get this plane in one photo!

There’s no way I can get this plane in one photo!

Me and  Kevin, fellow grad student.

Me and Kevin, fellow grad student.

Our flight took off successfully, at 2:00pm, and we started the 5-hour flight down south. After several attempts at a landing, we finally touched down on the Pegasus runway on the McMurdo Ice Sheet at a hair past 7:00pm.

Taking a deep breath, I stepped out onto the most hostile continent on Earth. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the first photo I took after coming off of the C-17. The runway is situated on a 700 foot thick glacier that has extended into the ocean, called the McMurdo Ice Shelf.

My advisor, Professor Gretchen Hofmann.

My advisor, Professor Gretchen Hofmann.

Professor Hofmann and Kevin

Professor Hofmann and Kevin


“Ivan”, the Terra Bus

The weather was indeed suboptimal – the sun was still up, but the horizon couldn’t be seen in any direction. The wind was blowing flurries of snow up into the air, obscuring geographic features and muting all of the color. This runway is built a fair distance away from the station – about an hour by bus. Ivan the Terra Bus works to shuttle people from McMurdo Station to Pegasus Field, and resembles a school bus on the inside. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Scott Base, Antarctica

On our way, we pass by Scott Base, which is New Zealand’s Antarctic Base only several miles away from McMurdo. By population, it’s about 1/10 of that of McMurdo.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn hour after leaving the runway – finally, our first signs of McMurdo! We approach McMurdo from the backside, traveling through it down to the galley for our first briefing.


McMurdo Station predominantly consists of corrugated steel buildings, with shipping containers lined up for winter storage. The base’s only major resupply ship comes once a year in February, so I imagine there’s a lot of need for stockpiling.


Pisten Bullys!

We pass a line of Pisten Bullys – tank-like vehicles that our group uses to travel on the sea ice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy the time we’re at base, it’s 9:00pm. We grab some cold pizza from the galley during the briefing, and finally make it to bed around 11:00pm.

October 8 – 

The next day, we get up for a day of training and orientations.


Golf Quebec

We learn about separating waste at the station, as all of the trash we generate gets shipped back to the United States in shipping containers for processing. We learn about water conservation, as the station runs on a desalination plant – taking ocean water and drawing the salt out of it in a complex, expensive process.


We then start to get acquainted with our lab space. The lab buildings, called Crary, are actually a series of three buildings built on a hill. They are connected by a long ramp and staircase running down the length of the hill, which we call “The Spine”. The spine has 48 stairs, which separate our lab space from our aquarium tanks where we will be holding our critters.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a quick panorama from a trip up to the Carpenter’s shop. The ice past the station is the expanse of sea ice that covers the McMurdo Sound. This is the 6-foot thick ice we will be traveling on and conducting experiments under.



Previous Post: To Antarctica, Part 4: Frolicking in coastal New Zealand 

Next Post: To Antarctica, Part 6: -50˚C wind chill, Sea Ice training 

To Antarctica, Part 4: Frolicking in coastal New Zealand


Today, we woke up bright and early again for another chance to go to the ice. Unfortunately, not only we were cancelled again due to weather before we left the hotel, but we were cancelled through the weekend with the next attempt planned for Monday! With the whole weekend to burn, we too the bus again…20141004-DSCF076320141004-DSCF0764This time out to Sumner, on the coast just 45 minutes away from Christchurch by bus.

20141004-DSCF0761After passing by a large estuary, we came upon a series of rocky bluffs facing the sea.

The whole gang.

The whole gang.

I am traveling with Kevin from my lab (left) along with the field team of Professor Anne Todgham(right) from UC Davis. Professor Todgham is PI on another antarctic project looking at physiology of antarctic fishes.


20141004-DSCF0770 20141004-DSCF0773 20141004-DSCF0774 20141004-DSCF0780 20141004-DSCF0781We grabbed some coffee and saw some dogs along the beach.

20141004-DSCF0793 20141004-DSCF0796 20141004-DSCF0795After walking along the beach, we headed back to Christchurch downtown, grabbed lunch, and headed home. Here’s to another day in New Zealand in Antarctica limbo – life could be worse!

20141004-DSCF0808 20141004-DSCF0807 20141004-DSCF0801 20141004-DSCF082020141004-DSCF0816

Previous Post: To Antarctica: Third time’s (not) the charm!

Next Post: To Antarctica: We made it!

To Antarctica, Part 3: Third time’s (not) the charm!


Skipped a day, so this is about yesterday (Friday the 3rd…)

We get ready very early again to make another attempt onto the ice. We drive to the Antarctic Centre…


Pick our our gear from the sea of orange bags…
20141001-DSCF0733and put on all of our cold weather gear for the flight!


Yes, that’s a leopard-print neck pillow.

All geared up, we are told that the flight before us was cancelled due to weather, but that we were still waiting for confirmation on our flight.

So we changed out of our cold weather gear…

…then they told us to gear up and check back in…


…then 10 minutes later, they told us that our flight was officially cancelled, and were told to check back into our hotels. This was our third attempt at flying to Antarctica, and we felt like this:

we headed back to the Commordore to plan out a nice day.



We decided to take the city bus to downtown Christchurch, a 20-minute ride away. The bus system here is incredibly well-maintained, and as usual in my international travels I am jealous of their public transportation system. 20141002-DSCF0746Back at the restart mall, we got lunch at the Hummingbird Coffeehouse, which not only has amazing flat whites but also has great food plates.20141002-DSCF075020141002-DSCF0751Wandered around the rest of the Restart Mall,20141002-DSCF075220141002-DSCF075420141002-DSCF0753and eventually made our way back to the hotel for a dinner of meat pies and a New Zealand beer tasting!






Previous post: To Antarctica: Almost ALMOST there

Next post: To Antarctica: Frolicking in New Zealand

To Antarctica, Part 2: Almost ALMOST there!



Our initial planned “ice date” was October 1, or yesterday. unfortunately, we were woken at 4:30 that morning with a call telling us that our flight was 24 hour delayed due to weather. I spent most of yesterday repacking, catching up on sleep, and catching up on email. We were rescheduled to a 7:30 meeting time today.

This morning, we were woken up at 5:40am with a call telling us that we were 4 hours delayed – with a new meeting time of 11:30!


After breakfast and a bit of nervous morning work, we departed back to the antarctic center for a first attempt at flying down to Antarctica!


In the terminal


our large air-filled ice boots

We put on our bunny boots…




and headed back to the US Antarctic Program campus…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll the way to the terminal (Yup, there’s a terminal!).



Kevin and I with our “big red” jackets.

After checking our bags, we went into the terminal, sat in the waiting room and watched some safety videos.



School buses!


packed full of ice-goers, red bags and red coats.


Kevin and I on the way to the C-17


Dr. Lunden (GQ)

We were finally called out onto the buses to take us to the plane!
A quick wall of text here – there are three different planes that can take you down to the ice. The classic option is the LC-130, A prop plane that has been in service in operation Deep Freeze for a long time. In order to fill in, the program often charters a commercial AirBus jet to ferry people. Today we were boarding a C17 – an incredibly massive cargo/personnel jet that will take us down there in 5 hours.





On our way on to the plane!

These planes are impressive inside – cargo stacked up to the bare ceilings, wires and ducting exposed. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA



You could either sit in the center rows (more traditional airline seats),…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOr along the wall in the paratrooper seats.




Unfortunately this awe was short-lived… we were all loaded up and headed down the runway when we got the no-fly order from McMurdo Station. Apparently a large cloud of icy fog moved in very quickly and obscured the runway down there. We’re currently waiting for our orders for tomorrow, hoping we’ll be getting up nice and early for a great day ahead!






Previous post: To Antarctica: Almost there!

Next post: To Antarctica: Third time’s (not) the charm!

To Antarctica, Part 1: Almost there!

First off, some helpful links:

  • McMurdo Live Cam for current weather and conditions!
  • B-134-M is my advisor’s grant number, and one of the pages where we will be posting updates! B = Biology. M = McMurdo Station. 134 = grant number.

The first several legs of my travels to Antarctica are now complete! Here’s the quick rundown of my flight schedule so far:

  • 19-minute flight from Santa Barbara to LAX
  • 6-hour layover at LAX
  • 14-hour flight from LAX to Sydney
  • 12-hour layover in Sydney
  • 3-hour flight to Christchurch, New Zealand

All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go…

All my bags, labeled and packed! We have a maximum of 75 pounds total luggage for our trip down to the ice.


A little bubbly!

We started our travel adventures out of Santa Barbara Airport, where we checked in early and got in some time for a nice champagne toast in the parking lot before departure.

The flight from SB to LAX was extremely short and empty – there were 9 of us total on the entire flight! We got to stretch our legs and think about our long journey ahead.

Our field team was booked on flights independently, so the 5 of us took 3 different flights to Sydney and met up for the long layover. We spent the time strategizing…

“Operation Greasy Breakfast”

And sleeping…

Operation “sleep like a baby”

36 hours of travel, we arrived in Christchurch NZ at 2am! Luckily our airport was very close, so we were able to get a couple hours of sleep before heading out the next day for clothing distribution at the CDC.

CDC, but not “Center for Disease Control”

One of the buildings in the antarctic complex, the clothing distribution center (CDC) is where we get outfitted with all of our Extreme Cold Weather gear (ECW). Keep up with the acronyms!

All of our ECW!

The wall on the left when you walk in details the sort of clothing you might be issued. The jacket on the far left will be a regular in my photos – it’s “Big Red”, a massive down jacket made by Canada Goose that will most likely be my primary outside layer in the field!


Dr. Hofmann, showing us how it’s done in the Men’s locker room

Clothing issue consists of a locker room lined with orange bags. Each person is issued two bags of extreme cold weather gear.

We try on every piece of gear to check for sizing. Luckily for me, they were spot-on with my sizes from the measurements that I gave them!


It’s big, It’s red…

Here’s me in my Big Red.


The clothing list

They allow you to exchange any sizes that don’t work for you until you’re satisfied. This is crucial, as this gear will by my primary outfit when working out on the sea ice. In addition, they have us wear this gear when we board the plane to Antarctica.


…glad regular flying isn’t like this!

So 5 days after leaving the US, we’re still in Christchurch NZ waiting for our flight. We were supposed to leave yesterday, but the plane got delayed 24 hours – and we got a call this morning that there’s been another delay of 4 hours. We hope to be on the plane today at noon, so fingers crossed!


In the meantime, we’ve had an opportunity to walk around downtown Christchurch, NZ. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The city is still recovering from their 2011 earthquake, so the “Restart Mall” is constructed out of shipping containers.


The hip, the trendy, the Restart Mall

Our team grabbed lunch there, and definitely didn’t forget to order the New Zealand special, the flat white.

The town is gorgeous, with lots of greenery and a quaint feel.

We have an hour before we catch the shuttle back to the CDC, to gear up in our ECW and head to our flight. Wish us luck in our travels!


Next section:  To Antarctica: Almost ALMOST there

SeaFET workshop!

I’m working with an instrument that can record ocean pH at set intervals. When deployed, you get a graph of pH over time, which my lab uses to construct biological experiments in the lab. I’m currently at a week-long workshop with Professor Todd Martz at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, who first developed the instrument several years ago. The instrument has been gaining traction as a means to understand ocean acidification and global ocean change, and I hope this workshop will allow me to better collect and use the data!

Day 1: I’ve been learning how to use the commercialized Satlantic SeaFET ocean pH sensor – specifically the nuances of deployment, as we dropped the instruments in a lab tank today! We will be downloading the data every day this week to get an idea of how to handle the pH timeseries data that comes off of the sensors.

Also on the schedule tomorrow is a primer on seawater chemistry by Professor Andrew Dickson (the man himself!), as well as talks and hands-on demonstrations of sensor calibration and bottle sample analysis. Essentially, this will let us ground-truth our sensor measurements with samples of seawater collected at the same time the sensor is recording.




photo 1


They put us in dorms!


photo 3Typical La Jolla sunset.


photo 4


Professor Grace Saba from Rutgers, prepping our SeaFET for tank deployment!


Coding for efficiency: a non-programmer’s approach

(source: PhD comics)

Outside of programmers and computer science, the phrase “coding” always seems to come hand-in-hand with a sigh, groan, or an eye-roll. This is more common than I anticipated coming into my graduate program. Many fields in biology are moving in a computational direction, and with molecular components to many of our datasets benefiting from automation. Of course, `a talk about trends in science wouldn’t be complete without an xkcd reference, either. This is a mental computation I make fairly often – almost so often that I worry that it buts into my productivity time. I’m proud to say that my latest little venture has most likely paid off in time.

My recent time-consuming task was to grade 7500 pages of undergraduate lab manuals for the class I was TA’ing. Not only is this a lot of reading, but it’s also a lot of tallying and adding. To keep track of numbers, and do it in such a way that I don’t bias my results (e.g. “This student is tallying up a fairly low score so I’ll grade easy on the second half), I crafted a little tallier applet. Here it is!


  • Space bar increments the count by 1.
  • Numbers 1-9 increment the count by the respective number (example: pressing 9 when the count is 10 will make the count 19).
  • The number 0 resets the count
  • All other keyboard buttons decrease the count by 1.

Not the prettiest, but it did its job. It took an hour or two to write, and saved me at least that amount of time in grading (not to mention it helped me standardize my results. A next step would be to have an entry field for “student name” and have the program write a spreadsheet with the the score of the student! Here’s the project file, but you’ll need to read below to figure out how to open it. Sure it’s not fancy, but it was extremely practical for me

Now to get on about how I wrote this…

The script was done in Processing, a very easy-to-use Java-based language that is used widely by the digital arts and new media folk. I was first introduced to Processing by an instructor at UC Santa Cruz, Mr. Evan X Merz, who literally wrote the book on composing electronic music in Processing. I got to witness his piece “Cannot Connect” preformed live at UC Santa Cruz, and it has made me seriously investigate the possibilities of interactive algorithmic music using Beads.


There, I tied it all back to music in the end, huh? Of course what I did is significantly more rudimentary, but it’s great to have access to free, easy languages for little interactive projects. I’m fortunate enough to be vaguely familiar enough with languages to know what means to use for my ends.

My association with Processing was from slightly earlier than that – the Arduino software is heavily based on Processing, and a lot of my practical electronics/programming experience came from arduino projects!



I’ll write more about this wiring monstrosity of mine soon.

Thanks for reading!


I hope that my last piece, “Moiré patterns, Nyquist Frequencies, and music cd’s!“, will be the first of many interesting, “stream-of-consciousness”[1] writings I will do in this space. I’m aiming for a worse, in-text version of RadioLab, with some of the whimsical musings brought to you by Randall Munroe’s what-if xckd [2]. That being said, I would like to mention some addendums and corrections I would like to make to my previous post, in hopes that in the next one I’ll know a bit more about what I’m talking about.

  • The term I was “dancing around” in that post was “aliasing“. That more or less should tie everything together. Thanks, Sev!
  • My partner in crime, Greg Klein, insists that square “waves” are not in fact waves, but “waveforms”. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure about this. I believe the argument there is that the square wave(form) is a summation of an infinite number of sine waves. I would contend that this is probably one of the definitiosn of “wave”, brought to you by a variety of different disciplines.
  • I also replaces the asterisks with numbered references. This should let you follow the references (for better or for worse). I hope I did it right… turns out it’s massively confusing to do.

I’ve also started tweeting! Follow that here:


Tweet on,




[1] aka unstructured drivel

[2] Also, let’s face it… socially lubricated in the manner of My Drunk Kitchen.