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Research on the Ice

A British student goes to Antarctica with UCSB

by Robin Matoza, UC Santa Barbara / University of Leeds, UK

The EAP experience is undoubtedly one of the most incredible things you can do. As an undergraduate student of geophysics at the University of Leeds, I chose to study in the U.S. on EAP and suddenly found myself fully immersed in the UC lifestyle—thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

Studying with the Department of Geological Sciences at UC Santa Barbara enabled me to take advantage of some fantastic opportunities for field research. I was most fortunate to be selected to participate in a marine geophysics cruise in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, and another cruise in the South China Sea. It is almost impossible to put the worth of these experiences into words—participating in real research, life at sea, the adventure, the sights, the smells, the sounds, and the people I met along the way.

I kept a journal to try and keep track of everything that was happening. The following is a passage from my journal, written halfway through the four-week Antarctic cruise:

Monday, 20 January 2003 – Antarctica
Two weeks ago we were standing in the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, sweating in our extreme cold weather clothing. There was an atmosphere of hushed excitement as we waited to board the C141 cargo jet that would fly us to McMurdo Sound. The plane had been cancelled the previous day due to poor weather conditions down at the station and we were already accepting that this further four-hour delay might lead to another day’s delay. We were pleasantly surprised when we were piled into buses and driven to the plane.

This plane was a little different from a typical airline charter flight. Tightly packed into four rows of seating inside the plane were scientists and technical staff (many of them with beards) from a range of different disciplines, each on the way to a different field location. A brown paper bag contained lunch and an ominous black curtain at the end of the plane hid a bucket. We spent the next five hours there, sometimes nodding off, sometimes nibbling on our sandwiches, but always conscious that this was the beginning of an amazing adventure.

In time, the C141 made a smooth landing on the compressed ice runway and it was time to take our first steps onto the ice. There was a blast of white light as my eyes focused on endless ice limited only by distant mountains and an enormous sky. ‘Ivan the Terra Bus’ was waiting to escort us to McMurdo station. After quick safety briefings and a meal, we climbed into helicopters to cross the sea ice to where the Research Vessel Ice Breaker Nathaniel B. Palmer was patiently waiting.

From the air, it looked unnatural—a bright red construction of steel jammed into the ice. But, it was a beautiful sight that only grew more impressive as we touched down on the ice and started to board. Inside, we discovered a bubble of human civilization, kept safe from the freezing wilderness by the ship’s thick steel hull.

The following morning, I awoke in my bunk somewhat confused and stumbled down to the galley where some of my companions were devouring a full cooked breakfast. This seemed ordinary enough I thought, until I crossed the room to peer through the window. I was taken aback to see a flash of brilliant white light, and Adelie penguins gliding around peacefully on their bellies in front of the ship. In the far distance stood the Transantarctic Mountain Range, perpendicular to a hazy shimmer at the edge of the ice—the Ross Sea. Immediately behind the ship towered Mount Erebus. "I don’t know whether you’ve noticed," I said to my breakfast companions, "but Antarctica’s outside." "Incredible isn’t it?" agreed a UCSB student over a mouthful of bacon.

We stayed packed in the sea ice like that for a few days, being entertained by gangs of curious penguins and taking walks on the sea ice. Eventually we broke our way out to open sea to start collecting data.

We are conducting a marine geophysics cruise—firing multichannel and single-channel seismics, measuring variations in the local magnetic and gravity fields, and using multibeam echo sounding to map seafloor bathymetry. Our field area is right in front of the Ross Ice Shelf, which receded back to its current extent after the turn of the last century. In particular, the break-off of the giant B-15 iceberg and then another in 1987, have exposed huge new areas of seafloor never before explored by modern geophysical methods. The retreat of the ice shelf (a natural cyclic process) also allows us to go further south than any ship has ever been. We are all rather proud about participating in this small slice of history.

We work on an 8-hours-on/16-hours-off basis, but the perpetual daylight has erased all real sense of time. Now in my third week here on the NBP, it feels like the whole cruise has been one long blur of events—all of them new and exciting. Life at sea is a rich experience, much enhanced by the sight of blue-white ice rafts gliding silently by, and penguins and whales loafing near us in the water. For much of the time, the ever-present Ross Ice Shelf is the only visible landmark. It resembles a huge block of Styrofoam, growing and shrinking in scale as we approach or move away from it, towing our gear along the gridded survey lines.

Admittedly, our sense of intrepidness is somewhat hampered by some of the ship’s luxuries. Our ship is fully equipped with no less than a sauna, gymnasium, video lounge and library. The sauna has been a source of entertainment for us, particularly when we undertook a 'freeze thaw' that involved staying in the sauna at an unacceptable temperature for a perverse amount of time, then running about on the icy deck in our underpants.

With two weeks gone and two weeks still to go, I will be much more busy in the coming weeks with my independent project. I’ve elected to compare magnetic data with the subsurface seismic images, to try to locate buried volcanics.

At the end of the cruise, we plan to stay in McMurdo for a few days to check the place out. We’ll take a few leisure hikes and get to know our way around the base. On the way back I’ll stop in New Zealand and Hawaii for some brief sightseeing before I head back to Santa Barbara. The palm trees and beaches will be a welcome sight, but for now I quite like it here.