Category Archives: Science!

Hot and Cold Science

There’s an old saying that to make ice cubes freeze faster use boiling water in the tray rather than cold water as one might guess. Perhaps surprisingly, there might be some scientific truth to that…it’s called the Mpemba Effect.
The exact science behind this phenomenon is still being worked out and debated, however it raises some interesting questions. Last year Nature published a paper arguing that the Mpemba Effect doesn’t actually exist while another paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Modern Physics suggested that it does indeed exist, perhaps having to do with the structure of water collapsing when heated leading to more random collisions between molecules and thus faster cooling.

{If you’ve heard the old adage about the reverse phenomenon, that cold water will boil faster than hot water and are wondering if that’s true now, I’m sorry…that one has been proven false. Cold water does however bypass the hot water tank in your home and may taste better even if it takes longer to boil.}

But going back to the process of hot water freezing…
Another interesting phenomenon occurs when very hot water meets very cold air. Hot water contains more energy and has less structure (as explained by the above article in the Journal of Modern Physics). It’s actually closer to steam than cold water. So when it’s thrown into the air it breaks apart into tiny droplets each with a large surface area, facilitating the evaporation and freezing processes. Hot water thrown into cold air freezes almost instantly creating an impressive cloud of ice particles and fog. Try again with cold water and you’ll just end up with a puddle of ice on the ground.
Huffington Post published an article back in 2014 explaining this effect with some cool videos ( With the recent cold weather across the US I imagine there are lots of posts about this too.

This works best at temperatures below -40F and makes for some pretty cool photos. Unfortunately, we don’t have the bandwidth to upload videos here, so these pictures will have to do.

-90F at the South Pole on March 25, 2013:

-50F at Summit Station on December 5, 2017:



-55F at Summit Station on December 1, 2016:





IMG_53420171229-7We also experimented with freezing bubbles. However, with no trees or mountains to break the wind it’s generally too windy for bubbles to last very long. It’s also been pretty cold lately at -75F last week so they freeze very quickly, often bursting.



If you’re looking for more fun science projects to do at home this winter check out this awesome post by NPR:

And if you’re still interested in the science and history of cold check out the aptly titled, fascinating, and well written book: Cold by Bill Streever.


Filed under Arctic, Greenland, Science, Science!, Summit Station, Winter

Rave Ice

Last winter I was in the midst of my monthly building checks when I went out to visit the Mobile Science Facility (MSF). It was a dark day and snowing lightly. I noticed a flickering light on the snow out of the corner of my eye and proceeded to the back of the building where there are no outside lights. In the shadow of the building and under the angled LiDAR beam the ground was alive with bright green flashes of light.

The LiDAR laser is mounted to the roof of the Mobile Science Facility (MSF) and is part of the ICECAPS project which is looking at atmosphere, precipitation, radiation, and cloud properties over the Greenland ice sheet.
The science techs had noticed these reflected lights earlier, but I had not seen it before. It was truly magical! The lights danced and flickered around lasting only a fraction of a second. Some streaked across in lines, others just flashed a tiny spot, still others revealed intricate interference patterns on the snow. Later that evening the techs and I returned with our cameras. Like auroras, it’s difficult to capture the movement, but still beautiful and interesting none the less!


It was reminiscent of disco ball lights, but faster and brighter. At first we called it “Disco Ice,” but that wasn’t quite right…lasers, neon green, a high frequency pulse… “Rave Ice” was a better fit.

Intrigued, we decided to do some research to find out what exactly was happening. Was this a normal LiDAR by-product? How was it related to the falling or blowing snow? What did it tell us about current atmospheric conditions? Surprisingly we found almost nothing on the topic. One paper described a similar phenomenon, however the authors said it had only ever been observed in controlled optics research labs and computer programs, never outside. They speculated that snow or ice crystal size, shape, and orientation could be inferred from the light patterns displayed. One of the science techs wanted more information and reached out to the authors sharing some photos we had taken. They were amazed.
This phenomenon has most certainly been occurring since the LiDAR was first installed in 2010. However, it is rare, can only be seen in the dark, and had never been documented until last winter (2016-17). Over the next few months the ICECAPS Primary Investigators, the science tech here, and the optical researchers collaborated to write an article explaining the unique phenomenon. It was published in the July 2017 edition of Applied Optics!

They were able to link the patterns we photographed, the ice crystals we collected, and the shapes and patterns they had modeled in their labs. For example, a bullseye pattern is created by a smooth sided disc, while a bright spot surrounded by six broken dashed lines is a distinct hexagonal plate. We saw both of these patterns and also collected these types of crystals during the event.

It appears that this phenomenon occurs relatively often. When seen from afar the LiDAR beam glints and sparkles reflecting off the crystals. But conditions must be just right to get well defined patterns. There can’t be too much freezing fog, it can’t be blowing tons of snow, it needs to be dark, and there needs to be some precipitation. While any crystals will reflect the laser the most intricate patterns are a result of proper snowflakes and other more complex crystal shapes; something that requires relatively high humidity (so not too cold) and not too much turbulence (otherwise they’ll break apart). Up here it tends to be either very cold, calm, and clear with no precipitation, or warm, humid, and windy with far too much turbulence for complex crystals to form.
Earlier last week however there was an abnormally warm period with very low winds. Temperatures in some areas of Greenland were as much as 50˚F above average. While temperatures here have been around -50˚F the week prior and again this week, during the warm event Summit temps reached +7˚F! This warm spell affected much of Greenland and was so unusual it made the news:

It also proved to be absolutely perfect conditions for Rave Ice. I had noticed the sparkling LiDAR beam on Tuesday afternoon and knew it would be worth hauling my tripod and camera out there. As I was walking out one of the techs called out on the radio that I should come out to see…and it was some of the best yet. I set up my tripod and started taking pictures while the tech collected snow samples, photographing the ice crystals, and recording meteorological data.


The science tech in the unheated shelter used to photograph ice crystals


Observing the Rave Ice

These are some of the crystals she photographed:

And these are some stacked images of the reflections:


Filed under Arctic, Greenland, Science, Science!, Summit Station, Winter

Robot Boyz

Above all else Summit Station is a polar scientific research station. We are here for Science!
Much of the research done up here is in the vein of long term monitoring; an instrument is deployed to take measurements for months or years without needing specific personnel here on site aside from the Science Technicians. We have several suites of instruments from many different groups. Some measure black carbon in the atmosphere, others measure cloud height, type, and precipitation, there’s a lot of atmospheric monitoring in general, a seismometer, and several solar radiation sensors.
The other type of research involves bringing the researchers themselves up here – either to install instruments, drill cores, collect samples, or test new technologies. The flight periods are the busiest times on station with many groups coming up for just a few days or a week, but some groups stay between flight periods. This past month, between flight periods 4 and 5, we are supporting two PhD students from Dartmouth who are here working with a robot. The Cool Robot.
Their main objectives are to field test a new version of this robot, to prove that robotic surveys are feasible and practical. If they can be proven reliable robots could be used to track snow topography and elevation, ablation, accumulation, and all sorts of other parameters with significantly higher precision than the satellites we now rely on.
This particular robot is designed to follow a designated path while towing a ground penetrating radar (GPR) unit to measure compaction rates and densities. It is also carrying an infrared camera, which the researchers hope to measure exact surface area of the snow that can then be used to determine gas-air transfer rates. Finally, it includes a radiometer to measure the albedo of the surface – and thus how much solar energy it’s reflecting vs absorbing.


Solar panel patterns

Some of the issues they’ve had to deal with is the robot filling with snow in high winds, the tires sinking in soft snow, losing traction on hard snow, hitting steep drifts and getting pushed off course…it’s a sometimes slow process, but overall I believe they’ve had great success and have their issues to delve into this winter when they return home.
It’s a boxy little thing, covered in solar panels. It doesn’t move very fast, maybe a 5mph at most, and we’ve grown used to seeing it putter around camp from one site to another. Check out their webpage and field blog:


The “Robot Boyz” discuss annual layers in a back lit snow pit dug near station

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Filed under Science, Science!, Summit Station


It was lightly snowing last night, ice crystals falling from high, thin clouds as I walked from the Big House to the Green House. Looking towards the MSF there was just enough ice in the air to illuminate the ICECAPS LiDAR – a laser measuring cloud matter, phase, and crystal orientation. ICECAPS is a relatively large, long-term project researching cloud characteristics and their impact on climate. This knowledge is crucial in developing climate models as well as understanding our changing climate. More information can be found here:

Most of the time the laser is invisible, however with just the right conditions enough light can be reflected back to show the brilliant green beam. If you look carefully you can also see the vertical laser, however this is weaker and thus less visible. Beautiful science!

*If you are familiar with LiDARs you may have seen this spelled LIDAR, lidar, LiDAR, or LADAR – according to NOAA’s Digital Coast Blog all spellings are correct though LiDAR is gaining in popularity. 


The ICECAPS LiDAR here at Summit


The LiDAR at NOAA’s ARO facility at the South Pole Station


An example of the LiDAR data:


Filed under Arctic, Greenland, Science, Science!, Summit Station

Summit Science!

As in Antarctica, our purpose in Greenland is science – primarily climate research. Summit Station was first established in 1989 to support the Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2) ice core and has since become a leading arctic station supporting a wide variety of seasonal and long term projects.

Summit was chosen for its location at the summit of the Greenland ice sheet. Some facts: There are two ice sheets on earth, one in Antarctica and one in Greenland, and as they are near the poles we call them ice caps. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC – based in Denver) an ice sheet is defined as a “mass of glacial land ice extending more than 50,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles).”  Glaciated areas less than 20,000sq mi are called ice fields – such as the Patagonia ice field, or the Juneau ice field.
Ice sheets and ice fields are incredibly important to climate research as they are not only highly sensitive to global temperature changes but provide a physical archive of the atmosphere going back as long as the ice has been there. The water molecules of the snow/ice itself contain isotopes that correlate to average global temperatures and between these molecules, bound by the ice, are tiny trapped air bubbles – discrete samples of atmospheric gases. This is one way scientists can measure carbon dioxide (CO2) levels over past millennia. The Vostok ice core for example, provided data on the climate going back over 400,000 years. The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) ice core goes back 800,000 years. CO2 levels are of particular interest to climate scientists as there is a direct correlation between global temperature and CO2 in the atmosphere. Over the past 400,000 years CO2 levels in our atmosphere have fluctuated between 180-280ppm. Since the Industrial Revolution and large scale burning of fossil fuels those levels have continued to rise. Right now we are close to 400 ppm. (check out for recent levels) The US Environmental Protection Agency has a great website with information on greenhouse gasses and carbon dioxide, trends in the US, and ways to reduce emissions:

The GISP2 borehole in 2011

The GISP2 borehole in 2011.

The GRIP borehole 28km from Summit Station

The 1989-1992 European Greenland Ice Core Project (GRIP) borehole 28km from Summit Station

GRIP Ice cores at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark

GRIP Ice cores at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark

Annual layers are visible in the cut GRIP cores (U. of Copenhagen)

Annual layers are visible in the cut GRIP cores (U. of Copenhagen)

Greenland Ice core sites

File:Vostok Petit data.svg

A graph showing CO2 levels from an ice core (Vostok, Antarctica). Our current atmospheric CO2 levels are off this chart.

While the GISP2 ice core was completed over 20 years ago, Summit continues to provide valuable data. As one of NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratories the Greenland Environmental Observatory (GEOSummit) provides long term monitoring of the Arctic environment and atmosphere.  Much of climate research relies on these trends and long term variations to distinguish climate change from variable weather patterns. TAWO (Temporary Atmospheric Weather Observatory) houses a suite of instruments collecting continuous measurements of a number of greenhouse gasses including carbon dioxide, tropospheric ozone, and black carbon among others. Summit’s science techs launch ozone sondes weekly to measure upper atmosphere ozone and collect air samples twice monthly to be processed for trace gases. Once a month the science techs complete a GPS survey (IceSAT) for CryoSat – providing calibration data for a European Space Agency satellite measuring ice thickness around the globe.

Some other long term projects here at Summit include: ICECAPS (Integrated Characterization of Energy, Clouds, Atmospheric state, and Precipitation at Summit) which is studying the atmosphere, clouds, and precipitation. Today a third station science tech position has been added to focus primarily on the ICECAPS instruments. BSI (Biospherical Instruments) is monitoring ultraviolet radiation. GEOFON has a seismometer buried away from camp as part of a global network. A magnetometer has also recently been installed to measure geomagnetic variations in central Greenland.
This season a new intermediate ice core drill was tested near Summit. The proposed project will drill a 1,500m ice core at the South Pole Station in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. More information on this project can be found here and on the official SPICE Core site.
The complete list of currently funded projects is publicly available on the Arctic Field Projects site.

Some other interesting links:

During the summer of 2011 I was one of two station Science Technicians at Summit.  We monitored and maintained the long term research equipment on station, trouble shooting and repairing as needed. We also assisted with launching weather balloons and ozone sondes and collecting various samples for projects. A typical day included doing rounds to clear meteorological equipment of snow/ice/frost/rime, cleaning lenses collecting data on solar radiation with ethanol, backing up data or sending it via email to researchers at their home institutions, collecting air and snow samples, measuring accumulation rates, launching weather balloons, conducting GPS surveys, and assisting around the station as needed. Here are a few pictures of Summit science techs in action…

Launching a weather balloon in April 2011

Launching a weather balloon in April 2011

Measuring accumulation rates at Summit

One of the 2010 techs measuring accumulation rates at Summit

Radiometers measuring solar radiation and albedo

Radiometers measuring solar radiation and albedo

Bundled up for IceSAT

Bundled up for IceSAT – GPS equipment is in the red “Poly Pod” behind me, the survey takes several hours and is done once a month.

Leveling the seismometer

Leveling the seismometer

Cleaning rime off a tower

Conducting maintenance on the 50m “Swiss Tower”

Cleaning rime off the TAWO tower

Cleaning rime off the TAWO tower instruments

Air sampling flasks!

Crates of  air sampling flasks!

Inflating a balloon

Inflating a balloon in the S.O.B.


Launching an ozone sonde to collect data on the upper atmosphere ozone layer


Filed under Arctic, Greenland, Science!, Summit Station

Byrd Surface Camp 2012-13

Our sticker/logo/image for this year – courtesy of August Allen (PIG camp)

80deg 0.9min S, 119deg 33.5W

West Antarctica is notorious for its weather. So not surprisingly we’re delayed in McMurdo. The number of aircraft here in Antarctica are at a minimum, so any delays wreck havoc on the flight schedule. Our first Basler and Herc were ideally supposed to put camp in on Monday, but weather moved in around Byrd and Siple which cancelled those flights. A flight to Casey Station in East Antarctica has cancelled due to weather, stranding a group of Australians hoping to make it to their base. The weather here in McMurdo has been lovely, sunny and relatively calm, but it’s either foggy, or too cold, or too low visibility for the planes to land at any of their destinations. Often they’ve taken off and had to return, or “boomerang”, after flying several hours. It’s not easy, but as we often say for anything that isn’t just right – “it’s a harsh continent!”

For the past two weeks we’ve been working and training in McMurdo, collecting and packing gear, packing food, checking our equipment, and going over flight schedules, cargo weight limits, and emergency plans. Now that we’re delayed we’re free to either tie up any loose ends in town, or help out with other departments. I’ve been working with Waste in preparation for winter and with the South Pole Traverse team.
We won’t have internet or email once we get into the field, so I thought I’d write a bit about “Byrd Surface Camp,” what I’ll be doing this summer, field camps and research projects in West Antarctica at large, more about the research and set-up of Byrd this season, and give you lots of pictures and links…I will continue this blog once I get back to a place with internet so save your questions or post them below!

Byrd camp is one of the oldest Antarctic field camps. Named after Admiral Richard E. Byrd and set in the heart of Marie Byrd Land of West Antarctica, it was first established by the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1956-57 as a year-round underground station. In 1972 it was changed to a summer-only field camp, but aside from a gap between 2005-09 it has been in near continuous use.

The photo below shows the tractor traverse on December 4, 1956 heading out to establish the first Byrd Station.
Photo: Jim Waldron/Antarctic Photo Library

An October 14, 2012 satellite image of the Byrd winter berm shows heavy drifting. At the end of the summer everything is closed up and placed on the berm. The square “Galley Module”, heavy equipment, boxes of extra food, drums of fuel, two snowmobiles, the tents we will sleep in are all there. On the lower left there are 4 squares in a line a little ways from the berm – these are the fuel pits, four 10,000 gallon bladders of fuel. The large item near the middle and just to the left of the berm is the sled used to load and unload the largest and most awkward cargo. There’s no denying that there is a lot of digging ahead of all of us, but it’s promising that some individual structures are still visible and are even casting shadows!

The Byrd winter berm on which everything is stored.

This season I will be working as the heavy equipment operator, one of three women staffing the camp. My primary job will be using the 2010 Tucker Sno-cat to groom the skiway and camp, though we will also have a CAT 931 tracked loader to move snow and cargo. We won’t have too much cargo going through camp, but every flight will likely be bringing fuel and with such a small camp staff we will all be busy.
Over the years, Byrd’s population has fluctuated between 3 and 50. The projects and goals have also changed dramatically. Our primary purpose this season is to support the Pine Island Glacier (aka P.I.G.) Traverse, a “mini traverse” to WAIS, and the aerial survey project GIMBLE in January.

There have been a number of camps and traverses in West Antarctica since the 50’s, but today the region is of particular interest for those studying climate change. Computer models indicate West Antarctica as becoming increasingly unstable if the current warming trends continue as expected. The break up of the Larson ice shelves, alarming amounts of melt, and dramatically increasing acceleration of glaciers have prompted a number of studies over the past few years. If the entire West Antarctic ice sheet were to collapse it could potentially raise sea levels by 6-7 meters. Countries around the world have been supporting various research groups to better understand the systems involved and improve climate models to predict sea level rise. This year, USAP is supporting five main “deep field” camps in West Antarctica: Siple, Pine Island Glacier (PIG), West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide (WAIS), WISSARD, and Byrd.

Map of West Antarctic Field Camps – Some of the main deep field sites are shown here, along with the PIG and South Pole traverses. WISSARD is not shown, but sits just above the H point.

Siple, or Siple Dome, is the smallest of the five with only 2 people. It has a long and interesting history and was a site of an ice core in the late 90’s, but today only a few small tent structures, a skiway, and a fuel cache is all that remains. It is in essence, a glorified gas station and a backup for planes flying the capricious weather of West Antarctica. Note: there was an old station called Siple Station which was fairly expansive, but this was on the other side of West Antarctica, near the base of the Penninsula  and the Ronne ice shelf.
The Pine Island Glacier project is comprised of two components: PIG camp itself and the PIG Traverse. PIG camp is located 1,300 miles from McMurdo, near the coast of the Amundsen Sea. The traverse will haul fuel from Byrd to WAIS, and on to PIG. Surprisingly, this is the more cost effective option than flying it in via Herc. The project, lead by Robert Bindschadler of NASA, is hoping to deploy instruments below the ice to measure various parameters of the seawater under the glacier tongue and the dynamics of where the glacier transitions from bedrock to seawater. Their hypothesis is that warming ocean currents are melting the ice from beneath, increasing the velocity up the length of the glacier. Helicopters will transport researchers and equipment to various points along the glacier to drill and deploy instruments. Recently, they’ve discovered a major rift in the glacier. “What makes this one remarkable is that it will lead to calving of a significantly larger iceberg than PIG has produced in the last few decades,” says Joseph MacGregor, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “It is likely that the front of PIG will be farther back than any time in the recent past after the iceberg calves.” The satellite images can be found here.

There is more information on the NASA project website:
And the Wikipedia website:

A satellite image of the Pine Island Glacier with notable signs of disintegration

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide, or WAIS, has been in progress since the 2005-06 season and has been in the process of extracting the most recent ice core in West Antarctica. On December 31, 2011 they reached their goal depth of 3,405m, making it the longest U.S. ice core yet. While they have finished drilling there is still a lot of research to be done with the borehole and the project will continue through this season. More information on the research going on at this camp can be found on their website:

WISSARD, or Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling, ( is a fascinating new project. Over the past two summers they have conducted surveys using ground-penetrating radar and have found a subglacial lake of interest. This year they will begin drilling – hoping to deploy a suite of instruments into the borehole and isolated lake beneath. Here is a short animation they put together for PR of the route from the U.S. to the Whillans ice stream.
The group has also posted an interesting and informative video on YouTube (“Researchers prepare to drill through Antarctic ice”) explaining the main goals of the project and the “clean drilling” technology used.

This season Byrd Camp will be supporting the science group GIMBLE/ICECAP. This is a collaboration between the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC), the Australian Antarctic Division, Laboratoire d’Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales (LEGOS), the universities of Edinburgh, Exeter, and Texas at Austin. ICECAP (or “Investigating the Cryospheric Evolution of the Central Antarctic Plate”) is interested in using ground penetrating radar, geomagnetic data, and lidar to measure the top and bottom surfaces of the ice – essentially mapping the bedrock of Antarctica beneath the ice, and hoping to gain insight to the evolution of the Antarctic ice sheet. This is important for constraining ice flow and climate models, and for knowing more precisely the volume of water locked up in the polar ice caps that could potentially melt, causing sea level rise.
The following website gives a good explanation of one of the affiliated projects, BEDMAP-2, which measured subglacial topography in Eastern Antarctica:

This group has done quite a lot of work in East Antarctica already, around Australian Casey Station and Russian Vostok. Check out this 2010 Science article for more information:
They will be doing much of the same measurements in West Antarctica, based out of Byrd.

A rough map of the Antarctic bedrock – blue areas are under the current sea level. Note the extremely high Transantarctic mountains. There is also a little muontainous region within Marie Byrd Land. – BEDMAP Consortium/BAS

Comparatively, Byrd will be a quiet, cozy, little camp. Last year there was quite a large camp set up at Byrd, with nearly 40 people. This year we will have close to 20 for put-in and take-out, but there will only be 3 of staying for the entire summer: Abby the Camp Manager, Tara the Field Coordinator, and myself, the Heavy Equipment Operator. We will be the only all-female staffed field camp this year, and potentially the first ever all-women deep field camp in Antarctica. (If anyone knows of others outside of the Dry Valleys, let me know!)

A photo of Myself, Abby, and Tara at Hut Point near McMurdo. We’ve been called the Byrds, Lady Byrds, Skittles (for the bright purple, green, and blue jackets), Charlie’s Angels…

Byrd sits at an elevation of 1,553m (~5,000ft) Byrd is located 1,400km (~870mi) from McMurdo and 1,120km (~700mi) from the South Pole. We won’t have email or internet access, but we will have two HF radios, two IRIDIUM satellite phones, and VHF radios for on-site comms. We will check in with McMurdo daily and I’ve been told the BBC still broadcasts news on HF. Flat mail will be delivered on the 12 or so Hercs scheduled throughout the season. While some folks might balk at the idea of leaving the grasps of modern media, I find I’m really looking forward to the break.
Our work will be to maintain the camp, supporting the PIG Traverse, flight ops, the research group, and fighting the never-ending battle against being buried under drifts.

The rough outline of the season is as follows: Put-in will take place during the first week of November, in late November the PIG Traverse departs for PIG camp, leaving a heavy mechanic and a second operator behind, in early December those two will launch a “mini traverse” to haul fuel the 100mi to WAIS Divide. In late December a carp crew will come in to set up some more tents, and then in early January the GIMBLE group with their Basler and crew will arrive.

I won’t be able to post anything until I return to McMurdo at the end of the austral summer, but I will be sure to take lots of photos. In the meantime, here are some cool links about Byrd now and then. is an awesome, interactive website created a few years ago when the population was large enough to warrant cooks, GAs, medics, and many others. We won’t have half as many people, nor will we have as many tents set-up, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The Antarctic Sun published a couple short articles in 2009 that are also worth taking a look at – Byrd History and Byrd Camp Resurfaces

Have a wonderful Thanks Giving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

The flat white – several hundred miles from any visible rocks, Byrd is just as much on the Flat White as Pole.


Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, History, Pine Island Glacier, Science!, Siple, Traverse, WAIS Divide