Going Swimming in Antarctica on the Huffington Post

My new piece for the Huffington Post titled "Going Swimming In Antarctica By Accident and On Purpose" has just been posted. It has been adapted from The Roof at the Bottom of the World. Check it out at HuffingtonPost.com.

Geology of the Transantarctic Mountains

Last week the holidays broke my routine. As I head into the New Year, The Roof at the Bottom of the World has been launched, and I will all too soon be back to the professorial demands of my day job. My resolution for the New Year is to keep this blog going on a monthly basis, with postings on the first of the month, and what better send-off for 2012 than a short, illustrated lecture on the geology of the Transantarctic Mountains? If you do not know the Rock Cycle, a brief primer can be found at this link. The present-day Transantarctic Mountains (TAM) arose about 40-50 million years ago, as West Antarctica extended and pulled away from East Antarctica, along a master fault located along the seaward side of the mountains. Perhaps not coincidentally, the trend of the TAM follows an old, rifted margin of East Antarctica along which a major mountain belt formed around a half billion years ago. Geologists call mountain-building episodes orogenies, and they give them names. This orogenic episode in Antarctica is called the Ross. As with most sequences of rocks associated with mountain building, the Ross suite of sedimentary rocks were mostly deposited in oceanic settings, in part associated with volcanic rocks, and accumulated prior to and during the mountain-building interval. These rocks were buried deeply and deformed. In the guts of the mountain belt, melting occurred and voluminous magmas rose up into the overlying sequences. Then the whole process shut down and the mighty mountain range was eroded deeply to its core with only a level plain remaining. Deciphering the complexities of the Ross mountain belt has been the primary focus of my research throughout my career. Kukri is the name given to the erosion surface on the Ross orogenic belt. Between about 350 and 180 million years ago, a thick sequence of sedimentary rocks accumulated on the Kukri erosion surface. The so-called Beacon deposits were laid down mainly by rivers and streams. Ancient glacial deposits characterize the lower portion of the sequence, and a number of layers of coal occur higher up. The Permian seed fern, Glossopteris, and the Triassic mammal-like reptile, Lystrosaurus, date the sequence, and allow correlation with similar sequences of sedimentary rocks found throughout the continents of the southern hemisphere. The Beacon sequence ends with a brief episode of profuse magmatism, associated with the beginnings of break-up of the supercontinent of Pangaea. Much of the magma intruded as tabular sheets (sills) between layers of the Beacon sediments. The uplift of the TAM 40-50 million years ago has left no rock record within the mountains themselves; however, sediments in the Ross Sea, offshore of the mountains, record their history of erosion. The final geological event to produce bedrock in the TAM is eruption of the McMurdo volcanic suite. Volcanism has been active at a sprinkling of centers along the Victoria Land coast beginning about 20 million years ago, and continuing to the present-day in the active lava lake on the summit of Mt. Erebus, not far from McMurdo Station and Scott Base.

This photo encapsulates the geology of the Transantarctic Mountains with folded and intruded metamorphic rocks of the Ross orogenic belt capped by the Kukri erosion surface and overlain by Beacon sedimentary rocks, the thin, light-colored beds, which have been intruded by the dark layers of magma. Scale on the cliff is about 600 feet vertical.

The highest reaches of the TAM are flat-topped and blocky, owing to the nature of the horizontal bedding in the Beacon sediments. Mt. Blackburn at the back of the image is the highest summit on the east side of Scott Glacier. The prominant horizontal line below the summit is the Kukri erosion surface. Beneath that all of the rock is Ross granite.

With the exception of the thin band of Beacon sediments in the uplands at the horizon, all the outcrops in this image are Ross igneous and meatmorphic rocks.

The contacts between igneous and metamorphic rocks can be beautiful by virture of their complexity. Pegmatite Point, Duncan Mountains.

A typical exposure of Beacon sediments, Falla Formation on Mt. Falla.

Beacon sedimentary rocks intruded by dark, igneous rocks, south end of The Cloudmaker. Piedmont glaciers puddle out across the rocky flat, merging with Beardmore Glacier at the right edge of the image.

A steam cloud rises from the summit of Mt. Erebus, the active volcano on Ross Island. Castle Rock is the prominent plug in the foreground.

At the summit of Mt. Erebus is a crater within a crater. Within the inner crater a crusted lake of lava continuously convects, releasing steam and other vapors.

Gallery – CTAM Crevasses

Last year I brought in the New Year at the CTAM camp (short for Central Transantarctic Mountains camp.) I had several fantastic flights over extremely crevassed terrain. This week's gallery is a sampling. The first two images are of Beardmore Glacier, the third and fourth are of Nimrod Glacier, the fifth is of the northeast flank of Mt. Markham, and the sixth is a random image from the middle of nowhere at the edge of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Ascent of The Tusk, Liv Glacier, Antarctica

People always ask when they see this picture, “Is that you out there?” To which I always reply, “No, that’s me behind the camera.” Were it not for a crooked back, I would have been out there with Phil Colbert, and would have missed the shot. Sometimes things work out the way they are supposed to. This peak, named The Tusk by a New Zealand geological party that had traversed the area in the early 1960’s, is a 600-foot horn of pure marble that juts up at the edge of Liv Glacier close to where it enters the Ross Ice Shelf. Overridden by a much thicker Liv Glacier at a time in the past when the ice shelf was grounded and backed into the mountains to higher elevations, the profile of the peak is vertical to overhung in the upstream direction, but tapers smoothly at a consistent angle of about 30 degrees downstream. The peak is basically a walk-up from the north.

The Tusk viewed from the south.

When I first became aware of this beautiful hunk of rock was in December 1970 during my first trip to the Ice. Directly to the north of The Tusk is a shoulder and high ridgeline called Mt. Henson, which had been mapped by the New Zealand party, as having a contact between marble and schist. I had been there is December, 1970, on my first trip to the Ice, landed by a helicopter at the foot of the mountain. My partner and I had climbed to the summit of the ridge and measured and collected the stratigraphic section of the marble and metavolcanic rocks along the ridgecrest.

South face of Mt. Henson, with dark schist on the right side of the massif in contact with the narrow band of white marble and gray metavolcanic rocks to the left.

When we were finished, we high-tailed it off the ridge, dropped the samples by our survival gear, and started hiking straight toward The Tusk with time we thought to climb and collect it. Much to our chagrin, the helicopter came a couple of hours early and we did not even make it to the foot of The Tusk. Four years later, on my second trip to the Ice, I was working in the Duncan Mountains, directly across Liv Glacier from Mt. Henson and The Tusk. The Kiwis had also mapped a contact between schist and volcanic rocks in the Duncan Mountains. As with the contact at Mt. Henson, they had interpreted it as being conformable, meaning that one group of layered sedimentary (or volcanic) rocks follows on top of another, their beds parallel. In the course of our mapping, we had decided that the contact in the Duncan Mountains was in fact a fault, a break in rocks along which there had been movement or displacement. It now occurred to us that the contact at Mt. Henson might also be a fault, and since I had not given it more than a passing glance in 1970, we decided to cross the mouth of Liv Glacier and check it out.

Charlie Corbato, my advisor, and Phil Colbert check the air photos during the crossing of Liv Glacier. This photo looks south along the medial furrow on Liv Glacier, with a ridge of crevasses immedaitely to the right.

We followed the Kiwi route which skirted a huge and obvious crevasse field on its north side, then locked into a deep furrow up the middle of the glacier that was smooth with snow, but flanked by heavily crevassed ridges on either side. After following this south for a couple of miles, we cut straight across the Liv again. In the furrow we crossed lots of crevasses that were a couple of feet wide and very deep, but because of their width we were able to drive across them comfortably given the length of our snowmobile. But on the far side of the furrow, we encountered wider and increasingly subtler crevasses, and so were forced to probe for a couple of miles. When we finally made it to the far side we sledded to the north of Mt. Henson to have a look at the structure and then drove back into the reentrant to the south of Mt.Henson were we camped.

North face of Mt. Henson, with dark schist on the left and light-colored marble throughout the rest of the massif.

The next day, December 27, we climbed to the top of the ridge and examined the contact close up. It was highly sheared and deformed, and although the layering on either side of the boundary was parallel, the degree of deformation right at the contact led us to interpret it also as a fault.

Contact between schist and marble near the summit on the south face of Mt. Henson.

When I awoke the next day, my 28th birthday, my lower back was spasmed so badly that I couldn’t stand. I lay in my sleeping bag all day with only slight improvement to my pain. The next day I could at least walk and sit on a snowmobile, so we drove over to The Tusk and climbed it. Each step was painful to me, but the incline was so smooth and gentle that I was able to gut it out to the top. When we reached the summit, the bulbous end of The Tusk beckoned immediately to the south. Phil said he was going out to see what the view was like from there. I declined. On the steepest part to the right of the sharp edge leading to the tip, Phil used his hands to scramble along, but otherwise he frictioned his way along on two feet. When he got to where he was going, he stood for about five minutes contemplating the scene then turned and came back. I shot a single photo, as was my practice at the time, of what I perceived to be the best frame of the shot, and that was that.

This is me sitting on the summit of The Tusk with my spasmed back. The tip of the massif is visible to the left.

We made it down, more painfully than I had ascended, and drove the snowmobile back to the Duncan Mountains following our footprints and snowmobile tracks to the spot where we had started this side trip across Liv Glacier. In hindsight we had hung it out more on this traverse than any other in my Antarctic career.

Gallery – Intrusive Patterns 2.0 (TAM) 1.0

This week's galley is more patterns of intrusive rocks.

Wildlife around McMurdo Station, Antarctica

Although McMurdo nightlife can be pretty wild on a Saturday night, wildlife in the general area thereabouts may be found any day of the week. For this week’s post I showcase some of my wildlife photos, except for the mummified seal, all taken within 20 miles of McMurdo Station. Three birds and two mammals are about all of the air-breathing, macrobiota that frequent McMurdo Sound. Adelie penguins are the quintessential, tuxedoed avians. The closest rookery to McMurdo Station is at Cape Royds, a little more than twenty miles to the north. I have had numerous opportunities to visit it early in the season when the sea ice in the sound is still solid. It is also common that individual penguins or small groups will come waddling past the station, obviously not quite on track for either open water or the rookery.

Fresh drift spots the Adelie rookery at Cape Royds.

Adelie penguin head-on, displaying the sheath that warms the egg.

Adelie swimming off Hut Point.

Smile, or not.

The closest Emperor penguin rookery to McMurdo is located at Cape Crozier, about 50 miles around Ross Island at its eastern end. It was to this point that Apsley Cherry-Gerrard and his mates took their Worst Journey in the World. I have crossed paths only a few times with these most-stately representatives of their clan.

Emperor penguins amble along the seasonal ice south of Cape Evans.

Stretch it out there, guys.

The Emperor.

The ubiquitous skua is the scavenger of the southern realm. During the summer these powerful birds feed on penguin eggs and chicks. In bygone days, when open dumping was practiced in front of McMurdo Station, the skua population burgeoned, putting extra pressure on the Adelie rookeries around Ross Island. It’s slim pickins around McMurdo these days with every bit of waste, including foodstuffs, finding itself into some specific bin for retrograding and recycling. I have had skuas visit my camps more than 500 miles from open water. Sometimes they would accept some salami, sometimes not. Sometimes they would hang around for a day or two, then always move on, whither I have always wondered?

A wary pair of skuas rest son Hut Point.

Skua on its nest next to Adelie penguin rookery.

Two skua eggs in the nest.

Show us how smart you are and pick up that stone.

Good boy!

Catch you later.

Weddell seals are quite common around McMurdo, lounging on the sea ice close to shore where tidal cracks give access to the surface. Practically their whole lives Weddell seals live in the water; mating takes place there. But birth and nursing of the new-borns takes place on the ice, out there in the open air, exposed to the surface elements, but safe from the predators beneath the ice.

Maybe I'll come back later.

What more could a pup desire?

Twins are quite rare. These are fairly newly born.

Sometimes Weddell seals have become disoriented and crawled inland into the Dry Valeys where they have died and become mummified. This one is from Barstow Valley .

Orcas or Killer whales stalk the ice edge and leads of the seasonal ice of McMurdo Sound, hunting for penguins or seals. During the 1982-83 field season, I was working in the Dry Valleys. The Navy helo pilots liked to try to spot whales along the leads when they were flying across the sound, and who was I to say that I was in such a hurry to get to the rocks that they couldn’t stop for a closer look?

Orcas prowl a lead in McMurdo Sound.

That guy over there with the camera looks tasty.

Gallery – Sastrugi 3.0

In keeping with the post above, this week's gallery revisits sastrugi with an avian theme.

The Roof at the Bottom of the World Reviewed by The New York Times

The Roof at the Bottom of the World has been reviewed by The New York Times. The review of my new book by Robert R. Harris is below or the original review is available online at NYTimes.com. For ice and death fans there’s also THE ROOF AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD: Discovering the Transantarctic Mountains (Yale University, $29.95) by Edmund Stump, a geologist with much firsthand experience and a professor of exploration at Arizona State University. Stump clearly and ably recounts the history of Antarctic exploration from James Clark Ross in the 1840s through the 1950s. (Fair warning, though: there’s lots of geologizing.) Best, he includes very fine topographic maps, color photographs (many his own) and satellite images. And most helpful for anyone ever confused about just where and how the explorers made their way, Stump has superimposed the actual routes they took on many of the ­images.

Field Cuisine in Antarctica

You’ve had a hard day in the field climbing mountains, collecting rocks. You're chilled to the core and your joints are aching. What’s for supper!? Come in, sit down, while I fire up the Coleman stove and start to make water by melting blocks of snow in the 10-quart pot. While you’re waiting, have a drink. There’s nothing better at the end of a day in the field than a stiff glass of whiskey poured over flakes of half-million-year-old ice. Beer and wine invariably freeze in the field, but spirits are just the thing to warm up the belly and numb the aching joints. Once the snow begins to melt you might also want to have a cuppa tea or bouillon to rehydrate while I prepare the meal.

Looks like you boys have had your butts kicked today. Take off your parkas, warm up, have a drink.

The Berg Field Center at McMurdo Station offers a wonderful range of food options for remote field parties, including canned, boxed, dehydrated, and frozen. Except for dried onion flakes for flavoring and powdered potatoes, I eschew dehydrated foods. Canned foods are a nuisance for having to extract the frozen contents, and then for having to carry the empty cans back to McMurdo for disposal (recycling.) When you are on the Frozen Continent, what better victuals than frozen ones? To start with meat, the choices include beef, pork, lamb, burger, and a variety of seafood. Chicken is also an option, but if it comes in a big block of frozen pieces, it can take an hour with a hammer and chisel just to free them from the block, and then there are bones to carry around with the garbage for the rest of the season. It is best if the meat is boneless and in steaks. I usually start it thawing in the cast-iron frying pan, then chunk it and make some sort of stew or gravy. For this, I always take a canister of flour into the field. Tonight let’s have a curry! Next, I always serve a big pot of carbs, either powdered potatoes with lots of butter, pasta of various sorts, or rice. Pasta wastes water, so I tend not to prepare it as often. For the curry, rice is the obvious choice. The range of frozen vegetables available at McMurdo is everything that you would find in the freezer section of your local supermarket. Tonight let’s add lima beans to the curry. Now that is a feast! For variations on the sauce theme, I like to take along a variety of herbs and spices, including paprika, cayenne, celery and garlic salt. Beef and chicken bouillon cubes are good for what they add. Once you’ve chowed down on dinner and cleaned the pots and dishes with a little hot water, wiped dry with a paper towel, nothing feels better than crawling into your sack and drifting off to sleep, as the caloric load spreads through your tired body. We seldom have desserts after a work day. However, during storms when there is time to kill, that’s when we pull out the Coleman oven and bake cakes and stir up some flapjacks on the skillet. We have the complete range of frozen fruits to choose from in McMurdo. Strawberries, peaches, razzleberries, it’s your choice.

Hot from the oven. Uuuumm, that looks good, Lyle.

For breakfast we usually have steak and mashed potatoes or porridge. These days sirloin steaks are the primary beef option, but in my early years the steaks were complete tenderloins lifted out of the back of the cow. They came in cases, product of New Zealand. We would saw them to the desired thickness with an ice saw and then fry them in the skillet. Because the steak thaws as it cooks, it is not possible to have nice seared meat with a pink, juicy center. One way that we found to somewhat get around this was to cut the steaks the night before and then hang them in a plastic bag at the top of the Scott tent where they would thaw by morning. Lunches when we are out doing field work are snack foods such as candy bars, energy bars, gorp, jerky, and/or cookies. Some folks like to carry a thermos of hot brew, either bullion or soup or tea, but I prefer not to carry the weight of a thermos bottle when climbing, so if I do take one into the field, I generally leave it on the snowmobile. Finally, I will end this post with one of my favorite field recipes, Stump’s Seafood Newberg. The seafood could be lobster, scallops, and/or freeze-dried shrimp. The flesh of freeze-dried shrimp is an amazing substance, in that it reconstitutes perfectly in about five minutes after adding water. The sauce is made from powdered cheese, the sort that comes in Kraft macaroni and cheese boxes, but in Antarctica comes in a #10 can. Mix it with a little powdered milk and water and lots of butter (I cook exclusively with butter in the field, no oils or shortening.) Add a couple tablespoons of whiskey for flavor, stir it all together, and serve over rice or noodles. Voila!

Gallery – McMurdo Cloud Effects

McMurdo Sation, at the end of Hut Point Peninsula, faces the Transantarctic Mountains across McMurdo Sound. When weather blows through, the cloud effects can be spectacular. Each of this week's gallery images were shot from various points around the end of Hut Point Peninsula looking toward Mt. Discovery, the conical volcanic peak, and Black Island, the dark, low bluffs to the left.