Richard, Felicity and Nick at Vanderford Glacier. Credit: Felicity McCormack

This past February, a team of seven SAEF researchers travelled to Casey Station in Antarctica as part of our first season of fieldwork. They are now back in Australia and we’ve asked them to share their experiences of going south. 

This is the second of three reports from down south with Felicity McCormack and Richard Jones, who are both based at Monash University. You can check out with first report with Aimee and Toby here.

You’ve both been on expeditions to Antarctica before. How did you feel returning to the continent?

Felicity: there was some uncertainty about whether we’d be able to get down this season, so it was a relief when we finally arrived! Stepping off the plane at Wilkins runway – about a 3 hour drive from Casey Research Station – also brought a real sense of familiarity (I’ve been there twice before) and excitement about what was ahead.

Richard: expeditions to Antarctica bring me feelings of excitement and anxiety. It’s been six years since I last went south, and I’d never been to this region of Antarctica before, so I was really looking forward to exploring a new area. There’s always a little bit of anxiety during planning for an expedition and also when on the ground in Antarctica to achieve our goals, but this passed fairly quickly once field work started!

Your research as part of SAEF is focused on building a picture of how the Vanderford Glacier has retreated and advanced over time as changes have occurred to the climate; and to predict how future warming will impact the glacier. What did your fieldwork involve, and how will it help you build this picture?

Felicity: This season we were collecting rock samples from ice-free areas adjacent to the Vanderford Glacier. These samples contain chemical isotopes that tell us how long the rocks have been exposed to cosmic rays from the sun. By collecting samples along a transect that varies in elevation, we can build up a history of how and when the Vanderford Glacier retreated and advanced in the past. We then use this information in ice sheet models to investigate what kinds of climate conditions are required to cause the retreat and advance, which helps us to better predict what might happen to the glacier as the climate warms over the coming centuries. 

Most of your three weeks in Antarctica was spent staying in a hut on Browning Peninsula, alongside the Vanderford Glacier. It sounds quite cold. How did you stay warm?

Richard: three people staying in a hut the size of a shipping container in Antarctica may not sound like comfortable living, but this was probably my most luxurious trip south. The hut had a gas stove to cook on and gas heater to keep us warm, and we had pretty cosy sleeping bags in our bunks. When out and about during the day, we wore several layers of clothing – from skin-hugging merino wool base layers to outer goose-down and windproof jackets. Most importantly, we had lots of food and hot drinks, which is key to keeping warm.

What was your daily routine like, and what did you look forward to most each day?

Felicity: We settled into a routine pretty quickly: early communications with folks back on station, including a weather update, followed by prep for the day in the field. We spent about 5 days total at Haupt Nunatak, where we collected rock samples and cores. The rest of the 12 days in the field was spent collecting samples along the ridges of Browning Peninsula. We’d usually be back at the hut by early evening. I most looked forward to seeing how the colours in the landscape and sky changed depending on the weather and time of day. In the early morning, as the sun was rising, the Vanderford ice shelf would shine golden and pink on a clear day; on blizz days everything was so white you couldn’t tell the difference between ice and sky; on cloudy evenings, the rocks glowed a deep brown and the snow, ice and lake water on Browning Peninsula were all shades of white, blue and purple. The landscape was absolutely stunning.

Richard: The start of the day is always important for me. We started with a cuppa tea, followed by a coffee and hot breakfast (often porridge with dried fruit and nuts). Following our scheduled chat with Casey station and assessment of the weather conditions for the day, we gather up our survival bags, lunch supplies and science equipment, and head out for the day. Some days we visited a mountain sticking out of the glacier – called Haupt Nunatak – and other days we explored the ice-free ridges and slopes of Browning Peninsula, where our hut was based. Our goal was to collect rocks – through coring, sawing and chiselling – we took up most of the day. One of my favourite aspects of this trip was the wildlife we were surrounded by during our work. It was a joy to look up from the rocks to see penguins and elephant seals living their best lives in the Antarctic sunshine.

Felicity using an angle grinder to collect rock samples. Credit: Nick Morgan

You took some cool, new coring equipment with you. Tell me about this and did it work as you’d hoped?

Richard: This year was made a little more interesting and challenging for us due to a new toy – a petrol-powered portable rock corer that can, in theory, fit in a backpack. The biggest challenge was the water needed to lubricate the drilling into rock. Of course, in the freezing temperatures of Antarctica, water won’t remain liquid for long. We added salt to lower the freezing point and keep it liquid, but we had to frequently remove chunks of ice to stop the line being clogged up. Aside from that slight complication, everything worked as we had hoped! We managed to collect about 5 metres of rock core across a couple of sites, which I’m looking forward to analysing back in Melbourne.

You were able to collect up to 300kg of rock, how did you lug it all back from your basecamp to Casey Station and then back to Australia?

Felicity: when we were in the field we either carried the rocks in backpacks or on a sled, but we usually didn’t have too far to travel. We took a Hagglund (an amphibious, tracked vehicle) into the field with us, and there was heaps of storage space in the back of that for lugging heavy kit. We ended up taking about 120kg of rock samples with us from the field back to Casey Station. Back on station we cleaned them and packed them, ready to fly back to Australia.

What happens to all those rocks now?

Richard: The rocks will now be processed in several steps in order to extract the information we need. First we cut up and crush the rocks into a sand, then we remove all of the mineral grains we don’t like to leave only quartz grains, then we clean and dissolve the grains in acid, and finally we use some geochemistry wizardry to extract specific isotopes for analysis. These isotopes are then measured in a powerful machine run by nuclear physicists (not me!). The values that are spat out by the machine will tell us when Vanderford Glacier retreated in the past, revealing whether the current rapid rate of retreat is unprecedented compared to the last few thousand years.

Why do you want to secure Antarctica’s environmental future?

Felicity: a key motivation for me is about limiting Antarctic ice melt in response to a warming climate. We know that over 2 billion of the world’s population living near the coast will be vulnerable to sea level rise impacts by the end of this century, and sudden Antarctic ice melt could increase those numbers. My role is to help make better predictions of how and when this melting could occur so we can prevent further warming, and prepare for and adapt to future sea level rise. Plus, Antarctica is an incredible place, vital for Earth’s climate and ecosystems – it’s worth doing everything we can to protect it.

Close up of the rock samples Felicity and Richard collected. Credit: Felicity McCormack

Richard: Antarctica is an incredibly unique place. Sure, it may just seem like an area covered in ice at the bottom of the globe, but that ice is expected to melt into the ocean in the future, rising sea level and the chance of coastal flooding on our doorstep. There are also areas of Antarctica not covered by ice, which is home to life ranging in size from bacteria to elephant seals. My job is to better understand how much and how quickly ice in Antarctica can increase sea-level rise, and how this changing ice impacts those ice-free areas.

Finally, what was the highlight of the trip?

Felicity: I love doing fieldwork in Antarctica: getting to visit one of the most incredible places on Earth and at the same time getting to learn how it works through the research we do. It was a particular bonus this year because the whole trip went so smoothly, from all the equipment working as it should, to getting everything done in good time, and having great weather as well. And I really enjoyed working with an excellent team: Rich and our field training officer Nick. Absolute legends!

Richard: This trip was a great reminder of how stunning, unique and vulnerable Antarctica is. It was a joy to work with Felicity and Nick this year, and so special to do this work overlooking the majestic Vanderford Glacier – which we could frequently hear roaring as it calved icebergs into the ocean.