The Aesthetics of Field Science

This month marks the first anniversary of my blog. The following is an abridgement of a presentation that I gave at the XXXII SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) and Open Science Conference, held in Portland, Oregon in July, in a session with the theme of Arts in the Sciences. Some of the images shown below have appeared elsewhere in my blogs and galleries; others are new. The fundamental goal of Science, one might say, is an understanding of the natural world, and of the universe, through insights into the breadth and detail of Nature’s creations. The practice of science can be portioned between field science and laboratory science, with the fundamental difference being how scientists collect their data. A field scientist collects data by making direct observations of Nature; a laboratory scientist collects data from machines. To be sure, samples for analysis must be collected in the field, bashing off bits here and there, but the conversation is different. I’ve practiced both aspects of the trade, and prefer the field where discoveries of Nature’s secrets are made face to face. The basic goal of field geology is to record the rocks as they occur at the Earth’s surface, and from that to extract knowledge of their origins and their history. In practice field geologists hike the countryside eyeing what passes beneath their feet. The data we collect is presented in the form of geological maps. Field geology, by its nature, requires keen observational skills. And I would also suggest that it demands a certain degree of athleticism, for at the end of the day, one measure of your success is the amount of coverage added to your map, which directly correlates with the distance you have travelled. I started Antarctic research in 1970-71, as a grad student at Ohio State. On the geological folio maps published the year before by the American Geographical Society, the only areas unmapped in even reconnaissance fashion throughout the Transantarctic Mountains were the central Scott Glacier area and two small areas of coastal northern Victoria Land. My early proposals focused on the Scott Glacier area, and although there were stratigraphical and structural questions in my proposals, there was also a stated objective simply to map the area for the first time, to find out what was there. Those days are gone forever. The fundamental geology of the Transantarctic Mountains is divided into three main rock groups: 1) the McMurdo Volcanic Group, epitomized by the currently active Mt. Erebus, 2) the Beacon Supergroup, a sequence of sedimentary rocks that crop out throughout the upper reaches of the Transantarctic Mountains and 3) the Ross Supergroup, a complex suite of rocks that formed during an active episode of mountain building a half billion years ago, the so-called Ross Orogeny. These are the rocks to which I have devoted much of my career. And what a ride it has been! Over the years, through design and good fortune, I have conducted research throughout the length of the Transantarctic Mountains, from the lofty coast of northern Victoria Land, with its ice tongues pushing into the Ross Sea, to the Dry Valleys in the McMurdo Sound region, to the snowy central Transantarctic Mountains, to the spired, gothic peaks of the Queen Maud Mountains. The “Ah-ha!” or “Eureka” moments have come, for example, in the discovery of a contact that relatively dated two granites, in the recognition of a stratigraphy that can be mapped throughout a region, and in the discovery that Mt. Early, Earth’s southernmost volcano, was erupted beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. My first season working in the Transantarctic Mountains, I was awestruck by the utterly pristine landscape. There was a purity about it, bare rock and ice, devoid of vegetation and soil. Here was alien wilderness beyond my imagination, a continental scale mountain range that almost no one had ever heard of, let alone seen. It was a secret that I felt should be shared. For most of my career I fancied doing a picture book on the Transantarctic Mountains, but there was always the backlog of research papers, and never the time. When I turned 60 I said to myself, you better get going on that book, or it might slip by altogether. The result has been “The Roof at the Bottom of the World,” to which this website has been dedicated. A fortunate result of my procrastination is that as the seasons passed, I managed to visit all sectors of the contiguous Transantarctic Mountains, providing me with a uniquely comprehensive set of images of this magnificent mountain range. But beyond the images that appear in the book, there was so much more of Nature to behold in this polar fastness.

Pressure ridges roil at the margin of Ross Island, with Mt. Erebus steaming in the distance.

Cascading crevasses pour from the summit of Mt. Markham.

An attenuated drift slips past the foot of Phlegar Dome.

Graceful glacial bulges part raspy ridgeline shadows.

This ice formed on the surface of a small meltwater pond. As the day progressed the pond drained, leaving the trace of an expanding bubble on the underside of the ice.

This is another image from the same pond. Here air has etched the boundaries of individual ice crystals, producing the white web of polygons.

The interplay of randomness and form reach a higher level in the intricacies of ice.

Intersecting fractures splay through the flawless, seasonal ice surrounding Lake Vanda.

And then there is sastrugi, windblown shapes on snow, Nature’s polar chemise,

With its infinitely textured windswept scenes.

Sastrugi is ubiquitous, pleading to be captured on film.

Slip into a crevasse, hung with fragile curtains of hoarfrost and snow.

Step outside into an alignment of ice shelf, rock, and sky.

Drift in a nether world of snow, rock, and cloud.

Sense the spirit of the land. Shiver deep down in your core.

Gallery – San Juan Backpack, 2.0

For the third summer in a row, I've backpacked into the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with my son Nick. Some images from last year's trip composed the Galley on November 7, 2011. This year we hiked up the east fork of Dallas Creek, camped at the upper Blue Lakes, and climbed Mt. Sneffels (14,150'). The last two images were taken to the east of Kayenta on the way home.

The Unknown

What is it about the unknown? Why are we drawn to it? Why the fascination? Is it the rustling of the chimeras at the misty edge of perception? Perhaps it is the apprehension, that strange mixture of hope and fear that draws us onward, one eye cast back to keep the shadows at bay, the other trained forward searching out possibilities. Will the tiger be crouched in the shadows when I open the door? Or will sunlight flood a field of wonder, sights unseen by eyes of Man before? The distribution of our species attests to great migrations and voyages before recorded history, populating the distal reaches of the planet beyond memory of homeland and time. Quests run deep in our collective core, the myth of the Hero venturing into miraculous lands, vying with monsters, the plaything of Gods. Humans have always pushed toward the retreating horizon, or at least the Hero’s among us have.

Snowmobiling toward an unnamed peak on the west side of Scott Glacier, December, 1987.

In contrast to geographical boundaries which are ever diminishing, in science the boundaries to the unknown appear only to extend with each new discovery. Each deeper revelation opens new worlds. But as we come to contemplate a deep-field landscape of cold, dark matter and flat space/time, as we map the codes of life drawing ever closer to being one with the Creator, the mystery becomes no more explicable. Nature transcends in detail and in scale. What is the purpose, the cause, what is the nature of the Spirit? Why are we drawn to these questions at all? Perhaps we are drawn to the unknown for an understanding of ourselves. What does the seeker seek after all, but insight?

Ice-cored moraine swirls in the interior valley of the La Gorce Mountains, December, 1980.

[nggallery id=30] The week's gallery features a set of random shots from the 1986-87 field season in the Scott Glacier area.

Antarctica in the Summer: Sunshine 24/7

A peculiarity of the polar regions is the cycle of seasons with total darkness and total sunlight. During the Antarctic (austral) summer, the sun traces a circle in the sky that dips low toward the South Pole and elevates toward the north. At the Pole itself the sun traces a perfect circle uniformally above the horizon. The earliest that I have been to Antarctica is the third week in October, and even then the sun settled slightly above the horizon at midnight.

Midnight sun bathes Mt. Discovery in late October, 1975

Perpetual sunlight has its benefits and its drawbacks. In McMurdo it is possible to draw the shades and sleep as one normally does. In the field, however, tents are always brightly lit by the sunlight that floods through their walls. Some folks have trouble sleeping under such conditions, and a variety of strategies exist for coping with the light. One is to draw the hood of a mummy bag down over your eyes. Personally, I feel claustrophobic in a mummy bag and prefer one in which I can roll over without having to take the top of the bag with me. Another option is to wear an eye mask, like the ones issued by the airlines. These work well for blocking sunlight, but unless your head is in a mummy bag, it is out there in the cold, radiating heat from your sleeping body. My personal preference for sleeping is to wear a dark, lightweight, knit hat that I pull down over my eyes just to the top of my nose. On cold nights (relatively speaking) I will pull my bag up to my face with only my nose sticking out. This lets me breathe into the open air without collecting moisture in my bag. Of course, at the end of a hard day in the field, and especially if you’ve had a couple stiff drinks before dinner, simply closing your eyes is all it takes to plunge on deep, restful slumber.

Wake up! The sun's been shining for hours.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of 24-hour sunlight is that you can work as long as you want. At McMurdo and the other USAP stations and helicopter-supported camps, the program runs on a 24-hour schedule, with meals and work hours prescribed. However, a deep field camp operates independently on their own time with the only constraint being daily radio contact from the field. If you have been cooped up at basecamp waiting for a storm to break, a good 12-16 hour day in the field is just the thing to catch up on lost research time and to burn off the pent-up energy. Every morning the comms office at Mac Center does a roll call of all remote field parties; however, they also monitor the radios 24/7 for any traffic, routine or otherwise. Invariably my remote parties drifted off schedule, and we would be either sleeping or, more commonly, off in the mountains when the roll was called. I think that sometimes they wondered, What kind of a show is Stump running out there, that he can’t keep to a 24-hour routine? My answer has always been that you can’t come back in the middle of a climb for a radio call and then just pop back up to where you left off, not without a helicopter. Time is much too precious in the field.

Two-thirds of the way up Mt. Griffith and you expect me to come on down and make a radio call? No way!

When we were really free cycling, our days stretched to 26 or 27 hours. A couple hours in camp for both the morning and evening meals, maybe 10-12 hours out on the rocks, an hour (or less) to shake down the day’s collection, and then sleep till we woke up 10 or more hours later, it generally added up to more than 24.

It is only if you are out working at midnight that you may see the sky turn pink. Queen Maud Mountains, January, 1975.

Gallery – Random Shots, 1.0

This month's gallery is a selection of random images shot during the 2000-01 field season in the Byrd Glacier area.

Climbing for Science in Antarctica

Over the past several months I’ve talked a lot about Antarctica and what it’s like to be there, but I haven’t really said much about what I’ve actually done there and why. My research career has followed two paths, the unraveling of the history of the half-billion year old mountain belt that forms the foundation of the Transantarctic Mountains (TAM) (the Ross mountain belt of my last post), and the application of fission-track dating toward determining the uplift history of the present day TAM. The fission-track story is easier to explain, but even then…. Wikipedia has a good, succinct explanation of the technique if you want to delve into it. All dating techniques in geology rely on the rates of decay of radioactive isotopes. In order to determine a date, you need to quantify the abundances of radioactive parent and stable daughter isotopes in a sample, which usually means measuring them with a mass spectrometer. Different minerals have different “closure temperatures,” when parent and daughter atoms no longer leak in or out of the crystal. I like to say that this is when “the clock starts.” Fission-tracks are produced by the fission (splitting in half) of atoms of Uranium, rather than by radioactive decay (emission of sub-atomic particles), but the result is the same. In the mineral apatite, fission tracks anneal (heal themselves and disappear) at temperatures higher than ~110° C, and below that temperature they start to be recorded. That’s when the apatite-fission-track clock starts. In the 1980’s it was our coolest clock, barely hotter than boiling water, the kind of temperature that exists only a couple of miles down in the crust. Charting the passage of the 110° C isotherm (temperature horizon) through rock is a window into its history of uplift and erosion. The story starts in 1981-82 in northern Victoria Land, where I was working out of a large, helicopter camp collecting granite samples from throughout the region. Along for the early part of the season was Andy Gleadow, the Australian fission-tracker from the University of Melbourne. He sat in the fifth seat of the Huey as we flew around bashing off pieces of the mountains for chemical and isotopic analyses back home. Andy was a pioneer in what is known as “vertical profiling,” a sampling strategy wherein one collects samples over as much vertical relief in as limited a horizontal distance as possible. Samples at the top are always older, and samples at the bottom, younger, as they should be since rock cools from above. One morning we collected five samples from sea-level to the saddle between the two peaks at the summit of Mt. Murchison. The helo pilots did a superb job of finding quasi-level patches of rock or snow at places along the ridgeline. It was really slick. We covered 3,400 meters (11,000 feet) of relief in about two hours and the view was lofty.

Mt. Murchison rises directly up from the Ross Sea to its twin-peaked summit at 3,385 meters. The red dots indicate collection sites where helicoppter landings were made in November, 1980.

Andy took the samples back to Melbourne where they were analyzed by his Ph.D. student, Paul Fitzgerald, a New Zealander who was studying the art of fission-tracking. I met Paul in 1985-86 working out of another helicopter-supported camp, this one to the west of Beardmore Glacier. Paul was in the last year of his Ph.D., a very promising lad looking for his next step. I was starting to have kids and looking for a way to cut back on three-month field seasons I’d been putting in mapping up until then. We made a pact. If he would come to Arizona State, set up a fission-track lab, and teach me how to count, I would take him to the highest-relief granite peaks in the whole of the TAM. For the 1987-88 season, I was back in the dream world of Scott Glacier, along with Paul, brother Mugs (again), and a second climber, Lyle Dean. Our goal was to climb the biggest mountains that we could find and collect them at 100-meter spacing. Furthermore, in the name of Science, we needed to reach the summits where surveyed points allowed us to set our altimeters, essential for controlling the elevation of the sample set. Samples were 10-15 pounds each and we each typically had three or four samples in our packs at the end of the day. The first profile that we collected was from the top of the eastern buttress of Mt. Griffith, which we named Fission Wall. We climbed the smooth, hard snow slope to the right of the rock face with crampons, sidehilling back and forth, needing to frontpoint for only a short stretch in the middle when the slope reached about 50°. From the top of the buttress, we rappelled for about four pitches, collecting on the steep ground, and then were able to hike down face first from there. A couple of days later we completed the collection of Griffith with a climb to its summit along a similar steep snow slope. The high ridgeline offered a view over into the drainage of Amundsen Glacier and more than a hundred miles beyond. (The opening photo on the gallery on the homepage was shot from this ridge.)

Routes and collecting localities on the Fission Wall and in the background, the summit of Mt. Griffith.

Paul Fitzgerald rejoicing at the top of the Fission Wall.

Mugs setting the rope for our first rappel on the Fission Wall.

Paul summitting Mt. Griffith. The Medina Hills play out to the north where they meet the Ross Ice Shelf. Scott Glacier appears to the right of the figure.

Our second climb and collection was to a summit that we named Heinous Peak. With 7,500 feet of relief, this was the most grueling climb of the season. Being from Arizona, I use a Grand Canyon depth measure when it comes to relief on a mountain. That was 1 1/2 Grand Canyons. From there we moved camp down to Mt. Borcik. The climb followed a chute that is out of sight in the photo. A fault ran through the cleft, and the rock was pretty rotten, but we managed to scramble up through this part. On the upper face we moved over mixed rock and ice to the summit. From there we traversed to the large snow chute and downclimbed. At the bottom of the chute was a cliff that was vertical for the length of our rope, save for about three feet that touched at the bottom. We rappelled down this face and then staggered back to camp so loaded with rocks we could hardly stand. The season ended with our crossing Scott Glacier to the Gothic Mountains where we collected a profile from Mt. Zanuck.

Route and collecting sites on Mt. Borcik.

Two years later Paul and I were back in Antarctica, this time in the the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains, that grouping in West Antarctica, which claims the highest altitude on the continent, 4,897 meters (16,066 feet) at the Vinson Massif. Mugs was along again, and the second climber was New Zealander, Rob Hall. The normal route up the Vinson is a steep, scree-littered snow slope on the west side of the Sentinel Range up to a shoulder where you camp, and the following day begin a long, gradual ascent to the summit. From looking at air photos we thought we might be able to drive our snowmobiles down into the glacier that drains the front of the Vinson, and then to drive up to the climbers’ Camp 1. It worked, and from the shoulder we hiked up to about 13,000 feet where we put up a tent for the day we did the summit. Next we drove over to the low spurs in front of the Vinson and collected at scant outcrops on their crests. The day we summitted the Vinson we stopped at our high tent, rested some and drank a brew, then completed the ascent, sampled down to the snowmobiles, and drove back to basecamp, around 16 hours return. In total this profile was about 3,500 meters (10,000 feet) of relief, two Grand Canyons. The results warranted a paper in Science, and we even made the cover.

Routes and collecting sites on the Vinson Massif. We reached the glacier draining the face of the Vinson where the glacier leaves the image in the middle of its left side.

Original image of cloud on the western face of Sentinel Range with the summit of Mt. Shinn peaking out at the top. The Science cover reversed the image.

Gallery – Ice Puddles 3.0

This weeks gallery are more images of cracks in ice. All were taken on a single pond on the crest of Hut Point Peninsula. The honeycomb pattern in the last two images outlines single crystals of ice, rather than being fractures like those in the other images.