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.