antarctica, icefin

Antarctica Wrap Up

What a busy end of season! After we made it under Erebus Glacier Tongue to image the grounding line it was full speed ahead to try to get as many dives as possible. We sure did collect a lot of new data, but now that we’re all back in Atlanta it’s time for a review.


The Turkey Trot and Thanksgiving

We were lucky enough to participate in some of the Thanksgiving shenanigans at McMurdo. First thing in the morning was the Antarctic Racing Series Turkey Trot. Team Icefin had a strong presence at the event – some running, and some wearing onesies on the sidelines. Check out the Wall Street Journal’s video about the event. After the race and a midday dance party, the whole crew cleaned up real nice for a lovely dinner. The galley staff do an incredible job decorating and cooking up an impressive holiday spread. With so much great science and a stellar team, we had a lot to be thankful for.


Barne Glacier Overnight and Iceberg

In addition to diving at Evan’s Ice Wall (pictured at the top of this article), our last big target was Barne Glacier and its nearby iceberg. The term iceberg is probably misleading, given that this behemoth can be seen from miles away and is hundreds of meters across (like those Canadian-American units?). Because this site is a 3 hour PistenBully ride from town, we decided to do our 3 dives back-to-back rather than 1-2 per day. The result: a ton of great new data and several very silly pictures from our sea ice sleepover. Icefin was able to succesfully scan along the front of the rapidly-calving Barne Glacier terminus, as well as make a pilgrimmage 1 kilometer out to the iceberg.


Cape Royds and Shackleton’s Hut

After completing our three dives at Barne Glacier we packed up and stowed everything in our PistenBullies. Then we made off on snowmobile for a special trip to Cape Royds that Britney arranged. There we were able to talk to Dr. Jean Pennycook about the colony of Adelie Penguins that calls Cape Royds home. Dr. Pennycook has been coming down to Antarctica for almost two decades to study the behavior of penguins, turning her experience into valuable educational experiences for those who don’t have the chance to come down to Antarctica. You learn more about Jean and her work at Penguin Science and Women In Antarctica. Although we couldn’t get too near the penguins at their colony, we were lucky enough to have a visit from a group of Adelies as we were snowmobiling there.

Before leaving, Britney gave us a tour of Shackleton’s Hut. This hut was erected in early 1908, as part of a 1907-1909 expedition led by Shackleton to try to reach the South Pole. Although he had to turn back only 97 miles from the pole, his group did complete the first summit of Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world. There’s plenty of great information about early Antarctic exploration and Shackleton’s intrepid crew of scientists and specialists to be found at The Antarctic Heritage Trust.


Last Days on Ice

The day after we returned from Royds I got to celebrate my birthday in Antarctica! Matt and I took a hike up Castle Rock. It’s a prominent volcanic feature, accessed by hiking across the glacier up above McMurdo and Scott Bases. Though it’s a bit of a scramble, the view from the top are well worth it. Best. Birthday. Ever.


We then had several dives closer to McMurdo – back at the Scott Base Shelf site and a reoccupation of SIMPLE site from previous seasons. Among the big successes of the season was flying Icefin with a brand new payload: the water sampler that Andy has been developing! This makes Icefin capable of bringing back in-situ water samples from locations that previously we were not even able to access. That same day, unfortunately, we caught a little bad weather one day and ended up having to bring the whole crew back into town in a single PistenBully (see previous post for Instagram video).

Before I caught my plane back to New Zealand, we did find time for a quick trip to the Observation Tube. It’s a hole that is drilled through the ice, with a pipe (like Super Mario!) inserted down into the water. A glass bubble at the bottom has just enough room for a person, allowing you to sit below the sea ice and directly observe a little piece of the ocean world. We brought along Trident, a rad underwater drone from our friends at Open ROV, to be deployed through an adjacent fish hut hole. Our friend Max came for a little job swap: he drove the robot and we got to learn about what it’s like to be a firefighter in Antarctica!



After an 8 hour flight on a very cramped military aircraft, Frances, Matt, and I landed back in Christchurch. It was bizarre and striking to react to smelling plants and seeing big groups of people for the first time since we left. I had sincerely forgotten that the sun would set. So of course we went downtown to grab some food and smell some flowers.. and to cheers to an incredible season at the bottom of the world.




Throwback to a Not So Spacious PistenBully Ride


Under the Glacier!

Photo credit: Britney Schmidt

We have made it, folks. Yesterday Icefin was driven under Erebus Glacier Tongue towards the grounding line! In the image below you can see the glacier tongue, which is the jagged piece of thick ice extending into the sea ice. For scale, our camp is the cluster of dark blobs near the center-left of the photo, in the corner between the glacier and land ice. This has been a major goal of the season, for several reasons.

Photo credit: Spencer Niebuhr

Firstly, and most importantly, the grounding line is a very difficult place to image. It’s the spot where a glacier, which is land-based ice that flows under its own weight, loses contact with the ground and begins floating in a body of water. While we can learn about this area using radar, a person or ship can’t actually swim or drive down to it. That’s where AUV’s and ROV’s come in, to image the grounding line using high definition video, sonar, and oceanographic sensors. So it’s a big deal to get to the grounding line at all.

But secondly, it marks an important step towards a larger goal of the RISEUP project: to explore the grounding line of the Ross Ice Shelf. Next year Icefin will be deployed through a hot water drill hole that goes through over 800 m of ice to reach the ocean. The water here is more than 1000 km from the edge of the ice shelf and receives no incoming sunlight. It’s these reasons that make it an excellent analog for an icy moon, which may have little interaction between the ocean and atmosphere on either side of the ice shell. Knowing that we can operate Icefin in an “easier” (hah!) grounding line environment gives us confidence that next year we will be able to collect a one-of-a-kind dataset from a much more challenging location.

And it’s not just the robot performing well. The team is operating as a cohesive unit, which translates to efficiency in deployment, diving, communication.. and even getting back to base in time for burrito bar. We also find some little moments in the field to enjoy the stunning location. And how better to enjoy ice than by curling on it?

On a no-dive day we also took the opportunity for a reconnaissance mission. Britney, Justin, and I went to tag up with our New Zealand colleagues at their camp in the middle of McMurdo Sound to learn about their oceanographic instrumentation and methods in preparation for our work together next year (, and discuss operations for our next project with them. And by the way — congrats to PI Inga Smith on her newly selected Marsden proposal (read more here:! They’ve been there for several weeks taking measurements of ocean properties in one of the deepest parts of the sound. It was great to see what they’re working on first hand, and talk about the deep drill site for next year.

Photo credit: Britney Schmidt

After that, we headed north to check out our other sites: Barne Glacier and Evan’s Ice Wall. We scoped out a place to setup camp near Barne Glacier, an awe-inspiring mass of ice calving off into McMurdo Sound. A sea ice crack running toward Barne made a perfect place for us to take a CTD cast before we headed off.

Photo credit: Justin Lawrence

And just as we were headed home: the best part of the day. A group of 6 emperor penguins were standing at the side of the road, presumably waiting for the penguin shuttle bus that takes them to the fish store? We steered clear of them, and parked our snow mobiles about 50 m away. They decided to come check us out, however, giving us an up close view of these beautiful animals. And also the rare opportunity for a penguin selfie.

Photo credit: Britney Schmidt


Out to Erebus Glacier Tongue

In the time since the last post we’ve been busy alternating diving days and days for analyzing data, adjusting, and planning missions. We’ve been able to improve our navigation strategies and better estimate the location uncertainty when we operate in different travel modes (ex: driving the robot manually or letting the vehicle drive itself between waypoints).

All of this work at the Scott Base Shelf Site allows us to start to image the transition between sea ice, where our fish hut sits, and the ice shelf. The thickness between these two units is roughly 3m for the sea ice versus about 25m for the edge of the shelf here. There’s also a big change in the ice provenance – which just means “where it comes from”. Shelf ice is glacial ice, from the continental ice sheet, that has flowed off the continent and over the ocean. It floats, but is still attached to and sourced from land. As we have covered in previous entries, sea ice forms in the water column and floats up.

Photo credit: Andy Mullen

After several dives near Scott Base we have switched operations to Erebus Glacier Tongue, which has some important logistical challenges. It’s a 2-3 hour drive each way in the PistenBully, or a little over an hour by snowmobile. There’s limited communications over radio, so we have to keep in touch with McMurdo by satellite phone. The sea ice is significantly more cracked and exposed than it is near town, because of the glacier tongue interacting with the sea ice. And the tongue itself is quite unstable, making it impossible for us to go anywhere within about 100m of the glacier. Perhaps most importantly, we deploy here using a large metal A-frame that sits over the hole and adjacent to an operations tent with room for about half the team. Setting these structures up is not trivial, and you’re fully exposed to the weather while doing so.

Photo credit: Britney Schmidt

We certainly felt the weight of those challenges trying to get our camp setup. Attempt 1: we packed up with all of the necessary gear (so much stuff!) to create a base out of nothing, but halfway there had a problem with our PistenBully wheel and had to turn around. Attempt 2: we got up bright and early, but still ended up getting turned around by bad weather after only a handful of hours on site. Attempt 3: we finally got the A-frame installed and the hole excavated. After 3 tries, we were ready to dive the following day. #Antarctica, right?

Photo credit: Dan Dichek

When we did make it out we had the pleasure of spending the day with the crew from NOVA (, as they’re filming a series of videos about science and life in Antarctica. Luckily the weather cooperated with clear sunny skies and mild temperatures, which is preferable when operating camera equipment.

Photo credit: Andy Mullen

We’ve also gotten lucky with the local macrofauna: our drive to the glacier tongue takes us near a couple packs of Weddell Seals.

Photo credit: Frances Bryson

In the interim, McMurdo continues to be an awesome place to work out of. Folks are certainly enthusiastic about Halloween, and only a couple weeks left until Thanksgiving! Smaller events mark the community calendar, too, like a craft fair, salsa classes, and group meditation. Now who said there are no polar bears in Antarctica?

antarctica, icefin

First Dive!

With the weather clearing up faster than expected, on Saturday morning we were able to do our first Icefin dive of the 2018 season! We decided to stay close to base, and were fortunate to be given access to the fish hut of Paul A. Cziko and Arthur L. DeVries. Their talented group of scientists, divers, and technicians maintains the McMurdo Oceanographic Observatory (MOO) which constantly streams HD video and ocean conditions from 21m below the ice:

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Photo credit: Daniel Dichek
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Photo credit: Daniel Dichek

We packed our gear into our PistenBully in the morning and hauled it to the fish hut in two trips. When we deploy in our own fish hut, we can leave a lot of equipment in there, like our generator (heavy!) and our winch (so heavy!), eliminating the need for multiple trips. With the computers set up and the robot assembled, pilot and co-pilot Chad and Dan, respectively, took us through the initialization procedure. Then it takes about 4 people to gently (read: awkwardly) lower Icefin into the hole. Deploying Icefin outside the fish hut is a much more smooth operation: we use an A-frame ladder and pulley to hoist the robot over its hole. But the fish hut is a nice, warm shelter, which reduces the stress of a first dive.

Photo credit: Daniel Dichek

Driving a robot underwater is a complicated endeavor. Frances and Andy manned the winch and sensitive fibre optic tether, Britney ran the show as mission commander, Matt was on communications, and Justin served as science officer. My job was to use the fish camera to provide a third-person perspective of Icefin (#teamgopher). We use the fish camera to watch the vehicle under the ice to confirm that the sensors are providing accurate information about the robot’s position and orientation. First things first, the engineers wanted to ensure that Icefin has neutral buoyancy in the water – meaning it neither floats nor sinks. This is critical for navigability and efficiency. Next, some of Icefin’s autonomy features were tested: asking the robot to stay at constant depth, constant pitch, or a constant position. Our lead electrical engineer, Dan, helped tune the controllers to optimize these features.

Photo credit: Andy Mullen

With those tests successful, we moved onto autonomous driving. A glitch in the power system momentarily paused the mission, but with plenty of data we can now get down to guaranteeing reliability. This iteration is a big part of any scientific or engineering work – particularly when developing new technologies. Using the data we gathered during the several hours of under ice operations, we’ll be able to improve power system and thruster function, eliminating a few pesky glitches and streamlining the vehicle for much longer science runs that will begin this week. All in all, a successful first dive.

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Photo credit: Andy Mullen
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Photo credit: Andy Mullen

We should be back in the water tomorrow, and this time in our own fish hut near Scott Base and the McMurdo Ice Shelf. The group will travel by snowmobile and PistenBully for the roughly 40 minute commute. Given the recent snow (isn’t it supposed to be a desert!!?), yesterday involved a little Antarctic Crossfit. Start with a 30 minute warm up of trying to secure 10-12 foot sleds in the bed of a jacked up pickup truck on an icy hill, followed by a 90 minute session of digging snowmobiles out from drifted snow at the edge of the sea ice without piling it up in the way of any of the other machines. You can’t see abs through Carhartt coveralls, but I promise I have a 6 pack now. #thisisntfieldwork #itsafieldworkout.

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Part way through
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After! Photo credit: Brit Schmidt
antarctica, icefin

Setting up the Fish Hut and Settling in for Weather

“Space is hard.”
-International Space Station Astronaut Scott Kelly

“Antarctica is also hard. And so are robots.”
-Icefin Team

Photo credit: Brit Schmidt

“……….. but not always.”
-Andy and Tiegan

It’s been up and down here on the seventh continent. Andy, Britney, and I were able to get out to our first field site yesterday. It’s at the edge of the sea ice, about 100m from the ice shelf near New Zealand’s Scott Base. This is an important transition between glacier ice flowing under its own weight off the continent, and ice that forms directly in the water column. Shelf ice can be anywhere from 10’s of meters to over 3 km thick, whereas sea ice is typically only a few meters. In the water column, the solid sea ice that we walk on (columnar ice) is underlain by platelet and frazil ice. Frazil are very small blades of ice that form in the water column and “snow” or float upward. Platelets are exactly what they sound like: little plates of ice that generally stick to the bottom of the surface ice. When they clump together they still have space between the plates, filled with water. Layers with tightly packed platelet ice and the beginnings of columnar ice are called marine ice. Therefore, when we drill through the sea ice we also need to drill through the platelet ice and clear it out so we can deploy Icefin into the ocean water without it getting caught. Platelet and frazil ice exist beneath the ice shelf as well, although this season we are primarily working on sea ice.

Yesterday we re-drilled a 30 cm diameter hole, completed a CTD (conductivity temperature depth) profile, ate some cold pizza with beautiful views of Mt Erebus, and then helped setup our fish hut at the Scott Base site. The first step is clearing snow off the ice using a small bulldozer. Then Andrew and Mel drilled an approximately 1 meter hole through the ice.

Plunging the platelet ice out and clearing it from the site was a lengthy process, but the crew here are experienced and efficient. Once that’s done, they dragged the fish hut (a small cabin on sled tracks) over the hole and the carpenters, Ryan and Ben, got the stove working. The fish hut is kept warm for shelter, comfort, and to keep the drill hole from refreezing.

Photo credit: Andy Mullen

With our new little base set up on the ice, project Bravo 041 headed back to the Rock with all souls accounted for; over. <— I’m learning the radio lingo and it’s going super well.

Icefin, meanwhile, is getting very close to being ready for deployment. The robot has been bottled in its pressure vessel and is currently undergoing full systems tests and a water tank test. While it will be ready to deploy tomorrow, the weather has other plans.

Photo credit: Daniel Dichek

McMurdo specifies weather in terms of ‘conditions’, which are linked to the operations of the base. Regular operations occur in Condition 3, or just Con 3. It doesn’t have to be pleasant weather, but it means visibility, wind speed and temperature are sufficiently good for people to safely navigate and spend time outside. Con 1 is when visibility falls below 30 meters (100’), wind speed is greater than 102 km/h (55 knots, 63 mph) or air temperature is less than -73 Celsius (-100 Fahrenheit) for one minute or longer. Currently we are in Con 2 in McMurdo, but the sea ice is in Condition 1 due to poor visibility and strong winds coming from the south. That means no travel is allowed on the ice, but we are able to move between buildings on base. Storms are expected to continue until Monday.

Photo credit: Frances Bryson

Here’s hoping it will clear up soon so we can take the beast for a spin under the ice!

antarctica, icefin

First week in McMurdo

It’s been a busy first week in McMurdo! While the returning folks can mostly just do refreshers, the newbies like myself have been immersed in quite a bit of training. We’ve learnt how to drive a PistenBully (like a little red snow tank) and did training on operation and minor repairs of a snow mobile.


Because our group will be working on sea ice all season, we also completed training in assessing sea ice safety. A big component is evaluating cracks in the ice to see if they are crossable for the machine we are driving. That involves drilling holes across the crack to check the thicknesses at different locations and then assessing distances between sufficiently thick pieces. It sounds sketchy, but it’s just part of ensuring that we have all the skills to keep ourselves safe in the field. In reality we will mostly be on flagged sea ice roads, and almost always on multi-year sea ice. That ice tends to be almost 2 meters thick (or more!) whereas the thickness required for a human to walk on ice is only 8 centimeters. We also learned to make V-threads by screwing two holes in the ice that intercept at the bottom to make a loop for anchoring ropes.

Other than training, we’ve been getting all of our instruments ready simultaneously with support operations to get our sites and gear prepped. Justin and Britney have been out drilling through the ice to take CTD (current, temperature, density) measurements. The amazing staff here at McMurdo have been getting our vehicles ready, as well as drilling the hole for our first site and installing a fish hut over it. Matt, Dan, and Chad have been working ceaselessly to assemble the robot and perform all the necessary tests. Although Icefin is designed to break down into suitcase-sized pieces for travel in hand carriage, it still has to be rigorously tested after travel, before bottling (where the electronics are sealed in an air-tight vessel), and after bottling. Next step is the full dress rehearsal in the test tanks here at Crary Science Lab.


McMurdo is a beautiful place to be staying. From town there are a number of trails that can be used for recreation, including Observation Hill and Hut Point. If you prefer to hang out inside, there is no shortage of classes to take part in: yoga, kick boxing, jiu jitsu, band practice, knitting, or learning a new language. The base has a library, saunas, a chapel, and 2 bars. With most McMurdo staff staying for at least the full austral summer (October to February), people are eager to make this a friendly and enjoyable place to live. And what with the unlimited ice cream and views of the Trans Antarctic Mountains, it certainly is.



antarctica, icefin, ROGUESEIS


The caps lock might appear to be overkill, but it does not express how stoked we all are to finally be in McMurdo! As a first timer, I think I might have pulled a muscle from smiling so hard.

It started with a 4:30am wakeup to get to the Antarctic Terminal, get outfitted, and get our bags checked. We flew on a military plane called a C-17, which was a cool experience in and of itself. I got to visit the cockpit to meet the pilots and ask questions – and enjoy the views! Turns out military planes have a lot fewer passenger windows..

Good weather in McMurdo meant we didn’t have to ‘boomerang’. That’s the term for when storms prohibit a safe landing, so the plane turns around and heads back to Christchurch. That’s no small thing when you’re carrying 126 passengers on a 6 hour flight to Antarctica. Luckily we had a beautiful, clear day.

Stepping off the plane is a surreal experience. You keep your earplugs on, to protect from plane noise while you disembark. Between that, your Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear, and sunglasses you certainly feel sensory deprivation. But simultaneously, it is a complete sensory overload. Bright skies, bright ice, people milling around, the whirr of the engines, Mount Erebus in the distance, the cold air in your nose, the nice airforce man asking me to please keep moving and stop taking pictures. It was incredible.


Now we’re getting down to business with science, plus a little more training. While Icefin is being rebuilt and tested, I’ve been getting RogueSeis ready. I’m making use of the walk-in freezer, the irony of which is not lost on me on a continent covered in ice, to do a test installation of a prototype of the box we’ll put our seismometer in. It’s basically a plastic box with a spike mounted on the bottom, that I made quickly today in the science shop, which we will freeze into ice using a drill and some water. Next step will be to ensure that we can safely extract the entire box using hot water. It’s pretty cool to be down here with all of the support and facilities, so we’re able to work through ideas quickly and get to testing them out.

If all goes well, we’ll have the little fellow up and running in a couple of days!

antarctica, fieldprep

Last Days in Christchurch

With the bad weather in Antarctica, our group ended up spending 2 weeks in Christchurch. That’s a little longer than our anticipated 36 hour layover on the way to the ice..

The delays can be frustrating, with so much uncertainty about when you’re travelling, the swapping hotels, the lost days from our field season. We tried to use the time as well as we could: working on Icefin plans, creating detailed to-do lists to shorten our robot assembly once we arrived, downloading updated imagery of the sea ice, or, in my case, working on my thesis.

In between all that, though, we certainly found some time to enjoy all the great stuff that Christchurch has to offer! We took a day off to go surfing in Sumner Beach, fully clad in wetsuits and booties.

Quake City, a museum about the 2010/2011 Darfield and Canterbury earthquakes was a powerful glimpse into the experience of and recovery from these impactful events.

And on the last night before flying out, I headed for a run through the Botanical Gardens. Once last chance to soak up some greenery before flying to a continent without so much as a shrubbery.