antarctica, icefin

Emperor Penguins!


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.

antarctica, fieldprep

Killing Time in CHCH

As we enter week two of weather delays in McMurdo, United States Antarctic Program (USAP) participants in Christchurch are eagerly anticipating the first flights to the ice. After arriving on Thursday, and between rounds of musical hotels, we’ve prepped our gear and taken all training that can be accomplished from New Zealand. This includes learning about internet security, cold weather safety, and environmental protection.


Yesterday was another no-fly day. Devastated by the news (or not), Matt, Frances, and I consoled ourselves by driving out to Arthur’s Pass National Park to do some hiking! Enjoying the greenery, we headed towards Avalanche Peak for spectacular views of ice and rock. Plenty more of those views in store for us, swapping Ralston Peak for Mt. Erebus.

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Matt Naps
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Panorama from near the summit

In honour of Canadian Thanksgiving [which no one knew about], we ended the day with a great meal at our hotel and team movie night.

Today we shift to working on science and engineering planning, making sure we are absolutely as prepared as possible when we get to McMurdo. Our group is unique in that we have to simultaneously prioritize operations goals for robot performance and science goals for ice-ocean research. This can involve a lot of translating between nerd languages: engineering and science. At least there’s no shortage of coffee to fuel these marathon team meetings..