Outdoor science: rock climbing edition

Part of my PhD was funded by the UA/NASA Space Grant to pilot and kickstart what became the UA Science Sky School. Our overnight programs, based at an observatory at the summit of Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains, allow K-12 classes to more deeply explore the world around them using the scientific method. Although I graduated and left Tucson two years ago, I continue to celebrate Sky School’s successes and community. This week, I am back in Tucson for a visit, and looking forward to spending some time at Sky School.

At the March For Science Denver a week ago with another inaugural SkySchool instructor, Kirsten Neff. I’m wearing a superhero cape proclaiming my science superhero to be Sara Plummer Lemmon, the botanist and adventurer for whom Mt. Lemmon is named, in honor of her ascent over 100 years ago.

Mt. Lemmon is a beloved place for more than the observatory, though: there are over 2,000 rock climbing routes established on crags along the 30 mile Catalina Sky Highway that leads to the summit observatory. Since I developed into a regular climber in Tucson, Mt. Lemmon is my rock climbing home.

I have idly daydreamed about combining a Sky School type program with a climbing expedition for years now: outdoor science and engineering of technical skills and the natural world. You could study the mechanical physics of balancing yourself on a small hold or equalizing your anchor points for safety, as well as the geology of the rock quality and how the heck tiny plants are growing in cracks in the rock hundreds of feet off the ground.

So imagine my excitement to see a program launching to do just that up in Colorado! 9 high school girls will have the opportunity to spend 12 days with scientists and climbing guides in the first Girls On Rock expedition. I have been watching announcements of Inspiring Girls growing and expanding as an organization, and am stoked to see this newest program come together.

They want to offer this program free of charge to girls flying in from anywhere in the country!

So if you’re a teenage girl – get ready to apply.

If you know a teenage girl – encourage her to apply.

And if you want to see this program succeed and grow – donate to make this first run possible. I just did.


The Carolina Coast

Although it’s snowing over spring break in Boulder as I write this, a few weeks ago I had my sense of “spring” on the beaches of North Carolina’s barrier islands on the Intracoastal Waterway. My parents moved to Wilmington, NC, a few years ago. Although I miss visiting my childhood home in Salt Lake when I go see them, it’s great to see my extended family in that area, and to kayak through the spartina out to the islands, watching birds dive and dolphin pods cruise by.

I joke about my parents providing fully outfitted and nature-guided kayak tours for me, because they do. When we see the ibis perched along docks, my mom tells me their beaks and legs have already started to redden in anticipation of the mating season.


My dad even pulled out a microscope they had bought so we could look for microscopic life amongst the spartina muck, where the fiddler crabs scuttle.


The comment period on offshore drilling right there ended during my visit. We all submitted comments, along with half a million other people, raising our concerns about the potential impacts of seismic testing on dolphins and the nearly inevitable small leaks on the entire food chain, as well as on the microscopic life at the base of the food chain that supports the local seafood industry. (We kayaked to a dockside restaurant where I had fried oysters – local ones – for the first time. They were great!)


Submitting one citizen comment to a federal agency feels a little like a drop in, well, the ocean. But half a million drops starts to add up to a measurable volume. More drops, and more momentum of those drops might make a difference, if not in preventing drilling then at least in ensuring drillers stick to best practices to have the least impact possible.

My mom always carries a bag over to the islands in her boat to pick up trash during her walk along the beach. Drip, drip, drop.



Antarctica Season 2 Recap

It’s been two weeks since I returned from the ice, and I am still trying to get over a combination of jet lag, altitude, and flu. So I apologize if you are one of the many people to whom I owe an email response!

This was the second season of the cryoconite hole research project, in which we use mud puddles on glaciers as natural test tubes to study how ecosystems develop, and what determines their biodiversity and functioning. Here are some examples of cryoconite holes:

During our first season, we sampled cryoconite holes from three glaciers to better understand what lives in them, and what spatial patterns of biodiversity exist.

During this second season, our goal was more ambitious: to set up our own cryoconites, where we knew the starting mix of the ecosystem and could watch it evolve. Here is a montage of a few steps in that process:

You can learn more about the project, and check out our near-daily blog posts during the two-and-a-half-month season, at cryoholes.wordpress.com.

The short version of our season:

Over Thanksgiving weekend of 2017, most of our field team flew from Boulder or Portland to New Zealand, where we were issued cold weather gear and boarded a Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 for the 8+ hour flight to Antarctica in fairly close quarters (and you thought commercial coach was bad!).

Once on the ice, we prepared the sediments gathered from our field site to create our own cryoconite holes, and flew out to our field camp next to the glacier we work on.

Once in the field camp, we discovered the rumors were true: this was an abnormally snowy year in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Our experiment depended on having snow-free blue ice (which is pretty normal for summer there), so we took brooms and swept an area 500 square meters free of snow. Then it snowed again, so we swept again. And continued to repeat until we caught a break in the weather and set up our cryoconite holes.

Our little holes melted into the ice as planned, although for a shorter period than we hoped before it snowed again and they froze up. The critters were done growing for the season, so we collected samples from some and left the rest for next year. (The following photos are by Brendan Hodge.)

Back in McMurdo, we extracted DNA and chlorophyll from hundreds of samples, and shipped the remainders back to Colorado so we can repeat tests or do additional testing if necessary.

Along the way, our team explored breathtaking ice formations, mountain peaks, mosses, animals, McMurdo’s karaoke night, and more.

Meet Louis, the Louisville Library Water Bear

Pushing the frontiers of human knowledge through scientific discovery is a lot of hard work, but being curious and using real life observations to answer your questions doesn’t have to be.

Ever hear a claim of how conditioner will increase the thickness of your hair and think, “Yeah, right,” but be unable to test it out? If only you had a microscope you could use to measure the thickness of your hairs before and after using that conditioner….


Which is why it’s great that some public libraries let patrons check out microscopes like a book for up to a week! The Louisville Public Library just bought two new scopes for families to check out.

During their monthly maker-space expo, which was science-themed for September, I had the opportunity to introduce visiting families to using the microscopes to look at some of my favorite Antarctic microscopic animals to spy on: tardigrades!

Tardigrades are microscopic animals that are famous for their ability to withstand drying out, freezing, and the vacuum of space. They are also kind of adorable, with common names like “water bear” and “moss piglet.” When placed on a glass or smooth plastic slide to be observed with a microscope, they appear to run in place, going nowhere fast.

I was scrolling through droplets of water and cyanobacteria, searching for a tardigrade to show visitors, when a kid showed some particular interest in the microscopes. I coached him through making his own slide with a water dropper and slide cover, then setting it on the microscope and moving it around. He was the one who found not only a neat ciliated protozoan, but finally got us a tardigrade to watch!

We named the tardigrade Louis after the Louisville Library. I didn’t take any video of Louis, but here is approximately what it looked like, from previous video I took of Antarctic tardigrades:


Alpine cryoconite holes

“Are you standing over a crevasse?” “No.” “Can we stop a moment? I need a picture of this mud puddle!”

Cryoconite is a fancy word for dirt on a glacier. Which is why my friend, Martin, who I was roped to on a Swiss glacier, seemed amused at how often I wanted to stop between jumping crevasses to excitedly photograph the mud puddles.

At one point he pointed out it’s basically the same dirt we had been hiking over beside the glacier that was blowing down onto the ice.

But the difference to me is how the bacteria and other microscopic life in that dirt change in their growth patterns with the addition of water. I study the microscopic life in cryoconite holes on Antarctic glaciers (see more about that project here). I was very excited to see cryoconite in a different part of the world.

Other groups are studying cryoconite on alpine glaciers, like these guys and these guys and these guys. This glacier looked very different than our study glaciers in Antarctica, partly because it was more of an entire debris field rather than isolated little islands of sediment, more like the cryoconite at the Alaskan site that my friend, Jack, just published a neat paper on.

Below you can see the difference between small, shallow, muddy cryoconite holes on the alpine glacier (left) and the larger, ice-lidded Antarctic holes that appear as dark circles of clearer blue ice (right).

Scientists from six continents talk about the seventh behind its back

Beautiful city

It’s not an Onion article – it’s the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) Biology Symposium. It’s happening this week in Leuven, Belgium.

Conditions in Antarctica right now are dark, cold, and inaccessible. Most of the plants, animals, and other living things – at least the ones on land – have gone to sleep for the winter. Of course, when I say “to sleep” in Antarctica that typically means dried out, frozen, or both – and they can still wake up from that! Antarctic critters are cool like that.

Anyway, this is the season that biology is not very interesting in Antarctica, so it’s a good time to analyze and present data to other scientists somewhere warmer, like Belgium. I was at the American research base McMurdo last season, so I met mostly Americans, but Antarctica is a unique continent because it is governed by an international treaty for use of peaceful scientific purposes.

Anthony Bordain – yes, the celebrity chef author/TV host – did a recent episode of his show in Antarctica (he was there filming while I was there in January). Whatever you may think about his style and his show, I was surprised and impressed by the thoughtful conversations he had with scientists and support staff of many stripes about life there and the importance of science and empirical facts. If you missed it, you can stream it for about $3 on Amazon. I recommend it, if only for the view out the helicopter as they land at the camp in Lake Hoare, where I worked. I hear that sight never gets old, even after dozens of seasons.

I also love the Belgian chocolate shops, like Bittersweet.

Although I met mostly Americans on the ice, I was aware there were many other national bases, which is why I was so thrilled to give a talk at SCAR Biology – a chance to meet Antarctic researchers from elsewhere! The conference welcome letter said there were about 400 attendees from about 30 countries. I love hearing all the different languages spoken around me. I have had fascinating conversations with people from at least a half dozen countries. I am still new to Antarctic biology, and am learning new things daily.

Here is a (very) incomplete list of things I have learned so far this week (note: this is not peer-reviewed or technical, and I might get some details wrong, so take these with a dash of skepticism):

  • Cryoconite holes can form not only on glaciers, but on ice shelves. That makes sense, but I had not really thought about it before.
  • Some algae in the McMurdo Dry Valley lakes produce antifreeze protein.
  • Rotifers are picky eaters who sort their food, not indiscriminate filter-feeders.
  • Overwintering crews at Antarctic stations show similar immune responses to astronauts, including fluctuating underperformance and overreaction of immune systems.
  • Diatoms are flying through the air in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.
  • Someone was once stabbed to death on a research cruise (not an American one) over a romantic interest.
  • Although cryoconite holes have been proposed as a likely feature to host life on other planets or even comets, there are some good reasons why they might not be likely to host life on Mars.


And then an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off the Larson C ice shelf, and Antarctica was in the New York Times (again – their reporters were down there this season while I was there, too). I’m a biologist, not an ice-shelf-ologist, but what I understand from reading expert opinions is that it’s the kind of event that happens, but is more likely to happen more often with climate change. And if it happens too much, and too much of the floating ice holding back the ice sheet from pouring off the rocky continent into the ocean goes, then we’re looking at more rapid sea level rise. So my understanding is that it’s hard to say whether this particular berg would have broken without climate change, but that this is certainly not a good sign. It’s neutral or ominous, not hopeful.

I have not heard much discussion of it today at the conference, even from marine biologists. Icebergs break off ice shelves, and this change is one more data point in the overall trend, is all. The media are not calling biologists for comment – I suspect the public is more interested in whether we will have to canoe to the grocery store tomorrow than whether the next generation will grow up without tuna fish sandwiches because the ocean ecosystems have collapsed.

But the iceberg break-off, along with a new analysis published in Science showing the relative magnitude of various actions to reduce a personal carbon footprint, has me thinking about the fact that hundreds of people took transatlantic flights or the equivalent to be here.

Several of the sessions at the conference are specifically for presenting research on human effects on Antarctic ecosystems, including the effect of climate change. Although atmospheric patterns result in my study site not changing at this time, the oceans have been absorbing perhaps more of the heat than some early expectations – and what does that mean for fish? I went to one talk on the adaptation of fish in the Southern Ocean to heat shock.  The conclusion was that given millions of years, the fish could adapt to survive warming of the ocean by a few degrees – but that current projections don’t give them millions of years before we hit those temperatures.

So is it worth the carbon spewed into the atmosphere for us all to be here?

On a personal level, I am tempted to say yes. Yes, because while Skype is wonderful for connecting people in a low-carbon way, casual proximity yields the reshuffling of disciplines that create the combinations that wind up being advantageous, analogous to reshuffling DNA between multiple organisms in sexual reproduction (hey, we’re biologists here!). The unexpected interactions can lead to exponential growth in scientific discovery. You go to dinner in a strange city with a new friend, the distant colleague of someone you met on the train from the airport, and get stuck sitting next to a stranger entirely out of your field. By the end of the dinner, you have an idea for a collaborative project next season when you are both on the ice that would never have occurred to you otherwise.

On a scientific level, it may be tricky to measure the cost in the amount of carbon produced by the meeting and the degrees warming it will add to the climate, but it is almost impossible to quantify the value of the reshuffling of ideas and inspiration to young researchers in producing knowledge. Although studies try to put dollar amounts on basic research that underpins world changing technology, the exercise can feel as frustrating as trying to pin down a price for biodiversity or for friendship.

I’m still processing these thoughts, so I’ll end with a gratuitous Antarctica photo from last season. Onward we march?

Public lands make America great

My last two weekends involved my heart racing and my palms sweating.

IMG_20170506_113408353Last Saturday, I skied down my first backcountry couloir (a steep narrow gully that holds its snow until late spring) in Rocky Mountain National Park, hoping we had assessed conditions and the route correctly and none of us would be digging anyone out from under an avalanche. After decades of saying I would rather ski than snowboard because of the places I can access, I’ve finally started to explore those hard-to-reach places.

The weekend before, I rock climbed in Indian Creek for the first time. I had heard climbing friends talk about their trip to “the Creek” for years. Finally I swallowed my intimidation and tried it. Finally I saw what the big deal was all about.


The raw beauty of Indian Creek is hard to capture in a photo. Much like the exhilaration of being surrounded by blue sky and snow-covered peaks is hard to show in even a panorama, the 360-degree experience of the wide open space and the formations and the way the red sandstone overlaps itself  is somehow exponentially greater than the sum of the photographed area.

Both of these places are on public property. Who does it belong to? All of us. Public land is a legacy of all Americans. We can all go to Rocky Mountain National Park. We can all visit Indian Creek. And it’s up to all of us to take care of these places, to not poop in the communal sandbox we all play in, so to speak.

Certainly we all need to metaphorically poop: we need some areas in which to mine for minerals we  would like to continue use in smartphones, for example. That is why we have public lands designated for “multiple uses,” or as some people joke, “multiple abuses.” I may not know all the details of the Bears Ears National Monument, for example, and which sacred Native American sites it is meant to protect, but I know it includes Indian Creek, and I know that is a special place, not just for the world-class rock climbing, but for its dinosaur fossils.

The access and the space and the shared responsibility are why I am concerned about the movement in some western states to sell off federal public land. That land is a legacy of all of us. It would be tragic to sell it off and lock ourselves out of the many hidden places that make America great.



Science of the Sommers Sisters

IMG_2003“Which one of us do you think is older?” I asked the sixty or so fifth graders seated on the floor of their school library, in an elementary just outside Denver, CO. “Raise your hand if you think she is older.”

About half the kids raised their hands. We probably both looked like generic grown-ups to them.

“Raise your hand if you think I’m older.”

About half the kids raised their hands again, including maybe some of the same kids, just covering all their bases.

“I’m two years older,” I confessed.

“But I’m taller,” added Aleah, my younger sister.

We were doing a joint presentation to the fifth graders on glaciers. Aleah is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder in Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering, where she has been funded by NASA to use numerical modeling to understand how liquid water affects the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet. However, she has also used her background in engineering to find new ways to test the water storage capacity of upper layers in glaciers, which are partially compacted snow called firn. (You can see some of her published work here and a short video on her research here.)

Last year, at about this time, she traversed Greenland by snowmobile, measuring the firn with a prototype of a device she and her husband (also an engineer) had worked out. You can see some photos and stories about that traverse on her blog.

That was shortly after I had moved to Boulder to start studying microbes in glacial mud puddles called cryoconite holes. I recently returned from my first season studying microbes on Antarctic glaciers, which you can learn more about on our project blog.

Anyway, now that we both study glaciers after a fashion, when Aleah saw an email request from a fifth grade teacher seeking real live glacier scientists to talk to her class about glacier research, she forwarded it on to me, saying:

Hey – would you be interested in doing this together, if they’re still looking for someone to come talk about glaciers/ice sheets?  We have great photos and stories from Greenland and Antarctica…  It could be fun.  And I never interact with 5th graders!

I of course have often interacted with fifth graders over the past several years of helping to launch Sky School, an outdoor science program at the University of Arizona. In my new position, I’m glad I have time to work on my research but I do miss teaching a teeny, tiny bit! A one hour presentation – with my sister – sounded like fun.

The silly putty glacier flowed down the slope and fanned out at the bottom, much like the glaciers I work on in Antarctica.

I learned some things about glaciers myself. For example, in order to be considered a glacier, the ice must be present year-round, and it must be flowing. That’s right, glaciers flow like a very, very slow liquid. This required a silly putty demonstration! (Fun fact: At least a few weeks ago, everyone in the Boulder-Denver area in the fifth-grade range was apparently making silly putty at home, and the hardware stores around town were having trouble keeping Elmer’s glue in stock.)

Besides giving some basic glacier facts, and talking about how they shape the surface of the earth (the curriculum standard we were hitting) and why glaciers matter to people, we showed pictures of each our field work on glaciers and answered questions.

One of the best parts of the presentation came later, when the teacher emailed us to say that one of the girls in her class told her she wants to study glaciers when she grows up! (Of course, I promptly sent her a link to this great program for high school girls… a few years early for this student to apply, but still.)

I had a blast getting to talk science and hang out with my sis for an afternoon. If you have classes in the Denver area (or within driving distance) and want your students to hear about life on The Ice, let me know – I’d be up for an encore. I might be able to convince my sister to do it again, too 🙂

Also, since I’m posting this on her birthday, happy birthday Aleah!

Condition 4: Or, so what did you do in Antarctica on the “weekend?”

I say “weekend” because the official work week there is six days (only Sunday off), and if you’re in a field camp or doing science, that often means working seven days a week. Although we were in Antarctica to work – and we did work a lot – when you are on site for three months, it’s a marathon and not a sprint. You have to take breaks to care for your mental and physical health. I haven’t posted much about all the fun I had there, partly because I was focused on the work we were doing. But now I’m reflecting on my first season from back in Boulder, and I have some experiences too good not to share. (Also, the internet is fast enough here to upload all these photos in less than a day!) Some of the things we did for work were honestly the most fun (it’s hard to beat helicopters rides onto glaciers). But there was some good old goofing off, too.

Weather in Antarctica can be extreme. Therefore, one of the first (of many, many) trainings you have upon arrival to McMurdo Station includes safety regulations in high wind, extreme cold, or poor visibility. These weather conditions are classified as follows:

  • Condition 3: Normal. Most of the time – and pretty much all the time in the summer when most researchers are there – is considered Condition 3: no additional rules. (I never experienced anything other than Condition 3.)
  • Condition 2: Severe cold, wind, or poor visibility. Here’s a video someone posted of McMurdo in Condition 2.
  • Condition 1: The most extreme cold, wind, or low visibility. Someone else posted video of walking to work in Condition 1 – holding on to a rope to find their way!

Given this system, can you guess what Condition 4 might be? It’s too nice to work – go play outside! That’s the joke around McMurdo, anyway. So here are some of the outdoor adventures I had:

The Ob Tube

McMurdo Station is actually on an island just off the coast of Antarctica, and much of the research there is on the marine life – under the sea ice! Although there are pretty stiff requirements for diving, someone has built an observation tube of metal and glass for all of us who don’t get to dive. You walk out onto the ice shelf from the station until you reach what looks like a manhole, then you go down – one at a time (it’s a tight squeeze!). The second time I climbed down, I was lucky enough to be there when a couple divers dropped through the ice from a hole inside the nearby dive hut!

Ob Hill

Observation Hill is a high point looming above McMurdo, a cross at the top in memory of lives lost. A trail around its volcanic rocky sides was one of my favorite running routes. It felt so much like running in the Tucson Mountains or Pinacate that I half-expected to see a saguaro or a brittlebush sprouting beside the trail – except for the snow.

Taking the Long Way Around

If we finished field sampling early and didn’t have to catch a lift home, we could hike through the more interesting features of the glacier on our way back to camp.


Scenic Sampling

Sometimes you need samples that represent a bigger area…. and sometimes you just keep hiking along that ridge even after you collected your samples, just for fun. As we kept saying, hey – it’s not like we were going to run out of daylight!


Discovery Hut

Less than a mile from my dorm was one of the original landing points of several of the epic and storied British expeditions led by Sir Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton in the early 20th century. It has been somewhat restored and preserved after years of use and abuse, and I was lucky to take a tour with a volunteer guide. I have read several accounts of early expeditions, including The Worst Journey in the World and Endurance. Seeing firsthand the conditions and the carcasses and the supplies I had read about gave me chills.



Castle Rock

The longest hike from McMurdo is to climb up to the high point of Ross Island and scramble up a rocky outcropping. You can make up to a ten mile loop by heading down the slope by the Kiwi ski hill (the Skiwi hill?) and back on the road. I didn’t make it up to Castle Rock’s summit until a few days before I left, when I headed up with my friend Jim – and it immediately became my favorite place on Ross Island. The photos don’t do it justice on a beautiful day.



One of the things I was really excited about when planning this trip was running a marathon. I had run three previously, but none since my first year in grad school, due to the time and energy required to train – and it was feeling like time for another race. I managed to get some long runs in before we left Boulder, but couldn’t run while at our field camp. Luckily, I had about a month to ramp my running back up in McMurdo as we started processing our samples in the lab.

I had some beautiful long training runs on the ice shelf road, Mount Erebus smoking in the distance against the deep blue sky. The actual race, though, was definitely Type II fun. The course was to run out 6.5 miles to a warming hut, then turn around and come back, and repeat. We battled 35 mph headwinds running out, with visibility so bad we could only see a few red flags marking the road ahead of us, no one in sight. The flat light made it impossible to tell the difference between ankle-deep drifts and patches of ice on the groomed road, and I saw a number of people wipe out hard. Fortunately Brendan ran slowly with me the first half of the first half, and let me draft off him! The second out-and-back I was on my own, though. I was proud to be one of only 14 finishers (3 of us women among that).