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

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!