Hotsie & Ross Sea

Late yesterday afternoon I connected with David Harwood from University of Nebraska’s ANDRILL project. I’d secured an invitation from David and his co-PI (Richard Levy) to get out to see the ANDRILL camp, and it looked like “now” was suddenly the moment!!

No problem – my orange duffel bag was already packed and waiting – I just had to grab my sleep kit from a locked cage in the Berg Field Center, and check out a cot. The cot, I should mention, is far more new-fangled than the old army cot I own back in MN, or any modern relatives I’ve seen in other field camps. This cot is very low – only about 6 inches off the floor, with cloth and wooden sides but no “ends” or folding wooden legs. The legs are 4 bent Ws of metal which snap into socket holes drilled in the wood edges. Voila – instant bed. Actually looks like it will be comfortable.

After David and I met in the Crary Lab, I rode over to Scott Base with his team, to meet the New Zealand members. ANDRILL is a large scientific project, currently combining Cornhusker can-do with Montana Tech expertise and Kiwi drillers (Webster’s Drilling of NZ). Upcoming phases/portfolios of the ANDRILL project will include American, New Zealand, Italian and German scientists. When we arrived at Scott Base, two NZ scientists were just about to start a science lecture about geomagnetic chronology of sea-floor spreading (rate/direction/events) in the period between Gondwanaland (supercontinental) divisions, and the uplifting of the TransAntarctic Mountains. Great stuff! The speakers are working with a survey that will focus on the coastline of Cape Adare, a strikingly unique formation compared to the adjacent coastline, as Cape Adare points off in a different direction from the land around it, like an arrow aimed into an underwater oceanic rift basin (suggesting Adare could be a crustal artifact of a large rifting event that, among other things, formed the Ross Sea?).

After the talk, I spoke with one of the scientists, Rupert, and had some very interesting conversations in the NZ bar, meeting a number of the folks from the ANDRILL project.

Today we left MacMurdo at 7 am in a NZ Hagglund vehicle (just a different color than the US fleet) and we drove across the Ross Sound — largely driving on an unflagged sea-ice road with GPS, following a set of tracks that weave around hummocked ice and pressure swells. At one point, the ice is very broken — David pointed out that we were “crossing the broken ice that is the old ice-breaker shipping channel” leading to McMurdo’s harbor. The frozen drifts and swells sometimes blossom into amazing pools — frozen heavings of impossibly-blue ice, extruded upward as a pocket freezes below.

Following an unflagged road over the sea ice of Antarctica, one feels a bit like a wagon-train pioneer (with the ice-shattered teeth of the Royal Society and Asgard mountains, rising abruptly at the edge of vision, instead of the Rocky Mountains). The horse-power falters a bit as the wagons crest the ice-ridges in our path (something like driving over great fallen trees?), then we plunge and plow forward again, full power. Didn’t the old army expeditions always include a wagon train heavy with strange gear, several enthusiastic geologists gathering rock samples, and at least one artist? I imagine Thomas Moran bounced around in a wagon all day, too, then worked late into the night, trying to capture sketches and impressions as the expedition that “discovered” Yellowstone moved west…

We drive on across the sea ice until we reach the Andrill Camp, a yellow vee of Scott tents for sleeping quarters, with two “RAC-tents” (modernized versions of the older Jamesways huts). I will be sleeping in the camp’s lab tent, while 6 men sleep in their Scott tents. The other RAC-tent is for cooking and dining. The camp also utilizes a unisex “pee-flag” with a nearby Scott toilet tent, housing a seat of blueboard insulation, over a plastic bucket, for solid-waste only….


As soon as we got out, toured camp, dropped bags and grabbed a few supplies, we took off again – driving even further out on the sea ice (another 17 km NW?), to reach a spot referred to as ASPC, where they set up a HOTSIE (generator/heater) and a HOTFINGER drill (heated copper coil to create hot water that will melt or “burn” a round hole down through the sea ice, so as to remove a buried device which has been profiling currents of the sea water below us. The Hotsie’s coil is positioned above/around the cable leading down to this device, frozen into the ice. This is the general sea area where ANDRILL operations will be coring sediment below the Ross Sea in 2007, and drilling operation requires specially-designed floats for the drill line. To design this, they need to measure the currents in the area. The water underneath us in this area of McMurdo Sound is approx 1500 feet deep; the ice is at least 20 feet deep. Falling into the wrong hands, I suppose, a large Hotsie could be used to melt a “hot-tub” hole. The water in the hole becomes very warm and steamy and it almost looks inviting.

We are moving through the strange terrain in a Hagglund tracked vehicle (cross between a snowmobile and a military tank). The ice holds great “frozen” swells, waves, pockets, fractures, and hummucks — and that’s where it is relatively smooth! Someone who was recently traveling with ANDRILL decided that “Hagglund” is a Swedish term for the feeling you get whilst riding in a cement mixer… I took a few short video clips today, from the front seat of the vehicle, to demonstrate their general comfort/stability (characterized by a great amount of noise and absence of a shock-absorber system). Much like being on a ride in an amusement park! I hear that folks pay big money to ride an authentic Hagglund back in Christchurch, at the Antarctic Centre.


After several hours of melting, the Hotsie finally melted a hole clear through the sea ice! But the object we needed to retrieve (on a cable, hooked to a winch) was still frozen into the “ice core” from the hole that was just created. Anyone who has ever defrosted a small refrigerator’s freezer compartment will appreciate this predicament. The device could not be “pulled” free of the free-floating ice-cone it was still embedded in…. so we left the heater coil in the hole, to continue warming the column of water, and we drove back to camp.

The camp is closing up their season soon, so the kitchen is no longer “fully stocked” but they had a bowl of left-over wild rice (frozen on the floor in the corner of the kitchen) so I quickly fixed a large pot of creamy wild rice mushroom soup for the Andrill fellows, and we had enough that we could share hot soup with two GPS surveyors who arrived by snowmobile to survey the “flag lines” that mark holes where Andrill has been working this season. There is nothing quite like hot soup when you’ve been out working in the cold. The Andrill guys are also strangely fond of Marmite (vegemite, a yeast-spread that is similar to miso paste or peanut butter) which they smear on “cabin bread” (crackers that are dry and thick and avoided by many other Antarcticans). Mmmm….


Retrieval of the hotsie and submerged recording device went very smoothly tonight! Great shots of the work, and the underwater device (data from which they were downloading to Richard’s computer before the winch was even disassembled. Returned to find the guys we left back in camp have been packing, cleaning, and soon there was a wonderful steak meal served with cans of New Zealand beer. The light is gorgeous – warm, honey-lemon. Skuas visit camp as they fly across the frozen sea, crossing from Ross Island to the mountains – they fly fast and straight as bombers, and woe to the person they spot strolling outside, carrying lunch between buildings at McMurdo.

The Blue and Ferrrar and Bowers Piedmont Glaciers seem close enough to touch, or stroll over to visit. Scale still eludes me here.


2 am. Reading a dense but fascinating scientific article from Marine Geology called “Seismic stratigraphy of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica: implications for glacially influenced early Cenozoic eustatic change?”

The light streams from the clouds in ribbons in the distance; the sun has spun around to the section of sky near Black Island, Mina Bluffs and Mt. Discovery. I am still waiting for it to get dark, I guess?

Happy Thanksgiving thoughts to all I am thinking of, from a Rac-tent in the middle of the frozen sea!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s