Poetry in Unexpected Places

Categories: Antarctic Field Notes, Antarctica, Artist Residencies, Evidence, GPS/GIS | Kathleen M. Heideman | November 26, 2009

My photo “Survival Cache” (from the Dry Valleys of Antarctica) was mentioned in this month’s post from GPS, a Global Poetry System — a project hosted by the South Bank Centre of London. This month’s theme: “See the World like Ed Ruscha.”  Here’s a link to my contribution to GPS:

Survival Cache


Survival Cache

"Survival Cache" mentioned on GPS!

Ice Bridge

Categories: Antarctic Field Notes, Antarctic News, Antarctic Science, Antarctica, GPS/GIS | Kathleen M. Heideman | November 1, 2009

Bi-Polar Photographer Stuart Klipper sent me this NPR story about Ice Bridge, NASA’s new polar imaging project, with planes now taking the place of a dying satellite (Stuart would like to be taking photographs from the flight deck of those planes). Listen to NPR: NASA Launches Mission To Track Polar Ice By Plane (by Jon Hamilton)

The article was fascinating to me for another reason:  the scientist quoted in the story is the same Thomas P. Wagner who was such a terrific liaison for me while I was in Antarctica!  At that time, he was working for the National Science Foundation (Earth Sciences division) — but it seems he has since made the jump to NASA!  Wow.  There were NASA scientists sharing our lab at McMurdo that season, working on core-sampling equipment. Perhaps he was being recruited?  Great guy — wonderful to work with. Here’s a NASA video featuring Wagner:

“NASA climate scientist Tom Wagner provides a look at the state of Arctic sea ice in 2009 and discusses NASA’s role in monitoring the cryosphere.”

Wagner and I, along with the TAMDEF (TransAntarctic Mountains Deformation) researchers, flew down to reposition a GPS device on Deverall Island, the southern-most (icebound) island in Antarctica. Here is a panoramic photo taken by a researcher at Deverall, which includes one of their GPS units, if you scroll all the way to the right edge of the image. And here is are my own photos from that trip: The Scientific Method: Deverall Island

Reading the Rake Magazine in Antarctica

Categories: Antarctic Field Notes | Kathleen M. Heideman | October 20, 2006


Originally uploaded by miss_distance.

My friend Bill Jirsa took this (very late one night) in McMurdo Station, Antarctica. You can tell how late it is by how bright the sky is…… 24 hours of light on Antarctica in December!

USAP Project Profile

Categories: Antarctic Field Notes | Kathleen M. Heideman | September 27, 2006

Antarctic Luggage

Antarctic Luggage!

After months of planning [ culminating in the USAP Science Support Project Profile paperwork ] there was still schlepping to be done at the Christchurch NZ Departure Center. The carry-on bags: two duffel bags (one containing official NSF-issued Extreme Cold Weather gear that we had to keep with us during the flight, in case of some unthinkable emergency), plus a laptop computer bag, a camera bag, and a giant parka. The dark portion of the image is a larger duffel bag, roughly large enough to contain a corpse. Everyone wore one set of polar-issue clothing during the flight, along with the red parka, which doubled as a sleeping bag.

Scenes from a three-hour cruise…

Categories: Antarctic Field Notes | Kathleen M. Heideman | December 12, 2005

The cloud ceiling kept lowering, until the return flight was canceled. Once we realized that our helicopter would not be able to pick us up, it was determined that we would make dinner at Bonney Camp, a jamesway installed on the shoreline, hike out the glacier, and catch some rest. Slideshow:

Stranded in Eden

Categories: Antarctic Field Notes | Kathleen M. Heideman | December 12, 2005

Saturday’s day-trip to the Dry Valleys (with Dr Bess Ward, Dr Mark Wells and Mark’s PhD student, Ben Beall) had a slow start — helicopters weren’t flying, due to a weather hold. I knew something was up as soon as I stepped outside: the top of Observation Hill was missing — lopped off, halfway up. Would we really be able to fly? Hmmm. I doubted it. It was absolutely beautiful, if unsettling.

Eventually the call came that we had a green light to fly, and we clomped through Crary Lab, out the back door, and hauled our orange duffels to the helicopter pad, located just above the ice of McMurdo Sound. A quick glance at the still-foggy sky, loading, adjusting helmets, check-check-check, then we were off — into a weird scene. The opaque sky had an incredibly low ceiling, pea-soup gray, the sort one might expect to find in Seattle. Everything in the McMurdo Sound landscape felt constrained, yet the clouds were moving. Helo Ops figured the system was lifting, breaking-up overall.

The pilots discussed the ceiling, tried to rise, and reported the upper limit was near 500 ft. Above that, soft gray cotton swallowed us completely, like anesthesia. Below 500, the view was somewhat like looking under your bed: darkish, with gray quilts above, gray-white floor below, gray dustbunnies, and a wide thin swath of landscape between them. Here and there, the dark blue feet of the mountains were visible.

The weather did not improve. The Dailey Islands lost their heads. The Strand Moraines got fuzzy. The Piedmonts misplaced their luminosity. Glaciers seemed flat without their vast blue rooflines.

Fog over Ross Sea

Flying up the stunning Taylor Valley, with dark mountain walls on both sides and a gray tent roof fluttering above, was like negotiating a fun-house hallway, a lowered ceiling, with the perspective intentionally skewed to give the illusion of meandering length. The low slate-gray clouds were not still — they drifted above. We were dropped off at the Polar Haven research tent (in the middle of the East Lobe of Lake Bonney), and the helicopter lifted, fwuttering away to other errands.

Every time we looked up from our work, the landscape was dimmer, the clouds darker by just another shade of charcoal. About noon, I walked over to the shoreline, to look for ventifacted rock, while Mark Wells headed out to the West Lobe to retrieve some of his gear. I had nearly reached my destination, a wind-worn ridge of boulders, when the radio I carried went off in my pocket. It was Rae, calling from a camp further down the valley, saying that the weather was getting worse and the helicopter was coming to pull us out earlier than planned. Damn! I turned and ran for the ice, clomping quickly across the lake. I knew was moving too fast (ahem, especially when I fell, bashing my shin and raising a great lump) but the cardinal rule with helicopters is: BE WAITING & READY.

Do whatever it takes to be ready. Helicopters don’t like to wait, and they generally don’t shut down unless they have to. I had one radio, Mark had one radio, and weather-haven had none. Bess and Ben couldn’t hear the news until we reached them. In the end, we mustered quickly, coiling hoses, shutting down the equipment, arranging science cargo and piling duffels. Meanwhile the sky dropped. We were getting weathered-in. The helicopter tried, but couldn’t get back into the Valley to pick us up. They said they’d try again later, until about 7 PM. The smoked-shut look of the sky suggested there was a forest fire raging somewhere up the Taylor Valley, though it was barren rock and glacial til. Back in McMurdo, theoretically, I was supposed to be “bag-dragging” tonight (weighing and checking luggage, done the night before a flight) for my trip back to New Zealand.

After a few hours of waiting for word from Helo Ops and dozing in the small Polar Haven, we hiked to the fixed buildings of the Lake Bonney Camp. (3 tents, 3 tiny labs and 1 historic Jamesway hut). Another group of researchers, stranded by the weather, were already there — they’d hiked up the Taylor Valley from the other direction, to pull soil samples from the riparian zone (along lake edges).

Stuck in Eden together, perhaps for the night, we decided to make a group dinner. First we looked through the shelves, considering our various freeze-dried and just-add-water options. I baked a gingerbread cake, adding lots of dried apples and extra nutmeg. Items were pulled from a cold freezer, including some shrimp frozen into a block of ice, and frozen veggies, and a giant pot of water was prepared (for boiling several bags of pasta). As 7 PM approached, dinner was almost ready — but we walked away before we could actually eat it, back out to our Weather-Shelter, to be ready for the helicopter, just in case.

Finally, we received word that the helicopter wouldn’t return. We were weathered in for the night – the valley to the east was moody with clouds. The flight to New Zealand was also delayed, so that problem was solved for me. A helicopter would try to pick us up in the morning. We walked back to Bonney camp, and the snow descended. Lake Bonney and the rock walls on either side became a snow-globe, jostled by a gentle hand. It was truly magical. Someone had decorated the Bonney jamesway with a hodge-podge of holiday decorations — some ragged tinsel, a few ornaments. There was a refrigerator in the corner of the kitchen, but it wasn’t running: on the door was an old advent calendar, with all the windows already opened, but pushed back shut for the next occupant. The pre-way (primus) heater creaked and dripped, warming the hut until it felt downright cozy. We sipped hot tea.

Bess, Ben and Mark had sleep-kits, complete with thermorest pads and sleeping bags, and decided they would sleep inside the weather shelters out on Lake Bonney. The hiking researchers pulled sleeping bags from their emergency kits (heavy rubberized just-in-case duffels that had been dropped at Bonney Camp by helicopter), and it was decided they would sleep in the tents that had been left standing at Bonney camp. One generally does not open an emergency kit unless absolutely necessary, because each one must be packed and carefully checked and resealed, to ensure that it contains everything it is supposed to have. I would sleep alone in the Bonney jamesway, on a bench in the corner, using an army bag left at the camp.

Because the Bonney Camp uses solar and wind energy, there was no generator to interrupt the perfect silence. Heavenly and absolute! I could hear snowflakes falling, grit scittering. The dry rock slopes went white as the hours wore on, which is unusual in the “Dry” Valleys. Some folks played cards, and others read books from the camp bookshelf. “Cribbage anyone?” asked a geologist, and the everyone laughed at the cribbage board — a odd bit of a 2-by-4, with meandering rows of holes punched in, using a nail, and slivers of wood (perhaps they were match sticks?) in lieu of cribbage pegs.

At about 11 PM, a few of us decided to take an after-dinner stroll, and we hiked up to the Hughes Glacier. The valley walls are loose scree, and the snow melt-water was running downhill. Unusual weather for the Dry Valleys! Sometimes we were hiking through running water, an inch deep, stepping from rock to rock. The round head of the Hughes lies just SW of Lake Bonney. The Hughes is unique in that it has multiple sources, or necks, which drop from a snowfield in the mountains above in three long distinct bodies, like noodles extruded from a press (there was a fourth neck to Hughes, but it has abated, and now hangs from the ridge top like a raindrop, not quite falling). Large hunks of the ice lay shattered at the base, impossibly blue, as if they were radiating a blue fluorescent light. It was midnight in Antarctica, and I found myself sitting on a blue boulder of ancient ice, high above Lake Bonney, crunching on bits of ice — each containing ancient air bubbles — from my cold, bare hand. A taste of the Sublime.

Bonney Overnight: Hughes Glacier

Bonney Camp, Dry Valleys

Ventifact, Shore of Lake Bonney

Research Hut on Lake Bonney

Dry Valleys - Flight Out

Mt Erebus - Return from Dry Valleys

Fresh News Reaches Antarctica!

Categories: Antarctic Field Notes | Kathleen M. Heideman | December 11, 2005

(From an email to The Rake magazine, published in Minneapolis MN).

Friday night, I received a package containing snapshots of a friend’s garden in Minneapolis. Thanks Stuart!!

I opened the envelope at dinner, and passed the images around a table where I was sitting. The amazing thing about receiving mail in Antarctica — any mail — is how everything seems fresh, exotic. Oooooh — purple coneflowers and zinnias!! What is that — corn?? Mint? Chives?!?? You’d think we were looking at photos from Mars. I should mention that the McMurdo kitchen is officially “out of freshies” (fresh vegetables, fruit), nearly out of real eggs, etc. I’m pretty sure we used up our last lettuce at Thanksgiving. Folks have already reported seeing spinach salads in their dreams….

I’m not dreaming of salads, myself, since I’m scheduled to fly back to lush New Zealand soon — too soon — perhaps on the very plane that brings in new freshies for Antarctica. But it’s a long flight back to New Zealand, in a Hercules military transport plane, and I’m fresh-out of unread magazines (a common affliction). What a joy to discover that my package, mailed from Minneapolis, contained an unblemished issue of The Rake — the December issue, no less!! — featuring Brad Zellar’s account of the ore-boat traverse with photographer Stuart Klipper. Current issues are celebrated in Antarctica. I just returned from a remote field camp where the most current magazine was a Log Home Living (the “flooring” edition) from 2001.

It felt quite strange, reading about luxury log homes on a continent with no trees.


Note that photos were taken just after midnight, by the official Station sign, looking out onto the frozen Ross Sea where an ice-breaker will arrive, later this month, linking our port to the open sea. This will allow a supply ship to reach Antarctica. It is Austral Summer on the Ice. The sun doesn’t rise or set, it just rolls around in the sky, casting shadows from all directions. I’ve been in Antarctica since October 31, writing poems about science as a participant in the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program.

“It is difficult to get the News from poetry…
yet men die miserably every day
for lack of what is found there.”
- William Carlos Williams.

Kathleen M. Heideman
The Scientific Method


Reading the Rake in Antarctica

Lake Bonney Research

Categories: Antarctic Field Notes | Kathleen M. Heideman | December 9, 2005

Looking back through the photographs I took at Lake Bonney, I see there are a few rather interesting shots, including the hole in the ice (accessed by Bess Ward and her team via the floor of the weather shelter tent) and also the teflon-coated tube that goes down into the water, feeding water samples into a HEPA-filtered hood, to keep the work area clean. The teflon tube (acid-cleaned before each use) helps them sample from a precise layer of water; the waters of Lake Bonney are very stratified, and do not mix easily, and so they want to draw samples from very specific levels. You can also see the special metal-coated plastic bags (like juice-drink bags) that keep their samples pristine, and do not allow gas to penetrate or escape — and Bess’s orange box with dove-cote compartments inside, to keep the water samples safely stored as they are transported from field to lab.

I also spent an afternoon in their lab this week, observing as samples were processed and their bacterial contents counted and analyzed, digitally. This is where their “hands-on” observable research takes a very abstract turn, due to the computerized methods need to manipulate and analyze bacteria.

Reading the Rake in Antarctica
Ben, processing samples in Bess Ward’s lab (back in McMurdo)

If all goes well (fingers-crossed): I will be able to return to the field with Bess and Mark tomorrow! This time, we’ll be working on the East Lobe of Lake Bonney, which behaves very differently, in terms of bacterial denitrification processes. I hope this trip happens, as it will be my last opportunity to observe scientific field work in Antarctica. Impossible as it seems, my time in Antarctica is nearing an end. At this point, I am scheduled to leave the Ice on Sunday. (If I miss that flight for some reason, they tell me the next one doesn’t go out to New Zealand until December 22.)

View Slideshow of Research on Lake Bonney:

Ice Morale

Categories: Antarctic Field Notes | Kathleen M. Heideman | December 8, 2005

McMurdo is a fantastic hive with scientists flying around gathering their elusive field honey – while the worker-bees buzz around within the McMurdo honeycomb. Aside from various short hikes I’ve described (to Cape Armitage, Castle Rock, Observation Hill, a hike up the local ridges), the locals are a “captive audience.”

One of the saddest facts of life in McMurdo is that the hardest working residents — cooks, dining assistants, general assistants, janitors, heavy shop mechanics, carpenters, utilities engineers, office workers, machinery operators, night shift workers, and all the others who make the place tick — don’t get to see very much of Antarctica at all. Sometimes, as I am talking with someone about what I’ve been up to, I feel damn self-conscious. They’ve been down in Antarctica, working for several years in a row, and maybe they haven’t seen any of the wondrous things that I’ve been privileged to see in just the past month! Still, folks return season after season to refuel vehicles and repair generators — in love, anyhow, with a place they only experience or glimpse the edge of. It’s as if they have fallen in love with a stranger, ANTARCTICA: love-at-first-sight, but the feelings must be taken on faith, despite a gaping lack of knowledge about the other person.

Raytheon’s official solution? “Morale trips.” Names are selected from a lotto-pool, and given opportunities to go somewhere, anywhere — generally somewhere readily accessible in a tracked vehicle, such as onto the sea ice. This past weekend, there was a trip in a Delta (a large vehicle) which drove a couple miles out onto the ice, stopped, and let folks look around and snap pictures, and then it came back in. This was called the “Ride to Nowhere.”

As a Raytheon employee in McMurdo, your chance at a morale trip might happen once a season. When I went out with the Petzels to their fish-research hut at Cape Evans last week, there were several “morale trippers” riding with us. It was interesting to watch them — they were remarkably silent, looking out the windows, soaking it all in: the steaming visage of Mount Erebus, the sea ice road cutting a path through sharp volcanic islands, Barne Glacier looming blue along the cape, like a fossilized ice-scarf. On the way back, we stopped for about 10 minutes of photos along the pressure ridges. Here, the sea ice is hammered into swells, splitting open under pressure, forming dynamic shapes with translucent blue walls, pinnacles, spires, grottoes and pyramids. Along the Erebus Ice Tongue, Weddell seals use the open water cracks to surface, birthing pups and sunning themselves. To be honest, I was mostly enthralled by the shattered slabs of the pressure ridges — but the addition of cow-sized seals and afterbirth-spotted ice gave this surreal terrain a human, familiar, farm-girl touch.

Photos: Seals in Pressure Ridges along Erebus Ice Tongue


Categories: Antarctic Field Notes | Kathleen M. Heideman | December 8, 2005

New photographs have been posted:
Dry Valleys: Wright Valley, Lake Vanda and Ventifacts