Antarctica Blog

Below are a series of blog entries that I made during a 2017 field campaign that measured gas-phase formaldehyde across the Southern and Pacific Oceans and along the coast of Antarctica. During this particular field campaign, I was the lone atmospheric chemist onboard the icebreaker.

All the pictures on this page were taken with my DSLR camera (except for the map).

NEW: The original series ends as the ship is about to cross the Drake Passage, so I added a postlude to describe the rest of the mission

Feel free to use the following table of contents to navigate around the various entries:

Port of Lyttelton

Arrival in Christchurch, NZ

I arrived safely in Christchurch on Friday afternoon around 13:15 NZT after a 30-hour long flight starting from Boston. The flight itself was relatively uneventful, though I did really appreciate the turbulence when the plane traveled through the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), or the region where the trade winds of the northern and southern hemispheres come together. Perhaps I was the only person on the plane to think this was fun!

The plane ride from San Francisco to Auckland also represented two other firsts in my life: (1) Traveling across the equator and (2) Traveling across the International Date Line. As a result of the former, it’s exciting to think that I’m now living in the southern hemisphere and to see water flow down the sink counterclockwise. As a result of the latter, I completely lost my Thursday and went directly from Wednesday into Friday.

I arrived in Lyttelton (a suburb of Christchurch and port town) a little after 15:00 NZT and explored their main street. Being in New Zealand for the past few hours has definitely reminded me of my year aboard in Cambridge, England, since the two places share a common history and common mannerisms (i.e. speech, spellings, signage, etc.). In that sense, New Zealand really hasn’t been that foreign to me.

I wrapped up the day looking out at the port and watching the ships come and go.

Date: Friday, February 24, 2017
Time: 23:00 NZT
Location at Posting: -43.603258 S, 172.719323 E

Exhibit at the Canterbury Museum

Christchurch and Antarctic History

Since R/V Araon won’t arrive at the port in Lyttelton until Monday, I thought Saturday would be a good day to walk around the city centre and explore a small slice of Christchurch.

I arrived around mid-day, and one of the first things I noticed was the large amount of construction taking place all around. Sadly, it’s due to a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that struck the city back in February 2011 and damaged many of the city’s historic buildings. Its famed cathedral is essentially ruined along with damage to the old buildings of Canterbury College where Lord Rutherford (famous for his gold foil experiment in the early twentieth century that showed the atom is mostly empty space with a small positively-charged nucleus and orbiting electron cloud) studied before going to the Cavendish in Cambridge, England.

After stopping at the visitor’s centre, I walked on over to the Canterbury Museum in order to view its well-known exhibit on Antarctic exploration and wildlife. The Greeks hypothesized that a large Southern Continent had to exist in order to balance out the continents of the northern hemisphere, but it would remain centuries before any explorers actually started sailing down to the extreme southern latitudes. Captain James Cook in January 1773 disproved the existence of an extremely large continent and in fact crossed the Antarctic Circle three times for the first time in history; however, he never saw land.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Antarctica was still an unknown continent (besides sporadic sightings of coastline). It wasn’t until the voyages of Captain Robert Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton, and Roald Amundsen (first to arrive at the South Pole) in the years before World War I that the Antarctic landmass was traversed and mapped out.

In subsequent years, particularly after World War II and into the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58 that countries started to build research stations both on the coasts and within Antarctica. Scientific research remains the sole activity on the continent primarily due to the Antarctic Treaty that was signed in Washington in December 1959 and entered into force in 1961.

The preamble of the treaty reads: “It is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue for ever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.”

More details about the exhibit will be discussed in future posts. After leaving the museum, I then mailed a postcard to the Keutsch group back in Cambridge, MA, and walked over to the Christchurch Botanic Garden where I discovered a blooming rose garden and nicely manicured English-style gardens. With the day drawing to a close, I then proceeded back to Lyttelton.

Date: Saturday, February 25, 2017
Time: 23:00 NZT
Location at Posting: -43.603258 S, 172.719323 E

Pre-Departure Preparations

The past few days have been busy with activity in preparation for our departure on March 6. The ship arrived in Lyttelton on Monday around noon, and my instrument/supplies from Boston arrived and were loaded onto the ship on Tuesday.

It’s very much a relief that everything from the States made it to the port and that the instrument arrived in one piece. For those that don’t know, many late nights in the lab were spent packing crates and filling out customs forms with weights, descriptions, and values of every single item in those crates. Then there were the many phone calls about getting everything picked up from Harvard and the constant worry that my packages would get stuck somewhere in either US or NZ customs. To see my packages arrive at the ship without being stopped by customs was thus a great comfort and a small triumph!

Additionally, another logistical hurdle was overcome in trying to access the ship since the entire port is fenced off. Seaports are very much like international airports and thus the same type of security is required to access them (minus the metal detectors). Since I’m considered a visitor, I first have to report to the port’s Security Control Centre where I present them with my passport. Afterwards, I’m then driven by security personnel to the pier where the icebreaker is docked. I’ll only have to do this once more tomorrow since I’ll be living on the ship after that time.

Most of my time the past few days has been spent on getting the instrument setup and running as well as trying to optimize laser power and installing a heated inlet line so that air can be sampled into my instrument. Marco Rivero, the group’s electrical engineer, has been very helpful in last-minute preparations in addition to the Korean crew onboard the ship who have been very generous and shown great hospitality.

Tonight (Friday evening in NZ) is the last night that I’ll be on land for the next few weeks. Starting tomorrow at 16:00 NZT, I’ll be living on the icebreaker full-time as it sails to Antarctica.

Date: Friday, March 3, 2017
Time: 23:15 NZT
Location at Posting: -43.603258 S, 172.719323 E

Start of the Voyage!

As scheduled, the icebreaker started to leave Lyttelton at noon local time on March 6. With the help of a tugboat, we were pulled away from the docks and sent on our way up a short channel that was lined with tall hills on either side. I looked back as the last vestige of civilization slowly slipped from my view; I won’t see another house or road until we arrive in Punta Arenas around April 4. Since I’m unable to upload a picture at the moment, the whole scene was eerily familiar to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, as Frodo, Gandalf, and the remaining elves depart Middle Earth on a ship at the end of the trilogy.

Within two hours of having left port, all sign of land was gone, and I saw an unobstructed, 360-degree view of the horizon. This is in stark contrast to Harvard Square where finding the horizon without something obstructing your view is impossible. Now there’s just so much blue sky and blue water!

Dinner was served in the evening, but most of us hardly had any appetite for food. The constant rolling of the waves tilt the large icebreaker back-and-forth by 10-15 degrees on calm seas. Admittedly, I’m feeling much better than last night, though it’ll take a few days before going back to normal food portions.

I’m told we’ll be crossing the International Date Line sometime this evening. We’ll be going forward an hour and gaining a day, so I’ll have to repeat March 7 all over again. Thus, if your birthday is on the 7th, I’ll celebrate it for you twice!

Date: Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Time: 05:30 UTC
Location at Posting: 46 deg, 45.28132′ S, 179 deg, 56.70748′ E

Rough Patch of Sea

I’m several days into the voyage, and we’ve hit a rough patch of sea being generated by a low-pressure weather system to our east. The ship has stayed put for the past 36 hours as we wait for the storm system to move out of our trajectory.

In the meantime, we’ve been experiencing waves ranging from 5-10 meters high, which can tilt the ship up to 30 degrees. I wouldn’t mind if the waves gently rocked us, but they normally toss me around the room if I’m not holding onto something. It’s like a ride at the amusement park, except this one never seems to stop.

Anyway, as I was trying to fall asleep last night amidst the waves, I noticed some light flickering through the curtains. Realizing that it was the moon, I quickly jumped out of bed and stumbled across the room to look outside. I should mention that this was our first relatively clear night on the voyage, so it was my first time seeing the moonlight reflected off the tumultuous waves. What a glorious sight to behold without the light from a surrounding city to dampen the view! The view was made even better as some cirrus clouds passed in front of the moon casting dark shadows on the ocean below. With that thought, I went back to bed as moonlight streamed through my small window.

Date: Saturday, March 11, 2017
Time: 22:00 UTC
Location at Posting: 53 deg, 54.6965′ S, 175 deg, 0.7592′ W

Entering the Screaming 60s and the Southern Ocean

Overnight, the ship sailed across 60 degrees south latitude, which means that our time in the ‘Furious 50s’ is over and our travel in the ‘Screaming 60s’ now begins.

Though the waters have been surprisingly calm thus far, the area is known for high-speed westerlies that can reach gusts of 90 mph and generate waves upwards of 50 feet.

Passing the 60th parallel also means that we’ve formally left the waters of the Pacific and now are traveling in the waters of the Southern Ocean. It still looks the same outside; nonetheless, it’s a small milestone.

As for a logistical update, the icebreaker is currently headed for Eltanin Bay and Crystal Sound in the Bellingshausen Sea. We will remain on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula during this campaign.

Date: Sunday, March 12, 2017
Time: 21:45 UTC
Location at Posting: 62 deg, 25.8177’ S, 169 deg, 46.8174’ W

Milestone Reached: Crossing the Antarctic Circle

The icebreaker achieved a milestone as it crossed the Antarctic Circle around 21:00 UTC on Monday, March 13.

Icebergs also started floating past the ship in the early hours of the morning. Most of the scientists (including myself) have taken to watching for large icebergs in spare moments as we continue to head south on the Southern Ocean. It’s my first time seeing icebergs in real-life.

After experiencing a bit of the New Zealand summer a week ago, winter came back in full force with sleet most of the day.

I’m also experiencing very spotty to non-existent internet as we near Antarctica, so all posts and communications will be delayed.

Date: Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Time: 04:30 UTC
Location at Posting: 67 deg, 26.7158’ S, 161 deg, 16.3200’ W

Seventy Degrees South and Penguins

Writer’s Note: This post was originally meant to be posted on March 18, but the internet onboard the ship has been completely non-existent since March 14.

Earlier this morning, we passed 70 degrees south latitude.

At around 12:30 UTC, the ship started to break through large slabs of ice as we neared the Bellingshausen Sea. An ice pilot is doing his best to navigate the vessel through the ice. The waves have calmed down considerably, and the surface resembles that of wiggling Jello. The icebreaker’s speed has also slowed from 13 to 6 knots.

About two hours after traveling through the ice field, we saw some seals lying around on the floes. Later in the evening (around 17:45 and 20:00), we saw a large group of penguins! That generated a lot of excitement onboard!

I watched the sunset, and it simply looked like a different planet out there with mountains of ice sticking out of a completely ice-covered ocean.

Date: Saturday, March 18, 2017
Time: 23:00 UTC
Location at Writing: 70 deg 11.4597’ S, 100 deg 53.8827’ W

Sighting of Coastal Glaciers

Writer’s Note: This post was originally meant to be posted on March 26, but the internet onboard the ship has been completely non-existent since March 14.

Early in the morning on March 25, the ship passed over the continental shelf with the depth decreasing from nearly 4000 m to just under 500 m.

Then, on Sunday, March 26, we had our first sighting of the coast at 14:53 UTC when we arrived in Eltanin Bay. With massive glaciers blocking any further progress south by the icebreaker, it’s time to turn the ship around and go north again. Hence, the furthest south that I have ever been on Earth is 73 deg 41.6971’.

Date: Sunday, March 26, 2017
Time: 22:00 UTC
Location at Writing: 71 deg 0.3138’ S, 88 deg 14.0057’ W

Seeing Land at Last!

Writer’s Note: This post was originally meant to be posted on March 30, but the internet onboard the ship has been completely non-existent since March 14.

While our previous voyage into Eltanin Bay brought us to within 10 km of the coast, the coast was completely lined with glaciers, so seeing land was impossible. Today, as we were heading into Crystal Sound on the Antarctic Peninsula, wind-swept mountains covered in snow and ice rose out of the horizon as we neared the coast. I haven’t seen land since leaving Christchurch on March 6, so it’s great to see rocks again! It’s also worth mentioning that this land is the first land I’ve seen that isn’t owned by a country or person. No passport necessary!

The captain also timed our arrival in such a way that we arrived in the late afternoon; just in time for a polar sunset. The sun reflecting off the snow-covered mountains as we drifted through Crystal Sound was truly remarkable and a sight to behold! The blue ice of Antarctica even had a sort of purplish glow to it as the sun went below the horizon. The whole scene was peaceful and calm.

The ship is currently sheltering-in-place in Harusse Bay off of Liard Island for the next two days as a swell passes through the Drake Passage.

In terms of wildlife, there were plenty of seals, but we also sighted several whales. This being my first time seeing a whale, it was very cool to see them come to the surface to breathe through their blowholes.

To conclude the day, the night sky was finally clear (it’s been surprisingly overcast/cloudy almost every night since I’ve boarded the ship)! When it was sufficiently dark, I went outside to take a peek at the galactic center and the Southern Cross. Again, it was my first time seeing the night sky in the southern hemisphere (which is different than the northern sky) and there was no light pollution, so the sky was lit with so many stars! It’s awesome to imagine that the photons from these stars millions of light-years away have traveled through outer space just to end their journey in my eyes.

Date: Thursday, March 30, 2017
Time: 23:50 UTC
Location at Writing: 66 deg 38.7730’ S, 66 deg 52.8812’ W


While the post from March 30 marks the end of the original series of posts, I still spent another two months on the ship R/V Araon. I'll briefly summarize those next two months here:

After the swell passed through the Drake Passage, the icebreaker made it's way across the passage in relative ease, which is fortunate given that the Drake Passage is arguably known throughout history for having some of the roughest waters on the planet with accompanying violent storms. The rough waters of the passage is due, in part, to the Antarctic Circumpolar Current that completely loops around Antarctica and forces the water of the Southern Ocean through the somewhat narrow passage.

The icebreaker then dropped me off in Punta Arenas, Chile, for around two weeks as it headed back to Antarctica to service the South Korean research station on the continent. It was at this point that all of the fellow scientists who had traveled to Antarctica left to go back to their home countries of New Zealand and South Korea. From this point going forward, I was the lone scientist on the icebreaker.

I reboarded R/V Araon in mid-April as it began its cruise back to its home country of South Korea. For the most part, this journey of five weeks was relatively calm on the high seas, and I miss the evenings where I would go up to the top of the ship after dinner to collect gas-phase measurements of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean as the balmy South Pacific breeze would rush pass me. A few weeks into the journey, I stayed up late one night in my Chief Scientist office to watch the progress of the ship at the exact moment that it passed the equator!

Time became somewhat relative onboard the ship as we passed over another timezone every few days. In the end, the days were primarily punctuated and defined by lunch and dinner time.

Overall, I'm very grateful for the opportunity to have gone on the field campaign! Since there was no way to have supplies shipped to the icebreaker during the mission, I became very skilled in 'MacGyvering' useful and creative solutions to challenges that would pop up. As such, my confidence and abilities as an experimentalist rose immensely as a result of this journey!