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Dispatches from Antarctica: Mt. Erebus, the Most Polar Extreme

Beneath the frozen Antarctic ice, Earth’s plate tectonic machinery roars. Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world, is a window into this internal machinery.

ByCaitlin SaksNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Mt. Erebus, the second-highest volcano in Antarctica | Photo credit: Arlo Perez

Mount Erebus: A fiery, active volcano in the land of ice. It is a behemoth soaring over 12,000 feet above the sea ice, and everywhere we went near McMurdo, the mighty volcano loomed. It is the southernmost active volcano in the world, and it has regular small eruptions. At times, a bubbling lava lake can be spotted in its crater.

Since the first moments that I signed on to this project, getting up Mount Erebus was the ultimate goal. The dichotomy of a hot and active geological feature on this frozen continent is fascinating. And, it speaks to the central question of NOVA’s forthcoming Polar Extremes film: what makes the planet hot, and what makes it cold?

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In Antarctica—in this seemingly lifeless, barren, still environment—Earth’s internal plate tectonic machinery roars, heedless of the chill on the surface of the planet. Just below the icy landscape is evidence of our planet’s internal volcanic heat. It is visible. You can see it seeping out the cracks on Mt. Erebus. That is what we wanted to capture – the intersection of the icy and fiery realms.

But the trip wasn’t going to be easy. First: Erebus creates its own weather. To get there, we’d need good weather in McMurdo so our helicopter could get out. And then good weather on the volcano. In addition to rolling doubles on the weather, we’d need to coordinate our schedule with a mountaineer… someone who could come with us to help us find safe paths for traversing. Then, there was altitude: we’d be going straight from sea level up to about 9,000 feet. But the pressure altitude—or the altitude that it would effectively feel like on our bodies—was 12,000 feet.

And finally, cold. This would be the coldest environment we’d work in by far on the entire trip: -30 degrees Fahrenheit. I was going to the coldest place I’ve ever gone in my life to get a story about Earth’s heat. In researching for this trip, one scientist told me that when you get out of the helicopter, everything just hurts.

It took us until day 25 of our 28-day trip to get our chance to go up there. By this point, I had resigned myself to its not happening. But on the very last Friday of our trip, we got our window.

I was surprised that two helicopters were allotted for our trip—a small AStar, and a larger 212. Coming with me were Zac and Arlo (of course), and mountaineer Dennis Haskell. I thought we’d be limited on space, but when I learned we had two helicopters, I inquired about bringing a scientist with us who had studied the Erebus volcano, and could add expert commentary to our footage. That scientist was Jessie Crain, who had spent much time on Erebus, studying the gases that the volcano emits. Now, she works for the NSF as the Antarctic Research Support Manager.

Even though we were scheduled to go, nothing was certain. The pilots were concerned that the moisture in the atmosphere would cause the helicopters to contrail. Just like an airplane can create contrails at altitude, the blades of the helicopters could whip a cloud into existence from thin air. Except unlike a plane, the cloud would not actually trail the machine, it would envelop it, making it impossible to land or take off.

The AStar went first with Dennis and Zac, who would be able to better film out of the large AStar windows. Arlo, Jessie, and I hung back in McMurdo awaiting word that the conditions were okay for the larger helicopter to attempt the trip. We waited in anticipation for the go-ahead. It was quiet on the helo pad, as it was late in the day—maybe 8pm. This was by design, since the light is better for filming late in the day, and the helicopters are easier to schedule at night. Finally, we got the thumbs: all clear. There would be some contrailing, but nothing that would need to scrap the mission.

The flight up to Erebus was, in a word, stunning. The late evening sunlight made the fine contours of the volcano glow. Gasses billowed from the crater. What we saw was mostly water vapor, but mixed into that was carbon dioxide, from deep in the Earth. Collectively, the planet’s volcanoes emit carbon dioxide that warm the planet over geologic timescales. Even during times when the globe was completely covered by ice, volcanism persisted, slowly heating the planet. (The amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes today is miniscule in comparison to how much humanity is emitting from fossil fuels).

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View of Mt. Erebus from the NOVA team's helicopter. "A camera. 13,000 feet up in the air. Against the -20 degree Fahrenheit air current," says associate digital producer Arlo Perez. "I have never been more scared of dropping something in my life."

We were heading towards a site called Cone Z, where a swarm of steaming fumaroles were visible. When we touched down, it was -30F. Instant cold. But, miraculously, it was windless. And without wind, the cold just isn’t that bothersome, especially with all our extreme cold weather gear. I never thought I’d say “-30 degrees Fahrenheit just isn’t that bad.” Zac actually didn’t even need to wear his big red parka for a while.

But, there were ways that the cold made itself known. Almost immediately, my breath fogged my sunglasses, and then the moisture froze, rendering the sunglasses useless. I couldn’t see out of them. The moisture from my breath also instantaneously frosted my eyelashes and the curls of hair that poked from beneath my hat. I live in Boston and am no stranger to frozen hair… but this was different. This was frosted hair. Quite the fashion statement.

We took preventative measures to deal with the cold and altitude. We brought canisters of oxygen for all of the mission participants to take breaths from. (Getting that O2 to the continent was no easy feat, since compressed air must ship to Antarctica as hazardous cargo.) We had a thermos of tea, and lots of sugary snacks. And of course, hand and foot warmers. I felt fine, but I was puffing and eating and drinking preventatively. I was concerned, however, that Arlo indicated he was feeling slightly unwell, especially whenever he was down on his knees working with the camera equipment.

The fumaroles were only about 50-100 feet from where we landed. And they were spectacular. This is where steam from the volcano seeps out. But the steam instantly freezes, just like my breath did on my eyelashes and sunglasses. The result is cartoonish towers of ice that look like something from a Dr. Seuss book. This landscape did not look like it belonged on Earth.

Our first objective was flying the drone, since that would be the most valuable footage, and because we wanted to take advantage of the lack of wind while it lasted. Drones are not supposed to operate at -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Ours was rated to operate down to 32 degrees Fahrenheit—not negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit. And we did have trouble. All the electronics were finicky. But we got it in the air… and then it started behaving badly. Wobbling a bit. What’s going on? Zac noticed it wasn’t behaving appropriately. Arlo realized it was when it was near the fumaroles that it happened. And I put together that the heat from the fumaroles must have been creating an updraft that led to instability. A nice bit of teamwork… at least our brains were still operating. Okay… let’s fly a wee bit further from the fumaroles.

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Next, we walked right up to the ice towers. Along the way, Jessie pointed out to me volcanic rocks with famous Erebus crystals embedded in them. These were large bits of the mineral feldspar embedded in the matrix of dark volcanic rock. The fumaroles we found created something like a crown of towers. There was one that was open, and we could get close to it and feel the steam… but Jessie explained that we could not go in or get too close to the opening because this steamy environment made the fumaroles a sensitive ecosystem, conducive to fostering microbial life that were of scientific interest. We did not want to contaminate, so we kept our distance.

By now, it was maybe 11pm. Of course, it felt like about 5pm because of the light. But the marine cloud layer was rising, and we got an urgent message from the pilots down the hill, we had to hastily get out of there or the helicopters might get stuck above the clouds. It had only been a couple hours, and we scrambled to get our stuff together. As we were packing out, I recall Arlo struggling with some gear on the ground maybe 20 feet away from me. He was the last one of our group, furthest from the helicopters, and tucked behind one of the fumaroles out of sight of everyone else. I had to grab our 360 camera, and Arlo waved me away, as if to say “go on ahead.”

But, something seemed not quite right. He seemed to be futzing with the gear, but what was he doing? We were in a rush. We had to get going. He was saying, “go on.” If I left, no one would be able to see him. I was not sure what to do. Was he okay? Should I take care of grabbing that 360-degree camera so we could get of here?

I stayed put. “No, I am waiting for you.” “Go on.” “No, I am waiting for you.” After a few minutes he got up and we walked down the hill together. In retrospect, he realized and told me that he had not been fine. He was suffering from altitude disorientation. “I felt like I was intoxicated. I don’t know why I was telling you to go away.”

It was a startling reminder of how extreme this environment really is.

This was truly the most Polar Extreme.

Science Editor Caitlin Saks and Digital Associate Producer Arlo Perez are in Antarctica for the next month reporting about science research in Antarctica as a part of NOVA’s “Polar Extremes” project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Joining them is Zac Fink, field director and director of photography. Caitlin is writing home frequently and tweeting about her adventures (@caitlin_saks).