Ice shelf break leads to voyage

The scientists in Antarctica working on a project, including a UH student and faculty, collected mud in search of sediments in steel boxes called kasten cores. They dropped the box into seawater and brought it back up on the ship for examination. | Courtesy of Yuribia Munoz

When the ice shelf of the Antarctic Peninsula broke up in 2002, it provided an opportunity to study the physical and biological environment of the former ice shelf.

Earth science major Yuribia Munoz was invited by UH’s Co-Director of the Geoscience Learning Center, Julia Wellner, to start working on the LARISSA project (LARsen Ice Shelf System-Antarctica). The shelf is located on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

“I accepted the offer and after a lot of medical exams, vaccines and blood tests, I made it to Antarctica,” Munoz said. “A very thorough medical exam had to be done because there are no hospitals in Antarctica, and there are no doctors in the vessel. I even had to have my four wisdom teeth taken out in order to pass the medical exam.”

The LARISSA project is separated into three different proposals: marine and quaternary geosciences, cryosphere and oceans and marine ecosystems. But those who choose to participate need time to adjust to living on the water.

“This is my first time being on a ship and honestly, it was difficult the first days because I did get seasick,” Munoz said. “There was one day that I could not get out of bed and apparently I was not alone. More than half of the science party did not leave their rooms that day.”

Munoz is the only undergraduate working on the ship and shares a room with two other students working toward their doctorates.

“Whenever there is work for the biologists, we, the geologists, help as much as we can. When we need help, they are always willing to stay late to sort through sediment samples,” Munoz said. “It is very nice talking to young, enthusiastic scientists that are thrilled to be here.”

Munoz grew up in Mexico before moving to the U.S. a few years ago, so she had never been surrounded by snow. She said the snow in Antarctica is especially beautiful because it hasn’t been distorted by human hands and has kept the same position since it fell on a mountain or glacier.

“For me, anything below 70 Fahrenheit is too cold, so right now I am wearing a long sleeve shirt and two sweaters,” Munoz said. “Most of the time we are inside the ship that is kept at about 65 Fahrenheit, but to go outside we need to wear special clothing and at least two pairs of wool socks with boots.”

Munoz said the geologists on the ship are mostly interested in mud, rocks and the sediment suspended in the seawater.

“There are many ways to take mud out of the sea floor, but we have to be very careful not to mix the different layers of sediment in each of the samples we take,” Munoz said. “The job is hard and dirty, but someone has to do it, right?”

The mud is collected in steel boxes called kasten cores. The box is lowered to the ocean floor and dropped vertically to collect as much sediment as possible.

“If we get a good core, that means we get more than 300 pounds of sediment process … we take samples for chemical, physical and biological analysis,” Munoz said. “One of my duties is to keep a detailed record of all the processed samples. I have to count every single sample that we take from the cores, store it in the right place and keep a log of everything we have.”

The ship tried to break through the ice to get to the Larsen B ice shelf, the original destination for the project, in January, but it would take thousands of gallons of fuel. So, the science party decided to wait for the ice to break by itself and try again in February.

The team returned to the east side of the peninsula during the final week of January, but the ice had yet to break. Thus, the destination would not be made, Munoz said.

“Everyone had to make new plans and take advantage of the resources we have now,” Munoz said. “The weather has not been helpful at all. This past week it has been snowing a lot, and white-outs are a constant threat for the helicopter operations.”

Despite the harsh conditions, Munoz will be staying in the region for three more weeks.

“We have been working long hours to accomplish, if not all, at least some of the goals of the science party,” Munoz said.

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