By Todd Anderson
Photography by Todd Anderson, John Higgins and Mike Lucibella

Todd Anderson travels to the Allan Hills of Antarctica to conduct fieldwork as part of the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program

“Where are you headed?”

That was the most common question my colleague and I were asked during our safety trainings at McMurdo Station in Antarctica last fall. Our reply, “We’re headed to the Allan Hills,” often induced a pause and occasionally a shudder from the questioner. The climate in the Allan Hills is severe, even by Antarctic standards. Veterans of the ice, as Antarctica is commonly referred, usually laughed.

“You are going to be really cold” was the common refrain.

Remote Research

In October of 2019, fellow artist Ian van Coller and I journeyed to Antarctica through the auspices of the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. We traveled from our respective homes in Bozeman, Montana, and Clemson, South Carolina, by way of Christchurch, New Zealand, to one of the world’s most impressive research facilities — McMurdo Station. McMurdo Station is located on Ross Island, Antarctica, and operated by the United States Antarctic Program, a program of the National Science Foundation.

Access to the station is facilitated by way of a C-17 or C-130 aircraft operated by the United States Air Force. At peak times, approximately 1,100 cafeteria workers, construction workers, electricians, equipment and logistics task masters, housekeepers, I.T. support, mechanics, NSF/USAP staff, safety instructors, and the like populate the station. Any person wanting to spend four or five months in one of the most remote spots on the planet is by definition remarkable and, by human resources’ standards, an expert in their respective field. One of our snow-camping safety instructors, Geoff Schellens, exemplified this. He is an elite mountaineering guide in the Himalayas during the Antarctic offseason.

Ian and I journeyed to Antarctica to conduct interdisciplinary art and science research. Our NSF projects center on creating educational materials and artist’s books about United States Antarctic Program research related to the global climate crisis. To this end, we spent about six weeks on the ice sketching and photographing the landscapes and scientists and their equipment. Our time was split among a variety of laboratories, historic huts and field locations.

Our primary work was conducted with an eight-person science team, drilling ice cores to reconstruct Earth’s climate in the past. Air bubbles and dust trapped in ancient ice contain physical records, such as concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), from the time the ice was formed.

A partial view of McMurdo Station, a frozen McMurdo Sound and the Royal Society Range in the distance.

Really Cold

The Allan Hills region is one of the few spots in Antarctica where intense katabatic winds (wind generated from gravity) from the interior of East Antarctica prevent the accumulation of snow and lead to the sublimation (conversion of ice directly to water vapor) of the underlying glacial ice. It is extremely cold and windy. The ground is solid blue ice, and walking requires hiking spikes on boots.

Temperatures never rise above about 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and staying alive (much less staying comfortable) requires constant vigilance. Each day, team members were tasked with differing individual duties, such as regularly evaluating each team member’s nose and cheeks for frostbite or inquiring about food and fluid intake. I habitually used chemically activated toe warmers — two in each boot — and still struggled with the cold. At the end of each day, I would hang my sweat-soaked socks in the tent only to have them freeze stiff as boards during the night. We were provided with the planet’s warmest sleeping bags (rated to -60° F), which I kept fully zipped each night. A sleep mask aided my nights under the 24-hour Antarctic sun while earplugs dampened the nearly constant wind-blasting tent noise. Throughout the night, my breath would alternate between freezing and thawing into small puddles on my sleeping bag.

Intense katabatic winds and sublimation have prohibited snow and ice accumulation for about 100,000 years in the Allan Hills. The black streaks — tephra layers — are ash from a nearby volcanic eruption that occurred about that long ago. In the distance is the science team’s white-colored ice coring tent.

Designed by engineer and chief drill operator Tanner Kuhl, the custom-made ice coring tent provided shelter from the constant winds in the Allan Hills. Fire is a real threat to survival in Antarctica, so petrol generators, snow machines, and all things flammable are kept at a safe distance from tents.

Drilling for Ice

Ice cores have been drilled all over Antarctica, but the Allan Hills contain some of the oldest ice ever discovered on Earth. Ice at surface level is about 100,000 years old and gets older as you drill deeper, reaching ages of greater than 2 million years at the bottom.

The ice coring team was a large, interdisciplinary group composed of scientists with expertise in reconstructing Earth’s climate from chemical measurements of the ice and trapped dust and air bubbles. Led by Princeton University professor and geoscientist John Higgins, the team included Austin Carter (Scripps UC-San Diego),  Jenna Epifanio (Oregon State University), Jacob Morgan (Scripps UC-San Diego),
Sarah Shackleton (Princeton University), drill operators Tanner Kuhl and Elizabeth Morton (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and USAP Camp Coordinator Anna Zajicek.

Day-to-day operations included an approximately ten-minute repetitive cycle of coring, pinching and then extracting one-meter-long ice cores that were measured, bagged, boxed and logged. The cores were then transported via Twin-Otter aircraft to a dedicated freezer building at McMurdo Station. After a subsequent months-long journey via cargo ship, the cores eventually reached the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, Colorado, where they now reside in a laboratory, frozen at -20 degrees Celsius.

In May 2020, after returning home from Antarctica, the team anxiously awaited for COVID-19 travel restrictions to be lifted so they can travel to Denver to begin the work of slicing and analyzing the cores.

Ian and I embedded with the team for a single week. In contrast, the science team was scheduled to spend late October through the first week of January coring ice in the Allan Hills — away from their families for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays, living in shared tents pitched on ice with no running water, showers or internet. Despite the taxing circumstances and physicality of the work, the team communally chose to labor six days per week. The team confirmed what I had previously learned about ice scientists — they are bad asses.

Antarctic Art

Time spent in the Allan Hills deepened my insights into how the planet’s climate has varied cyclically over the last 2.5 to 3 million years. It’s somewhat akin to the earth breathing differing levels of carbon dioxide at an epochal pace.

It was not since about 3 million years ago that planet Earth’s CO2 levels have been greater than 400 ppm (currently 417 ppm, May 2020, Scripps Institute & NOAA). Records of carbon dioxide and Earth’s temperature from ice cores drilled in Antarctica provide definitive evidence that the two are linked. The climate crisis can no longer be comprehended as theoretical. Its threats to humanity are immediate, unprecedented and dire.

This kind of scientific research being conducted in Antarctica has established facts about how the planet’s climate is changing. Its threats are immediate and unprecedented. While alarming, such knowledge often struggles to resonate with audiences outside academia. Art, by its very nature, is a public-facing social endeavor. While not always realized, art can provoke openness to complex and emotionally charged ideas.

Our intent is to create artwork that, in its own small way, supports our science colleagues, raises awareness and spurs action on the global climate crisis. As I write this, Ian and I are busy in our respective studios creating artwork and, in our offices, working on educational outreach materials. We are on target for completing our Antarctic work in 2021.

Todd Anderson teaches printmaking in the Department of Art. His studio practice involves long-term, team-based projects that investigate ecological changes caused by global heating. These projects have involved project collaborations with scientists and fellow artists in Africa, Antarctica, the American West, and the Arctic. In 2018, Anderson was appointed to Clemson University’s URSAAA research society. Anderson is represented by Kai Lin Art gallery in Atlanta and the Mezzanine Gallery Store inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He lives in Clemson with his wife, two children, chickens, cat and dog.

Learn more about Todd Anderson and his work at thelastglacier.com

More about Anderson

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *