One giant balloon, floating in the Antarctic sky


I’m more than happy to have met this absolute legend, meet my new friend Cesar Villasana – who is launching NASA’s balloons from Antarctica into space. But let me tell you more about it.

After a long day at McMurdo, people like to gather in one of three local pubs. While some of them are more like an American sports bar, the ‘Coffee House’ is the most traditional Antarctic pub. Wooden sleds are nailed to the ceiling, maps of unknown areas decorate the walls and the smell of Shakelton’s Whiskey fills the air. It is here where modern explorers mingle and talk about why they came to Antarctica.

Cesar is here to loft a balloon-borne instrument named SuperTIGER high into Antarctica’s sky. They are looking for high-energy particles, remainders from the Big Bang, to find out how cosmic rays attain speeds up to the speed of light. “Why is it called Super ?”, was my first question. “Because it’s a souped-up version of the Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder (TIGER), that we have used in the past.” Cesar is responsible for the separation of the parachute and the payload. “Why is there a parachute on a balloon ?”, was my second question.

“It is because the parachute might drag the payload along Earth’s surface after it has landed, therefore the explosion.”, answered Cesar and took as sip of his beer. “There is an explosion ?!?” This was the moment when I wanted to learn all about it. The payload with the SuperTIGER instrument hangs on a parachute, which itself hangs below the giant balloon – at launch the entire thing is 856 feet (261 m) tall. It then floats for 53 days and circumnavigates Antarctica about 3 times. Circular winds aloft keep it to the continent, but the rotation is at first clockwise up to 80 000 feet (25 km) and then slowly turning around to a counterclockwise movement with the winds higher up in our atmosphere. At 127 000 feet (39 km), the balloon has reached its maximum altitude. That’s nearly four times the typical cruising altitude of commercial airliners ! At this height, the balloon is 460 feet (140 m) across. And if you think it would be fun to read now that the balloon pops, be ready for a surprise… now is the moment, when they separate the payload from the balloon and trigger a rocket on the payload to shoot the SuperTIGER instrument even higher into space ! Surprised ? I was !


In the end, the payload is slowly coming back down with its parachute to the Earth’s surface where it is recovered. In the past, Cesar was testing this equipment in Hawaii. “Where did you like it more, here in Antarctica or in Hawaii ?” Cesar was honest, smiled and said he likes the cocktails in Hawaii  better. A big thanks to Cesar for teaching me about balloons and especially for sending me these breathtaking pictures ! Keep up the good work friend.

If you have enjoyed reading Cesar’s story, you are probably interested in Alessandro’s story as well. Meeting spaced-out people


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Meeting spaced-out people

With being at a very special location, comes interaction with very special beings. During my time in Antarctica, I get the chance to meet some extraordinary people. Some are other scientist on their way to their field sites, others are staff members which keep the base running. But they all have their individual fascinating stories to tell…


Meet Alessandro Schillaci, a postdoc at the Department of Astronomy, California Institute of Technology, who I met during the check-in for our flight to Antarctica. He was on the way to install a new telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to look deeper into the universe as anyone has ever done before. Because the universe is so big, it takes the light of any star quite some time to travel to the Earth. This means that a glimpse to the stars is actually a glimpse into the past. For example, the light from the Sun takes roughly 8 minutes and 20 seconds to reach the Earth. This means that if you look up to the Sun, you see an 8 minutes and 20 seconds older version of what the Sun is actually doing right at this moment. Hard to believe, I know, but even the speed of light is not infinite (186,282 miles per second or 299,792 kilometers per second). So what do telescopes do ?

If you have an improved vision, like from any binocular or telescope, you can look even deeper into space than with your eyes only and thus travel back longer in time. Let’s assume you have a very sweet as telescope, then you could theoretically see the beginning of time in the stars. Alessandro’s new telescope is one of them and so powerful that he can see what has happened right after the Big Bang – when our universe was born 13.8 billion years ago. If you compare this number with the 8 minutes and 20 seconds, you can get a feeling for the unbelievable size of the universe… One thing that Alessandro measures is the distance between two stars and how this distance is growing constantly at a certain rate. He then explained me that this rate is the same in every direction that he can point his telescope – evidence for an ever expanding universe.

With his vast knowledge, Alessandro was more than qualified to answer my highly scientific questions, like: “What’s your favourite chocolate bar ? Milky Way ?!” After a laugh, the ice between us was broken and I asked him for some pick up lines for my next stargazing session… The hole in the non-chocolate version of the Milky Way is called ‘the pipe’ because of its pipe-like shape. I’ve referred to it as the centre of our galaxy in the past, and guess what, Alessandro said I’m almost right ! He pulled out his phone and showed me some of his amazing pictures to point out the exact centre of our galaxy, it is a bit to the right of the pipe:


Photo courtesy of Alessandro Schillaci

Thanks Alessandro for this chat and especially for making the long wait at the airport seem a lot shorter – but who cares about time, when you know how to time travel ?

Continue reading here, if you have enjoyed this spacetime odyssey: Why is it called Antarctica ?


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Fun with maps

Screenshot from 2019-11-23 19-59-04

Where are we going and why is it so important ? The ice in Antarctica rests on solid bedrock – contrary to the ice on the North Pole that floats on ocean water. This means that if any of Antarctica’s ice melts, it is discharged into the Southern Ocean and contributes directly to global sea-level rise. But if it is so cold in Antarctica, how can the ice melt ?

By far the largest portion of melting in Antarctica happens below the surface. Where relatively warm ocean waters access the continental shelf, they start eroding the ice from underneath and eat away ice in areas that matter the most for the stability of the grounded ice. Ok, where are these warm ocean waters then ?

You must know that water is a fascinating material. It’s highest density is at 4 degrees Centigrade. This is why frozen ice bergs float and warmer ocean waters are deep at the bottom of the sea – flowing around Antarctica far away from the ice and along the continental shelf that acts like a protective barrier. It is therefore called Circumpolar Deep Water. This warm water at the bottom of the sea can’t just simply jump onto the much shallower continental shelf.  But what if there is a deep cut in the continental shelf and the warm water can pass the barrier ?

This is exactly the case in the Amundsen Sea, where we are going. Deep canyons in the continental shelf link the deeper ocean to Antarctica’s precious ice. The irony is that these deep canyons originate from past ice ages, when growing glaciers carved them out of the continental shelf as they advanced. These glaciers, however, are long gone and all they have left behind is scars in the continental shelf. This is why the icebreaker and research vessel Nathanial B. Palmer went to the Amundsen Sea last year to map the sea floor and pinpoint these canyons (here is more info about the cruise).

Where Circumpolar Deep Water gets in contact with Antarctica’s ice, it rapidly erodes floating glaciers and ice shelves from underneath. As the ice thins, it loses its stabilizing effect on the ice further uphill which causes it to speed up and discharge even more ice to the ocean. This process occurs at the Thwaites Glacier and the Dotson Ice Shelf, but the questions of how the warm waters propagate in their embayments as well as the role of areas of extremely high melt rates haven’t been answered yet. This is why we need to go there, camp on the ice and have a closer look with our scientific instruments.


Questions ?

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Introducing the team

If you take out the team in teamwork, it’s just work. Now who wants that ? Conducting good science in Antarctica, requires a good team. Here is the TARSAN team:



erin-pettitErin Pettit: As the principle investigator of this project, Erin is coordinating all efforts to realize our science objective to understand ocean circulation and thinning beneath the Thwaites Glacier. Erin will use radar to measure ice thickness and to answer the question if there have been warmer periods in the past. Erin has also shipped a lot of extra chocolate to the Thwaites Glacier to share with her postdoc 🙂


atsuhiro-mutoAtsuhiro Muto: As a geophysicist from Temple University, Philadelphia, he really likes to blow things up. He uses explosions to measure the depth of the sea floor underneath the floating ice. Atsu has also been to the pole of inaccessibility and just threw 10 pull ups while we were waiting for our cargo.



Karen Alley: She is interested in how warm ocean water carves channels underneath the floating ice. On the Thwaites Glacier, she will mostly assist Atsu with seismic experiments.



Martin Truffer: He will be drilling boreholes through the floating ice, which will be used to retrieve sediment cores and install through-ice ocean moorings. As a true Swiss, Martin knows where to find an entire wheel of Raclette cheese in Fairbanks, Alaska.


Dale : He is a handy-man and will work with Martin and drill holes through the ice. Apparently he wears a vest filled with tools even when he is sleeping. Dale can repair almost everything, even if it isn’t broken.



Ted Scambos: He is the science coordinator of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration and passionate about delivering crucial science outcomes to key stakeholders. He will install ice-ocean sensors in Martin’s boreholes that measure how much warm water there is to melt the ice and how much meltwater flows away in Karen’s channels. He also likes crime series and does an amazing impersonation of Detective Colombo.


bruceBruce Wallin: As a software engineer from Boulder, he is working with Ted. His favorite food is peanut butter which he has secretly burried in the science gear. Last season he built the letters M.A.R.R.Y M.E. out of an ice core to propose to his girlfriend – apparently it has worked !


Cece Mortenson: She is a field guide from Canada and big into back country skiing in Roger’s Pass, Revelstoke (secret spot). Cece has worked with Erin before and guided during Girls on Ice – a hands on experience for young females to do science in extraordinary locations. She also can’t wait to do headdstands on the Thwaites Glacier and teach our weekly, on-ice, Yoga class.


Blair Fyffe: He is a field guide from Scotland and has over-wintered twice in Antarctica. As a keen British climber, he will even bring his hangboard to the deep field to keep his forearms Popeye sized. The two of us not only share a love for rock climbing, but also for black tea with milk.

Antarctica-Sublacial Lake Whillans

Doug Fox: Is a science author and has written articles for National Geographic, Nature and Scientific American. Doug generally prefers to write about ice and rock rather than penguins. He is also a brilliant photographer and has worked with indigenous tribes in Papua New Guinea before. He wasn’t eaten there, so he must be pretty tough…


IMG_20191121_121603_5Me : I will work mostly with Erin and the radar systems and will later integrate these field measurements with satellite observations from space. I hope to give everyone a hand and especially learn about hot-water drilling and active seismics. When I’m not doing science, I like to tell dad jokes: “What do you call kids in Antarctica ? Chill-dren !”

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Is climate change good or bad for surfing ?


we hear it all the time – ‘the surf was way better a couple of years ago’, or ‘I didn’t need a wetsuit when I grew up’. Are these statements only subjective, or is there actually more to it ? And if so, where will you go for your surf trip in the future ? The latest special report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate has the answer !

Every couple of years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies where there is agreement in the scientific community and prepares a report that summarises the state of our knowledge, and where further research is needed. The cool thing is that it also comes with a summary for policy makers, that is easy to understand and a key input into international negotiations to tackle climate change. But what does that have to do with surfing ?

Absolutely everything ! Aside from providing the latest estimates about sea-level rise as well as projections of global temperature increase – the IPCC report holds valuable information on where to catch a wave with your future kids. But why should you care about Antarctica, which seems so far away from any tropical beach ? It is because Antarctica holds enough water to raise global sea level by 70 m if it were all to melt. And all this fresh water modifies the global ocean circulation and thus weather patterns far offshore – which produce the swell that surf. Satellite measurements show that the ocean surface is currently rising by 3.6 mm per year. And the latest IPCC report identifies that melting ice is with 1.8 mm per year, the dominant source of sea-level rise and has now exceeded the effect of thermal expansion of ocean water (water expands as it gets warmer) with 1.4 mm per year. So how much warmer is the ocean ?

It is virtually certain that the global ocean has warmed since 1970 and has taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the atmosphere. Since 1993 the rate of ocean warming has more than doubled and is attributed to ‘anthropogenic’ forcing (a fancy expression for human activity). Most of this heat uptake occurred in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, where ice loss has tripled since the millennium. The reason for that is an acceleration of ice discharge in the Amundsen Sea Embayment of West Antarctica – where the onset of an irreversible feedback mechanism might already be at play… but we will get to that. Ok, if the ocean gets warmer, do you need a thinner wetsuit ?

Computer simulations can be used to predict global mean surface temperatures. If we significantly limit our greenhouse gas emissions and develop the technologies to pull carbon back out of the atmosphere, we are already committed to 1.6 °C temperature change by 2100. In the absence of policies to combat climate change and keeping business as usual, the temperature change will be 4.3 °C. Unfortunately this is exactly where we are heading to at the moment. These simulations, in turn, underline the importance of timely climate action to lower our carbon emissions before the year 2050.


Foto credit – Rohan Batt

By that time, wave heights are projected to decrease over the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea.  But, significant wave heights are projected to increase not only in the Southern Ocean, but also in the tropical eastern Pacific ! Associated changes in tides can locally act enhancing. This means that waves are getting bigger – but do they also occur more often ? Extreme sea-level events, like local sea levels that historically occurred only once per century are projected to become at least annual events at most locations during the 21st century.

So is climate change good or bad for surfing ? As always, nature is not a binary system of yes and no… it depends where you live and what you want… ‘Honey, I guess a trip to the Galapagos Islands is upcoming !’



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The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC)

In order to estimate the threat from the most unstable glaciers in Antarctica, the UK and the US teamed up in their most important collaboration since WW2 – the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC))


An iceberg in the Amundsen Sea (image courtesy of my friend Gui Bortolotto)

Over the past decades, the amount of ice discharge from glaciers in the Thwaites region has almost doubled (and thus their freshwater addition to the global ocean). The question is, however, if the observed rapid thinning and retreat of glaciers are the early symptoms of a concerning run-away effect that causes the ice discharge to further increase. You must understand that parts of glaciers act like a dam that holds back water to prevent a flood. If Thwaites Glacier triggers a collapse of what lies beyond its ‘dam’, this would cause global sea-level to rise drastically… Holy Penguin !

I haven’t counted how many scientists are involved in the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, but I think it is around 100. That is ONE.HUNDRED. of the world’s top climate scientists that agree on climate change. One hundred people from different academic and cultural backgrounds, that all pull on the same string to answer the question if the run-away effect has already begun. But this large number of brainy people needs to be coordinated – how is that even possible ?

NSIDC_CPPtalk_ThwaitesITGC_10Apr18 copy


Within this collaboration, eight projects have been identified. Some of them target the underlying processes through oceanic measurements using icebreakers; or by installing scientific instruments on the glacier surface; or even within and underneath the ice by drilling holes through it. These bore holes can extend through the water cavity and into the sediments on the sea floor – where one project studies what has happened in the past. The insight into the key processes at play is then forwarded to two ice-sheet modelling projects. Both use computer simulations of ice behavior, either on the front of the glacier where ice bergs calve off, or closer to the coastline where relatively warm ocean water eats away the floating ice from underneath. My job within this collaboration is the collection of ice thickness measurements on the ground and assisting with the installation of field stations. My personal goal is to gain a spatial understanding of the processes at play that cause some areas in this region to behave differently even though they are exposed to the same environmental changes.


A perfect sunset in Antarctica (experienced by Gui Bortolotto from the icebreaker)


I feel deeply honored to be part of this dedicated group of scientists, that focus their efforts and work day and night to help prepare for the challenges that lay ahead for our society. Several conferences, workshops and the very international character of this impressive collaboration made me wonder why it shouldn’t be renamed to the International Thwaites Geeks Coordination – but luckily I’m not the one who had to come up with its name 😉



Like-minded scientists meet during the Next Generation Retreat at the breathtaking Culford School, UK (image courtesy of Elaina Ford, British Antarctic Survey)


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Get ready ! Something cool is coming soon…

… it’s time to return to the coolest of all continents ! In exactly 4 weeks, we will be departing to conduct field research at the Thwaites Glacier – West Antarctica’s weak underbelly. Stay tuned for science updates from the deep field, first-hand knowledge of climate research in Antarctica, quirky facts about every-day camp life, and yes, even pictures of penguins ! Sign up for free and follow my 5th Antarctic rodeo. Yeehaw !


“The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.”

— Sir Richard Burton

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More news from nowhere

This is our project… it has been our project for some time, and it will remain our project for some more time. And as David Hasselhoff says, it gets stranger every year:

Thanks to my friend Stepan for always fun climbing sessions, good laughs and video editing skills. I hope we will remember the sequence next time.

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Alpine Glaciology – Virtual Reality Special

Melting mountain glaciers all around our world are poster children for present-day climate change. But how do climate scientists monitor glaciers ? By doing fieldwork !

They go up there after winter to measure how much snow was falling onto the glacier surface (aka accumulation, a positive number), and return after summer to measure how much ice was melting (aka ablation, a negative number). The difference between these two numbers is called mass balance and tells us about the glacier’s health. A negative number corresponds to an overall loss in ice volume (bad), a positive number indicates glacier growth (good).



But to calculate these two numbers, we need to know (1) how thick is the snow layer, (2) what is its average density and (3) where did most of the ice melt. This is why we have to carry a lot of heavy science gear up to the glacier and dig holes, probe around and drill into the ice surface to deploy stakes for when we will return after summer.

Left picture: Distribution of snow depth as measured with our probes. The most snow is close to the summit cliffs, where avalanche accumulation plays a major role in feeding the glacier. Right picture: Map of mass balance (colour coded) and location of the Equilibrium Line (where accumulation equals ablation).

We give our measurements to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, who compile a standardized data set for further research on the impact of climate change on glaciers worldwide. Please read this article if you would like further information about the Rolleston Glacier:

The impact of extreme summer melt on net accumulation of an avalanche fed glacier

…as always, please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions/comments or concerns. A big thanks to my ol’mate Thomas Langer for editing the 360 footage, and to HITLab for letting me use their camera and ongoing support.


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Back home – Safe’n Sound

G double o and b why e.... GOODBYE

We safely returned back to New Zealand ! After a couple of windy days at Jang Bogo, we hitched a ride on the ‘kiwi-herc’. The plane departed from the sea-ice runway, with strong crosswinds causing a rather adventurous take off. As we passed the Transantarctic Mountains, our friends from the nearby italian base Mario-Zucchelli even shared their precious pasta with us (Grazie Fratellini). Later, a crew member of the Royal New Zealand Air Force wasn’t super excited about me taking 360 photos inside the aircraft. Can you spot him ?

Inside a C130 Hercules in Antarctica

After six long hours we finally arrived in Christchurch around 3am. But how to finish such an expedition with style ? Reinhard and I decided to head straight to our local surf spot, where the rising sun greeted us with our first dawn in a month. How to stay warm after a cold kiwi surf ? Bring your Antarctic down jacket, duuude !



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