Chilly Challenge: Grad School Leads Alum to Antarctica

Cover of Spring 2014 Focus magazine, tiltedEditor's Note: This first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Focus, Columbus State University's twice-a-year magazine.

By Bill Sutley
If you think your winter was rough, talk to Emily Randall about hers — in Antarctica, the world’s coldest continent.

Randall, who collected her honors diploma in earth sciences from Columbus State last May, was thrilled to become a last-minute addition to a mid-November to late-December research expedition to the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory, operated in Antarctica by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, where she’s a master’s student in geology. She jumped at the opportunity for the research experience of a lifetime, even if it meant enduring temperatures that fell to more than 30 degrees below zero.

Here’s her story, as told to editor Bill Sutley, of traveling from CSU to a tent near the rim of Earth’s southernmost active volcano, her adventures dodging molten “bombs” belched from its lava lake and the chocolate bars that helped her survive.

Why geology?

I joined the Science Olympiad team in fifth grade and competed in the rocks and minerals events, as well as astronomy events, up until I graduated high school (Etowah, in Woodstock, Ga.). I have always been interested in geology, and I always knew that I would be a scientist. My time at CSU was critically important; the faculty of the Earth and Space Sciences Department are the most caring, attentive and fun group that I’ve ever seen. The camaraderie and synergy between students and professors, along with the mentorship I received there, have been keys to my development as a scientist and also my success in getting into and succeeding in graduate school.

How did you end up in Antarctica?

Talking with my potential adviser during the admissions process, I was told that there was a possibility of me getting to go and do field work in Antarctica. I tried not to hold my breath since funding and other projects that were already in motion are big factors in who goes and who doesn’t. I was getting my medical and dental qualifications done when the government shut down, and we all thought that the field season would be canceled. I guess I never really believed it would happen until I was in New Zealand boarding the C-17 to go to the ice. That’s when it became real.

chilly1It looks like McMurdo Research Station, where most scientists arrive in Antarctica, is like a small town, with facilities to make life bearable. What was it like and how did it compare to your field research facility on Mount Erebus?

While we’re fortunate to work out of McMurdo Station, which is one of the largest bases in Antarctica, the maximum capacity during austral summer is around 1,200 people. Due to the government shutdown cutbacks, there were only about 750 people while I was there. There are a couple of tiny bars and a gym, but otherwise, we are mostly left to our dorm rooms and our labs. The sun never sets, so even if you work until midnight, it’s as bright as ever outside. There’s a communal dining hall, and holidays like Thanks-
giving are celebrated as one giant group, which is really fun since you’re away from family and friends. At times it could get a bit boring, but luckily those of us who go to field camps don’t spend that much time in McMurdo, unless there is bad weather and we can’t reach our field camp. This happened to me for most of a week, thanks to clouds that often sit on top of Mount Erebus. Helicopters are the only way to get up there, and they can’t fly over clouds.

What’s been toughest to deal with in terms of the cold and related factors, such as wind and storms?

Since the atmosphere is thinner at the poles and Mount Erebus is almost 12,500 feet high, adapting to live and work up there is quite tough. The thin atmosphere makes it feel more like 14,000 feet at the top. Before going to the main camp, we had to spend two nights acclimatizing at Fang Camp, a couple thousand feet lower on the volcano. There are only tents there, and it is only reachable via helicopter or by snowmobile.

Acclimatizing can often be uncomfortable as you feel sluggish and may get bad headaches, so at Fang we mostly just ate and slept. (The main field camp) is a bit more comfortable because there is a heated structure which we can cook and work inside of. We use the stove to melt snow for drinking water, and it also heats up our small space. We still slept in tents, however.

I had a hard time sleeping at first because of the constant daylight, altitude, and just being cold getting in and out of my sleeping bag, but after a week or so, it becomes a lot easier — almost comfortable. During storms when the winds would get up to 35 knots, there just wasn’t a whole lot of hope for sleep though. The volcano would also erupt at night and often wake us up. Sometimes it was a rumble and loud sound, and other times it just felt like someone kicked the outside of your tent.

How did you cope with the cold?

If there was even a slight wind, your entire face needed to be covered or it was simply unbearable. Secondly, it felt like there was no amount of food that could ever keep me full for long enough. Because my body needed so much energy to keep warm while we were collecting  or locating samples and even just sleeping, I found myself constantly eating. And I mean, constantly.

Sometimes I would have several chocolate bars a day, just for the calories. I would make two obscenely buttery grilled cheeses for lunch, after a huge breakfast just a couple hours before and still need to pack several snacks for going back outside. It was actually really alarming to run out of fuel while we’d be up on the summit crater because you would just feel so slow and drained. By the time you realize you need to eat, it’s usually a bit late and the cold starts to get to you, and it takes a while to wrap up what you’re doing and get back to the hut. It just took some time for me to find my rhythm, know my limits and pack more chocolate.

What is it about volcanoes that you find intriguing?

Volcanoes are such a critical natural process to understand because of the potentially dangerous impacts they can have. They are also a main source for ore genesis — the formation of mineral deposits — perhaps most notably, for metals like gold, copper, lead, aluminum and nickel. I think I’m drawn to them, like most people, because of how awe-inspiring and powerful they are while still being completely natural. It is a privilege to study such a dynamic feature, and I love that as we answer one question within our research, we are prompted to ask two better ones.chilly2-2014-06-02_1418

Why is this research important?

I am adding to a very extensive, long-lived study of the Erebus geochemical research. Since the lava lake (within the crater itself) was discovered in the early 1970s, scientists have been using the eruptive products (bombs and ejecta) to determine the chemical composition of the lava lake. Bombs are used as proxy here because the lake is more than 300 feet down into the crater and much too hot and remote to probe easily. Eruptions take place when gases build up and travel up to the surface of the lava lake and, just as in a boiling pot of spaghetti sauce, the gas bubble bursts up on the surface, throwing material outwards. Understanding volcanic processes here can then be applied elsewhere to mitigate risks to other communities who live near active volcanoes.

You’re enduring Earth’s coldest, most unpredictable climate and you have to navigate a landscape with crevasses, unstable ice and molten lava. How does the threat of danger influence your work?

We are given training on risk management before we go out into the field. Yes, it is a bit unsettling at times to be out on the crater rim, wondering if it’s going to explode, but I find that dwelling on that isn’t productive. It could happen, but it probably won’t, and if it does, you look upwards, stand still and dodge whatever might be coming. It is highly improbable that anyone would be hit by any ejected material unless they couldn’t see it to dodge it.

Since the molten lake is constantly bubbling and letting gas bubbles escape, there is a large plume constantly coming up from the crater. It looks like a big, billowing cloud of smoke, and the wind can change and blow it overhead at times. That’s another instance where we would decide to either make the descent or hike around the crater rim to an area out of the plume. For the most part, I felt safe as long as I could see above me.

It erupted twice while I was working on the crater rim, and though I was very, very startled and nervous, nothing ever landed near me. In some eruptions, material will be shot straight up, only to fall right back down into the crater. You can see it come out and go up, but then it doesn’t even land on the crater rim.

How do you transport the lava bombs you find, and how dangerous is that process?

Most of the time, we would try and get to the bombs as soon as possible, which meant that many were still hot, molten even, by the time we got there. It was amazing to warm my cold hands on partially molten rock! We would line hiking backpacks with several layers of garbage bags, and then as we collected things, we would load them into our packs and hike them back down. We would typically collect anywhere from 40-80 pounds of sample per bomb we found. If it was hot, however, we simply marked it on our GPS and waited anywhere from 12-24 hours for it to cool off enough to where it wouldn’t melt the plastic liners.chilly3-2014-06-02_1419

The only dangerous part about collecting, besides having to be on the crater rim, is that most of the bombs are made of fine, hair-like glass particles. If the wind was blowing and we cut up a bomb to collect, often we would need snow goggles on to keep the shards of glass out of our faces, especially our eyes. The material can also be really sharp since it’s glass. Many a good pair of gloves were ripped or melted in the collection process.

Was most of your analysis done in Antarctica or later?

All of the geochemical analyses to be performed for my study will take place in New Mexico. I will be doing bulk chemistry measurements, as well as analyzing crystals within the bomb and the glasses on an electron microprobe machine. No analyses are done in  Antarctica; we only use that time to collect and observe, which we can’t do at home.

I am looking at the bulk composition of each bomb, the compositional changes (or lack thereof) over time, as well as some other minor studies on specific minerals in the material and their growth cycles.

How did being selected for this research trip so early in your graduate work affect your overall studies?

When the opportunity arose for me to go do field work, all of my instructors were very supportive and worked with me. It took some late nights in the lab, but I finished my coursework in the couple weeks before I left and completed my finals at my field camp. I’m thankfully right on schedule, maybe even a bit ahead. I had to ship most of my samples back via vessel, and they won’t arrive until April. I did bring some back with me so that I could begin working before the bulk of the samples return.

Did you feel prepared for this kind of opportunity?

I don’t know that I felt ready for my field work before I left, but I was just willing to do whatever it took to do well down there. There wasn’t a question in my mind about going, and while I was nervous, most of that was
eclipsed by my excitement about going to such an amazing place and getting the opportunity to do such interesting field work. Not everyone gets to do their own field work, and when they do, it isn’t often on the side of an active volcano in Antarctica. I feel very fortunate to have been able to go. I can’t really even articulate how amazing it was and how blown away I am that I got to experience it.

You’ve spent quite a bit of time outside the U.S. before this – an internship in Panama, travels in Africa and Asia. How has travel affected you?

I’ve done what I like to call “traveling with intention.” For instance, I was able to take a wonderful internship in Panama, and I also went to Nepal and did the Everest Base Camp Trek as part of my honors thesis at CSU. These were all great experiences, and, I learned a lot from those travels.

The travel bug bit when I was 17. I had just graduated from high school, but after doing a joint enrollment program, I actually almost had (completed two years of college), so I decided to take a year off and move to Africa and volunteer. I traveled quite a bit there, and then came to Columbus State specifically for the ESS department and finished my CSU degree (Honors B.S., Earth and Space Sciences-Geology, magna cum laude). With every new place I went, I learned so much about the world, myself, and that I really was glad to be studying science. Seeing rocks and all the different landscapes around the world solidified my desire to study what I do: geology. It’s always been my thing, but sometimes it’s nice to sit back and know that A) you still love what you’re doing, and B) you’re exactly where you want/need to be.

Did you have any memorable faculty influences at CSU?

Dr. Clint Barineau (associate professor, geology) and Dr. Cindy Ticknor (Honors Program director) were extremely influential to me during my time at CSU. Dr. Barineau was my adviser, and he was always asking me, “Why?” About everything. It taught me to anticipate the “why?” and be prepared. His area of research didn’t exactly line up with what I am gravitating toward now, but it’s still somewhat close, and he was able to help me try to narrow down what I was interested in. I also appreciated how much time he spent with us in the field, taking us on field camps and class trips. The experience I got from those has been invaluable in graduate school, and many of the friends I’ve met here did not have those opportunities in their undergraduate careers. They have much less experience in the field, hands-on, making maps, and using equipment, and they are always saying how much they wished their previous instructors would have taken them out more.

Dr. Ticknor was a wonderful mentor during my time at CSU. She was always helpful and supportive, and she tried her best to keep my feet on the ground. I’ll be the first to admit that I always want to be involved in way too much, but during undergrad, it was really hard for me to understand that about myself. Thankfully, she showed me that, still always managing to be encouraging. I enjoyed having such a strong and caring leader to look up to as well.

What’s next? Do you see yourself as a candidate for a return trip to Antarctica? Where do you see your studies and-or career heading?

If the volcano is still erupting like it is now, and if we have the funding, and if, if, if, if ... I would love to go back. Those decisions haven’t been made yet, but if I’m able to, you can bet that I will be going!

I am looking to either go straight into a Ph.D. program or a research position upon getting my M.S. in geology. At this point, I don’t feel like it’s realistic for me to try and be any more specific than that because, if this past year has taught me anything, it’s that opportunities will come and go and you have to make decisions accordingly. I know that I enjoy learning, and as long as I have something to study, I’m quite happy.

# # #