We are sitting in the F6 hut eating grilled cheese sandwiches at 5:30 in the morning. We are exhausted, not thinking sharply, and moving slowly. The room is quiet, we speak slowly and our usual joking interactions have mellowed. We have just finished a 23 hour day of field work, completing the sampling we have been planning for ages. We feel satisfied, but too tired to think. This is the fourth day in a row we have been working past midnight.
I love it here. I love it, and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen… but we are working our tails off. In a place that doesn’t get dark, there is no external environmental reason to stop working. It’s cold, it’s very windy, but it’s light enough to work around the clock. And so we do. With the fickle weather, you know you have to get as much done as you can while it’s still clear. If it snows tomorrow, our experiment will be shot, so we must finish today.
Knowing it would take us many hours to sample soil and take measurements, we got up at 6:30 to practice using the equipment: we knew we had to measure soil respiration (a proxy for microbial activity) as quickly as possible so that our measurements across the sampling plots would be consistent. We took our first practice measurements at 9, and ran into our first logistical trouble at 9:04. Under the snow patches, thick ice had formed above the soil, preventing us from digging into the soil with the plastic scoops we had been given to complete the task. Not only this, but we could not get a good seal between the respiration meter and the frozen soil, because we could not push the meter into the soil. This meant that our measurements would have more error than the range of respiration values we could see in these soils: none of our data could be trusted with this method.
Back to the drawing board, we returned to the hut for a new strategy. Bigger digging implements? We found a few we could try. The trick was to find something that would help us dig without disturbing the soil and biotic/abiotic processes. And what about a seal between the frozen ground and our respiration machine? This couldn’t be just anything– we needed a material that would form an airtight seal (i.e. not let CO2 in or out), but also not react with CO2 to skew our measurements. After much searching, we decided to use foam from a sleeping pad to place in between soil and meter. Donning our coats, we were greeted by the rest of our team, who had just arrived by helicopter from McMurdo and, staying only for the day, needed to use the respiration meter for just four hours.
At 4:30 pm, we took our first sample. It was supposed to snow the next day, so we had to finish before then– soil moisture is, as one can imagine, heavily influenced by snowfall and subsequent melting. We worked as fast as possible, with one person taking respiration measurements, one person recording data, and two people digging holes to sample soil. Although respiration can be estimated within 2 minutes, the machine is required to be at a certain operating temperature, so in the chilly weather, we waited for it to warm up between every sample point. We put it inside a down jacket, with 6 hand warmers, and carried it around delicately, babying it with the hope of convincing it to cooperate with us. At one point, I waited twenty minutes for it to warm up, to no avail. I returned to the hut for more handwarmers.
The going was slow, and got slower when we reached the portion of our plot that was under >2 feet of snow. The snow had a thick layer of ice on top, beneath, and throughout. This required a new tool, which we finally found after much trial and error. It was heavy and a bit unwieldy, but broke through the ice (mostly). And under several patches of ice lay huge rocks around which digging was impossible, at least within our carefully chosen sample points. Reluctantly (because we spent 1/2 hour digging some of these holes), we abandoned these points and chose new ones to replace them.
Twenty two and a half hours after getting up, we finished sampling and, exhausted, returned to the hut for a quick bite before bed. Now we move slowly to our tents, leaving clean-up and lab work for the next day. As my head hits the pillow, I feel satisfied at having accomplished what we have been planning for so long. Although I have moments of uncertainty, I know all the hard work is worth it in the end.