Marshak Spends a Month in Antarctica

Posted on 08.23.2015

A second faculty member (Dan Blake is the first) has crossed the Antarctic Circle recently. Steve Marshak visited Antarctica during the 2002-2003 Christmas break as part of a research group led by Tom Fleming of the University of Southern Connecticut. Their purpose was to study the emplacement of the Ferrar Dolerite, an extensive system of 184 million-year old dikes and sills. In addition to Marshak and Fleming, the group included Alan Whittington (a former post-doc in the Department, now an assistant professor at the University of Missouri), a professional mountaineer, and two undergraduate students. The Ferrar Dolerite, a system of sills and dikes formed in association with the break up of Pangea, was first recognized during Captain Scott's Antarctica expedition in the early 20th century. "The outcrops we studied were in the Transantarctic Mountains, a 2- to 4-km high range that divides the continent into East and West Antarctica," says Marshak. "We were flown in a small plane from McMurdo Station (the main American base) to a site on a glacier at the boundary between the Polar Plateau and the Mountains. There, we set up a 6-person tent camp. We had to keep rebuilding snow walls to keep drifts from burying our camp, but otherwise it was reasonably comfortable."

The group used snowmobiles and sledges to get to nearby outcrops, where the mountaineer helped them climb, set ropes and avoid crevasses. For outcrops far from camp the group had helicopter support. The helicopter would drop them at a site, and would then hopefully return about eight hours later. But one time the helicopter was grounded in McMurdo by bad weather and the group was stuck on an outcrop so long that they had to open their survival bags to get food. Overall, the weather was reasonable, with temperatures hovering between 10° and 15°F (it was summer, after all!) so field work could progress. But wind chill was a challenge, and in mid-January, a large storm moved in, creating white-out conditions that forced the group to remain in their tents for five days straight.

Marshak points out that "many people think that Antarctica is completely covered by snow and ice. But there are good exposures in the Transantarctic Mountains, and there's no vegetation to hide the rocks, so it's possible to see contacts quite clearly. Exposures are good, but getting to them can be difficult. Working in Antarctic conditions turns any field work into an adventure."