Ash in the Ice Core!

WAIS Divide Camp at 79.47° S latitude, 112.06° W longitude – high on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Plateau.


The wind finally abated somewhat during the day on Friday. I took another grid walk in the morning – with similar results. The combination of flat light and drifting obscured my way and made an even pace impossible – what an analogy for life. As the wind died, the crud* built in my nose, so my afternoon was fairly quiet. Around 4pm one of the drill handlers found me to say that a visible layer was in the core at approximately 1580 meters and 8,000 years old. We rushed out to the Core Handling area of the arch to look. Everyone was very excited – they didn’t expect to find visible layers. The Danish scientist has been drilling ice in the field for 6 seasons and has never seen a visible layer. Everyone agreed that it looked like a tephra (volcanic) layer. Chemical analysis in the lab will confirm if it is ash, and what volcanic event it came from. When I first looked at the core on the tray, the layer looked like a fracture line, about a millimeter thick. But up close there is a definite grey ochre cast to the layer. Looking at an angle, I could make out a shadow of the layer deep in the ice. I had heard that Scientists are notoriously understated in their reaction to really cool discoveries and even these young graduate students lived up to that reputation. No one was jumping up and down or high fiving. However, their elation was palpable. The day had been difficult and they were tired, but this thin line of dust came as a gift of energy. I remembered drawing an ash layer at the National Ice Core Lab during my first visit in 2008. It had been from the Newell Glacier near the dry valleys in Antarctica. I found the jpeg of the sketch on my computer, and sure enough, in the notes at the corner of the page was “Newell Glacier, approximately 8000 years old”. It deepened my connection to this place and the core, and yes, I am very excited about it.

*Crud or McMurdo Crud – a low level cold that is a right of passage for almost every newcomer on the ice. It is extremely difficult to avoid, with dry air, and lots of people crowded into small overheated spaces.


  1. Alan Wenokur on December 19, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Hi Anna. Just a quick note to let you know the blog posts are getting through and are being read with interest (at least by me!). We’re glad to hear you’re having an exciting time and hope your crud goes away soon.

  2. Julie on December 20, 2009 at 5:38 am

    Hi Anna,
    I’m excited too, for you’all to find the “ash layer”. The “finding” creates such a profound perspective on our miniscule yet huge existence. Wow. Thanks for your diligent reporting.

    Missing you this Holiday Season,


  3. Lucy Auster on December 21, 2009 at 5:56 am

    Hi Anna! Just finally sat myself down to read your entries. The whole thing is so amazing and mind blowing. All the different parts – from the geology to the science to the extreme weather makes me think you can’t but be transformed by the whole thing. I’m thinking of you and hoping you stay warm and safe. Love. Lucy.

  4. Nancy Perry on December 21, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Hey sister, I am so excited for you and am amazed at your journey into such a harsh, but beutiful environment. I hope you recover quickly and I send warm thoughts your way. I love you, Nancy

  5. Maggie McClellan on December 21, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    Anna! I just realized I can write something to you! (duh!)
    Oh my Gosh this is just too exciting. And amazing… And strange! I recognize you so well in your comments; in the meticulous relentless interest you have in things… yes in ‘deep’ things! Your words bring that place to life… I feel scared of the white-outs too, and searching through the white my eyes squinting as I read… I brought some brochures to school hoping one or two kids will take advantage of this great opportunity to learn about the ice and write an excellent one of a kind report! Can’t wait to hear about it all in person…. but knowing you are getting something out of every moment you spend there. Love, maggie