Leora Wilson Shares Her Research Experience in Antarctica

April 27, 2023

Senior geophysics major Leora Wilson and Dr. Peter Doran in Antarctica, with snow-capped mountains and a helicopter in the background near Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of East Antarctica.

LSU senior geophysics major, Leora Wilson, and Dr. Peter Doran near Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of East Antarctica

– Photo Credit: Leora Wilson

Students in the LSU College of Science have the opportunity to take part in hands-on research opportunities all over the world. The College of Science sends students far and wide every semester, across the United States, and to every continent.

LSU Geology and Geophysics’ focus on Polar Studies is led by Peter Doran, Sophie Warny and Phil Bart. The three study the changing ecosystems of Antarctica, such as the retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and biological activity in ice-covered lakes.

For two and a half months Leora Wilson, a senior in the LSU Geology and Geophysics department and a College of Science Ambassador, participated in research at the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Project in Antarctica with Dr. Peter Doran. 

Wilson left on November 23, 2022, for a 17-hour flight from Houston to Sydney. During her 11-hour layover in Sydney, she mentioned spending her time eating as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible and visiting numerous greenhouses and botanicals. This would be the last time she would see vegetation for almost three months.

She then flew from Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand, and finally took a 7-hour flight from Christchurch to Antarctica. Upon arriving on November 26, Wilson spent a few days acclimating to the Antarctic continent at McMurdo Station, the largest station in Antarctica.

“I really enjoyed meeting all the interesting people who work and live down there for extended periods of time. It’s nice to think of McMurdo as a small town,” Wilson said of the station built on volcanic rock and located on the southern tip of Ross Island. 

The station's population varies from up to 1,000 people during the summer to 250 people in the winter. It boasts over 80 buildings, comprising dormitories, a 24/7 cafeteria, a complimentary coffee shop, bars, a gym, and various amenities.

While at McMurdo, Wilson helped in the Crary Lab where LTER researchers process soil, water, ice and a range of other samples. Within most samples in the lab, scientists look for nitrogen, sulfides, sulfates, phosphorus, carbon and oxygen to analyze the area’s biological productivity. The surrounding ice melt nutrient flows, and minerals from various rock formations, are able to support microscopic life, such as nematodes and archaea. However, research is still being conducted in these extreme environments and the ecological dynamics are still yet to be fully understood.

National Science Foundation logistics hub near the landing strip, captured from Leora Wilson's helicopter, providing a perspective of McMurdo Station, the largest settlement in Antarctica, accommodating up to 1,000 people during the summer months.

Caption: McMurdo Station, as pictured by Leora Wilson from a helicopter, is the largest settlement on Antarctica, home to as many as 1,000 people during summers.

– Photo Credit: Leora Wilson

After a few days at McMurdo Station, Wilson spent the next two months at Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of East Antarctica, a 45-minute helicopter ride from the station, where she met up with the researcher she was assisting, Dr. Peter Doran.   

“We just kind of did our own thing when we were not on the ice,” Wilson said. Other researchers came and went, however. Wilson said the number of people at the Lake Fryxell camp fluctuated between two and nine.  

At Lake Fryxell, Wilson helped drill and melt dive holes for the LTER teams, including the limnology team and Soil-Lake Inundation Moat Experiment (SLIME) project. 

The SLIME team regularly drills holes in the ice to track the thickness of the moat ice throughout the year in different regions of the lake. The moat between the land and ice sheet on the lake melts each year, spanning 5 to 10 feet on average. This exposes the microbial mats in open water, which they took samples of to analyze for variations in laminae, or thin layers of the mat.    

Microbial mats are large blankets of organisms that span shallow regions of the lake that get adequate light to support these photosynthesizing microbes. At a certain depth, sections of the mat can break off and rise to the surface due to an increased amount of gases trapped within their “webs.”  

“The float mat samples were the most interesting to collect,” said Wilson. “You would just hear the divers struggling to collect these samples because as they get closer to the floating samples, they drift away due to the bubbles from the regulator.”   

The SLIME project studies the microbial mats and cyanobacteria in these isolated glacial lakes as an example of evolution of early life. Understanding the physiochemical characteristics in these environments helps the researchers understand how modern organisms developed the ability to photosynthesize and respire, Wilson said.  

At the dive holes, Wilson was responsible for upholding vital safety procedures, such as maintaining the air surface supply and readying an emergency scuba set. Every morning, she established communications with McMurdo Station in case an emergency occurred during a dive. She also set up the air supply control panels, and kept track of dive data, such as the duration of the dive, the maximum depth, and total pounds-per-square-inch of air used. 

Leora Wilson seated in a boat on Lake Fryxell, collecting samples from Abbey Dias in scuba gear, who is gathering water samples for Wilson.

Caption: Abbey Dias, wearing scuba gear, hands over samples to Leora Wilson in a boat on Lake Fryxell. The collected samples are organized before being sent to McMurdo Station for analysis.

– Photo Credit: Leora Wilson

During her two months at Lake Fryxell, Wilson also collected freshwater samples for the limnology team at McMurdo to test for an abundance of various minerals. She also collected soil samples for researches at McMurdo to search for nematodes, water bears, and other bacteria and microbes with the soils team.  

While at the camp at Lake Fryxell, Wilson got to experience the life of a field researcher. She slept in a one-person tent. They had a small permanent hut where there was a kitchen with a stove, microwave and a dining table. Wilson said the food she ate while at the camp was surprisingly good. She was able to request her own food and cook anything she wanted. The stove allowed the researchers to get more sophisticated with their frozen and canned foods than one might expect possible in such conditions, she said. 

However, the camp did not have running water. Instead, they pumped water from the moat around Lake Fryxell, and collected small chunks of ice (nicknamed “glacier berries”), to boil. After they boiled the water for safety, they stored it in a Gatorade jug and washed their hands under its spout.   

Every morning, Wilson woke up at 7, ate breakfast and called into McMurdo Station for a daily check in before heading to the dive holes around 9 a.m. 

“I became the camp coordinator in a way. I kept up with the daily helicopter schedule, kept track of waste drum volume, poop buckets, propane, and inventory for the various project groups. I also did the morning check in with McMurdo where I asked for the daily weather and the joke of the day,” Wilson said. 

Wilson visited other camps, too. She helped replace data logs and fix equipment at four other meteorological stations: Lake Brownworth, Lake Vanda, Lake Vida, Commonwealth Glacier and Canada Glacier. Each meteorological station has a range of sensors and instruments that collect solar radiation, wind speed and direction, soil temperature, air temperature, relative humidity, shortwave and long wave radiation in and out of the soil or ice, and various others depending on the location of the station.  

“Lake Vanda was the most noteworthy MET station I visited, as it is the station that collected the lowest recorded temperature in Antarctica: minus 69 degrees Celsius,” Wilson said. 

On January 17, 2023, Wilson flew from Antarctica to Christchurch, New Zealand. Next, she took a quick flight from Christchurch to Auckland, New Zealand, then a 13-hour flight from Auckland to Los Angeles. Then a flight from Los Angeles to Houston, and a final flight from Houston to Baton Rouge. In total, it was two full days of travel return home on the night before the start of the Spring 2023 semester.

Feature by Joseph T. Bullard, LSU Manship School of Mass Communication and Leora Wilson, LSU Department of Geology and Geophysics