A Glimpse Into the Early Days of Antarctic Science

A glimpse Into the Early Days of Antarctic Science

I have had the distinct pleasure of meeting two scientists involved in the early days of Antarctic research projects.  I’ve know both of them for a number of years.  Peter Webb was one of the first PI’s I worked with, on the geologic drilling project called The Cape Roberts Project (1998 as part of a program called Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic).  Jim Halfpenny and I met through a summer program that was originally started by the National Wildlife Federation and called a “Conservation Summit.” I continue to work with Jim each summer under the program’s new name and nonprofit status, “Family Summits.”  

Both of these men have influenced my teaching in a big way, whether they know it or not.  Their willingness to share their research and expertise on many levels has made me a better educator.  Today I would like to share a bit about both of them, and their early days of research here on the ice.  In addition, I’ll be including several posts about Jim’s current research in the Arctic as part of my blog in the days ahead.

Jim posted a comment on my blog entry for Christmas Day and shared a story about his own Christmas here in Antarctica.  I have permission to include this as an introduction to Jim’s work as a young scientist.   I felt that this story needed to be shared as part of a blog post…to give you an idea what it was like to be here in the early days of science in Antarctica.  Here is what Jim shared…and read the end carefully.  This is such a great story!


“Christmas at Meserve Glacier, Antarctica”         Story and photos shared by Jim Halfpenny

 It was late December, the year 1968. My partner, Dave Toogood, and I lived alone in a tent in Victoria Valley where we often went weeks without company.   I remember that when they dropped us off they told us that if they did not hear from us by radio in three days they’d be back.  Radio didn’t work, three days later a helicopter arrived and dropped a new radio.  Didn’t work.  Three days later another copter another radio.  Did not work, did not see anyone for two or three weeks then.

Dave and I might go two or three weeks without contact.  In the middle of my 100 days on the ice, we had three people from the U. of Wyoming geology department with us for a month.  Some Russians came in for a couple of days.    We did occasionally go back to McMurdo to resupply.


Now we had walked through Bull Pass 20 plus miles to Meserve Glacier in Wright Valley. Two Kiwis had driven a 1916 Ferguson tractor from Lake Vanda to join us, and the two residents who lived at the Meserve Hut.


We were at Meserve several days helping with jobs. As I was the only one with real glacier experience, my services were needed to place a weather station on top of Meserve Glacier and to help initiate the project drilling through Meserve Glacier. We cut a channel up the side of the Glacier and installed ladders. Next we hand carried the weather station on to the glacier.


Once on the glacier, we cut a large platform on which to set the drill rig. I remember there was an old Wyoming oil field worker who later came in to run the drill but he knew nothing of ice and glaciers. A helicopter was used to bring in the drill to the platform. Since there was no more room, we had to set the 16-foot boxes of drill pipe higher on the glacier and belay them down to the rig. That is a great story in and of itself.


 Next I joined the Kiwis and we used the tractor to haul fuel-loaded sledges over the Wilson Piedmont Glacier down into Wright Valley. We had to cut a ramp down the glacier face into Wright valley with our ice aces.

When the 24th of December rolled around, dinner fixings look bleak. There were canned foods and dried items but no fresh food items.

In my time off, I had explored Meserve Glacier. At one point nearly on a straight line between the Hut and the closest point of the glacier I found a triangular hole perpendicular into the glacier. The hole was shaped like an isosceles triangle with the vertical side downhill on the glacier. The total height of the tunnel was no more than 30 inches tall. As I peered in, the tunnel appeared to extend as far I could and appeared to get bigger.

Having gone through college at the University of Wyoming Outing Club caving with the cavers, I decided to explore the tunnel. Lying on my side I slithered in about four feet and then the tunnel opened up so I could stand up. The original tunnel appeared to have been about three or four-foot wide and seven-foot tall. The passage was full of hoar frost crystals, each several inches in size.

Where the tunnel ran perpendicular to the flow of the glacier, the upstream wall sloped over to the downhill side creating a small triangular passage. There were side passages running upstream into the glacier. These passages were not collapsed and remained about three foot by seven foot.

 Exploring the side passages, I found some crates. Opening them I found packages of heavily wrapped small chickens. There were eight, one for each of us. To this day, I do not know who left the chickens.

 Christmas dinner consisted of a small sized chicken for each person. We said thanks for great comradeship and a chicken Christmas dinner.

 That night, I walked outside. Even though it was 24 hours of daylight, the full moon shown brightly above. A feeling of “aloneness” settled over me. The next nearest people to the seven of us were in McMurdo having their own Christmas dinner. We were alone and alone I watched the moon. My thoughts were with three others; like wise men of old they too were on a journey.

 The three folks were far more “alone” than us. It was December 24, 1968 and for the first time in the history of mankind, humans were circling the moon. Theirs was a preparatory flight in training for the upcoming flight that would land on the moon.

Yes, it was our remote Christmas but that night we were not the remotest of mankind.  That was 44 Christmases ago. I would love to get back there.

The map below gives you a tiny glimpse of where Jim was…you can see Bull Pass on the bottom part of the map.  This map is really included though to focus on the next OAE (Old Antarctic Explorer), Peter Webb. Find the Webb Glacier and McKelvey Valley, then read on to find out more about Peter’s early experiences here.

Webb Glacier--G091Harwood

When I sat down with Peter in 2006, I asked Peter how he actually became interested in science and geology, and what inspired him to take this path in life.  His first exposure to geology was through his father’s work as a petroleum engineer for an oil company.  Peter’s father worked more on the drilling/mechanical side of the business.  Occasionally the oil company sent paleontologists from the United States to work in New Zealand.  This was Peter’s initial look at microfossils.  He says that he stored that information away for later in his life.

During his university education Peter randomly chose a geology course as an elective…the connection back to his Dad’s work was re-established and suddenly geology seemed more exciting than teaching.  In addition, at the time it was very difficult to find a teaching position in New Zealand.  Peter made the shift to geology and it was during this time that he first had the opportunity to travel to Antarctica. 

His first experience was on a U.S. ship as a cargo handler during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957.  This was New Zealand’s first Antarctic expedition, with only thirty people at most being chosen for the trip.  There was a big application process, and of course the selection became very political.  Being 19 year old undergraduate students, Peter and his friend Barrie McKelvey found themselves at the bottom of the list of possible participants.  Peter shared the following story with me:

“The head of the geology department at Victoria University conspired to move us up the list of people going on the expedition.  He made a deal that we’d be called cargo handlers.  When we arrived we did the cargo unloading as fast as possible.  When that was over we got into the geology routine.  We had absolutely no precise plans, and we got help from Admiral Dufek (U.S. Admiral in charge of the Williams Air Facility) and Sir Edmund Hillary (who had helped establish Scott Base in 1956).  In those days we were children to all these people…they were greatly amused by two kids organizing an expedition here.  Everyone thought it was rather adventurous to send two undergrads into the Transantarctic Mountains.”

Peter Webb and Barrie McKelvey

Peter and his friend Barrie McKelvey on Ross Island in 1958.  Photos are courtesy of Peter Webb.

 Peter Webb2

 The following year Peter returned to Antarctica to continue research that was part of IGY.  He became one of the first people to explore the Dry Valleys and is shown in the photo above in Beacon Valley during the 1957-58 field season.  When Peter and others in his party were dropped off in remote areas, they set up field camps, and back then walked between areas they wanted to study.  Today it’s so much different as helicopters fly in and out of the Dry Valleys providing transport for scientists and their gear/equipment on a regular basis. 

 While he was the New Zealand representative on the steering committee for the Dry Valleys Drilling Project in the early 1970’s, Peter met Antarctic researchers from Northern Illinois University.   Peter was recruited to move to the U.S. to not only become Chair of the Geology Department but help develop their doctoral program.  Peter had worked for the New Zealand government as a researcher for thirteen years and now he found himself back in the role of teacher…facing his first classes of geology students.  He stayed at NIU until 1980, at which time he moved to a position as a teacher/researcher at Ohio State University.  He was at Ohio State for many years, until his recent retirement.

 Peter considers himself a broad geologist and remarked that now people in geology are more specialized.  As they specialize they get back to fundamental areas of science like biology, chemistry, etc.  Peter told me that “the geologists of the last 50 years were unique and it was a great time to be a geologist.  My generation of geologists probably had more scientific breadth.”

 When I asked him in 2006 how it felt to be here 50 years after that first experience in the Dry Valleys during IGY, he remarked that at least two of the scientists involved with ANDRILL, were students of his.  Peter said “One of the most satisfying things as teachers is to have some impact on the lives of our students, and have their respect and they still discuss things with you.”  As an educator, I would have to agree.



photos courtesy of Megan Berg, 2006

One of my favorite comments from Peter from our interview:  “Life’s been a meandering experience.”  He’s certainly left his mark on Antarctic science after 21 trips to the ice and over 50 years of involvement in science research.

I feel privileged to have met and worked with both Jim and Peter, and to continue to work with Jim. Peter has left a legacy of geology research, and Jim (whose link is on my blog roll) continues to leave his mark in the research world with his studies of wolves, grizzly bears, and polar bears (among other animals).

Both men always leave quite an impression on those people whose lives they touch.  They’ve left an impression on me!  I thank them both for teaching me, inspiring me, and always encouraging me to share the world of science with my students.

6 responses to “A Glimpse Into the Early Days of Antarctic Science

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