Antarctica 2014: Success at Lewis Bay

After many delays, Ken Sims is finally on ice—antarctic ice. He is studying the origins of ancient, frozen volcanic islands around Antarctica by analyzing their rocks. Dangers abound, but Ken is willing to brave them for science.

Figure 1: Helicopter at Cliffs of Lewis Bay. Note the ice seracs overhead and avalanche debris below. Photo by John Catto
A helicopter at the cliffs of Lewis Bay. Note the ice seracs overhead and avalanche debris below. (Photo by John Catto)

I am back in Antarctica to do what we could not do two years ago because of thin ice, and were not able to do last year because of the “partial” government shut down, which is to sample the volcanic sea cliffs of Mt. Bird at Lewis Bay on Ross Island.

This year we flew down even earlier in the austral spring to accomplish our mission. After a few delays because of bad weather, John Catto and I flew out to Lewis Bay and found that the sea ice was thick enough to land a helicopter on safely. So, we were finally able to sample the lava flows that make up these sea cliffs; the samples which my colleagues and I have now coveted for two years.

Collecting these samples was somewhat sketchy, requiring considerable caution and some luck. The transition between the sea ice and the cliffs had several melt pools and needed careful negotiation, but more concerning was the big ice fall looming overhead. This ice fall is regularly calving off and falling in avalanches over the cliffs, leaving big piles of ice debris. Getting in and out quickly was critical. Nonetheless, as luck would have it, nothing came off from overhead while we were sampling. And yes, indeed, it was cold; -24 degrees Celsius, but sunny and no wind, unlike the day before when we were out snowmobiling on Hut Point Peninsula. That day, it was -35 degrees Celsius with a constant wind speed of approximately 20 knots and gusting at approximately 35 knots!

These Lewis Bay samples are an integral part of our study to understand the origin of Ross Island’s volcanoes (Mt. Erebus, Mt. Terror and Mt. Bird) and the many small volcanic vents along Hut Point Peninsula. These samples are particularly important as they represent the oldest exposed rocks of this volcanic provenance and as such they will help us address why Ross Island is here. Is it formed by a deep mantle plume welling up, like the one that is forming the Hawaiian Islands? Or, is Ross Island here simply because the Earth’s crust is ripping apart along the West Antarctic Rift, like the volcanoes in the East African Rift?

Using these samples, samples we collected two years ago, and samples we will collect over the next couple of weeks, we are using complex geochemical measurements of radiogenic isotopes (little clocks in the rocks) to resolve this long-debated question. So, stay tuned…

Dr. Ken Sims sampling the sea cliffs of Lewis Bay. Note the large avalanche debris field behind. Photo by John Catto.
Dr. Ken Sims sampling the cliffs above the sea ice at Lewis Bay. Note the large avalanche debris field behind. (Photo by John Catto)


  1. Tom Di Mercurio
    Basalt, CO. 81621
    October 26, 2014, 8:52 am

    Although I’ve known John Catto for less than four (4) years I have come to realize thay he is a modern day Renaissance Man with many diverse interests. Around the Town of Basalt he is recognized for his friendliness and his uniform good humor. To share, vicarioiusly and at a great distance, his great adventure to Antartica with, and in support of his friend, is exciting! And a great photgraph as expected!

  2. Jim Coyle
    Lockport, Ill USA
    October 24, 2014, 7:30 am

    I’m wondering; How old is the lava flows in this regieon? I’m working on a theory on the origin of the Drake Passage and this could be very helpful to me. Thanks

  3. Ezra and Ansel Visser
    Laramie, WY
    October 22, 2014, 9:43 pm

    Hi Ken, Congratulations for making it to back to Antarctica! I am curious about who is in the helicopter if John is on the ground taking the picture. Where are you when this picture was taken? Have fun! Your friend Ezra.

    Dear Ken, Did you have any luck with your sledgehammer samples? It looks like a lot of fun! Wish you good luck! Ansel

  4. Eric Boyd
    Livingston, Montana
    October 21, 2014, 9:58 pm

    Now, if only we could obtain samples to see how the microbes in these systems has adapted to such conditions and how they influence/shape the geochemistry/isotopes,

  5. Judith A. Byrns
    warm house Snowmass, Colorado
    October 21, 2014, 7:59 am

    I love seeing this. Keep up the good work and be safe as possible.

  6. Azimullah hakim
    October 21, 2014, 7:06 am

    i love antractica