In August 2009 I started working on a Master's degree in Geochemistry at New Mexico Tech. My project is to study the ice towers and caves which are melted into the ice by geothermal heating. There are over one hundred of these features distributed around the summit caldera of Erebus Volcano on Ross Island in Antarctica. Although a few other volcanoes have ice and firn caves formed by related processes (Mt Baker, Mt Washington, Mt Ranier), the ice caves and towers of Erebus are far more numerous, larger, and display a wider range of morphology than is seen on any other volcano in the world.
The questions of interest for me include: What are the mechanisms of cave and tower formation? What do the caves and towers tell us about the underlying geology? Do they result from a diffuse hydrothermal system? Is linear clustering of ice formations related to underlying geological features such as dikes or fractures associated with caldera collapse?
Update on Feb. 6, 2010, 1:41 a.m.: 2009-2010 field season succesfully completed
My first Antarctic field season was a blast and a scientific success. From November 25th through Jan 8th, I was on Ross Island in Antarctica. For most of that time I was up on Mt Erebus, going ice caving nearly every day with Nial Peters. We mapped five caves, installed seventeen continuous cave atmosphere monitoring systems, retrieved seven ice cores from tower walls, collected gas samples from the hot air vents in the cave floors, and took a wide range of biological samples. A BBC film crew (Chaddan, Gavin and Jason) caught us on camera for the upcoming series Frozen Planet, which is going to be absolutely stunning!
The ice cores and biological samples are en route to Socorro in freezer shipping / trucking at -20degC . I eagerly await their arrival, and am informed they will get here in March or April.
Gas samples were airfreighted and should get here any time now. However, we had major problems with gas bags leaking and deflating on Erebus so I will be pleasantly surprised if any of the gas makes it here intact.
In the meantime, I'm finishing the digitization of the cave maps and starting to look at our data. Live data is coming back from two loggers in ice caves; I'm working on making that data visible on www.erebuscaves.com in real-time.