Waiting Again

December 8th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas
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By Lora Koenig

It’s Thursday, December 1, and I am, yet again, sitting in our office, waiting.  As the saying goes, “hurry up and wait”: This rings true in Antarctica. Last week, we were waiting for our radars to arrive on a plane from Christchurch. Usually there are about three flights a week from Christchurch to McMurdo, but an entire week of flights was canceled due to bad weather here. And finally, a plane arrived on Monday, November 28, bringing fresh fruit, new people and, most importantly, our radars.

Ludo and Clem quickly set up the two radars, ran a few tests to make sure they were working and repacked them for shipping to Byrd Camp. Normally we would take a few days to do this but, since we were delayed, we all worked hard and completed the tasks in a few hours. We repacked the equipment very carefully to prevent damage, and put it into the cargo system. (See Michelle’s blog post to learn more about the cargo system). Our intracontinential cargo needed to be in the system 48 hours in advance, and we were hoping to fly to Byrd on December 1 (that is, today).

Clem and Ludo testing the radars. The coil of wire, in the center of the picture, is a delay line that sends the radar signal through a wire that attenuates the wave. Delay lines are a good way to test the radar when the antennas are not yet hooked up.Clem and Ludo watching the radar echogram to make sure the radars were not damaged in shipping. Clem is holding a set of notes: We always have good documentation of our procedures to make sure we take consistent measurements. The notes also help us in case we forget anything.

Just as a reminder here is the location we are trying to get to.

So our estimated departure date has come and gone, and here we are still in McMurdo. This is not a big surprise; delays are common in such a harsh environment. We are now scheduled to go to Byrd on Monday December 5. All of our work in McMurdo is done, so we will use the delay to rest a bit before the hard work of the traverse begins.

Michelle and I took advantage of the nice weather to go skiing on the McMurdo Ice Shelf, which is connected to sea ice. In a few weeks, people will not be able to ski here anymore because the warm summer temperatures from both the air above and the water underneath the shelf will thin the ice.

Why are we delayed? First, as I mentioned, McMurdo had a week of bad weather and no planes could land or take off.  And once the weather in McMurdo cleared, it was Byrd’s turn to have bad weather, so planes could not land there. On top of that, there is a lot of science going on at Byrd this season, including another traverse lead by a NASA colleague, Bob Bindschadler, headed to Pine Island Glacier. (Check out this video on the Pine Island project, or visit their website.) Because there are so many teams flying to Byrd, we have to wait for five flights to get in before we are assigned a plane load for our science gear, fuel, snowmobiles and ice core boxes. Our team has a full LC-130 plane load of gear that needs to make it to Byrd.

Yesterday, they were finally able to get some flights into Byrd. Our flight number is T012; flight T010 will take off for Byrd this evening, then T011 has to fly and then it’s us. We are watching the monitors in McMurdo that show the flight status, just like at the airports, hoping that flights get in. We cheer when a flight returns and groan when a flight is canceled due to weather.

There is one more issue that is causing delays.  This week they are moving the runways at McMurdo. In the early season, when it is still cold, the planes land very close to McMurdo on the sea ice at a place called Icey Runway. As temperatures warm, sea ice thins and the runway is moved farther inland to Williams Field, where the ice is thicker. This weekend is when they move airports, so there are no flights scheduled for Friday or Saturday (normally, there would be flights Monday through Saturday). So we will have another weekend in McMurdo, and when it’s time to fly to Byrd we’ll do it from William’s Field, about a 45-minute drive from McMurdo.

While we were waiting, I finally took some pictures of Percy the Penguin. Percy was given to me by a friend; it came from a geocache site in Seattle, WA and has now made it to Antarctica. Percy is actually the only penguin we have seen here. So far, the only wildlife we have encountered are skuas, large seagull-like birds, and Weddell seals that lounge on the sea ice just outside of McMurdo and Scott base.  Through there are no seals in the picture of Michelle skiing, she is on an ice shelf below which the seals could be swimming. When the seals find a hole in the ice they come up onto the sea ice or ice shelf and lounge in the sun.

Percy the penguin overlooking McMurdo Station.

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