In A Fog

January 3rd, 2012 by Patrick Lynch

Walking near the Drill Camp Site.

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 27 December — McMurdo leapt back to life the morning after the 2-day Christmas weekend. It was a jarring transition from the solitude that had permeated the town to the rumble of vehicles churning up wisps of cindery dust as their operators resumed their various tasks. There was a revival of energy everywhere, including a recommitment to making substantial progress on PIG. We can expect to be on the flight schedule every day this week.

And so we were today. The webcams told us that the Christmas storm at PIG was over. The report from the field by the traverse party was that the storm had not brought much new snow and that they were able to keep up with the wind’s efforts to make new sastrugi on the skiway. The weather forecast for West Antarctica is as positive as I have ever seen it–a dominant high pressure is sitting squarely over the ice sheet keeping all storms well offshore. Nothing is vying to push the high pressure anywhere, so PIG should be clear at least through Thursday!

Voice: “Not so fast, Bob.”
Bob: “Who ‘dat?”
Voice: “Look outside.”
Bob: “I’ll check on my way to breakfast.”
(a short time later…)
Bob: “Oh, nooooo, is that fog I see down on the ice? Yes, it is. You wouldn’t….you couldn’t…”
Voice: “Oh, yes I can…and I did. I stirred up a little fog this morning, just to keep the planes from taking off. Did you forget that you need good weather at BOTH ends?”
Bob: “Well it will burn off later this morning, so we can still complete the mission.”
Voice: “Wrong again. All I need to do is delay the plane long enough that the crew’s return time exceeds their allowed duty day.”
Bob: “*$&^%#^$^#*&!!”

And that’s pretty much what happened (except I haven’t really begun to hear voices just yet). The fog lifted 30 minutes AFTER the crew had to be taken off the mission. They had time enough to fly a fuel-run to South Pole, so the plane was used productively, but we made no progress on PIG.

Yet there is good news to report, so allow me to share it. The same Twin Otter that cancelled their reconnaissance of the ice shelf last Friday, was able to take advantage of the good weather blanketing West Antarctica and completed their mission. Sridhar Anandakrishnan, the geophysicist on our team, who has been at WAIS since we arrived in McMurdo, was picked up by the Otter and went along. It took all day to hear the results, but after the morning’s disappointment, this news was worth waiting for: Drill Camp is a beautiful spot. It appears totally uncrevassed and quite smooth. It looked so good that the Otter crew even landed and walked around. A picture Sridhar took is attached.

This is the second airplane to land on the ice shelf–ever. The weather was similar three years ago when I was landed on the ice shelf, but the surface was less inviting. There are some sastrugi under the thin layer of surface snow, but overall everything we want to do at this site can be done here. It’s not hard bare ice, it’s not deep soft snow, it’s not rough and sastrugi-filled. Camp set up will be easy, equipment placement will be straightforward, and calm conditions like today would allow us to get an enormous amount of work done.

Even better, the Otter pilot indicated that if the largest bumps are eliminated, then they could probably transport 3,000 pounds per load. That’s tremendous news because the helos are limited to about 1,000 pounds per load. We now know the huge benefits of having a Twin Otter help us. However getting one is by no means certain. There are four Otters supporting US science here right now and they are very busy with other projects. I have to put on my negotiating hat again. Time is getting very short.

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Notes from the Field