Archive for January, 2012

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SEAT: Satellite Era Accumulation Traverse: The First Storm

January 3rd, 2012 by Patrick Lynch

Traverse progress as of Dec. 21, 2011.

By Lora Koenig

Byrd Station (Antarctica), 22 December —

The traverse team got hit with their first storm last night.  Everyone is safe and well.  Here is the MODIS satellite image over Antarctica from Dec 21, 2011 showing the storm covering most of West Antarctica.  The team experienced 35 to 40 knot winds with blowing snow.

It is hard to explain what it is like to be in an Antarctic storm but I will try.  First, you should know that during Happy Camper training everyone goes through a drill to simulate a whiteout storm where they make you put a white bucket on your head.  While this does simulate the fact that you cannot see in a storm it does not capture the complete experience.  In an Antarctic storm , similar to the one the team experienced, the snow blows around so much that if were in a neighborhood you certainly could not see the house directly across the street.  The blowing snow builds up in piles around the tents and has to be dug out occasionally to keep the tents from getting buried.  When you step outside to shovel you have to make sure all of your skin is covered because the blowing snow stings when it hits your face, just like being sand blasted.  During the storm the team will only leave their tents if they have to and flags are put up about every 10 feet, forming paths between the tents, so no one will get lost.

The snowmobiles and sleds are always parked downwind from the camp and strapped down just in case a storm rolls in.  In a bad storm the snowmobile engines can get packed in with snow that has to be dug out once the storm ends and before the snowmobile can be started.

The team is holding at Camp 5 today and securing camp yet again.  There is another storm on the way.  The team will rest and bunker down in their tents for a few more days until the weather clears.  They will probably open a few holiday presents early that contain card games to keep them occupied while they wait.

Pine Island Glacier 2011: 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.

SEAT: Satellite Era Accumulation Traverse: Quick Update

January 3rd, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

McMurdo Station (Antarctica), 15 December — Today the Traverse Team traveled from SEAT Camp 2 to SEAT Camp 3. They picked up their fuel cache at Camp 3 and enjoyed the chocolate chip cookies that were inside. So far, the team has drilled three ice cores and traveled over 220 kilometers (136.7 mi). They will be at Camp 3 for at least two days to drill two ice cores in this area, which is the highest accumulation site on the traverse. The accumulation here will be close to 1 meter (3.28 feet) per year, while at Byrd is was over10 centimeters (3.9 inches) per year. The team is traveling fast and making up lost time each day.

This map show the progress of the team so far. They are at SEAT Camp 3. The red stars are the ice core locations and the blue line shows the route they have traversed.

I am in McMurdo, waiting for a plane to fly back to Christchurch, New Zealand. The plane will arrive shortly after 4 AM. The C-17 planes have to land in the middle of the night because the days are already too warm, and the ice on the runway too soft, for a plane to land during daylight. So they are landing in the wee hours of the morning, which corresponds to the coldest part of the day and the hardest ice conditions. Once I get on a plane, I will be in transit for 60 hours, until I reach my home in Maryland.

I will leave Antarctica on the same plane than the Prime Minister of Norway, who was just at the South Pole to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Ronald Amundsen being the first man to reach the South Pole.  Our traverse team is still following in Amundsen’s footsteps, traveling over the ice to gain a better understanding of Antarctica.


SEAT: Satellite Era Accumulation Traverse: Waiting, Shoveling and Traversing

January 3rd, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

Byrd Station (Antarctica), 13 December — Well, I am still at Byrd Camp. One plane for the day from McMurdo has already been canceled and two more are scheduled. Byrd has not had a flight in over a week, and they are trying to get as many flights from McMurdo in as they can. There are still science teams waiting to get here. Also, the camp would like some freshies (fruits and vegetables), to increase moral. I shoveled some more today for the camp and did some house mouse choirs, which included doing the dishes, sweeping, and washing the tables. I may as well stay busy while I am waiting.

The team is traversing to Camp 2 today. They finished the ice core at Camp 1 and all the science is going well. When I last spoke with them, they were going out to locate their fuel cache, so they will have a nice loaf of bread to have with dinner tonight.

I just heard that my plane is in route, so I just may get to McMurdo tonight.

Pine Island Glacier 2011: The Thick Brick Wall

January 3rd, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 16 December — It was just weird. The Herc mission to land the put-in team at PIG had become a daily mainstay of the schedule I saw on the TV monitor as I walked into breakfast every day for the past week. Sometimes the cancellation came before breakfast was finished, sometimes I was able to carry my hope with me as I left the cafeteria. If the forecast suggested currently poor, but gradually improving conditions, they would hold the mission back until the weather picture became more certain. To date, certainty usually shifted toward deteriorating conditions at either PIG or Byrd (the required refueling camp) leading to yet another cancelled mission.

Tuesday the mission actually launched, the PIG webcams showed gorgeous weather there and many in town held their collective breath. It was the topic at lunch—the flight was two hours out, three more to get to PIG and still heading the right direction. Unfortunately, a short time later word came back that the forecast for Byrd was getting worse. The refuel camp was changed to the WAIS camp, roughly 100 miles away, where the forecast was better. But soon thereafter, the WAIS forecast worsened and the mission was ordered back home. The poor folks on the plane ended up flying for five hours and got off the plane at exactly the same spot where they boarded—McMurdo—still no closer to PIG.

Wednesday’s mission tore at the heart even more. It was a good weather trifecta—sunny at McMurdo, PIG and Byrd. Mission off-deck at 0931, ETA at PIG by 1400 (2 PM). Forecasts remained good at all sites and we constantly updated our webcam links hoping to witness a successful landing. It never happened. Limited information came to me, but the most important info was clear—they had not landed and were returning to MacTown with everything and everyone still on board. I couldn’t believe my ears. Having learned from past field experiences to set aside my emotional reactions right away, I discussed the possible explanations with the head of the Herc squadron. Maybe they had the wrong coordinates? Coordinates can get confused because some use degrees, minutes and seconds, some use degrees and decimal degrees, while even others favor degrees, minutes and decimal minutes. You’d be surprised at how often this happens and how much this can matter. I checked with a mapping support person who could download spectacular two-foot resolution images of the area taken both as the camp was left last February and how it looked this September (see the pictures below). Knowing I had the right coordinates, I rushed back to Herc operations to see if I could redirect the plane if they had gone to the wrong spot. Radio communications with the plane weren’t great, but good enough to hear that they saw features that told them they were, in fact, at the proper spot. Details would have to wait for their return.

The PIG camp in February 2011 (left). Seven months later, there are large sastrugis crossing the skiway, difficulting landing (right).

They came back very late, with the delays of having to refuel at Byrd and then debrief and take the long ride back to town from the ice runway (now nearly an hour-long, bone-jarring ride). Still no word by dinner, I sat with the Herc commander, Mark Sakadolsky, just to be sure to get as close as I could to any information. He’s a friend from past seasons here together and an easy guy to talk to. Everyone in town knew the plane had reached PIG, found the weather excellent, yet turned around without landing. There were lots of ideas why; McMurdo is well known to be a fertile rumor mill. I didn’t get the official word from Mark (and Charles Kirkland, who will be the PIG Main Camp manager) until the next morning. There were large sastrugi (snow dunes) crossing the old skiway. The pilots couldn’t see many skiway markers; most were buried under the 1.5 meters (5 ½ feet) of snow that has accumulated since last season, but they could orient themselves well enough relative to the drifted cargo berm and fuel bladders to know where the skiway had been. Landing that direction made little sense because they would have chattered their way across numerous sastrugi, possibly damaging the plane. (I’ve been there, done that, and don’t want to do it anymore, so this was a wise decision). Their next option was to land parallel to the sastrugi and although they received permission to do this, as they lined up on their final approach and had their skiis nearly touching the tops of the sastrugi, they decided the sastrugi were just too big to land safely.  So they got close, really close, literally a few feet from landing. I’m not sure if I want to call that progress or not.

For those of you following this saga, you know that this story is being written with many subplots.  So you may ask “and what of the traverse?” Good question! The traverse has been lumbering onward and may arrive tonight! Their imminent arrival figured strongly into the Guard’s decision to forego any further PIG missions until the traverse party has a chance to unhitch their heavy machinery and use the skiway groomer (left in the PIG cargo line) to level those dangerous sastrugi and prepare a smoother landing strip before the next Herc arrives. The additional benefit of having the traverse there is that the “fuelie” (definition: a person who handles fuel lines, fuel drums and fuel bladders, responsible for fueling vehicles and planes) can tap into the 27,000 gallons of fuel there to refuel visiting Hercs directly, removing the need for that troublesome third camp refueling stop for PIG flights. Thus, we are on the verge of a much-improved situation for getting cargo and people to PIG. If this is an early Christmas present, I’ll take it—even without the bows and wrapping paper.

So Thursday became was a strange day. No PIG mission on the schedule. The only project contribution I could make was to transmit positive vibes to the traverse party. Nothing broke or slowed them down, so maybe it worked. I also kept talking to some of the key people here. I suggested to Mark that for every day we don’t have a mission, I want him to think of us banking one for a later date. I tried (unsuccessfully) to convince the Guard and the National Science Foundation (the institutions that manage U.S. Antarctic operations and logistics) to increase either the number of planes or crews that would operate during the two-week holiday slowdown.  Numbers are reduced from six planes and six crews to three planes and four crews and an extra no-fly Saturday for Christmas and another for New Year’s is added to the cast-in-stone no-fly Sunday. These are massive reductions in capacity. I have complained for 30 years about this (along with many other deep field scientists), to no avail. Call me Mr. Scrooge or The Grinch if you like, but this is Antarctica. We have a limited amount of time to work in the “deep field” so we can answer questions being put to me in Congress and by governments around the world. Check your holiday spirit when you pass south of 60 degrees south latitude! Our holiday comes when we go home. Deep field camps don’t have holidays unless bad weather affords them the luxury. (Grrrrr!)

The other unusual thing about Thursday was the visit of the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg. As I’ve written before, I had already met with his advance committee. The Prime Minister shot through McMurdo very fast so he could ski the last 10 km to the pole with a group of 4 Norwegians (who had skied the entire Amundsen route) and arrive at the South Pole exactly 100 years after Amundsen. He had two hours to see McMurdo on his way back north and I was asked to prepare a short presentation on the PIG project. His schedule was delayed by South Pole weather so he never made it to the science lab and never saw the poster (but you can—it is posted on our project’s web site). Better than the short presentation I couldn’t give was the fact that I was invited to join the PM at a dinner being hosted at Scott Base by the New Zealanders. To make sure that I had the chance to discuss my project with Jens, I was seated directly across the table from him and next to his Executive Secretary. I took advantage of the arranged seating and had a very engaging conversation with him. Norway is very proactive in responding to climate change. I was as impressed with the variety of steps he described Norway is taking as he was with the science of climate change and the importance of our particular piece we are trying to accomplish on the PIG ice shelf this season. Jens and Ron (the Scott Base manager) gave speeches (very good speeches, actually). Ron surprised Jens by offering him an après-dessert helo ride to both Cape Evans and Cape Royds where huts remain from Scott’s and Shackleton’s polar runs. I have no idea when they returned; I took an earlier ride back to MacTown to sleep, arriving at midnight. Prime Ministers don’t sleep much.

An extra surprise for me that evening was to see Jan Gunnar Winter with the Norwegian delegation. Jan Gunnar is a colleague and a friend I have known for many years, and he’s presently the director of the Norsk PolarInstitut. I didn’t know that he was one of the 4 skiers repeating Amundsen’s historic journey. His face was weather-beaten and he had some gripping stories to tell of their expedition. All of Norway seemed to be following them via daily broadcasts by the skiers—Amundsen had dogs to help him, these 4 had the extra burden of reporting to their countrymen every night and a deadline to keep. Jan Gunnar has become a national celebrity, but he was most looking forward to a week-long vacation in Thailand with his wife. No one has ever deserved this reward more. I’ll take the easy route and fly to PIG.

Notes from the Field