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Nansen Ice Shelf, Antarctica 2015: The End of Our Adventure

January 11th, 2016 by Maria-Jose Viñas
Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

By Christine Dow

We have arrived back safe and sound after 11 days crossing the Southern Ocean. Our exit from Jang Bogo involved one last (very short) helicopter ride taking us to the Araon icebreaker so that they didn’t have to re-break ice to get back into port. I stayed up till the wee hours on the top deck watching us motoring away from my home for the last month, pushing large chunks of sea ice out the way. Some Adélie penguins were also witness to our departure along with snow and cape petrels diving and swooping around the wave tops. It was a very idyllic sight and I was sad to say goodbye to the Antarctic (until next time).

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Onward ho. Over the next few days we crashed and bumped our way through the sea ice. This was a good chance to get used to the (very) rolly motion of the boat. Icebreakers are designed with highly rounded keels, excellent for smashing through ice packs but not so great on the stomach. A very good distraction was the on-board table tennis table. Many doubles games were played over the course of the voyage, some more successful than others depending on whether the boat allowed both balls and players to be on a sensible trajectory.

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

After two days, we were almost out of the sea ice pack when we suddenly had to turn around and return south. There had been a distress call from a fishing boat stuck in the ice and R/V Araon went to the rescue. We successfully hauled the boat free from the ice that it had become wedged on and escorted them to a region easier to navigate through. On the return journey we also stopped to collect some long sediment cores that the Korean scientists will analyze later.

The timing of our journey meant that we had Christmas on board the boat. Our party was on Christmas Eve and involved a veritable feast – the chefs had been very busy all day kindly preparing this for us. One of the Korean scientists also played some clarinet and saxophone music to get us in the Christmassy mood. We even had a Christmas tree, lashed to a railing to stop it flying all over the place.

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

On the 11th day of our journey we could see land. It was very strange to see trees and green again after so long with just hues of blue and white. We had also been slowly getting used to the dark as we moved north following our time in 24-hour daylight; the first sunset of the voyage had been spectacular with giant albatross swooping behind the boat. I watched as we finally docked at the port of Lyttleton in New Zealand, feeling that “normal” life would be a little surreal after our adventure. It was time to say goodbye to our friends and colleagues and go home, just in time for the New Year. After such a trip it’s not surprising that one of my resolutions for the new year is to get back to the frozen continent…some day.

Nansen Ice Shelf, Antarctica 2015: Final Data Collection and Farewell to Jang Bogo

December 15th, 2015 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Ryan Walker

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Before it was time to recheck our GPS stations and download data from them, the icebreaker Araon arrived at Jang Bogo, bringing new scientists, a new helicopter crew, fresh food, and other supplies. Because of heavy sea ice cover on the bay, the arrival was in slow motion, taking most of a day from the time the ship was visible from the station until it stopped a few hundred yards offshore due to unbreakable eight-foot-thick ice. Thick ice often requires an icebreaker to back up a considerable way, then charge forward into the ice, breaking through either by pure impact or by sliding the bow up onto the ice, causing it to collapse under the ship’s weight. One passenger told Christine and me that it was “like being in a car crash — all day.” We’re quite happy that there will already be a clear path out of the bay when we take the Araon back to Christchurch. Before leaving again for a roughly week-long science cruise, the ship also dropped off quite a lot of equipment for the various science teams, including most of the instruments to be installed by our hosts, the Extreme Geophysics Group. This meant that the time between Araon’s departure and return would be very busy, with limited time to install instruments before most of the scientists leave on the ship. On top of this, we had several days of bad weather that prevented any helicopter flights. In order to finish our work on the GPS stations, we had to squeeze into a busy flight schedule, which meant that Christine and I would go on separate flights.

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

I was on the first flight on December 10, which began with Dr. Choon-ki Lee installing a new GPS station on a large piece of ice at the front of Nansen Ice Shelf that looks ready to calve off into a tabular iceberg. There’s a huge crack, miles long and sometimes over a hundred yards wide, which runs more or less parallel to the front of the ice shelf. Over the winter, the sea surface freezes and traps small icebergs in the crack, producing a fascinatingly broken icescape. Comparing ice velocities between this new GPS and our stations should let us monitor the calving process and learn more about how it works. When we moved on to check the first of our GPS stations, I found that it wasn’t operating at all. After checking the wiring, I worked out that the problem was either in the wire to the receiver, the regulator (the electrical component that connects the solar panel, battery, and receiver), or the GPS receiver itself (potentially big trouble) — but had no idea which one. I pulled out those three components to check back at Jang Bogo, and we secured the rest of the station and moved on. Fortunately, after an unpromising start, the two other GPS stations we visited were working perfectly. While downloading the data, which involved about fifteen minutes of connecting my laptop and then sitting on the ice typing obscure commands, I was amused by how much this aspect of field work resembled the computer modeling work I usually do, though with vastly better scenery. We then returned to Jang Bogo with two stations in good shape, two yet to be checked, and one hopefully to be repaired.

Christine says: It was getting worryingly close to the time when we would be leaving the Antarctic and we still had some data to collect and the GPS to fix. I found that the GPS problem had been due to a faulty solar regulator and replaced it with a spare back at base. Luckily I managed to piggy back on a flight out to the Nansen Ice Shelf with the Extreme Geophysics Group while they were putting out seismic stations. Replacing the GPS was quick, with the satellite lights blinking encouragingly; now we just have to hope the system will continue working for the next couple of months. At the next station, I downloaded the data while wind blew some loose snow all over me and the computer. I probably looked a little like a snowman by the end of that. The final job was to replace the tethers on the last GPS (see our previous blog post). It was not without sadness that I waved goodbye to the plucky little machines, which would sit out on the ice on their own until the end of February. At that stage one of our Korean colleagues who is overwintering at Jang Bogo will collect them for us and send them back on the ship.

Speaking of the ship, we’re off. It is due to arrive tomorrow and we will set sail for our 7-10 day ‘cruise’ back to Christchurch in New Zealand. Its hard to believe we’ve been here 5 weeks already and it feels a bit strange to be packing up and leaving. We’re hoping for some wildlife spottings on the boat and more importantly not to be completely debilitated by sea sickness. Internet is not readily available on the Araon so we will report back when we reach dry land. Wish us luck!

Goodbye, Jang Bogo! (Credit:NASA/Christine Dow)

Goodbye, Jang Bogo! (Credit:NASA/Christine Dow)

Nansen Ice Shelf, Antarctica 2015: First Data Collection Day

December 14th, 2015 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

The big day had arrived. We were due to fly to our tiltmeters to collect the data that they had been gathering for two weeks. once this was the first time we had ever set these instruments up in the field, all fingers were crossed that we had been precise enough in initially leveling the meters so the data were in range and also that the solar panels hadn’t ended up covered in snow.

We had a spectacular flight, cutting over the end of Priestley Glacier and skirting helicopter-sized crevasses on the mountain behind our field site. Despite a bit of wind on the Nansen ice shelf, it was as calm on the Comein Glacier as it has always been for our visits. It’s such a peaceful, sheltered spot that I feel a holiday cottage wouldn’t be amiss. Perhaps too long of a commute for an average Friday afternoon, however.

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

One of the tiltmeters (which are in black boxes) had become exposed and, because black materials absorb heat whereas white materials reflect it, had caused a bit of local melt which had trickled down the side of the box and refrozen. The upshot of this was that the entire box, battery, and straps were encased in some pretty solid ice. Fun! Commence some delicate hacking with ice axes so that we didn’t snap the wires coming out of the box. Finally having reached the interior, we nervously extracted the SD card and Ryan pulled the data off onto the computer. Success! Some excellent (and exciting) looking data showing tidal cycles. Tiltmeter two was easier because it hadn’t caused local melt of the snow so we could quickly retrieve the data. Again, some very interesting outputs. We want to thank John Leeman, an engineer from Penn State, for building us some happily working tiltmeters. Of course having disturbed the tiltmeters I had to reset them back to full level, which required sitting for 10 minutes enjoying the view while very delicately adjusting the little leveling legs.

We had just enough time to collect data from one of the GPS closest to the tiltmeters. All looked well apart from our tethers, which had come loose because of melt on the surface. We had one bamboo tether and one metal peg. The metal had heated up and melted a groove in the ice as it was pulled along, whereas the bamboo had stayed where it was supposed to. We tightened the wire as much as possible but we would have to return to this site with some more bamboo later.

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Dinner back at base was a happy affair, having achieved success for at least three of seven of our instruments. The chefs had even made some pizza for us, which was a nice treat. The only unfortunate aspect of the day was that I had forgotten that in areas with 24 hour sunshine and highly reflective snow surfaces it is essential to put sunscreen up your nose as well as on it. Burnt nostrils are not fun, but they’re worth it for some nice data.

Nansen Ice Shelf, Antarctica 2015: Equipment check-in and Drygalski adventure

December 8th, 2015 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

The Nansen Ice Shelf, where we have installed our GPS, is notoriously windy. This is clear from the blue ice on the surface and complete lack of snow, which gets rapidly swept away by katabatic winds (winds driven down from the glacier towards the sea by differences in pressure induced by the cold glacier air). This means that wandering around while setting up the GPS requires spikes for your shoes or else it would be like slipping around on a scalloped ice rink. To prevent the equipment from coming loose and blowing down the ice shelf into the sea, we have a set-up where wire tethers hook our solar panel and GPS box into the ice. However, it’s always encouraging to check that the systems are holding up to the elements, so we took advantage of a helicopter flight heading in that direction to check on the field equipment. It was all still there, happily recording data.

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Luckily for myself and Ryan, the flight we were on was heading to the Drygalski Ice Tongue. This is a strange feature that can even be seen when looking at maps of the whole of East Antarctica. It is a floating 12 mile-wide section of ice from David glacier that sticks out 50 miles into the ocean and impacts sea ice freezing and water circulation in the bay behind it. Our approach to the ice tongue was spectacular as it headed off into the distance. At the side of the tongue, steep ice cliffs dropped into the ocean with the interaction between subsurface ice and the ocean water creating the most amazing shade of blue. We could spot groups of Adélie penguins on the remaining sections of sea ice next to the Nansen ice shelf and the Drygalski Ice Tongue.

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

The most exciting moment was when our sharp-eyed pilot, Dom, spotted some whale spouts. We swung back around and saw four whales swimming around and breaching at the ice margin. They were Arnoux beaked whales, as we later identified, and looked nothing like any whale I have seen before – a little like very large dolphins with long pointed noses. These whales can dive for up to an hour so likely were just having a breather before heading under the ice. This was perhaps my favorite moment of the trip so far.

On the ice tongue we landed to check and download data from GPS stations that our Korean colleagues had installed several years before. We had a great view back across the bay towards Jang Bogo with Mt. Melbourne in the background. The second GPS site was fairly close to the front margin of the ice tongue and so Ryan and I had a geeky moment getting excited about being at the edge of one of the most bizarre ice features in the Antarctic.

It was a great day overall. All our stations were still standing, we saw wildlife, lots of ice and we were even back in time for a noodles and kimchi dinner.

Nansen Ice Shelf, Antarctica 2015: Life at Jang Bogo

December 3rd, 2015 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Christine Dow

Jang_Bogo

Day to day life at the base station is varied primarily by timing of our field expeditions. We’ve had some very busy days getting equipment ready, deploying and checking our gear. In between, however, we are essentially operating as we would do at the office. We have set up base in the ‘Extreme Geophysics Group’ laboratory joining seven Korean scientists. Work tends to happen six days a week, with Sunday as a break (and no 7 am wake-up music!). Also on Sundays there are sometimes mini-expeditions. For example, a group of us walked a couple of miles over to Gondwana, the German base, which is semi-inhabited (two people are there at the moment keeping things ticking over). We were hoping for some “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake) but couldn’t find anyone around. Instead we looked at rocks ejected from the nearby volcanic Mt. Melbourne, found some lichen and watched the many skuas (seabirds) flying around. We also ventured down onto the sea ice and found a nice ice slide which entertained us for a while (who said scientists couldn’t be silly).

Seal1

Last Sunday, Ryan and I joined a short expedition over to Mario Zucchelli, the Italian base. Recently a crack, or lead, has opened up in the sea ice so it’s no longer safe to drive the heavy Piston Bully tractors over. As an alternative, the Koreans and Italians both drove up to the crack and we exchanged passengers by hopping over the gap (it’s not really that big). There were some nearby Weddell seals hanging out near the open water, which we got a good look at. You have to be careful not to get distracted and wander into one of the seal holes which are just a bit darker than the surrounding ice – that would be a chilly surprise!

 

Mario_Zuchelli
The Italian base was built 31 years ago so looks a bit more worn in than Jang Bogo but is very cosy inside. We were given a tour and fed some excellent espresso and gelato. It was really interesting to see the differences between the two bases and even the landscape. Despite being only 6 miles (10 km) apart, the rocks around Mario Zucchelli look much more weathered and eroded compared to much rougher terrain at Jang Bogo, perhaps due to the closer proximity of the volcano to the South Korean station.

LifeatJB3

At Jang Bogo, another big difference is the food and is the subject of much conversation with the Western scientists. There has been a large range of foods produced which keeps things interesting. A lot of it is a surprise since we can’t read the Korean menu, although being able to cope with spicy food is definitely an advantage (Ryan is better with this than I am). By far the best meal was Korean BBQ evening where we cooked meat and prawns on a hotplate right on the table and had a brilliant array of salad leaves (grown in house) and sundries to eat with the meat. What a meal!

Notes from the Field