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Pine Island Glacier 2011: Epilogue

January 18th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

Christchurch (New Zealand), 18 January — This will be my last entry in this season’s blog. I had hoped to tell a different tale the past two monthsone of successful science being done in a harsh, remote place by hardy individuals dedicated to getting information that had direct relevance to your lives and the lives of others you know and will never know. But the field season unfolded in a vastly different way. I have prepared an outbrief for the National Science Foundation that speaks to the good and the bad, what went right and what went wrong, and how to use what was learned this season to improve our chances for success next season. That document is the official record and won’t be shared here, yet it contains no surprises from what you have read.

For this blog, I want to be more reflective and to emphasize those more personal aspects of Antarctic field work. It takes a lot of people working together to undertake a project as ambitious and as challenging as this one. This season, a lot of us involved in various aspects of this enterprise came together and grew to know each other a lot better. We did not always see things the same way, but I think just about everyone came away with a greater appreciation for what the project is all about and what talents each player has contributed to the greater enterprise. This was most apparent at PIG Main Camp where the great distance from McMurdo provided a clarity of purpose that often gets muddled in McMurdo. Following our limited success in the final days, I was impressed with how the Main Camp staff shared their congratulations with us. That success made their efforts at camp worthwhile. Our assistance in many of their camp chores showed them that we appreciated their efforts. That is the magic of a deep field camp. Even the Twin Otter pilots, who only dropped in for two days, felt good because we accomplished some objectives together.

I regret that the helicopters never came. I have little doubt the same camp magic would have occurred there, too. I question whether managers of the individual U.S. Antarctic Program components, who spend no time in the deep field, really understand how the deep field camps actually operate. There is a bonding motivated by the Antarctic environment that is much stronger in the deep field than in the more “civilized” McMurdo. Even large, multi-project camps can sometimes be absent of this mystic, but PIG is not of that ilk. You do not resent the person who has helped you set your tent, who you have helped shovel out a fuel bladder, who has watched you to make sure your nose is not frostbitten, and whose sled you have helped pull. The shared experiences bring people together and make for one. Every one of the camp staff expressed their hope to be chosen to come back next season.

As will we. We will succeed. Despite the limited scientific accomplishments this season, we are better positioned (with all the camp material, most of the scientific equipment and scads of fuel already at PIG Main Camp to spend the frigid winter) and logistically wiser to design a better field effort for 2012-13. We have to—it will be our last chance for this project.  We’ll use satellite imagery to give us an early look next October. In November, Twin Otters will be used to assess the surface character of the ice shelf and to deliver a skeleton crew allowing us access to the wintered cargo, the fuel and to start on-site weather observations. By December, before the main camp even gets set up, the drilling team will arrive and will be transferred to the ice shelf with the drilling equipment by those same Twin Otters. Building the Main Camp and transferring the helos out will come later, much later if need be. Fewer Herc flights, earlier traverses and more Twin Otter time is a much more palatable recipe.

It saddens me to think that even today we should be working out of PIG Main Camp, making day trips to collect radar and seismic information on the shape of the ocean cavity beneath the ice shelf. Instead, our field team has disbanded. We flew to Christchurch together on Monday, but now we are scattering across the globe on various commercial airline flights. I’ve received word that the second traverse has arrived at PIG and this week there should be the final two flights pulling out the camp staff after they have put all the wintering cargo up on high snow berms. A recent satellite image taken last week shows the camp and the AWS webcam is still keeping watch from the ground. It looks like another beautiful day there.

I’m not exactly sure how to end this blog. I hoped you’ve enjoyed the story. I suppose I could just say that we now reenter the planning phase. There is yet more pressure on us now because we have one more shot to get it right. I think we will, but as always, the big unknown is what Antarctica has in store for us next time.

Pine Island Glacier 2011: Done in a Flash

January 12th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 12 January — The optimists following this blog would have likely assumed that the absence of new postings this past week meant that we were finally in the field and that the work was finally underway. Those optimists would be half-right; we were at the PIG Main Camp this past week, but the work was not getting done. There is so much that transpired since my last blog post concerning the possible flight deploying us to PIG Main Camp that to avoid a very long story, I will start with the ending and fill in the middle bits as time permits in subsequent entries, ending with an epilogue.

The helicopters never arrived, we were hammered by strong winds, a small subset of us installed some scientific equipment by Twin Otter to monitor the ice shelf, and we were ordered home much, much too early. The flight from McMurdo to Christchurch, NZ leaves early tomorrow morning. I’m manifested on it, have dragged by bags and had them taken from me, but because of some medivacs expected to be on the plane (burn victims from a Korean fishing vessel nearby), some of us may get bumped off the flight. I’ve been in McMurdo less than 24 hours. We arrived by taking a Twin Otter from PIG to Byrd Station yesterday, then waiting two hours and catching a Herc back to McMurdo. Jeez, connections like that just don’t happen in Antarctica (it was not planned).

The Twin Otters were at PIG because I practically begged NSF to provide me with some resources to execute at least part of our science program. A decision had been made by NSF the day we left McMurdo that if the helos were not able to be flown to PIG by Saturday, January 7, this year’s field work would be cancelled. I was never told this directly by NSF (I’m still frosted about that), and the messenger couldn’t find me, so he told others in my group (also not the best approach—McMurdo isn’t that big that anyone can’t be found—and it was known when I would be heading for the skiway).

So we actually did make it to PIG Main Camp on an early flight Tuesday, January 3. The weather there was beautiful—a slight breeze and brilliant sunshine. The camp workers provided a very nice reception; they were happy to have some working scientists on hand. The carpenters and camp staff had done an excellent job putting a camp together quickly and were still working on the last couple of buildings. The skiway was wonderful, allowing us to glide smoothly to a graceful stop just by the fuel pit. The combination of staff, carps and scientists added to a camp population of 35—too much for the small galley to accommodate at one time, so we planned to eat in shifts. We were given a quick orientation of the do’s and don’ts, the where’s and the who’s. Then we hustled off to set up tents, while the good weather held.

The weather continued to hold for another day, but the helos didn’t come. The weather forecasts were dismal at both McMurdo and PIG, but in actuality, the weather remained good at both places. This was frustrating, especially when the weather the next day started to deteriorate. We worked through our cargo—some had not been seen for two years when we tested our equipment at Windless Bight—preparing for either helos or the Twin Otter to start moving us onto the ice shelf. Neither came. Weather worsened. And we were into our first storm warning. Camp prepared by putting many more flags out to help people find their way from the tent area to the stronger buildings. Most chose to ride out the storm in their tents. I built a pretty high snow wall. It was a noisy night with winds gusting to well over 40 knots, but no one had any hair-raising experiences. Lots of drifts built up and a few folks had to shovel them down once or twice during the night.

Better weather usually follows a storm like this, but it didn’t lead to any flights coming our way. When Friday arrived, the great powers that control everything in the US Antarctic Program notified me that they had to talk to me. The message was a reminder of the “drop-dead” date.

(Here, I’m going to have to stop temporarily. My flight to Christchurch is scheduled to arrive very early tomorrow and I need to be prepared for it. I’ll pick up the story in my next entryshouldn’t be too long a wait.)

Pine Island Glacier 2011: What A Drag

January 5th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 30 December — This post may read a little rushed because, well, I’m rushing today. The stakeholders meeting Wednesday afternoon resulted in an accelerated timeline and we have been “hot-footing” it ever since.

The “drag” in the title is for bag drag. It is a good thing. It means you are being checked-in, weighed and being given a boarding pass (yup, they use them here, too). It means you are about to go someplace other than the mess hall (for yet another meal). It means you have had to clean out your room (can you believe they have inspections to make sure you are not leaving your bad habits behind?) For us, it means we are going to PIG tomorrow.

This morning I called a meeting of our team to discuss what will happen once we get to PIG Main Camp and what will the sequence of cargo and people be once we start moving over to the Drill Camp. It was our last chance to meet in a comfortable format, all seated around the same table. Things will change radically tomorrow. The camp already has 19 people in it; 23 after the four new arrivals on today’s flight (#4). These are split roughly equally between camp staff and carpenters. We ten will drive the total to a bulging 33. There are two tents up. We will likely have to eat in two or three shifts.

Our work there will focus on finding our traversed cargo, combining it with what will be flown out with us tomorrow, and organizing the total into time-sequenced loads destined for the ice shelf. Monday (or more likely the next good-weather day), we are supposed to receive a Twin Otter from Byrd camp that will begin to move people and cargo to the Drill Camp. We will start with a few people, survival gear and shelter. The Otter will help us again the next day (we hope it will stay overnight, but its orders are not to get stuck at PIG) to continue to move to the Drill Camp. Ultimately we have over 30,000 pounds of stuff to move, so we will not be able to complete the move these two days.

Also on Monday, there will be two Herc flights to PIG (that’s right, TWO), each carrying a partially disassembled helicopter. Once they are reassembled (a two-day task), they will continue to move our stuff (we’re saving some of the most heavy and awkward pieces for them). I hope we can finish this off in one more day, but I’m fearful it will take two more, so it is very likely this moving will be interrupted by bad weather. Thus, we are trying to be careful to ensure that the right people are at the right place with the right pieces to be able to be productive even if the weather is not conducive to helo flying. Yet another puzzle. There have been many and it is the nature of field work.

This next phase will be a bit of a scramble. If we do it right, everyone will be pretty busy and we will be making progress all the time. That scrambling may make future blog entries more difficult. I am in the advance party going to the Drill Camp. Until the dust settles there with most of us arriving and the critical first tasks out of the way, there won’t be any posts, not even short ones, from me coming out from PIG. Again, it is just the nature of the work.

Pine Island Glacier 2011: Coming Together

December 12th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

Christchurch (New Zealand), 29 November — I realized as the moment approached to get in the car and head for the airport that I have been mentally drifting south over the past couple of days. Going over the list of what to pack, then packing, and then mentally running through what I packed, caused me to try to envision every situation I might encounter (at Pine Island, McMurdo Station and even in New Zealand) and what I wanted to be sure to have. “Where’s my ear sweater?” “I need to find my down booties.” Those were the kind of thoughts going through my head. Personal comfort is a big deal in Antarctica—although you can’t take everything with you, when the weather gets nasty you want to have the right stuff.

These same scenes are being played out in other locations; every member of our team is experiencing something very similar as they pack their bags and run through their own list of possible upcoming situations in their minds. Successful Antarctic field work is very much about accurately anticipating what is likely to happen so you are prepared beforehand. When you forget a tool, help is usually very far away and can’t be counted on. You learn to make do with what you have.

Picture of the PIG project members taken in November 2009 following successful drilling test program at Windless Bight, near McMurdo Station. From left to right: Bob Bindschadler, Jim Stockel, Martin Truffer, Tim Stanton, Dale Pomraning, Alberto Behar.

Everyone on the team understands this and is preparing accordingly. When our proposal was first submitted, I called them the Dream Team. Some reviewers were offended by the term, but it’s a good way to express the fact that we have the best Antarctic geophysicist, the best engineer of polar oceanographic instrumentation, the best ocean-ice boundary layer oceanographer, the best developer of ice borehole instrumentation and the best lightweight hot water drillers on the planet. Our collective years of polar field experience are measured not in months or years, but decades. I’m extremely proud of the team we have and am confident that if we can’t do this job, this job can’t be done.

Tomorrow, most of us will meet again for the beginning of two months together. We have flown to Christchurch, New Zealand from places scattered across the US: Alaska, California, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Maryland. We come here to receive our cold-weather clothing the National Science Foundation provides us. We try it on for size, change whatever doesn’t fit, return what we don’t want and request special items of personal preference. Each kit will be different in hidden details of shirts, vests, and even underwear, but in the end we all will probably have the same black ski pants/red parka exterior that scientists in the US Antarctic program take on. Good clothing is important—it’s what keeps you warm. You pay attention to what you are given and what you take with you to “The Ice”.

Pine Island Glacier 2011: It’s Showtime!

December 9th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

Greenbelt (MD), 23 November — After years of waiting, our time has finally come. The years have not been empty. There have been hundreds of e-mails, scores of telephone conferences and a handful of face-to-face meetings to iron out the mountain of details required to support more than a dozen scientists’ intent of unlocking critical mysteries within the light-less, frigid void beneath a thick floating plate of ice in one of the most remote regions on earth: the Pine Island Glacier.

Map showing the location of Pine Island Glacier, which is almost 1,400 miles (2,200 kilometers) away from McMurdo Station.

What causes my team of scientific experts and me to focus on this seemingly innocuous location is a silent change that is unfolding and already affecting millions of people in their everyday existence, quietly threatening billions more. Ice sheets, those vast continental-sized slabs of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, are shrinking. The ice they are shedding is raising sea level across the globe. This is bad news. The good news is that the rise is gradual. My job is to understand the processes that cause ice sheets to shrink so that credible projections can be shared with policy makers and planners. If we get this right, societies will have the chance to adjust to rising sea level in a deliberate manner and minimize the human and economic impacts.

We are heading to a particularly remote corner of the planet, expecting to be greeted with bone-chilling temperatures, violent winds and dangerous crevasses (deep cracks in the ice) because this is where satellite data tells us that the Antarctic ice sheet is losing ice most rapidly. The Pine Island Glacier (called PIG, for short, from here on,) has nearly doubled it speed in the past 15 years and is thinning at rates of nearly 10 meters (30 feet) per year. It alone is responsible for 7 percent of the total global rate of sea level rise. The pattern of change satellites have captured shows that the changes are greatest at the coast and decrease inland. That means the trigger for these changes is located at the coast where the ice meets the ocean. PIG is 1200 meters (4000 feet) deep at the coast where it plows into the ocean forming a thick floating ice shelf. As the glacier forces its way into the frigid waters, the ocean resists its icy intrusion. The ice shelf can be thought of as a plug that limits the rate at which the PIG can drain the ice sheet. The little Dutch boy’s thumb inserted into the dike to hold back the sea is a particularly apt metaphor, in this case.

The problem is that the ocean is melting the underside of this PIG ice shelf, making it thinner and allowing the PIG to flow faster. This is what we’ve come to study. This is where the key to ice sheet stability and future sea level will be revealed. Damn the wind, damn the cold, damn the crevasses—we are on a mission and we will get our answers. This is the level of drive and determination that is required to do the work we have given ourselves.

In future blog posts, we’ll write about who we are, what we plan to do and, inevitably, how our initial plan changes as we wrestle with Mother Nature. For now I hope this captures your interest and sets the stage. I have had the luxury this year (this will be my sixteenth Antarctic expedition I’ve led) of enjoying Thanksgiving with my family, but already my mind is turning southward and my packing occupies a large corner of my bedroom. Yesterday was my last day in the office and I couldn’t leave with the others who were thinking most about tomorrow’s Thanksgiving pleasures until I felt all the unfinished work I left behind could withstand a two-month hiatus. It felt strange to close the office door that final time, but once I imagined the house lights being turned down on all the other work, I could feel the glare of the stage lights being cranked up to their full brightness on this field expedition. It’s showtime! The waiting and planning are over and this adventure is about to begin.

Learn more about the Pine Island Glacier expedition on the project’s website, or by reading this NASA web feature.