Posts Tagged ‘Pine Island Glacier’

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Pine Island Glacier 2011: Slow Progress

December 16th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 12 December — Well, nearly a week has whizzed by. We have been quite busy, but it doesn’t feel like there’s been much real progress. Every day seems to come with its own set of new problems and developments. This includes cargo hunting (yes, it was still going on until recently—but it’s DONE now), remembering some item or tool that would probably prove useful (then finding it and getting it) or thinking of some small thing to build and then getting the carpenters or machinists to understand what we want, (then waiting for the item, packing it and getting it into the cargo system.)

Tying up these loose ends didn’t add much weight to our overall cargo load, but we knew we were going to be heavier than we had planned for because there were some heavy items that failed to make it on flights to Byrd Station, where the over snow traverse was going to be taking them to the main camp at Pine Island. These problems originated way back in early September: Early season weather in West Antarctica was worse than usual, which meant fewer flights to Byrd and less of our cargo getting there when the traverse needed to start. Without sufficient cargo, the traverse managers held their departure back a few days. When they tried to start, one of the large tractors failed, leaving them with only three. This actually worked out better, since there was less cargo to pull. Now we hear that the traverse is encountering soft snow, slowing its progress even more. The image below is a map of the traverse’s progress through last night. It’s averaging less than 4.5 miles per hour and under 60 miles per day: At this rate, it will be another five days before it arrives at PIG.

It’s a polar tortoise and hare race. The traverse is undoubtedly the tortoise, but the hare is having its own difficulties. Flights to PIG take “only” 5 hours (one-way) and were scheduled every day since Wednesday last week (except Sunday). Each one of them was cancelled because of bad weather at one or more of the required landing spots: McMurdo, Byrd or PIG. Good weather at Byrd is necessary to refuel the plane on its way home. Today’s weather looked the best of all days and, unlike last week’s flights, the plane actually took off from McMurdo. But two hours into the 5-hour flight, the weather went bad at Byrd. WAIS is another nearby station that could refuel the aircraft, but weather also went bad in there not long after. So the plane was ordered back to McMurdo before it was so far away and had so little fuel that it would get stuck somewhere out in the middle of West Antarctica.

It’s anybody’s guess who will get to PIG first: the traverse or the put-in flight. The traverse is more important, because it has the heavy equipment to dig out all the camp material left there at the end of last season (a small camp was set up then), groom the runway used last season (if the flags marking it can be found, that is) and tap into the all-important fuel bladder. Getting to that fuel is key because with it the LC-130 cargo planes (called “Hercules” or “Hercs”, for short) can get enough fuel to get back to McMurdo without having to stop at Byrd or WAIS. This will make missions to PIG less susceptible to weather cancellations.

Our cargo handling is done. But, as I mentioned, since now we have to fly some items that didn’t get to Byrd by the traverse’s departure, our stuff weighs more than planned. Whether that requires another flight will not be decided until we hear if the groomed runway at PIG can handle heavier landing weights. It’s all connected: cargo, tractors, fuel, airplanes and weather. Meanwhile, we will make our case for moving our necessary science cargo up in the queue, so we don’t suffer more delays.

It’s not all bad news. These past few days have contained some bright spots. Our project has received a lot of attention. A Blue Ribbon Panel, here last week to assess the effectiveness of the US Antarctic Program, really likes the social relevance of our mission and its interdisciplinary character. I gave a science lecture on PIG to a packed audience and got superb reviews. Many people here have touched the project in one way or another and I wanted them to understand what it was about and why we have to go to someplace that is so hard to get to. I also was singled out to prepare a poster and speak to the Prime Minister of Norway, who is flying to the South Pole to mark the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s trip.

Attention is great; more progress would be even better!

Pine Island Glacier 2011: Packing for Christmas

December 15th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 6 December — Stuff, stuff and more stuff. When you have to take everything with you to a remote place, you end up with a lot of stuff. When you add to that the equipment necessary to make the measurements we intend, the pile of stuff gets even bigger. That’s what we’ve been doing that past few days: piling up stuff.

Our pile of stuff.

I mentioned before that many items we sent down to Antarctica were found in various locations around town. Finding each item was followed by getting the right label for it (with a unique tracking number), so once the label was attached, it could be moved to a common location. That is where our pile of stuff is now. After talking to the right cargo people here, looking at their documents and comparing their lists with ours, we are pretty sure that the stuff we can’t find in McMurdo took an early 1,000-mile flight to Byrd Station, where a glorified polar tractor will drag it on a sled for the remaining 400 miles from Byrd Station to the PIG Main Camp. This is not an exciting trip; the traverse participants lumber along at about 5 miles an hour and it takes them 7 mind-numbing days to complete the trip. They then will leave their loads, turn around and repeat the journey back to Byrd. What is exciting about this traverse for us is that with yesterday’s successful flight to Byrd, the traverse party has enough material to get underway. So the project is finally taking the next step toward PIG—at 5 miles per hour!

Meanwhile, back in McMurdo, our task is to pull together the variety of other stuff we will need at our camp. Our cook, Jake, is handling all the cooking and eating stuff. We are checking tents, sleeping bags, radios, satellite phones, GPSs, shovels, ice screws, safety harnesses, ice axes, snowmobiles, generators, battery chargers, chainsaws,… The list is pretty long and detailed. McMurdo is well stocked with these types of items because many different field parties draw on this inventory. Those hearty souls that spend the entire winter at McMurdo do an excellent job of cleaning and repairing and preparing this equipment for summer field parties. We take our portion, pack it, weigh it, document it, label it and add it to our pile of stuff.

The next, and bigger step toward PIG may come tomorrow. The put-in flight is scheduled for a morning departure. It takes over 5 hours to fly there on a LC-130 (the “L” means it is a modified C-130 cargo plane—the modification is the inclusion of skis that straddle the regular wheels). The forecast is not good—40-knot winds now, increasing through the night. However, after that storm passes, the winds are expected to die down and we could have a day (or two? Please make it two!) of clear, calm weather there. Only five people are going to be getting off the plane if it makes it in. They will set up communications, erect a small communal tent and start the process of digging out the camp material left there at the end of last field season. It’s their stuff.

P.S.  You can view the PIG Main Camp site through daily photos taken by two web cams we set up last year.

Pine Island Glacier 2011: The Alternate Reality

December 14th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 3 December McMurdo is one of those unique places on the planet where things are so different from anywhere else that it feels like an alternate reality. Perhaps the spookiest part of this uniqueness is that, regardless of how long I have been away (in this case, two years), once the transport from the ice runway rolls into town I get this creepy feeling that I never really left. I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels this way because one of the dorms is nicknamed Hotel California (as the 1977 Eagles’ song goes: “you can check out, but you can never leave”).

McMurdo (or “MacTown” to locals) is best described as a frontier town. It’s built for purpose, not beauty. Heating pipes and power lines take the shortest routes. People are left to find their own shortcuts between buildings. It has been cleaned up a lot since the days when the Navy ran the town, but there’s only so much you can do when the ground is all volcanic cinders and the snow is nearly gone. Add warmer temperatures (it’s been just above freezing for the past few days) and there are little creeks running everywhere. It’s just not very pretty, but it’s not meant to be.

MacTown is where we organize our cargo. Some was shipped from the States and arrived days to weeks ago. Other items, like most of our camping gear (sleeping bags and tents), we are issued here and have to pack ourselves. This year it’s slightly different for me because PIG is a big project. Most people in town have heard about it and many are working on some aspect of it. I’m giving a town-wide lecture later next week.

PIG is on the Antarctic coast, 1,400 miles from McMurdo and notorious for heavy overcast, high winds and above average snowfall. For those of you geographically inclined, 75 degrees South latitude and 100 degrees West longitude brings you very close to the precise spot of our planned drilling camp. The bad weather led the logistics planners to deliver most of the equipment for the support camp being built near the ice shelf via an overland traverse. Finding the route and proving its safety were tasks accomplished in previous seasons. It’s being used this season to deliver additional supplies and helicopter fuel. The traverse was also supposed to deliver the parts of our equipment that could survive the bashing and crashing inherent to ice sheet traverses.

The first problem we encountered once we got our bearings in McMurdo was that much of our equipment we shipped down intended for the traverse was still here scattered throughout the town. The second problem was that the traverse had not departed yet—but it was leaving from Byrd station, quite a long way from McMurdo, so no new equipment could be added to the load. The third problem was that some of our equipment was unaccounted for (i.e., neither in McMurdo nor at Byrd). And the fourth problem was that the initial crew that was supposed to be flying to the helo camp location was still cooling their heels in MacTown. Welcome to McMurdo!

So for us, the primary task the last couple of days has been making sense of this apparent chaos. It has taken a lot of effort to unravel the whereabouts of each piece of gear, but we are pretty close to being there. Of course, what comes from this is a much-revised plan and timetable for getting everything and everybody necessary out to PIG. It’ll work if the weather cooperates. We are already a week behind schedule.

Pine Island Glacier 2011: Moving On South

December 13th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

1 December I write this on the flight from Christchurch, New Zealand to The Ice. We are on an Air Force C-17, a monstrously large aircraft for transporting monstrously large amounts of cargo. In the old days, scientists and contractors traveling to the ice were treated much the same as cargo, but I’m pleased to have benefited in recent expeditions from the Air Force’s revelation that we are not quite the same. We used to be packed cheek to jowl in two rows of facing web seats, which forced us to literally rub elbows with our two neighbors and interleave knees with the people we faced across a nonexistent aisle. Most uncomfortable! Today I can stretch out my legs fully and not quite touch the pallet of cargo occupying the center of the aircraft. And there is more elbowroom between my neighbors than in economy class seats on most commercial airlines. The seats still can’t be described as anything approaching soft, but for those of us who know the past, there are no complaints.

We were processed early this morning in a manner very familiar to most modern air travelers—with a few twists. By 6:30 A.M. we arrived at the processing center, where we tried on and exchanged our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear yesterday. We changed out of street clothes into the required ECW outfit (thermal underwear, bibbed overalls fleece jacket, red parka and polar boots). Regular luggage carts are used to push our many bags of remaining ECW and personal items 30 yards to the adjacent room where everything is weighed (even us) and our checked bags are turned over to the cargo handlers. Our passports are examined; we’re given a boarding pass and told to wait in the lounge with just our hand-carry bag. And yes, there is a box into which our hand-carry must fit. Some venture out to get a breakfast at the Antarctic International Centre just across the green. We are asked to watch a 20-minute video introducing us to what we will encounter when arriving in McMurdo Station. It’s not an Oscar-winning production, but I suppose it helps the newcomers.

A view of the waiting area.

From there we line up and have our hand-carry bags scanned, laptops and other metal items removed for closer inspection while we do the all-too-familiar metal detector shuffle. Outside, a bus awaits and everyone must lumber onto it, pushing their way down the too-narrow center aisle and flopping down onto a bench seat. It is not easy: your bag is heavy, your boots are multiple sizes too big for dexterous ambulation, and you are trying to tame your massive parka under your arm, but all it wants to do is snag everything you pass! Apologies abound. Oh, and have I mentioned that the sun is now up and the temperature is climbing? It is getting warm inside the bus. Inside your clothes, it’s even warmer.

You have made a move so it is now time to wait—again. Waiting always seems to be required. Trying to get comfortable is not easy, moving is not easy, removing clothing is impossible. Stay still. The bus moves—hooray! The driver negotiates a couple of security gates and rolls onto the tarmac, stopping reasonably close to your next objective—the airplane stairs. But to reach this goal, you must first reverse the process suffered to get on the bus. I wish for a gently sloped jetway bridge, but know this is an unrequited dream—instead, I get an alpine traveling with lots of ups and down. Safely descending the bus stairs is harder than going up. This group is good; no one falls. But before you reach the airplane stairs, you have to figure out how to pick up the offerings of a water bottle and a bagged lunch. A third (or even fourth) hand would be welcome, but you manage and in this heavily overloaded state you must high-step your way onto the plane. Once inside, you are met with a stark reminder that this is how most cargo, as well as you, gets to Antarctica, and this is shared accommodation. There is enough room to stow your parka—now it comes in handy because it makes a hard seat acceptably softer—and you settle in while others find their own solution of where to sit and put their bags. The next safety briefing is nearly word-for-word identical to the one on commercial airliners, with additional instructions on the use of an over-the-head oxygen hood in case of emergencies.

The inside of the C-17 with passengers in various stages of suspended animation.

Once airborne and at cruising altitude, people start milling about, careful to stay off the cargo, as well as read, sleep and converse (although the engines are rather loud and everyone is wearing earplugs). The only windows are very small portholes positioned more to inspect the engines and wings than to offer scenic views. Lots of laptops are out. Some people hit their lunch early. Others wait until hunger arrives.

The flight will take just over 5 hours. Our world is about to change.

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”.