December 22nd, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Lora Koenig
Byrd Station (Antarctica), 11 December — We all got up at 5 AM this morning. I had gone to bed at 2 am because I had been backing up all of the radar data, which took much longer than anticipated. The traverse team went to bed early to be rested for the day.
It was a beautiful morning: warm, no wind, with thin, low, overcast clouds. The sleds were loaded and ready to go, already hooked on to the snowmobiles. Ludo was the first to the sleds and he started the generator, which powers heating pads that are used to warm the radars after being cold soaked all night. After about 15 minutes of warming, the radars can be started. During this time, the GPS is also turned on so it can obtain lock with the satellites and provide accurate positions.
I took the snowmobile covers off and helped Michelle load the final sleep kits on the sleds. The sleep kits are the last things to be loaded and contain a sleeping bag, sleeping bag liner, insolite pad, thermorest, pillow (if you want one, though most of us prefer to just use big red as a pillow), and a pee bottle so you don’t have to leave the tent in the middle of a cold night or storm. All of this is stuffed into a duffle bag and goes with you everywhere inAntarctica.
Once the generator was started, the team headed into the galley for a quick breakfast. Most of the camp was still asleep because Sunday is their day off; however, Kaija and Tony, the camp manager and assistant manager, came up to see the team off. After breakfast, the radars were turned on and the snowmobiles started. We took some final pictures and I tried to shoot some video but the small video camera we brought along is not operating well in the cold. The feeling of both excitement and nervousness was in the air. Excitement for finally getting to the traverse portion of the science and nervousness because the team is headed out into the remoteness ofAntarcticaalone. They will no longer have the security of an established camp and will have to rely on each other for everything. The team is strong and I know they will do well. During the traverse they will most certainly cover ground that no human has ever walked on before.
At 6:41 AM, Michelle led the team out of Byrd Camp. She pulled a Siglin sled and a Nansen sled with food, the Scott tent, an HF radio for emergency communication, the radar spare parts, the sleep kits and personal gear. Michelle rides one of the two snowmobiles with mirrors so she can easily watch the team. Jessica followed pulling 2 Siglin sleds with food, the ice core drill and two ice core boxes. Randy was third in line with two Siglin sleds with even more food, the mountain tents, emergency bag, and all of the fuel. Ludo pulled the final snowmobile out and into line pulling the radar sled with Clem on the sled operating the radar. We all screamed and waved as they pulled away.
I continued to watch as they moved further towards the horizon. They became smaller and smaller dots on the horizon above tent city as they moved away from camp. At 7:12 AM their dots blurred into the horizon. The traverse had begun.
They will travel 95 km (59 mi) today, their longest stretch of the entire traverse, to the first camp site. They are moving toward higher snow accumulation and towards WAIS Divide field camp. When they reach the site tonight, they will be95 km(59 mi) from Byrd and85 km(52.8 mi) from WAIS Divide, so if they have any problems they will head to WAIS Divide, not Byrd.
I am feeling very lonely sitting in Byrd camp without the team, but there is still important work to do. Remember, the team still does not have their fuel caches. The pilots are in camp, but today’s overcast weather, while great for traversing, is not adequate for flying: The clouds make it difficult to see the snow surface. The pilots call this surface definition. In order to do open field landings (landings not on a ski way), the pilots cannot have overcast clouds at any level. Now I am just waiting for the weather to clear so that the plane can cache the team’s fuel and ice core boxes. I am also waiting for an LC-130 to come into Byrd so I can get a ride back to McMurdo and then back to the U.S.
Today I will also check the base station GPS and give a science lecture about our traverse to the Byrd Camp residents.
Everyone at Byrd Camp has helped us so we can complete our science goals and it is much appreciated. Thank you, Byrd Camp! We especially enjoyed the wonderful food made by Chef Rob. The team’s send-off dinner was duck with a port sauce, chicken with polenta, pureed carrots, broccoli with hollandaise sauce, and Boston Cream and Lemon Meringue pie for dessert. Yummmmm!
Around 7 PM tonight I expect to get a satellite phone call from Michelle. From this point on, the blog will have less pictures for a while because we will only have voice communication with the team. It should take between 24 and 30 days to complete the traverse, including (bad) weather days. The team will communicate back to me at each camp site and I will update you on their progress. When they return, we will post more posts from them with pictures of the traverse.
The team is truly out in the wilderness. The only communication they have is through the sat phone, which will only be on for a few hours in the evening. They can call their families and their families can send 160 character text messages to the sat phone. The deep field ofAntarcticais a remote place.
Go team, go!!!!!! (The extra exclamation points are for Clem, who loves to use them.)
December 22nd, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Bob Bindschadler
McMurdo (Antarctica), 14 December — (Warning: this entry is not for the weak of heart.) Woe is me. A logistics scourge seems to have befallen our project. The past two days have been filled with nothing but bad news. The traverse from Byrd to PIG not only has continued to encounter soft snow, but the transmission on one tractor has failed, and a hydraulic line on another one has a leak that has stopped it literally in its tracks. Much of the cargo being hauled by the tractors is loaded on sheets of very slippery, but strong, plastic. Well, maybe not so strong, after all: This is the second season these sheets have been used and they are starting to crack and break, forcing the traverse party to stop, jigger the load around and then start up again. All this leaves me with the mental image of bits of the traverse littering the trail from Byrd to PIG. Still, the traverse people press onward, with fewer vehicles and less cargo. Their estimate is to arrive at PIG on Friday, but unless they cover more than the 20 miles they’ve completed each of the past two days, it will take yet longer.
The flying side is not going much better. Bad weather continues to plague both of the possible refueling stops so the put-in flight has been cancelled every morning. The weather is forecast to improve at those sites, both of them in the interior of West Antarctica, but (you guessed it) weather at PIG is deteriorating now. We in the field party marooned in McMurdo test our mental mettle by checking a couple of web sites that allow us to view the weather forecasts for the key stations involved in this effort, as well as David Holland’s web cam, which remains our lone virtual presence at PIG. It hurts to see sunny skies there and not be able to fly a plane there.
If this was a football game, the cargo managers would receive a penalty for “piling on”. Yesterday we had a meeting where we heard that our cargo was not the 9,000 pounds that we had planned, but rather 15,000 pounds, necessitating an additional flight to PIG (#9, if you are keeping count). We were only slightly surprised, because I saw this coming. In fact, I was the one who asked for the meeting so we could address any problem early. As I explained in my previous post, we’ve had to add a number of items to our cargo line due to less being taken by the traverse. Also, our colleague Sridhar Anandakrishnan was sent to his early season work site without the skidoos he was supposed to use there, so we have to bring them to PIG via another route. I felt it was time to push back on the size and design of the PIG Main Camp. I said we would lower the priority of some limited parts of our project, so they could arrive on this later flight, but I couldn’t shed all of the 6,000-pound extra cargo. I insisted on some sacrifices from the Main Camp. The head of construction there offered to consider downsizing some of the plumbing (!) and electrical components of the camp. Most others didn’t offer much. If the Herc pilots like the runway when they get to PIG, they might increase the allowed cargo limit (ACL) of subsequent flights, so this problem might go away, but this strikes me as wishful thinking. Nevertheless, I’ll be meeting with the head of the LC-130 squadron to discuss the benefits of even a 500-pound increase of the ACL. Exploring every possible way of getting us to PIG sooner is what my job here has become.
In that vein, I’ve come up with yet another strategy to recover some lost time. It involves having a Twin Otter airplane attempt a landing at our intended drill camp location on the ice shelf. This is a bit of déjà vu because three years ago I landed on the ice shelf in a Twin Otter only to be told the surface was too hard and rough for repeated landings. Some super high-resolution satellite imagery suggests to us the result might be different at this new site, so I want to try it again.
I’ve had to write to my program manager back in DC to ask that he supports this request. I made the case that, if successful, we could get the drill camp up and running before helos arrive and are operational at PIG Main Camp. We still have work to do that only the helicopters can support, but we are feeling the increased time pressure of time and splitting the support load would definitely help. It could also eliminate the need for any helicopters next season if we can complete the helo-only work this year and the drilling can be supported by Twin Otters. I delivered my sales pitch to the Twin Otter pilots after lunch today, and I’ll hear from NSF back in DC tomorrow.
On the bright side, I have plenty to restore a balanced perspective. Today is the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole. As everyone surely knows, Robert Falcon Scott and his field party reached the same spot a month later, but perished on the return journey. I am not about to set out to ski/man haul our cargo to PIG, nor I expect to suffer the extraordinary hardships of either Scott or Amundsen. Antarctic science nowadays is usually hard, often frustrating, but it is rarely life threatening. I’ll take that as some much needed good news.
December 21st, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Lora Koenig
Byrd Station (Antarctica), 10 December — The traverse team is preparing to leave and quite honestly, I am starting to get sad that I will not be going with them. We have all spent a lot of time together and we work well as a team, but I do have to get home. This will be my first time not collecting myself the field data that I need for my science, but the more I work with the team, the more certain I become that they will collect all the data necessary, if not more. Clem, Ludo, Jessica, Randy and Michelle are all excited to head out into the great white open.
Today, Clem and Ludo did a little science. They dragged the radar in a grid pattern around the ice core site from yesterday. This is important data because it tells us how representative the point where the ice core was drilled is of the larger area around it. When we compare ice core data to satellite data, we want to know if the larger area is homogeneous (similar) or not.
Randy made sure all the snowmobiles were ready and fueled to leave early in the morning. One of the choke leavers on a snowmobile broke off so he was working with the mechanic to get it fixed. Jessica looked at the electrical conductivity measurements from yesterday and took pictures of all of the log book pages to create a back up of the data. Michelle spent the day making sure all the gear was loaded well on the sled and that nothing was missing.
I spent most of the day watching the weather and talking with pilots. We cannot carry all of our gear on the sleds. A DC-3 Bassler aircraft is supposed to drop our fuel and ice core boxes and each camp site before the traverse. Due to the bad weather, the fuel cache has not yet been cached. So I have been talking with the pilots and rearranging the caches so the team can start out and not incur more delays. For now, the team will leave in the morning carrying two ice core boxes and one 55-gallon drum of fuel. This will allow them to get to the first camp site and drill. It will also give them enough fuel to get back to an established field camp if for some reason they don’t get any more fuel. They will not go to Camp 2 until they know the cache of fuel is there. Hopefully the cache will occur tomorrow or the next day so the traverse team will not be delayed.
Everyone will go to sleep early tonight. Because all of Antarctica operates on McMurdo time, the time of the day at Byrd does not match the daily temperature changes. The coldest part of the day, which would generally fall from 1 to 4 AM, is usually between 6 and 10 PM our time. The warmest time falls in the morning between 6 and 10 AM. Tomorrow the team will get up at 5 AM and leave around 6 AM to take advantage of the warmest part of the day. By 6 PM they hope to be cooking dinner and in their warm tents.
I can tell the team is ready to go because this morning they were complaining about how warm their tents were, a quick adjustment from the first cold night in the tents. Everyone also took advantage of the last day in camp to take a few pictures.
December 20th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Lora Koenig
Byrd Station (Antarctica), 9 December — Today was a huge day. First off we figured out the problem with the radars: One of the USB ports on the computer was not functioning properly. When we changed the USB port, the problem went away. I was relieved there was such a simple solution to the problem and so was Clem, who had had a rough night’s sleep worrying about the radars.
At around 9 AM we headed out to drill our first ice core of the season. We drilled at a site about 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) away from camp. This site was chosen because a previous ITASE core was drilled there in 2002. Our core will update this core and we will compare the overlapping years of ours with ITASE’s to understand any differences. Last year we also drilled at a site of a previous ITASE ice core and got similar results that give confidence in the measurements and methods from both cores.
Clem ran the radar out to the drill site to image the layering while Ludo drove the snowmobile. Once at the site, Ludo immediately started digging the snow pit to sample the snow in the top 2 meters (6.56 feet) of the ice sheet. The snow at the very surface of the ice sheet is very similar to the hard wind-packed snow that you would encounter in the high mountains in the U.S. and it’s not bonded well enough for us to ship cores of it back to the U.S. in one piece, so instead we took samples of the snow in the pit for lab analysis. The cores have to stay in one piece, or we would lose our chronological record. Additionally, we took other measurements in the snow pit that are important for modeling how the microwave radiation, from both the satellites in space and radars on the ground, interacts. Snow grains of different sizes and shape can actually be detected by satellites in space! As the snow grain size changes, the signals in space change.
Ludo spent all day in the pit. We think he may hold the record for the most time in one pit, about nine hours from digging to fill in. He took infrared photographs of the snow. Here is one from the pit:
These photographs are used to calculate the grain size given the different reflectance levels of the infrared radiation. The photos are pink because they are taken in the infrared wavelength, not visible light like most cameras do. They are also very pretty to look at and you can see all of the layers of snow. Each storm puts down a new layer of snow. There was a new layer approximately every 6 cm (2.36 in) in this pit. There were more layers than I have ever seen before in a pit, which made the pit measurements take such a long time.
At about a third of the way down the picture the snow becomes firn, which is snow that had persisted through at least one melt season. We cannot tell from the snow pit exactly how old the firn in the pit is (we need the isotopes for that), but we know that there are at least three years of records in the pit, so the firn at the bottom could be from 2009.
After the infrared photos, Ludo recorded the stratigraphy of the pit (snow grain size and type) using a macroscope, cut snow samples for isotopic analysis, and measured the thermal conductivity of the snow, which is the snow’s ability to transfer heat. Heat conducts through the ice lattice more than through the air in the pore spaces, so thermal conductivity is also a measure of how bonded the snow is. Because I was helping Ludo in the pit there are not any photos of this process. Often while we are actually doing the science we don’t have many photos because we are all working.
As Ludo was working in the snow pit, Randy started drilling the ice core. He would drill the core and Jessica and Michelle would process it. The core is weighed and measured to calculate its density. The length of the core and the depth of the drill hole are recorded, and the electrical conductivity of the core is measured to detect changes in snow chemistry. The core is then put in a bag, a tube and a box for shipping back to the lab for isotopic analysis. The final depth of the core was 16.8 m (55.1 ft), which will correspond to about 40 years of snow accumulation history.
It felt great to get our first real science data of the season. It has taken a lot of work to get here, but finally we have the information we came to get. We left the cores boxes with our cores buried in the snow pit to keep them nice and cold until we pick them up at the end of the season for transport to a cooler. Don’t worry, the boxes are marked with flags so we will not lose them!
December 16th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Lora Koenig
Byrd Station (Antarctica), 8 December — Today was our first day in the deep field at Byrd Camp. Byrd Camp sits in the middle of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet at an elevation of about 5,700 ft (1,737 m). We are standing on over 2,000 m of ice, with the oldest ice being about 50,000 years old. (The ice nearby at WAIS divide camp is a bit older and deeper. To find out more about the deep ice underneath us check out this information on the WAIS Divide ice core, which is being drilled deep into the ice nearby.) When you look out from camp you see nothing but the flat white snow and an old drill tower sticking out of the ground.
We are, specifically speaking, at Byrd Surface Camp. The original Byrd Camp, established in the 1956-1957 season, is underneath us, except for a drill tower that still sticks out above the snow. Over the years, snow accumulation (which averages around 12 cm per year at Byrd) buried the original camp and created Byrd Surface Camp, which everyone just calls Byrd. It is exactly this snow accumulation that we are here to measure with ice cores and radars. Here is an article about the history of Byrd.
The team was prepared to work hard today because we know the more time we make up from the weather delays, the quicker the traverse team can get home. The day started with all of us breaking down the pallets of gear. Once all the gear was off of the pallets, we divided and conquered the tasks for the day. Michelle started loading and organizing the sleds. Randy fueled all the snowmobiles and Jerry cans. We brought nine 55-gallon drums of premix gas for the snowmobiles for the entire traverse. Jessica prepared all of the drilling gear for the first core, which we’ll drill tomorrow. Clem, Ludo and I built the radar sled, attached the antennas and hooked up all of the radars for testing. Clem also set up a GPS base station that we will use to correct our roving GPS on the radar so we know precisely where the radar data is located throughout the traverse.
We discovered a few problems today. First, Jessica realized that the power converter for the drill battery did not make it to the field. The drill is made in Switzerland and has a different power plug. While this was an unfortunate oversight, it will not affect the science: We can charge the drill battery with the solar panels. The sun is up 24 hours a day here, so that will provide more than enough charge for the battery. Also, we carry an electronics tool kit, so in case of need we can cut the wires and make a new plug.— we call it “MacGyvering” (i.e., improvising fixes to our materials in the field).
The second problem of the day is a bit more worrisome. The Ku-band radar data has a systematic noise level that we cannot troubleshoot. We know that it has something to do with the computer that runs the radars, but we cannot determine whether or not the problem is coming from radio frequency emission from the computer itself getting into the antennas or if it is a data writing problem with the computer software. It has been a long day, so the trouble-shooting will have to be left for tomorrow. We hope that nothing was broken on the computer during the combat off-loading. We will know more tomorrow.
The sleds are ready to drill our first core tomorrow!