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!
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.
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.
December 15th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Lora Koenig
Byrd Camp (Antarctica), December 7 — At 4:45 PM today we boarded another Delta for a ride to Pegasus field. The last weather report we had for Byrd Camp was for half-mile visibility and 40-knot winds with blowing snow. The conditions were predicted to continue to deteriorate, so I expected the flight to be canceled. When we arrived Pegasus we saw our gear being loaded on an LC-130 flown by the 109th Air Wing. We also saw a plane taxiing to the skiway that was headed to WAIS Divide camp, which is about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Byrd. So when we say that plane take off, we knew we had a good chance of getting into Byrd.
We took off at around 8 PM for the 3-hour flight to Byrd. Jessica got to ride in the cockpit for take-off. During the flight, we looked out the windows into clouds for most of the time, but at one point the Ross Ice Shelf was visible and we saw a large crack in the ice shelf, which was exciting to see though I do not know anything about the science behind it. I will ask and expert in a few weeks and get back to you with more information about the crack.
We arrived Byrd Camp around 11:00 PM. After we landed, all of our cargo was combat off-loaded. A combat off-load is when they open the back of the LC-130 and send the palettes out the back with a swift kick and a sudden acceleration of the plane. This method is very rough on our gear and we will have to double-check everything again to make sure nothing is broken. One of my constant reminders to the team is, “Don’t break anything”: We have to fix anything we break and we may not have the parts. So combat off-loading of gear makes me very nervous, but we didn’t have any other choice. And it is actually really fun to see the combat off-loads if you forget that it is your gear.
Here are some pictures of the combat off-load:
Here is a picture of the team finally in the field.
We had a quick tour of Byrd Camp and then went to tent city to our tents to sleep for the night. I was warm all night but others were a bit cold on their first night in their tents. We are finally ready to start the science!
December 14th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Lora Koenig
McMurdo (Antarctica), 6 December — We have been getting a lot of questions about the wildlife that we have seen in Antarctica. Here are some pictures that Ludo snapped of the Weddell seals we saw in McMurdo. We have seen lots of seals lounging on the sea ice, and also skuas, which look like large seagulls. We have not seen any penguins yet.
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.