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Notes from the Field

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

An Airport Boomerang

December 8th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

On December 5, we boomeranged to and from the airport. Here is a picture of Ludo and Clem in the inside of Ivan the Terra Bus on our way from McMurdo to the airport, Pegasus Field, for our flight to Byrd.

 And here is a picture of Ludo and Clem in the back of a Delta on our way back from the airport to McMurdo.

In the pictures they seem just as happy returning from the airport as they were going, but I think that was just for the camera.

We were all very excited about our flight to Byrd because we were already a week delayed in getting into the deep field. (Camps in the middle of Antarctica, outside of McMurdo Station, are called “the deep field.”) We boarded Ivan just after lunch for the 1 hour and 10 minute ride to Pegasus Field. Once at Pegasus, we were at the passenger terminal of the airport, a triple-wide trailer house that sits on a sled so it can be moved (it also serves as the Galley for airport workers), when we were told that the flight was canceled due to weather at Byrd. We were all a little sad because we want to get to Byrd to start collecting our science data. Our flight was canceled for good reason though; there was less than 100-meter visibility with high winds and blowing snow at Byrd, so there was no way a plane could land! We headed back into McMurdo and made it in time for dinner.

McMurdo is a small town and slightly more than 1,100 people are in there now, so all of our friends noticed that we were back. Everyone keeps asking when we are going to get to the field.  Well, we are going to try again today, December 7. We are scheduled for another flight with transport to the airport at 1645 this afternoon. Take off is scheduled for 7 PM and we’ll land at Byrd at around 10:30 PM if all goes well.

Actually, I think we were all secretly happy to have another Wednesday lunch in McMurdo because on Wednesdays we get cookies. We will all take a few extra cookies in our backpacks for a midnight snack at Byrd, if we make it tonight.

I am particularly anxious to get to Byrd soon because, this year, I will only be with the team until there. I will not be accompanying the team on the traverse. Once the rest of the team has left Byrd, I will head back to my office in NASA Goddard (Greenbelt, MD). My job this year is make sure the field methods, (drilling of the ice cores, taking the snow pit measurements and running the radars) are consistent with last year’s, and the team is trained and ready to go. Then I get to go home. I would love to stay with the team but I have an 18-month old son at home and last year I missed his first Holiday Season. This year, I want to be home. I am lucky to work with such a strong team so I do not have to be here for the entire time. Working in Antarctica is truly an amazing experience but with the austral summer being in December means that many polar scientists and workers spent their holidays away from family.

Keep your fingers crossed for good weather and hopefully the next post will be from Byrd!

Chers lecteurs francophones

December 8th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Ludovic Brucker

Chers lecteurs francophones (que nous savons nombreux tels que familles, amis, et élèves de Goddard French Immersion Schéol), voici un petit récit résumant notre situation actuelle à Mc Murdo (77 o 51’ S, 16640’ E). Lors des prochains messages, nous essayerons d’avoir un court résumé du texte en français. N’hésitez pas à nous poser vos questions!

Tout d’abord, relatons l’objectif scientifique motivant cette campagne de terrain où nous ferons une traverse légère (déplacement en motoneiges et “nuitées” sous tentes) de 500 km durant le mois de décembre sur la partie ouest de la calotte Antarctique.

Nous cherchons à estimer l’accumulation de neige sur la calotte Antarctique, soit combien de centimètres de neige précipitent chaque année et s’accumulent avec le temps jusqu’à se métamorphoser en glace. L’Antarctique étant un immense continent d’une superficie d’environ 14 millions de km2 il est impossible d’obtenir cette information à partir de mesures locales obtenues depuis quelques stations. Par conséquent, notre objectif est d’utiliser des mesures satellites afin de retrouver cette information sur l’accumulation de neige à l’échelle continentale. Pour cela il nous faut tout d’abord obtenir des mesures in-situ pour développer des algorithmes servant à convertir la mesure satellite (celle d’un rayonnement électromagnétique, généralement dans le domaine des micro-ondes) en une grandeur physique (telle que accumulation de neige, température, densité, taille de grains de neige, ou encore présence d’eau liquide dans le manteau neigeux, etc.). Avec plus de 30 ans de mesures continuellement collectées par des radiomètres en orbite autour de la Terre, ces grandeurs servent au suivie climatique de la cryosphère en régions polaires.

Durant la traverse, cinq personnes seront présentes avec des rôles clés, définis:

– Michelle, au vue de son expérience lors de déploiements en régions polaires, est en charge du groupe. Après une prise en compte des idées/préoccupations de chacun, elle aura le dernier mot sur les choix stratégiques nous permettant d’évoluer en sécurité. Par exemple, il lui revient la décision de démonter le camp au petit matin afin de continuer la traverse, ou, au contraire, de rester une journée supplémentaire si le vent ou la visibilité ne permettent pas d’atteindre notre prochain point de ravitaillement en carburant (qui sera déposé dans quelques jours par avion). Michelle est également le contact radio avec le camp d’été à Byrd et la station McMurdo.

– Jessica et Randy s’occupent du forage de carottes de neige jusqu’à 15-20 mètres de profondeur, ainsi qu’aux premières analyses. Ils vont extraire des carottes d’environ 1 m de long et 5 cm de diamètre, puis les mesurer, peser et les mettre dans des tubes afin de les protéger. Ensuite, ces tubes seront transportés par avion jusqu’aux Etats-Unis.

– Clément travaille avec deux radars (bande C et Ku) que nous transportons sur un traineau spécial tracté par motoneige. Les jours de déplacement, Clément et Ludovic alterneront leur présence sur ce traineau et sur la motoneige. Comme vous vous en doutez, rester assis 8 à 10 heures à contrôler le bon enregistrement des mesures radars donne rapidement froid dans le dos ! Nous changerons donc de position très régulièrement. Durant les jours au camp, Clem passera l’essentiel de son temps aux révisions des instruments.

– Ludo, en plus de partager son temps avec Clem et les radars, réalisera des mesures des propriétés physiques de la neige dans des puits de 2 m de profondeur. En plus des mesures classiques de températures, densités, conductivité thermique, etc, nous prendrons également des photographies infrarouges permettant d’enregistrer  la stratigraphie du manteau neigeux, et d’estimer la variation verticale de la taille des grains de neige.

Notre équipe présente cette année en Antarctique est composée pour le moment de 6 personnes, les 5 déjà présentés plus Lora! Lora est une experte de la NASA dont la thématique principale est l’analyse de mesures par télédétection active et passive des manteaux neigeux en Antarctique et au Groenland. Elle a déjà réalisé 7 déploiements sur calottes polaires, dont 3 en Antarctique, elle a aussi passé 4 mois consécutifs à Summit durant un hivernage au Groenland. Sa maîtrise des préparations d’expédition est un atout incroyable tout comme sa connaissance de la station McMurdo. Lora va venir avec nous jusqu’à Byrd afin de s’assurer que tout soit parfaitement en place, puis elle rentrera dans le Maryland pour célébrer la Noel avec sa famille.

Les présentations étant maintenant faites, résumons les différentes étapes excitantes de ces derniers jours! Nous avons quitté les Etats-Unis le 17 novembre en direction de Christchurch (Nouvelle-Zélande) avec un passage par Los Angeles (Californie) puis Auckland (Nouvelle-Zélande). Après avoir perdu une journée en passant la longitude de changement de date, l’arrivée en Nouvelle-Zélande s’est très bien déroulée pour toute l’équipe.

Dimanche 20  a été consacré à récupérer nos habits polaires (voir les photos associées aux autres textes en anglais). Nous avons notamment reçu “Big Red”, cette fameuse parka rouge de la National Science Fondation (NSF) et du programme antarctique américain (USAP).

Lundi 21 fut le jour du départ pour l’Antarctique. Après un vol de 5h, le C-17 de l’US Air Force a atterri sur la glace de mer au large de la station McMurdo. Un moment magique!

Nos premiers pas nous ont menés vers de particuliers engins, Delta et Terra bus, dédiés au transport en commun afin de relier la piste d’atterrissage à la Station de Mc Murdo.

Les engins de transport à McMurdo sont soit équipés de chenilles, ou possèdent des roues d’une largeur exceptionnelle et d’une hauteur aussi grande que Clem!

Mardi 22 et Mercredi 23, Jessica, Randy et Ludo ont suivi une formation de sécurité pour les déploiements en extérieur. Cette formation, bien mieux connue sous le nom de “Campeurs Joyeux!”, inclue une nuitée ensoleillée dehors, à proximité du Mont Erebus sur la plate-forme glaciaire de Ross. Pour varier les plaisirs, Jessica a passé la nuit dans une tente standard en forme de dôme, Randy dans une tente Scott en forme pyramidale afin de résister aux vents antarctiques. Sur recommandation de Clément, Ludo a quant à lui creusé une tranchée pour y passer une excellente nuit ensoleillée avec un panorama fantastique.

Durant ce temps, l’autre partie du groupe a commencé la chasse aux caisses d’équipement envoyées depuis le Kansas en septembre dernier. Malheureusement, nos radars n’ont pas été trouvés… Apres quelques heures de recherches ils ont été localisés sur un bateau à Christchurch.

Durant la journée du Jeudi 24, nous avons tous apporté notre grain de sel aux préparations. Il s’agissait de préparer les caisses de nourriture pour les prochaines semaines, soit 350 kg d’aliments.

La dernière journée de cette première semaine était dédié à finir les préparations de toutes les caisses en partance pour Byrd. Malheureusement les radars n’étaient toujours pas arrivés à McMurdo due aux conditions météorologiques empêchant les C-17 de voler. Plus précisément, les avions auraient pu atterrirent sans difficultés mais durant la phase de descente ils avaient à traverser une couche humide qui auraient généré de la glace sur la carlingue de l’avion une fois posé. L’aileron de queue étant très haut sur ces avions et l’usage des produits dégivrant limité, aucun avion en provenance de Christchurch s’est posé depuis notre arrivé.

Dans l’espoir de recevoir très prochainement les radars, nous allons poursuivre notre découverte de Mc Murdo et de la base néo-zélandaise Scott durant le week-end de Thanksgiving.