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Notes from the Field

Meet the 88S Expedition Crew

May 30th, 2019 by Kelly Brunt

This winter, our field team of four completed the two-week 88S Traverse in Antarctica in an effort to provide the best means of assessing NASA’s ICESat-2. When you show folks pictures from the trip, they are usually taken by the beauty of the stark landscape. They become interested in hearing more. Then, after you explain daily temperatures, what you ate along the traverse, and your access to WiFi, the trip suddenly seems extreme. And they think you are crazy for participating in such an endeavor.

So, let’s meet the crazy 88S participants.

Four field team members taking four separate selfies in the globe that sits on top of the ceremonial South Pole marker. Photo: Brunt

I’m Kelly and I am the leader of this project. This was my second year on the 88S Traverse and I was the only crazy person who had done this twice; everyone else was new to the project this season. That speaks volumes about my deep-field cooking skills! I am a researcher at the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, specializing in the remote sensing of ice sheets, and I have been on the ICESat-2 project since 2010. This was my 11th trip to Antarctica, which included a few years with the science support staff at McMurdo Station, a few years of doing field work toward my PhD, a season with the Australians during my postdoc, and then of course a couple of seasons with this project. I grew up skiing in New England and I absolutely love cold environments and the challenges of doing this type of field work.

Kelly eating maple syrup on snow, which is a New England favorite. Photo: Greeley

Adam was the other NASA researcher on this trip. This was his first year on the 88S Traverse and his first trip to Antarctica. Overall, I think he had a really good time! He is also a researcher at the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and has been on the ICESat-2 project since about 2013, where he has been looking at how green laser light from ICESat-2 interacts with the surface of the ice sheet. Adam hails from New Hampshire and loves skiing, so he was enthusiastic and well suited for much of the Antarctic climate.

Adam nearly bubbling over with excitement on his first trip to Antarctica. Photo: Brunt

Matt was the Traverse mechanic. Similar to Adam, this was his first year on the 88S Traverse and his first trip to Antarctica. And I know that he enjoyed the experience because he decided to stay in Antarctica for the winter! He took a lead mechanic position at McMurdo Station soon after returning from the Traverse. The winter will be pretty cool for him, as it will allow him to experience being in 24 hours of darkness during the period around the southern hemisphere’s winter solstice (June 21st). Matt is a PistenBully expert and gained his experience at a ski resort in Washington called White Pass, which is where Olympians Phil and Steve Mahre grew up. So, similar to Adam, he also loves skiing and was well suited for much of the Antarctic climate.

Matt, mid-traverse, exhausted by my 70s-music playlists. Photo: Brunt

In year two of the 88-South Antarctic Traverse, mechanic and PistenBully expert Matt Means joins the team as the NASA team treks the ice sheet. Recorded from McMurdo Station in Antarctica, Matt describes his first experiences on the traverse as well as life in the deep field.

Chris was the Traverse mountaineer and medic. This was his first year on the 88S Traverse but Chris has oodles of experience in Antarctica, dating back to the 1990s. He’s a licensed IFMGA American Mountain Guide that has led trips all over the globe, mostly in steep or icy regions. This type of experience is so important for the safety of field projects that are based on the ice sheet. Added to these highly technical skills is his medical training: Chris was a US Navy Hospital Corpsman and provided us with a top-notch level of experience that we all hoped we would never need while on Traverse. Like Matt, Chris is from the Pacific Northwest and grew up skiing in that region. Most recently claimed Seattle as his home base. After the traverse, Chris briefly joined another Antarctic traverse, which was based out of McMurdo.

Chris at the finish area for the Race Around the World. The event is a South Pole Christmas day tradition; it’s about a 2-mile run that crosses every line of longitude. Photo: Brunt

So the common thread between the folks on this traverse was of course the ‘crazy’ component, but also that each of us has an overall love of spending time in cold environments. And coffee. Everyone on this trip loved their coffee.

Yes, It’s Really Cold

May 28th, 2019 by Adam Greeley and Kelly Brunt

As you start exploring the ICESat-2 data – released to the public today! – spare a thought to the team that went to the end of the Earth to check it! This winter, we successfully completed the second Antarctic 88S Traverse, collecting highly accurate GPS elevation data for direct comparison with ICESat-2. The comparison provides us with the best means of assessing one of NASA’s newest satellites!

This is my favorite photo from the traverse, demonstrating how the stark nature of the high Antarctic Plateau makes the sky more dramatic (Photo: Brunt).

Over 12 days, we drove ~750 km (~450 mi) in slow-moving tracked vehicles called PistenBullys. When I got back from Antarctica, people often asked about the weather: In that region, the weather is generally pretty constant. We had temperatures that were approximately -15C (5F) with light winds. Once, when it got really windy — about 20 knots — the traverse person in charge of safety, Chris, pulled out a Kestrel, or a tool to measure windspeed. He translated that to a windchill temperature, and informed us that it was about -50C (-58F). As luck would have it, that was one of the days that the NASA folks (myself and Adam) had to work outside for a few hours. At least we had warm vehicles to jump into when the outside work was done.

People also asked what we ate: We took turns cooking in the evenings, and we often named our entrees, such as Penguin Noodle (it was chicken) or “Just Like the Olive Garden.” Some folks get imaginative in their cooking, and Chris often prepared multi-course feasts that were always a hit and often copied on subsequent evenings. For the second straight year, I was the worst cook. On the nights that I cooked, the traverse mechanic, Matt, would prepare himself an afternoon burrito, cooked on the PistenBully exhaust pipe (1 hour cook time).

The entire team crammed into the kitchen tent, eating an Adam creation (Photo: Greeley).

People that are familiar with this type of field work often asked if we encountered any problems along the way. Overall, we had only minimal problems – small things that could be handled rather quickly. And that’s pretty good for a deep-field Antarctic research project. However, the main issue that we did encounter was one of the vehicles really, really struggling with respect to power. That meant that at times, our already slow traverse (~10 km/hour, or ~6 mi/hour) was made even slower (~5 km/hour, or ~3 mi/hour). Our mechanic Matt worked hard to understand the root cause. And all I could do for him was make an 80s playlist while he drove and thought about the problem. Only after the traverse, in a warm garage with the PistenBully hooked up to a diagnostic tool, was he able to determine that it was a bad ECM. I have no idea what that means. But I like that Matt does. Figuring out the problem suggests that these vehicles will be good to go for next season!

Here’s a photo of Matt the Mechanic working on the PistenBully. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but here’s what’s still missing: 1) we are actually moving in this photo, even with the steering wheel pulled apart; and 2) we are listening to an 80s playlist designed to make the mechanic happy (Photo: Brunt).

But the most frequent question that people asked this season pertained to the government shutdown this winter: Folks wanted to know whether we were affected, and how were we able to move forward with the field plan. It was quite straightforward. First, neither the traverse researchers (me and Adam) nor the science support staff (Matt and Chris) were civil servants. That helped a lot. But more importantly, following the government shutdown of 2013, which had a major impact on Antarctic research, the National Science Foundation put measures in place to ensure that their busy summer field season (usually from about early October to late January) was uninterrupted in the event of a shutdown during future research seasons. The only real impact of the shutdown on our project was that our blogs were interrupted! We finished our Antarctic adventure back in late January but decided to post a couple blogs summarizing the field season in sync with the public release of the ICESat-2 data – so stay tuned for the next one coming later this week!

And if you’d like to check out ICESat-2 data, visit the NSIDC site at: https://nsidc.org/data/icesat-2

We Made it to Antarctica

December 20th, 2018 by Adam Greeley and Kelly Brunt

Traveling to Antarctica is no joke even for veterans like Kelly, but especially for first timers like me. This isn’t your run of the mill intercontinental flight; a lot more gear is needed plus required training. There are also a lot of long flights involved. To get to the United States Antarctic Program facilities in Christchurch, New Zealand from the U.S. East Coast, it takes about three layovers, over 30 hours of flying, and some time travel (cross the international date line: lose a day. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200).

Upon arriving in Christchurch, our first stop is the U.S. Antarctic Program, run by the National Science Foundation. After some briefings on what we will need in Antarctica, what to expect, and what not to do (no touching penguins!), it’s on to the Clothing Distribution Center. It’s probably obvious to most, but Antarctica can get really cold! The U.S. Antarctic Program wants to make sure we stay warm on the ice so they provide us with Extreme Cold Weather gear including boots, snow pants, mittens, hat, neck warmer, goggles, and of course: “big red,” an aptly named parka.

Visiting the U.S. Antarctic Program Clothing Distribution Center to get all the hats, gloves, jackets, snow pants, and boots needed to keep us warm down on the ice. (Photo: Adam Greeley)

Once we have all our gear and baggage together, it’s time to fly! No 737s here. The U.S. Antarctic Program transports cargo and personnel down to the ice on various military aircraft. We transited on a New Zealand C-130. Seats face the sides of the aircraft instead of forward, and consist of canvas benches with cargo strapping for backs. You get to know your neighbors really well on these flights. Straightening your knees beyond 90 degrees involves some coordination with at least one individual sitting across from you. Weather can change at a moment’s notice down in Antarctica and sometimes that means you need to turn around and head back to Christchurch four hours into a flight. These flights are known as “boomerangs” and are not the most fun.

Crowded seating arrangements inside a New Zealand Air Force C-130 (Photo: Adam Greeley)

After a scrubbed flight, and one boomerang, we made it to Antarctica. Stepping off the airplane onto the ice runway for the first time is a breath-taking experience. The McMurdo Ice Shelf stretches toward the Ross Ice Shelf to the south, while the Mt. Discovery and the Transantarctic Mountains line the western horizon. Cold, dry air fills your nose and lungs. Your eyes blink, trying in vain to bat away the overwhelming brilliance of sunlight reflecting off the snow. Snow crunches softly under foot. The wind races by and in the distance Mt. Erebus towers, watching all beneath its feet. We’ve arrived. Terra Australis Incognita: Antarctica.

Kelly and Adam happy to be on the ice runway at McMurdo Station, Antarctic (Photo: Kelly Brunt)

Time to Conduct Another 88S Traverse

December 19th, 2018 by Kelly Brunt and Adam Greeley

This season’s 88S Traverse sticker. That’s Kelly driving and Adam riding shotgun. (Logo design by Adriana Manrique/NASA)

It’s that time of year again: Time to conduct another 88S Traverse! We have made it to Antarctica for a second straight year, in support of NASA’s ICESat-2. You can read all of our posts, including those from the 2017-2018 88S Traverse here. And here’s a fantastic video that describes last season’s traverse in great detail.

After a quick stop in Christchurch, New Zealand, we made it to McMurdo Station, which sits on the coast of Antarctica.

A statue in Christchurch, New Zealand, of Robert Falcon Scott, an early Heroic Age explorer. This statue was sculpted by his widow Kathleen Scott, after his death while returning from the South Pole. The statue was severely damaged during the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, but was restored and put back in its proper place in October 2017. (Photo: Kelly Brunt)

The 88S Traverse is a ground-based survey intended to collect highly accurate and precise GPS elevation data for direct comparison with ICESat-2 surface height data. The traverse is conducted using 2 PistenBully tracked-vehicles that pull our camping equipment and science instrumentation along the ice sheet. ICESat-2 is a satellite laser altimeter, designed to measure the surface of the Earth to an accuracy and precision of something on the order of the width of a pencil! Our goal with the 88S Traverse is to validate that ICESat-2 is meeting that level of accuracy and precision.

This season is a bit special; ICESat-2 was launched earlier this year, making this the first 88S Traverse that will be coordinated with the satellite observations. ICESat-2 launched in the wee hours of September 15, 2018. And even though it was a super early morning for me, and I did not have enough coffee in my system, the event was spectacular. ICESat-2 is currently collecting data globally, including over our field area around 88S, with the expectation of releasing these data to the public in early 2019.

More recently, NASA’s Operation IceBridge completed their Antarctic field campaign. Their flight plans included surveying the 88S Traverse route. The actual flight over our area occurred on November 12, 2018. Our survey area doesn’t change that much over short time scales. There isn’t very much snowfall (input) and it’s very cold, so there is almost no melt (output). The processes that change the surface at a detectable level happen at much greater time scales. These include compaction of snow that falls over time on the surface (we call this firn compaction) and snow migration form the wind. Therefore, the November data collected by IceBridge will be very comparable to the data that we will collect, less than two months later.

We are currently at McMurdo, waiting for weather to clear so that we can get to the South Pole. From there, we will take about a week to build the sled platforms, and then we hit the road. And by the end of our field season, we will have ground-based, airborne, and satellite data for comparison!

Back to McMurdo, with its science essentials

January 23rd, 2018 by Kelly Brunt

Tom and I have returned to McMurdo Station!

Our traverse is complete, our gear has been stored for next season, and we are ready to head north to warmer climates. But in the meantime, we are awaiting our flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, at Antarctica’s largest research station.

McMurdo Station from above (Photo: Tom Neumann)

McMurdo is one of three permanent US research stations in Antarctica. The other two are Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and Palmer Station, which is south of South America. McMurdo has beds for approximately 1,000 people, but while we have been here, the population has hovered between about 750 and 825.

While there is a research station operated by New Zealand just 2 km away, McMurdo is relatively isolated. As such, there are facilities here that provide all of the basic essentials required for living in the polar regions, such as power, heat, and water. McMurdo has its own diesel-based power plant, providing lights and heat to the station. The station gets its fresh water through the desalinization of the sea water in the neighboring bay via a method called reverse osmosis. And McMurdo has its own waste-water treatment facility. To operate a station this size, and in this environment, McMurdo also requires an airfield, a galley, and all of the staffing that goes along with running a small town. It is quite an operation.

McMurdo on a snowy day, with the chapel in the background. (Photo: Kelly Brunt)

McMurdo station also has specialized facilities that support the cutting-edge science that happens here. These facilities include a sophisticated laboratory that is capable of housing a cross section of Antarctic research disciplines such as glaciology, geology, meteorology, and biology.

The research that takes place here also includes really cool meteorite science! The search for meteorites is a bit simpler here than in other parts of the world. Since Antarctica is a thick sheet of ice, rocks found on the top of the ice sheet are often associated with debris fallen from space; these meteorites stand out against the white surface. Plus, the flow of the ice organizes the meteorites, making them more centralized for collection. Some of our colleagues from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center are part of this effort.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, in McMurdo Sound. (Photo: Tom Neumann)

The pier in town is currently the busiest spot on station. The US Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star has cleared a channel into McMurdo Sound, giving three other vessels access to town. The first is the Nathaniel B. Palmer, the US Antarctic Program’s premier research vessel, which has been in town for the past few days. Simultaneously, the entire station is preparing for the arrival of the two other ships: the tanker Maersk Peary brings in the annual fuel supply, and the Ocean Giant cargo ship brings in the food and supplies for the following year.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer in McMurdo Sound (Photo: Kelly Brunt)

Tom and I are scheduled to leave McMurdo on the next flight. But the weather has deteriorated and we are left patiently waiting for it to clear. We are extremely happy with our successful field season and have had a fantastic trip. Thanks for reading and following along.

-Kelly & tom