Notes from the Field

What A Drag

January 5th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 30 December — This post may read a little rushed because, well, I’m rushing today. The stakeholders meeting Wednesday afternoon resulted in an accelerated timeline and we have been “hot-footing” it ever since.

The “drag” in the title is for bag drag. It is a good thing. It means you are being checked-in, weighed and being given a boarding pass (yup, they use them here, too). It means you are about to go someplace other than the mess hall (for yet another meal). It means you have had to clean out your room (can you believe they have inspections to make sure you are not leaving your bad habits behind?) For us, it means we are going to PIG tomorrow.

This morning I called a meeting of our team to discuss what will happen once we get to PIG Main Camp and what will the sequence of cargo and people be once we start moving over to the Drill Camp. It was our last chance to meet in a comfortable format, all seated around the same table. Things will change radically tomorrow. The camp already has 19 people in it; 23 after the four new arrivals on today’s flight (#4). These are split roughly equally between camp staff and carpenters. We ten will drive the total to a bulging 33. There are two tents up. We will likely have to eat in two or three shifts.

Our work there will focus on finding our traversed cargo, combining it with what will be flown out with us tomorrow, and organizing the total into time-sequenced loads destined for the ice shelf. Monday (or more likely the next good-weather day), we are supposed to receive a Twin Otter from Byrd camp that will begin to move people and cargo to the Drill Camp. We will start with a few people, survival gear and shelter. The Otter will help us again the next day (we hope it will stay overnight, but its orders are not to get stuck at PIG) to continue to move to the Drill Camp. Ultimately we have over 30,000 pounds of stuff to move, so we will not be able to complete the move these two days.

Also on Monday, there will be two Herc flights to PIG (that’s right, TWO), each carrying a partially disassembled helicopter. Once they are reassembled (a two-day task), they will continue to move our stuff (we’re saving some of the most heavy and awkward pieces for them). I hope we can finish this off in one more day, but I’m fearful it will take two more, so it is very likely this moving will be interrupted by bad weather. Thus, we are trying to be careful to ensure that the right people are at the right place with the right pieces to be able to be productive even if the weather is not conducive to helo flying. Yet another puzzle. There have been many and it is the nature of field work.

This next phase will be a bit of a scramble. If we do it right, everyone will be pretty busy and we will be making progress all the time. That scrambling may make future blog entries more difficult. I am in the advance party going to the Drill Camp. Until the dust settles there with most of us arriving and the critical first tasks out of the way, there won’t be any posts, not even short ones, from me coming out from PIG. Again, it is just the nature of the work.


January 4th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo Station (Antarctica), 28 December — I can’t remember being able to write two good-news messages in a row this entire trip, so I hardly know how to react. On the heels of the successful Twin Otter recce, yesterday’s Herc flight made it to PIG Main Camp. It was scheduled to depart later in the morning to avoid possible fog. As it turned out, there was no fog, but then I had to worry that some other issue would confound the attempt. Taking a pessimistic view seems to be working wonders, because the flight took off early, successfully delivered cargo and camp staff to PIG, and was able to return to McMurdo without even having to refuel. It’s enough to make a scientist superstitious.

The weather continues to hold. That big old high pressure over the middle of West Antarctica is doing a great job and is expected to stay in place through the beginning of the weekend. I spoke with the Guard planner and he said that not only was PIG on their schedule every day this week, but because this weekend is another two-day holiday, they are thinking seriously of scheduling two flights to PIG on Friday. That would be #’s 5 and 6 (assuming success today and tomorrow). And if that wasn’t enough, they are likely going to be raising the ACL (allowed cargo load) so that yet more people and stuff can get out there.

Helos and Otters are in the offing, as well. The first of the helicopters will be “taken down” this evening. This means they will start to disassemble it (blades, rotor, skids and half the transmission come off), so it can squeeze into the Herc cargo bay. It might be ready for a Friday flight to PIG. The second helo would be a day behind. Meanwhile, Otter schedules are being reviewed so NSF can decide what Otter could come to PIG and how long it could stay.

All these developments have led to a whole new series of talks with various players here that have taken on a noticeably different tone. The cargo sequencer is telling us that we should be ready to fly out to PIG as early as Friday. After so many delays and the increasingly dark cloud that had grown over the project, the sudden change is like being hit with a bracing bucket of cold water. Suddenly it is time to start moving again!

The rest of this week will either see us break the back of the delays, or it will likely end the project for this season. Spirits are extremely high.

In A Fog

January 3rd, 2012 by Patrick Lynch

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 27 December — McMurdo leapt back to life the morning after the 2-day Christmas weekend. It was a jarring transition from the solitude that had permeated the town to the rumble of vehicles churning up wisps of cindery dust as their operators resumed their various tasks. There was a revival of energy everywhere, including a recommitment to making substantial progress on PIG. We can expect to be on the flight schedule every day this week.

And so we were today. The webcams told us that the Christmas storm at PIG was over. The report from the field by the traverse party was that the storm had not brought much new snow and that they were able to keep up with the wind’s efforts to make new sastrugi on the skiway. The weather forecast for West Antarctica is as positive as I have ever seen it–a dominant high pressure is sitting squarely over the ice sheet keeping all storms well offshore. Nothing is vying to push the high pressure anywhere, so PIG should be clear at least through Thursday!

Voice: “Not so fast, Bob.”
Bob: “Who ‘dat?”
Voice: “Look outside.”
Bob: “I’ll check on my way to breakfast.”
(a short time later…)
Bob: “Oh, nooooo, is that fog I see down on the ice? Yes, it is. You wouldn’t….you couldn’t…”
Voice: “Oh, yes I can…and I did. I stirred up a little fog this morning, just to keep the planes from taking off. Did you forget that you need good weather at BOTH ends?”
Bob: “Well it will burn off later this morning, so we can still complete the mission.”
Voice: “Wrong again. All I need to do is delay the plane long enough that the crew’s return time exceeds their allowed duty day.”
Bob: “*$&^%#^$^#*&!!”

And that’s pretty much what happened (except I haven’t really begun to hear voices just yet). The fog lifted 30 minutes AFTER the crew had to be taken off the mission. They had time enough to fly a fuel-run to South Pole, so the plane was used productively, but we made no progress on PIG.

Yet there is good news to report, so allow me to share it. The same Twin Otter that cancelled their reconnaissance of the ice shelf last Friday, was able to take advantage of the good weather blanketing West Antarctica and completed their mission. Sridhar Anandakrishnan, the geophysicist on our team, who has been at WAIS since we arrived in McMurdo, was picked up by the Otter and went along. It took all day to hear the results, but after the morning’s disappointment, this news was worth waiting for: Drill Camp is a beautiful spot. It appears totally uncrevassed and quite smooth. It looked so good that the Otter crew even landed and walked around. A picture Sridhar took is attached.

This is the second airplane to land on the ice shelf–ever. The weather was similar three years ago when I was landed on the ice shelf, but the surface was less inviting. There are some sastrugi under the thin layer of surface snow, but overall everything we want to do at this site can be done here. It’s not hard bare ice, it’s not deep soft snow, it’s not rough and sastrugi-filled. Camp set up will be easy, equipment placement will be straightforward, and calm conditions like today would allow us to get an enormous amount of work done.

Even better, the Otter pilot indicated that if the largest bumps are eliminated, then they could probably transport 3,000 pounds per load. That’s tremendous news because the helos are limited to about 1,000 pounds per load. We now know the huge benefits of having a Twin Otter help us. However getting one is by no means certain. There are four Otters supporting US science here right now and they are very busy with other projects. I have to put on my negotiating hat again. Time is getting very short.

The Thick Brick Wall

January 3rd, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 16 December — It was just weird. The Herc mission to land the put-in team at PIG had become a daily mainstay of the schedule I saw on the TV monitor as I walked into breakfast every day for the past week. Sometimes the cancellation came before breakfast was finished, sometimes I was able to carry my hope with me as I left the cafeteria. If the forecast suggested currently poor, but gradually improving conditions, they would hold the mission back until the weather picture became more certain. To date, certainty usually shifted toward deteriorating conditions at either PIG or Byrd (the required refueling camp) leading to yet another cancelled mission.

Tuesday the mission actually launched, the PIG webcams showed gorgeous weather there and many in town held their collective breath. It was the topic at lunch—the flight was two hours out, three more to get to PIG and still heading the right direction. Unfortunately, a short time later word came back that the forecast for Byrd was getting worse. The refuel camp was changed to the WAIS camp, roughly 100 miles away, where the forecast was better. But soon thereafter, the WAIS forecast worsened and the mission was ordered back home. The poor folks on the plane ended up flying for five hours and got off the plane at exactly the same spot where they boarded—McMurdo—still no closer to PIG.

Wednesday’s mission tore at the heart even more. It was a good weather trifecta—sunny at McMurdo, PIG and Byrd. Mission off-deck at 0931, ETA at PIG by 1400 (2 PM). Forecasts remained good at all sites and we constantly updated our webcam links hoping to witness a successful landing. It never happened. Limited information came to me, but the most important info was clear—they had not landed and were returning to MacTown with everything and everyone still on board. I couldn’t believe my ears. Having learned from past field experiences to set aside my emotional reactions right away, I discussed the possible explanations with the head of the Herc squadron. Maybe they had the wrong coordinates? Coordinates can get confused because some use degrees, minutes and seconds, some use degrees and decimal degrees, while even others favor degrees, minutes and decimal minutes. You’d be surprised at how often this happens and how much this can matter. I checked with a mapping support person who could download spectacular two-foot resolution images of the area taken both as the camp was left last February and how it looked this September (see the pictures below). Knowing I had the right coordinates, I rushed back to Herc operations to see if I could redirect the plane if they had gone to the wrong spot. Radio communications with the plane weren’t great, but good enough to hear that they saw features that told them they were, in fact, at the proper spot. Details would have to wait for their return.

They came back very late, with the delays of having to refuel at Byrd and then debrief and take the long ride back to town from the ice runway (now nearly an hour-long, bone-jarring ride). Still no word by dinner, I sat with the Herc commander, Mark Sakadolsky, just to be sure to get as close as I could to any information. He’s a friend from past seasons here together and an easy guy to talk to. Everyone in town knew the plane had reached PIG, found the weather excellent, yet turned around without landing. There were lots of ideas why; McMurdo is well known to be a fertile rumor mill. I didn’t get the official word from Mark (and Charles Kirkland, who will be the PIG Main Camp manager) until the next morning. There were large sastrugi (snow dunes) crossing the old skiway. The pilots couldn’t see many skiway markers; most were buried under the 1.5 meters (5 ½ feet) of snow that has accumulated since last season, but they could orient themselves well enough relative to the drifted cargo berm and fuel bladders to know where the skiway had been. Landing that direction made little sense because they would have chattered their way across numerous sastrugi, possibly damaging the plane. (I’ve been there, done that, and don’t want to do it anymore, so this was a wise decision). Their next option was to land parallel to the sastrugi and although they received permission to do this, as they lined up on their final approach and had their skiis nearly touching the tops of the sastrugi, they decided the sastrugi were just too big to land safely.  So they got close, really close, literally a few feet from landing. I’m not sure if I want to call that progress or not.

For those of you following this saga, you know that this story is being written with many subplots.  So you may ask “and what of the traverse?” Good question! The traverse has been lumbering onward and may arrive tonight! Their imminent arrival figured strongly into the Guard’s decision to forego any further PIG missions until the traverse party has a chance to unhitch their heavy machinery and use the skiway groomer (left in the PIG cargo line) to level those dangerous sastrugi and prepare a smoother landing strip before the next Herc arrives. The additional benefit of having the traverse there is that the “fuelie” (definition: a person who handles fuel lines, fuel drums and fuel bladders, responsible for fueling vehicles and planes) can tap into the 27,000 gallons of fuel there to refuel visiting Hercs directly, removing the need for that troublesome third camp refueling stop for PIG flights. Thus, we are on the verge of a much-improved situation for getting cargo and people to PIG. If this is an early Christmas present, I’ll take it—even without the bows and wrapping paper.

So Thursday became was a strange day. No PIG mission on the schedule. The only project contribution I could make was to transmit positive vibes to the traverse party. Nothing broke or slowed them down, so maybe it worked. I also kept talking to some of the key people here. I suggested to Mark that for every day we don’t have a mission, I want him to think of us banking one for a later date. I tried (unsuccessfully) to convince the Guard and the National Science Foundation (the institutions that manage U.S. Antarctic operations and logistics) to increase either the number of planes or crews that would operate during the two-week holiday slowdown.  Numbers are reduced from six planes and six crews to three planes and four crews and an extra no-fly Saturday for Christmas and another for New Year’s is added to the cast-in-stone no-fly Sunday. These are massive reductions in capacity. I have complained for 30 years about this (along with many other deep field scientists), to no avail. Call me Mr. Scrooge or The Grinch if you like, but this is Antarctica. We have a limited amount of time to work in the “deep field” so we can answer questions being put to me in Congress and by governments around the world. Check your holiday spirit when you pass south of 60 degrees south latitude! Our holiday comes when we go home. Deep field camps don’t have holidays unless bad weather affords them the luxury. (Grrrrr!)

The other unusual thing about Thursday was the visit of the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg. As I’ve written before, I had already met with his advance committee. The Prime Minister shot through McMurdo very fast so he could ski the last 10 km to the pole with a group of 4 Norwegians (who had skied the entire Amundsen route) and arrive at the South Pole exactly 100 years after Amundsen. He had two hours to see McMurdo on his way back north and I was asked to prepare a short presentation on the PIG project. His schedule was delayed by South Pole weather so he never made it to the science lab and never saw the poster (but you can—it is posted on our project’s web site). Better than the short presentation I couldn’t give was the fact that I was invited to join the PM at a dinner being hosted at Scott Base by the New Zealanders. To make sure that I had the chance to discuss my project with Jens, I was seated directly across the table from him and next to his Executive Secretary. I took advantage of the arranged seating and had a very engaging conversation with him. Norway is very proactive in responding to climate change. I was as impressed with the variety of steps he described Norway is taking as he was with the science of climate change and the importance of our particular piece we are trying to accomplish on the PIG ice shelf this season. Jens and Ron (the Scott Base manager) gave speeches (very good speeches, actually). Ron surprised Jens by offering him an après-dessert helo ride to both Cape Evans and Cape Royds where huts remain from Scott’s and Shackleton’s polar runs. I have no idea when they returned; I took an earlier ride back to MacTown to sleep, arriving at midnight. Prime Ministers don’t sleep much.

An extra surprise for me that evening was to see Jan Gunnar Winter with the Norwegian delegation. Jan Gunnar is a colleague and a friend I have known for many years, and he’s presently the director of the Norsk PolarInstitut. I didn’t know that he was one of the 4 skiers repeating Amundsen’s historic journey. His face was weather-beaten and he had some gripping stories to tell of their expedition. All of Norway seemed to be following them via daily broadcasts by the skiers—Amundsen had dogs to help him, these 4 had the extra burden of reporting to their countrymen every night and a deadline to keep. Jan Gunnar has become a national celebrity, but he was most looking forward to a week-long vacation in Thailand with his wife. No one has ever deserved this reward more. I’ll take the easy route and fly to PIG.

Getting A Wish

January 3rd, 2012 by Patrick Lynch

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 19 December — Well, it is the holiday season and we are being forced to recognize it by accepting fewer Hercs and fewer crews to fly them for these two weeks (not to mention extending the no-fly Sundays to no-fly weekends both weeks).  So maybe we should expect to have at least one wish granted that might bring us some holiday joy.  Our granted wish comes in the form of a Twin Otter flight to assess whether that airplane can land at or near our desired drilling camp location on the ice shelf.  This could be a real “game changer” because it not only would allow us to get onto the ice shelf earlier than having to wait for all the helo support infrastructure to be set up at the PIG Main Camp. But it would also free up some helicopter time, allowing us to limit the helo work to those tasks that can only be done with the helo, helping us recover some lost time.  There are no guarantees, however. The difference it would make has motivated the program coordinators to arrange for an Otter flight early this week to find out.  Weather today (Monday) was poor at Byrd (where the Twin Otter is) so we wait until tomorrow.

Meanwhile there was great anticipation this weekend for another attempt at the Herc put-in to PIG Main Camp on Monday, but the report from the group at PIG grooming the runway was not optimistic.  Again, their words vividly describe what the Herc pilots would have faced:

The large 3’ sastrugi has been knocked down, but there are still large rollers…the drop off cliffs have been smoothed over, but there are still many humps approximately 30 meters wide.

Most camps have a flat skiway with sastrugi on the surface.  PIG is not level underneath, but has long rollers, waves, and ripples, with the sastrugi on top of that, so it is taking awhile to groom.

The Heavy Equipment Operator feels that three quarters of the skiway has inconvenient rollers.  One quarter has more dangerous features since the plane will hit them at an angle, and there is a small, potential risk for a wing to hit.

Would you want to fly your $60-plus million airplane there before more work was done on the skiway?  I wouldn’t.  So I was neither surprised nor indignant when Tim McGovern, the top NSF person in McMurdo right now, told me that he and Mark Sakadolsky, the commander of the Air National Guard operations here, had decided to wait one more day before trying to land a Herc at PIG.  It’s the prudent approach.

In hopeful anticipation of a positive report back from the Twin Otter pilots, I called a science team meeting today to discuss science priorities.  There could be a massive shift in the ordering of flights to PIG in the offing.  We could have ourselves and much of our science cargo moved ahead of a lot of the Main Camp material and the accoutrements required for the helicopters.  Eventually we will still need the helicopters out there to accomplish some parts of our science program, but the possibility of getting going sooner is palpable.  Your “picture for the day” shows us discussing our plans.