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Notes from the Field

Mounting Problems

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.

Slow Progress

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!

Packing for Christmas

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.

The Alternate Reality

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.

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.