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Notes from the Field

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.

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.

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!

Waiting Again

December 8th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

It’s Thursday, December 1, and I am, yet again, sitting in our office, waiting.  As the saying goes, “hurry up and wait”: This rings true in Antarctica. Last week, we were waiting for our radars to arrive on a plane from Christchurch. Usually there are about three flights a week from Christchurch to McMurdo, but an entire week of flights was canceled due to bad weather here. And finally, a plane arrived on Monday, November 28, bringing fresh fruit, new people and, most importantly, our radars.

Ludo and Clem quickly set up the two radars, ran a few tests to make sure they were working and repacked them for shipping to Byrd Camp. Normally we would take a few days to do this but, since we were delayed, we all worked hard and completed the tasks in a few hours. We repacked the equipment very carefully to prevent damage, and put it into the cargo system. (See Michelle’s blog post to learn more about the cargo system). Our intracontinential cargo needed to be in the system 48 hours in advance, and we were hoping to fly to Byrd on December 1 (that is, today).

Just as a reminder here is the location we are trying to get to.

So our estimated departure date has come and gone, and here we are still in McMurdo. This is not a big surprise; delays are common in such a harsh environment. We are now scheduled to go to Byrd on Monday December 5. All of our work in McMurdo is done, so we will use the delay to rest a bit before the hard work of the traverse begins.

Why are we delayed? First, as I mentioned, McMurdo had a week of bad weather and no planes could land or take off.  And once the weather in McMurdo cleared, it was Byrd’s turn to have bad weather, so planes could not land there. On top of that, there is a lot of science going on at Byrd this season, including another traverse lead by a NASA colleague, Bob Bindschadler, headed to Pine Island Glacier. (Check out this video on the Pine Island project, or visit their website.) Because there are so many teams flying to Byrd, we have to wait for five flights to get in before we are assigned a plane load for our science gear, fuel, snowmobiles and ice core boxes. Our team has a full LC-130 plane load of gear that needs to make it to Byrd.

Yesterday, they were finally able to get some flights into Byrd. Our flight number is T012; flight T010 will take off for Byrd this evening, then T011 has to fly and then it’s us. We are watching the monitors in McMurdo that show the flight status, just like at the airports, hoping that flights get in. We cheer when a flight returns and groan when a flight is canceled due to weather.

There is one more issue that is causing delays.  This week they are moving the runways at McMurdo. In the early season, when it is still cold, the planes land very close to McMurdo on the sea ice at a place called Icey Runway. As temperatures warm, sea ice thins and the runway is moved farther inland to Williams Field, where the ice is thicker. This weekend is when they move airports, so there are no flights scheduled for Friday or Saturday (normally, there would be flights Monday through Saturday). So we will have another weekend in McMurdo, and when it’s time to fly to Byrd we’ll do it from William’s Field, about a 45-minute drive from McMurdo.

While we were waiting, I finally took some pictures of Percy the Penguin. Percy was given to me by a friend; it came from a geocache site in Seattle, WA and has now made it to Antarctica. Percy is actually the only penguin we have seen here. So far, the only wildlife we have encountered are skuas, large seagull-like birds, and Weddell seals that lounge on the sea ice just outside of McMurdo and Scott base.  Through there are no seals in the picture of Michelle skiing, she is on an ice shelf below which the seals could be swimming. When the seals find a hole in the ice they come up onto the sea ice or ice shelf and lounge in the sun.