After a few extra days in the seaside town of McMurdo Station, we flew on a ski-equipped LC-130 for the sunny environs of South Pole Station, where we had a flawless touchdown on the groomed skiway next to the station. This is our last stop before embarking on the traverse in about a week. Our main objective here is to prepare our vehicles and sleds for travel, and take some cool pictures.
The Amundsen-Scott South Pole station is located right at 90 degrees south latitude (ok, maybe not exactly there, but the station is within about 100m of 90 S). It’s named for the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who first set foot here in December of 1911, and for the British explorer Robert F. Scott, who followed closely behind in January 1912. The United States established a station here in 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year, and it has been continuously occupied ever since. The current station, commissioned in 2008, is the third major station the U.S. Antarctic Program has built here. The prior station (the iconic geodesic dome) was disassembled and sent back to the US.
We are here in the height of the summer season, and there are ~150 people on station making the most of the relatively warm weather (-30 C, or -22F) for construction projects, moving cargo, and of course, science projects like ours. In winter, the station is much quieter with around 40 people spending the long winter keeping the station running.
For the first few days we’re here, our main job is to do very little. The South Pole Station sits on top of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet at about 10,000 feet above sea level, which is a big jump from the sea level McMurdo Station. The keys to acclimatization are to drink plenty of water and avoid exercise, though a little walking is fine. After about three days, we will be cleared to move on to more vigorous activities.
There is a marker placed at the geographic South Pole, designed by the wintering crew at the station. Every year on January 1, the new marker is placed and the marker from the past year is put on display inside the station. Since the entire station (and skiway, and cargo, and traverse vehicles) are on top of the ice sheet, the whole station moves along with the ice. The ice shifts about 30 feet per year toward the 40 degrees west line of longitude where it eventually becomes part of the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf. (Don’t worry though, at the current velocity, it will take tens of thousands of years to get there.)
The perhaps more familiar scene is from the ceremonial south pole – a post with barbershop stripes and a reflective ball on top, surrounded by the flags of nations signing the original Antarctic treaty. The two poles are a few hundred yards apart and are both worth a visit if you find yourself down this way. Tell ‘em Tom sent you.
Earlier today, we visited our cargo that we shipped from McMurdo and had a look at our sleds. It looks like everything has arrived, and as soon as our breath catches up with us, we will begin packing the sleds and pitching our tents!
-Tom and Kelly
By Ludovic Brucker
Kulusuk, 29 March 2014 — For our deployment to the field, we need two flights to bring our scientific equipment and camping gear. As mentioned in our previous post, we decided to avoid being on the ice sheet while the third storm system of the week affects the area. However, thanks to Air Greenland and its helicopter B-212’s crew, we were able to have a first cargo flight to the ice sheet on Thursday afternoon. This will allow us to be fully operational as soon the second flight brings our tents, food, more science gear, and us to the ice sheet!
Thursday morning, we went to the airport to meet with the pilot and hear his point of view about a possible cargo flight that same day. While snow-removing activities of the runway were underway, he shared with us his concern that our cargo (if left on the ice sheet with the current weather system developing offshore) may be blown away or heavily buried in snow. Since we did not have a single item fly away in Antarctica during our SEAT 2011-2012 traverse and its Christmas storm, we will make sure this does not happen in Greenland! Regarding buried items; it’s fine as long as the shovels aren’t buried themselves.
In the afternoon, Clem and I took off with the cargo flight to unload it from the helo, and to build the cargo line. The sky was scattered with clouds, sometimes low, but it cleared up as we were approaching the ice sheet.
We landed in the vicinity of our temperature probe system and its Argos antenna, which has been sending temperature measurements every day for almost a year now. With the help of the helicopter’s crew, it did not take long to organize a cargo line along the dominant wind direction to minimize snow drift.
Our objective was accomplished, the cargo was on the ice sheet. Step 1: Done! Done? Well, of course not. We still had to fly back… But in spite of everyone’s effort, we were not able to fly back to Kulusuk that day. The night was coming quickly and the pilot is not allowed to fly after twilight. Thus, we landed in Tasiilaq 3 minutes after twilight on Thursday. Tasiilaq is on the other side of the bay from Kulusuk, a 15-minute helicopter ride away. Tasiilaq is the largest city on the East coast of Greenland, with about 3,000 inhabitants, and it’s home for the B-212. We landed accurately on the B-212’s kart in front of its hangar so that it could be moved inside quickly. Suddenly, Clem and I were facing a situation for which we were not prepared.
For a less-than-2-hour round trip to the ice sheet, Clem and I were dressed in our warmest layers, and to face a variety of eventualities (including spending an unexpected night on the ice sheet) we had packed a tent, sleeping bags, food, water, extra jackets, gloves, goggles and hats, a satellite phone, two GPS, and a beacon locator. We knew that in our cargo there was more food, a cook stove, propane and white gas; these were in case for the inbound flight. For the outbound flight, we knew that the B-212 has some safety equipment too. That was all we had. But we were facing a different situation now: we were in the largest town of East Greenland, with the perspective of a storm arriving overnight, and forecasted to last several days.
Air Greenland found us a hotel and a warm dinner. Sweet, we wouldn’t be camping on the helipad. Past the first night, we woke up with the exact same landscape as in Kulusuk. I’m serious! Through the windows we could see the same white sky, land, and horizontal snowfall. Visibility? We still don’t know for sure; neither Clem nor I could tell because we had left Kulusuk with our contact lenses on and did not carry our glasses.
Past this first reality check, we headed to breakfast (dressed in our long underwear). We had a specific topic to discuss: what were we going to do during the next hours, days, week? The ideas ranged from finding a book, a toothbrush, an Internet connection, an alternative to water for our contact lenses, learning Greenlandic, finding a boat… Three hours after breakfast, we started a hunt for a set of playing cards to play cribbage. I asked the hotel manager if we could borrow cards from the hotel, or any other game that would keep us busy a few hours, days, a week. He pointed out a souvenir store where we could buy such items. Well, despite knowing that one should take his passport to the field, we did not have money. The hotel manager had a swift idea: “That’s not a problem, you can wash dishes after lunch.” Good times! So, we registered for being the little hands in the kitchen. The next 15 minutes were funny, I was trying to explain this to Clem, and to convince him that it was no joke at all. After lunch, we would be on dish wash duty, dressed in long underwear, and without glasses.
I left for a minute to go back to the room and heard Clem running toward me: “Dress up, we are leaving! The helicopter will take off within the next hour. We must go the airport right now.” Ha, ha, funny Clem, you thought I was joking with washing the dishes, and now you feel the need to make a joke too, but I ain’t a silly fool, and it’s not April 1st yet. Well, when I saw Clem dressing up, and tightening his shoes in a hurry without wasting time to comment further on his statement, let me tell you, I quickly dressed up too! I could not risk missing that flight, if it happened.
Air Greenland was able to fly us back to Kulusuk using a French-made helicopter (an Ecureuil – an Astar helicopter) flown by an Icelandic pilot. Certainly, he was used to windy conditions, and low visibility. We were reunited with Rick for lunch in Kulusuk!
We would like to thank Air Greenland for their dedication to serving our project yesterday and today. Working with us on a flexible schedule to get the cargo flight in yesterday was a big help. Accommodating us in Tasiilaq and getting us back to Kulusuk this morning allowed us to be ready for the next opportunity to fly to the ice sheet so we can begin our experiments. A continued good relationship with Air Greenland and their pilots is important for the success of our science. We view them as team members critically needed to move forward with a successful campaign.
By Jay Kyne (Greenland Aquifer Team’s driller)
At first we all talked on the phone about it. And then I saw the picture: another driller had drilled into water and, as the drill hung on the surface, there was water dripping from it. Of course that drill quickly froze. So the question was: how do we drill thru the cold snow on top and then into the wet, warm snow/ice below it?
I’ve been drilling into the Greenland ice sheet for nearly 25 years, but I never imagined that there was water down there that didn’t freeze over the cold, dark winter. There have been some deep holes drilled way out in the middle of the ice sheet, all the way to the bottom (about 2 miles deep) and there at the base of the ice sheet the temperatures are near freezing, but not quite there: heat is coming up from the earth, warming the underbelly of the ice sheet. But the newfound aquifer was water that came from the top, melted snow that percolated down the ice. That was surprising to find out, but now the question was how we were going to drill through it.
They told me that their radar showed that the water was between 12 and 25m below the surface. I’ve drilled a lot of holes to that depth with a small lightweight drill that I turned from the surface with a big electric drill. It’s basically a tube with helical plastic strips attached to the outside and cutters at the bottom end. You have to come up about every meter and take the core out and dump the snow cuttings, or “chips”, as we call them. As you get deeper, you add more stem to reach the bottom.
I’ve also drilled ‘warm’ ice with a drill that melts its way down, but that was in the continental United States: in Wyoming, Washington and California. That ice was right at freezing temperature.
So we decided to use both of these drills and make the switch when we felt the time was right. And it worked! It was fun working with the Greenland Aquifer Team, too.
By Lora Koenig
April 3, 2013 — Well, if there is one thing you can count on when doing fieldwork, it is that plans will change. Good thing we always have a plan A and plan B ready. But today we must have hit plan H, because we were not really ready for it. Originally were told we would have two flights this afternoon. It was a beautiful day, so we figured there would be no problem getting us into the field. As I have mentioned before, all of our cargo was organized for each put-in flight. Roughly, the three loads were camp gear, science gear and ice core drill to fly in that order. On April 1, Ludo, Clem and Rick went in with the camp gear. At around noon today, when our flights were supposed to start, the pilots said they were running a bit late but hopefully we would still get in two flights. At 1 pm they said they could only fly one flight before their duty day (the amount of time they can fly in a day) ended. We are already 2 days delayed and drilling the cores through the aquifer will take the most time, so we decided we had to get the drill in first. Jay and I quickly reshuffled the gear. It was a good thing we wrote the weights on each box the first time we weighed them, because we had to completely reorganize the remaining 1,200 kg of gear in about 30 minutes and re-total the new weights.
In the mean time, the flight from Iceland arrived. Jay, now nearly a local at the airport, marched right out to the plane to help unload and look for our back-up cutters that I had mistakenly left at home (thanks again to my mom, who is also helping to take care of my toddler while I am in the field, for sending those along.) The cutters had arrived. Jay shoved them in his bag and shortly thereafter we loaded the helicopter with the drill. I should mention that many of the drill pieces are quite long, over 2 meters (6.56 feet). We knew in advance it would be a tight fit to get the drill in one helicopter load. Some of the pieces had to be loaded at an angle just above the passenger seats. Jay had to wedge himself in with his head ducked, but it all fit and he was shortly whisked off to the ice sheet.
I walked back to the hotel feeling rather alone with the rest of the team in the field. My spirits were lifted slightly because the flight from Iceland had also brought the hotel manager and he restored the Internet at the hotel. The bad thing is that the cord to download pictures from today and my flash drive just got sent to the field, so I apologize for the lack of new photos.
I spoke to Rick last night and the now field team had safely reached the camp site, set up three tents and were ready to start the radar surveys. I image by now the drill is set up and the radar survey complete. We hope to drill at a site where the top of the water layer, as imaged by the radar, is about 15 meters (49 feet) below the surface. Jay will be drilling with the 4-inch drill, called like that because, well, it drills a 4-inch core. If all went well this evening, they will have probably already drilled 5 to 8 meters (16 to 26 ft) of core. The first cores come up quickly because the drill does not have to travel up and down the hole very far, but as the drilling gets deeper, it will get slower. We plan on drilling a 60-m (196-ft) and 30-m (98-ft) hole, but as you can already see with all our transportation hiccups, plans may change. We will not be bring back any of the core — we’ll analyze it in the field by weighing it to get the density and taking infrared pictures to learn about the firn structure.
So you may be asking, what is the forecast? It has after all been beautiful every day except for our original put-in morning of April 1. All this good weather is definitely making all of us nervous. (Yes, even scientists can be superstitious when it comes to the weather.) When I talked with the weather office this morning, they expected a nice day tomorrow with a moderate storm (meaning 15- to 20-knot winds and moderate-to-heavy snowfall) on Friday. Not a great forecast! Additionally, I just got a text message from Susan, our logistics superhero who arranges the charter flight, tracks cargo, and much more, saying that the AirGreenland helicopter we are chartering has a very full schedule tomorrow supplying the local villages. They have tentatively scheduled my flight for 16:45 local time but I was told it was not guaranteed that late in the duty day. I have nothing against Kulusuk, but I really would like to get out of here tomorrow, especially if there is a storm approaching that could cause further delays. Yes, I really do want to leave this nice warm hotel room for a cold tent, even with a storm approaching, if that gets me closer the team and to completing our science objectives. The good news is that the drilling, our primary objective, has already started.
By Lora Koenig
April 1, 2013 — I was tossing and turning this morning between 5 and 6:30 am, anticipating our 8:15 am scheduled take-off. Our gear was packed and we were ready to go. I rolled out of bed at 6:30, looked out the window and realized our luck had run out: I couldn’t see any of the beautiful peaks surrounding Kulusuk and snow was lightly falling. The pilots called our hotel at 8 am and told us the flight was delayed and they would reassess at 11 am when the next weather forecast would arrive. Eleven o’clock came and the weather had not changed, so our on-time put-in was canceled. Not only that, but we were told tomorrow was not an option either: due to the Easter holidays, tomorrow’s helicopter schedule is full transferring supplies to the smaller villages. It is typical to have delays, so we were not too disheartened. However, it was bit frustrating when all the clouds burned off around 2 pm and we had a beautiful blue-sky afternoon. It was too bad we couldn’t fly today. We all made the best of the situation and went out for a hike to enjoy the nice weather and some free time before the field work begins.
Here’s what really happened: Yesterday we were told there was no chance we could fly today. Imagine our surprise when at 10 am the helicopter pilots called the hotel and said they would give us one of our three put-in flights at 11:20 am. We already have the gear for the three flights at the airport and had a put in plan just in case we had to split the fights, so we jumped into action. Rick, Clem and Ludo would be in the first helicopter load with emergency gear, gear to set up camp, food and the radar gear to do the initial survey to find the top of the water layer we are going to drill into. Rick, Clem and Ludo packed the last remaining items in their rooms, I filled water bottles and Jay got the hotel truck ready to haul us to the airport. (As I mentioned before, they are nice enough to let us use their truck.) Once at the airport we weighed our items and put them on the luggage carts. The helicopter arrived and was literally packed full of gear. Our first load is light at around 800 kg (we can have up to 950 kg including passengers), but it is bulky with all the tents and food. The helicopter pilot confirmed our location, asked about the conditions of the site from 2 years ago, when Clem was last there, gave a quick safety briefing and took off just after 11:45.
Now our team is split. Rick, Ludo and Clem will establish camp and complete the radar survey. Jay and I are still waiting in Kulusuk that camp is set up and all is well. The next check is at 4 pm (as a safety precaution, we always have check-in times). Tomorrow at noon we will start the last two put-in flights to bring the drills, the rest of the science equipment, Jay and I. Today’s was an eventful morning, but the fieldwork has officially started. The weather report is good for tomorrow and Jay and I are ready to go — we can even go early if the pilots decide to give us a call at breakfast.
If we get into the field tomorrow, we will transmit brief updates using our satellite phone to keep the blog updated. Then, when we get back from the field, if the Internet here is fixed,we can start sending more of our spectacular photos.