Notes from the Field

South Pole Station: The Last Stop Before the Traverse

December 19th, 2017 by Tom Neumann

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 team at the bottom of the world.

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.

The elevated design of the station is intended to reduce snow drift, a major consideration when building structures on the ice sheet.

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.

The 2017 geographic south pole marker.

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.

The team at the geographic south pole: Forrest McCarthy, Tom Neumann, Kelly Brunt, and Chad Seay.

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


Greetings from McMurdo!

December 12th, 2017 by Kelly Brunt

Tom and I arrived in McMurdo Station, Antarctica, last Tuesday. Since then, it has been a busy week, full of specialized training and preparing to depart into the deep field…

We flew from Christchurch to McMurdo – 7.5 hours on a C-130 airplane operated by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. There were 38 passengers in the front of the aircraft and three pallets of gear in the rear. The passenger space is extremely tight; you have to work together with your neighbors to share space in an effort to remain as comfortable as possible for the long flight. And ladies, the restroom facilities are not fabulous.

Kelly and Tom on the ice runway at McMurdo Station, Antarctica (Credit: Neumann)

We landed in McMurdo on one of the nicest days that we’ve seen. It was about 25 F and sunny. Folks that had been down here before were excited to be off of the plane. And folks that had never been here before were in awe, and just wandered around on the ice tarmac, taking it all in.

The view from the runway is quite spectacular. You are standing on an ice shelf, or the edge of the ice sheet that has met a bay and is now freely floating on the ocean. In one direction, you see the full Royal Society Range and the McMurdo Dry Valleys, one of the few places on the continent where rocks are exposed through the ice. In the other direction, you see Mt Erebus, Earth’s southernmost active volcano.

Tom and Kelly at the McMurdo Station sign (Photo: Brunt)

From there, we got in a massive vehicle called Ivan the Terra Bus and headed to McMurdo Station. The driver, Shuttle Bob, is quite possibly the best greeter for any station anywhere. The ride to the station was about 15 miles and took us a little under an hour, as we moved slowly over the ice shelf. Once on station, we were given keys to our rooms, ate dinner, and went to bed. The real work started quickly the following day…

The next few days were completely full of specialized training, including tips and tricks for safe deep-field camping, altitude training, and environmental briefings, where you are reminded just how fragile this environment truly is. We have also recently received training on how to drive the PistenBullys, which are the vehicles we will be using for our traverse. These are tracked vehicles that are more commonly seen grooming ski areas in North America.

Tom and Kelly inside a PistenBully, like the one they’ll use for the traverse along 88 degrees south.
(Photo: Brunt)

Along with training, we spent a lot of time this week grabbing deep-field gear and then packing our cargo to fly to the South Pole, where we will depart on the traverse. Our cargo includes science instrumentation, vehicle parts and tools, food, and camping gear, such as tents and sleeping bags rated to -40 F. And our cargo also includes some creature comforts, such as skis and ukuleles.

Tom banding up our last bit of cargo to enter the system — this precious box contains the coffee for the traverse. (credit: Brunt)

And finally, the week has included a never-ending pursuit for a good cup of coffee. The coffee in the galley consists of ground beans that come from a can. While we did bring coffee south with us for the traverse, those beans are already in the cargo system, ready to go to the South Pole. And there isn’t a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts anywhere to be seen. So, we found the next best thing: The McMurdo Coffee House. A team of baristas, who are officially down here with other jobs, step up to the plate and provide the community with the best coffee available on station. They work exclusively for tips and often receive cash, fresh fruit, and even mission stickers (which are somewhat like currency down here).

The McMurdo Coffee House (Photo: Brunt)

Our flight to the South Pole is scheduled for this Friday, and we are pretty much ready to go! So hopefully, next week, we will be blogging from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Stay tuned!

-Kelly & Tom

Heading South, to New Zealand and Beyond

December 4th, 2017 by Tom Neumann

Greetings from New Zealand!

Soon, we’ll report back from even further south. We’re headed to the heart of the Antarctic ice sheet, to collect measurements on the ground for the ICESat-2 mission.

While NSF calls us the 88S project, sometimes you need that extra precision. We’re NASA. (Logo design by Adriana Manrique/NASA)

ICESat-2 is a NASA satellite, scheduled for launch in 2018, that will measure the height of ice sheets, glaciers, and sea ice in unprecedented detail. Designed and built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, it will carry a laser instrument called the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimetry System (ATLAS). ATLAS will send out small pulses of laser light, and precisely time how long the light takes to travel from the instrument, down to the earth, and back. These measurements, along with the position of ICESat-2 in its orbit, and the direction ATLAS was pointing, allow us to determine the height of Earth’s surface wherever ICESat-2 goes.

But how do we know those measurements from space are correct? We take a sample of measurements on the ground, which we can check against data gathered by the satellite. Which leads us to Antarctica.

The green lines trace the path where data will be collected by the ICESat-2 mission. The tracks come closest to the poles at 88 degrees north and south, forming a dense network of crossing tracks. (NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio)

Due to the particular orbit of ICESat-2, all the tracks for the satellite converge right around a latitude of 88 degrees south. Our plan is to travel to 88S and collect measurements of the ice sheet elevation around part of the circle at that latitude. We will compare our measurements with those from ICESat-2 shortly after launch to evaluate the performance of the satellite.

Kelly and I left the US last week after months of preparation, and are now en route! The first stop on our journey is Christchurch, New Zealand, where we recalibrate our internal clocks, collect the last of our cold-weather gear, and smell the roses before heading farther south. We are traveling along with science investigators and support staff working through the Antarctic Program of the US National Science Foundation. Christchurch has been the launching point for US (and New Zealand) field work in the Antarctic for decades, and we are grateful for the support of the NSF and our colleagues here in New Zealand. It is a huge advantage to follow in the footsteps of the thousands of other Antarctic program members who have gone before us.

An array of hats, jackets, and gloves are available at the Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch NZ to keep us warm while we’re down “on the ice.”

As you might imagine, it’ll be cold where we are headed, and having the right clothing is critical. Today, we visited the Clothing Distribution Center to borrow gloves, hats, parkas, and other items to keep us warm and safe. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, we’ll return to the CDC, get kitted up, and head south for McMurdo Station, the U.S. hub of operations in Antarctica.

Fingers crossed, and we’ll report next from Antarctica!

-Tom Neumann and Kelly Brunt

Final Data Collection and Farewell to Jang Bogo

December 15th, 2015 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Ryan Walker

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Before it was time to recheck our GPS stations and download data from them, the icebreaker Araon arrived at Jang Bogo, bringing new scientists, a new helicopter crew, fresh food, and other supplies. Because of heavy sea ice cover on the bay, the arrival was in slow motion, taking most of a day from the time the ship was visible from the station until it stopped a few hundred yards offshore due to unbreakable eight-foot-thick ice. Thick ice often requires an icebreaker to back up a considerable way, then charge forward into the ice, breaking through either by pure impact or by sliding the bow up onto the ice, causing it to collapse under the ship’s weight. One passenger told Christine and me that it was “like being in a car crash — all day.” We’re quite happy that there will already be a clear path out of the bay when we take the Araon back to Christchurch. Before leaving again for a roughly week-long science cruise, the ship also dropped off quite a lot of equipment for the various science teams, including most of the instruments to be installed by our hosts, the Extreme Geophysics Group. This meant that the time between Araon’s departure and return would be very busy, with limited time to install instruments before most of the scientists leave on the ship. On top of this, we had several days of bad weather that prevented any helicopter flights. In order to finish our work on the GPS stations, we had to squeeze into a busy flight schedule, which meant that Christine and I would go on separate flights.

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

I was on the first flight on December 10, which began with Dr. Choon-ki Lee installing a new GPS station on a large piece of ice at the front of Nansen Ice Shelf that looks ready to calve off into a tabular iceberg. There’s a huge crack, miles long and sometimes over a hundred yards wide, which runs more or less parallel to the front of the ice shelf. Over the winter, the sea surface freezes and traps small icebergs in the crack, producing a fascinatingly broken icescape. Comparing ice velocities between this new GPS and our stations should let us monitor the calving process and learn more about how it works. When we moved on to check the first of our GPS stations, I found that it wasn’t operating at all. After checking the wiring, I worked out that the problem was either in the wire to the receiver, the regulator (the electrical component that connects the solar panel, battery, and receiver), or the GPS receiver itself (potentially big trouble) — but had no idea which one. I pulled out those three components to check back at Jang Bogo, and we secured the rest of the station and moved on. Fortunately, after an unpromising start, the two other GPS stations we visited were working perfectly. While downloading the data, which involved about fifteen minutes of connecting my laptop and then sitting on the ice typing obscure commands, I was amused by how much this aspect of field work resembled the computer modeling work I usually do, though with vastly better scenery. We then returned to Jang Bogo with two stations in good shape, two yet to be checked, and one hopefully to be repaired.

Christine says: It was getting worryingly close to the time when we would be leaving the Antarctic and we still had some data to collect and the GPS to fix. I found that the GPS problem had been due to a faulty solar regulator and replaced it with a spare back at base. Luckily I managed to piggy back on a flight out to the Nansen Ice Shelf with the Extreme Geophysics Group while they were putting out seismic stations. Replacing the GPS was quick, with the satellite lights blinking encouragingly; now we just have to hope the system will continue working for the next couple of months. At the next station, I downloaded the data while wind blew some loose snow all over me and the computer. I probably looked a little like a snowman by the end of that. The final job was to replace the tethers on the last GPS (see our previous blog post). It was not without sadness that I waved goodbye to the plucky little machines, which would sit out on the ice on their own until the end of February. At that stage one of our Korean colleagues who is overwintering at Jang Bogo will collect them for us and send them back on the ship.

Speaking of the ship, we’re off. It is due to arrive tomorrow and we will set sail for our 7-10 day ‘cruise’ back to Christchurch in New Zealand. Its hard to believe we’ve been here 5 weeks already and it feels a bit strange to be packing up and leaving. We’re hoping for some wildlife spottings on the boat and more importantly not to be completely debilitated by sea sickness. Internet is not readily available on the Araon so we will report back when we reach dry land. Wish us luck!

Goodbye, Jang Bogo! (Credit:NASA/Christine Dow)

Goodbye, Jang Bogo! (Credit:NASA/Christine Dow)

First Data Collection Day

December 14th, 2015 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

The big day had arrived. We were due to fly to our tiltmeters to collect the data that they had been gathering for two weeks. once this was the first time we had ever set these instruments up in the field, all fingers were crossed that we had been precise enough in initially leveling the meters so the data were in range and also that the solar panels hadn’t ended up covered in snow.

We had a spectacular flight, cutting over the end of Priestley Glacier and skirting helicopter-sized crevasses on the mountain behind our field site. Despite a bit of wind on the Nansen ice shelf, it was as calm on the Comein Glacier as it has always been for our visits. It’s such a peaceful, sheltered spot that I feel a holiday cottage wouldn’t be amiss. Perhaps too long of a commute for an average Friday afternoon, however.

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

One of the tiltmeters (which are in black boxes) had become exposed and, because black materials absorb heat whereas white materials reflect it, had caused a bit of local melt which had trickled down the side of the box and refrozen. The upshot of this was that the entire box, battery, and straps were encased in some pretty solid ice. Fun! Commence some delicate hacking with ice axes so that we didn’t snap the wires coming out of the box. Finally having reached the interior, we nervously extracted the SD card and Ryan pulled the data off onto the computer. Success! Some excellent (and exciting) looking data showing tidal cycles. Tiltmeter two was easier because it hadn’t caused local melt of the snow so we could quickly retrieve the data. Again, some very interesting outputs. We want to thank John Leeman, an engineer from Penn State, for building us some happily working tiltmeters. Of course having disturbed the tiltmeters I had to reset them back to full level, which required sitting for 10 minutes enjoying the view while very delicately adjusting the little leveling legs.

We had just enough time to collect data from one of the GPS closest to the tiltmeters. All looked well apart from our tethers, which had come loose because of melt on the surface. We had one bamboo tether and one metal peg. The metal had heated up and melted a groove in the ice as it was pulled along, whereas the bamboo had stayed where it was supposed to. We tightened the wire as much as possible but we would have to return to this site with some more bamboo later.

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Credit: NASA/Christine Dow

Dinner back at base was a happy affair, having achieved success for at least three of seven of our instruments. The chefs had even made some pizza for us, which was a nice treat. The only unfortunate aspect of the day was that I had forgotten that in areas with 24 hour sunshine and highly reflective snow surfaces it is essential to put sunscreen up your nose as well as on it. Burnt nostrils are not fun, but they’re worth it for some nice data.