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ICESat-2 Antarctic Traverse: Making the Magic Happen

January 16th, 2018 by Tom Neumann

The 88S traverse was very much a group effort – in addition to the four of us, literally hundreds of people supported our project to varying degrees. This is not at all uncommon for work in Antarctica: no one person can do everything, and each person brings some unique skill to the effort.

Chad at the helm of ‘Hans,’ our trailing PistenBully (the lead vehicle was dubbed Gretel). Chad was always pleased at the end of a successful day of driving. (Photo: Kelly Brunt)

Without the vehicles, there would have been no traversing, and our mechanic Chad Seay deserves the credit for keeping us moving. Chad spent a furious week before we left South Pole servicing and repairing our two PistenBully tracked vehicles to try to head off potential complications in the field. It’s much easier to fix problems in the relative warmth of the garages at South Pole than out at 87.979 south latitude. In addition, Chad kept a careful eye on our generators and emergency heat source (the venerable Hermann Nelson). Chad picked up the knack for wrenching growing up among the farms of eastern Tennessee, and has honed his skills in the vehicle shop at McMurdo Station. His attention to detail is second to none, and his seemingly inexhaustible supply of PistenBully-branded clothing was reassuring.

Forrest piloting the lead vehicle, on the look out for danger and the missing box of Slim Jims. (Credit: Chad Seay)

Our safety and well-being were the purview of Forrest McCarthy, our mountaineer and medic. Forrest led our field safety training in McMurdo and brought literally decades of experience in the mountains and polar regions to lead us through potential scenarios and how to deal with them. While none of these (thankfully) came to pass during our traverse, being prepared is an important component of staying safe. Forrest was nearly always the first one up in the morning, and had coffee (stove top espresso) and hot water ready for all. He drove the lead vehicle the entire way, and his unfailing good humor was always welcome, and his taste for Slim Jims was a source of entertainment, at least for me.

Kelly behind the wheel, smiling at how well everything is going. (Credit: Tom Neumann)

Kelly was the overall leader for the trip, and kept track of an impressive array of details, while not losing sight of the overall science goals of the traverse. Although this was her first foray into traversing the frozen plateau, Kelly kept us going in the right direction. (literally! Who else would have corrected 88S to 87.979S?) Though I knew Kelly was a coffee connoisseur, her dedication to a morning pour-over was a dependable part of our morning routine.

Tom with one of the hundreds of cargo straps that held everything together. (Credit: Chad Seay)

I rounded out the quartet and rode shotgun with Forrest. My main duties were to run the ground penetrating radar, and partake of both the stove top espresso and pour-over each day. Having done a couple of traverses across the plateau, my other main duty was to offer sage advice and/or witty comments as the situation warranted. At least that’s what I think I did – Chad, Kelly and Forrest may have a different opinion!

We all shared in the cooking and cleaning duties, and managed to keep ourselves fed and happy. Some highlights were Chad’s frozen burritos (and he claimed he couldn’t cook?!), my tiny pizzas, and a truly massive amount of cookies and cream ice cream. While the ice cream was good, we always required a hot drink immediately afterwards: the kitchen tent was warm, but perhaps not warm enough to make eating ice cream a really good idea.

In addition to the four of us, there really were a multitude of others here in Antarctica and beyond who made the traverse such a success. While not a complete list, we all want to thank (in no particular order): Tim, Jen, Ian, Bjia, Kory, Steve Z, Chad, Curt, Autumn (what ice cream?), Liz, Joey, Tony, Michael, Dan & Danny, Tony, Stacy, James, JD (who just makes things happen), Jen, Marlene, Darren, Andrea, Joni, Zoe, Annie, and Thorsten.

Trip isn’t over yet folks – we’re re-packing cargo and heading back to McMurdo shortly…

-Tom and Kelly

ICESat-2 Antarctic Traverse: A Successful Traverse, by our Travelin’ Band

January 12th, 2018 by Kelly Brunt

We smashed it.

Our team is back at South Pole Station after a highly successful 88S Traverse. We budgeted 16 to 19 days for the traverse, but we returned to station after just 15 days. Our science instrumentation and the vehicles performed with only minor hiccups, and in general, any problems that arose were solved quickly.

PistenBullys on traverse! Two tracked vehicles hauling the living quarters and equipment for the folks on the 88S Traverse. (Photo: Chad Seay)

The campaign by the numbers: 750 km (or 466 miles) of ground traverse; 15 days; 4 people; 2 PistenBullys; 4 corner cube reflector arrays; many snack, including an irrational number of Slim Jims; ~3 lbs of coffee; 1 giant tub of ice cream; and way too much CCR, Ozzy, and Styx.

But first – 4 days to get to our study area! To reach the southern extent of the ICESat-2 ground tracks at 88 degrees latitude, where we’ll take ground measurements to compare with future satellite data, we had to drive 220 km (137 miles) from the South Pole. We collected GPS elevation data along the way, in part to get ourselves up to speed with the day-to-day business of data collection and in part because there is very limited ground-based elevation data in this region.

The first 110 km (68 miles) of this was on the established, groomed, South Pole Traverse route, which had been driven three times this season as teams delivered fuel to South Pole Station. But after that, we were on our own…

The polar plateau, interrupted by PistenBully tracks. (photo: Kelly Brunt)

We turned left off of the South Pole Traverse route and began breaking new ground. After another 110 km, we were on the 88S line of latitude!

Almost instantly, we arrived at a point where Tom and I wanted to deploy an array of corner cube retroreflectors (CCRs), which are made of specialized glass that will strongly reflect the transmitted signal from ICESat-2. These points of strong reflection will be used to validate the pointing of ICESat-2.

The CCRs are insanely small, smaller than your pinky nail. Setting up the first array of 6 CCRs took about half a day, as we mounted the CCRs on the top of bamboo poles and then precisely located the position of the bamboo poles by occupying the site of each pole with a survey-quality GPS for 20 minutes. Since most of this was accomplished outside, you can imagine that this was a pretty cold morning. Ultimately, we deployed 4 CCR arrays along the 88S route.

A insanely small corner cube retroreflector, mounted on a bamboo pole (Photo: Tom Neumann)

With the exception of the areas associated with the CCR arrays (and yes, every time I say ‘CCR’, Tom sings a John Fogerty classic; it’s true even in his reading of this), the bulk of our days were consumed with driving. We averaged about 60 km (37 miles) per day, at a breakneck speed of about 9 km/hr (5.6 mph).

And as with any road trip, we consumed a lot of road snacks, including chips, jerky, and in the case of our mountaineer Forrest, many, many Slim Jims.

After about a week on the 88S line of latitude, we reached a point where we had collected our goal: 300 km (186 miles) of ground-based elevation data for direct comparison with ICESat-2 elevation data. Forrest fired up Ozzy’s ‘Mama, I’m Coming Home’ in his PistenBully and we made our second left turn, toward Pole.

The sled train headed south toward the Pole, and ultimately toward home (Photo: Chad Seay)

From 88S, we again traveled 220 km to traverse from our study area to Pole. We continued to collect data along this stretch, but our focus turned to the tired PistenBullys, which are 17 years old and not accustomed to two straight weeks of intense usage. Our incredible mechanic Chad kept an eye on these and helped to nurse them home.

We did so well, that I was overly conservative on consumption of really good coffee: I made Tom drink mediocre coffee for about a week, before I felt confident that the really good coffee would last the whole traverse. For this, Tom, I am eternally sorry.

Hey Eileen: Mama, I’m coming home.

-Kelly and Tom

ICESat-2 Antarctic Traverse: 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

Greenland Aquifer Expedition: The Long Way to Kulusuk

March 27th, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

As I write this post, on Tuesday, March 26, our team is spread across the globe. I am at Dulles airport near Washington, D.C. waiting to get on a plane that will fly through the night to Iceland, and then onto Kulusuk, Greenland, tomorrow. My gear includes a thick parka, boots, cloths, medicine (just in case) and even some chocolate for Easter, all packed in a nice water-tight bag so no snow will get in it. Jay, Clem and Ludo are already in Kulusuk and Rick is waiting in Iceland to get on the same plane that will take me to Greenland tomorrow.

Some of my gear, before packing.

Some of my gear, before packing.

How did we all get so spread out? Well, it was mostly caused by the unpredictably of weather canceling flights and the limited number of flights into Kulusuk (there are only two each week — on Wednesdays and Saturdays).

To figure out our logistics, we have to start with our put-in date that is scheduled for April 1. “Put-in” is when we go from Kulusuk to our field site on the ice sheet to put in our camp and start the science. A put-in date of April 1 means we all need to arrive in Kulusuk at least one flight before the connection flight, to give us a cushion. Rick and I will arrive on the March 27 flight, which is the last flight with a cushion. We would have all arrived on this flight but the Easter Holidays threw a wrench in our schedule: all services will be closed in Kulusuk from March 28 to April 2. So Jay, Clem and Ludo arrived early to buy some extra food, fill fuel canisters and make sure all the science cargo arrived safely.

To get to Kulusuk, we go through Reykjavik, Iceland. Clem and Ludo got an extra day in Iceland because they had a boomerang flight. “Boomerang flights”, common in the polar regions, happen when a plane takes off for a location and then the weather takes a nasty turn, so the aircraft has to return to its point of origin. So you take a long plane ride but end up right back where you started – that’s one of the reasons we plan lots of extra days in our schedule for delays.

Beyond getting people to the field, we have to make sure all of our gear is there as well. Our gear was shipped the first week of March – different shipments were sent from Kangerlussuaq (Greenland), Greenbelt, MD, Salt Lake City, UT and Madison, WI. We have about 4,000 lbs of gear, including the science equipment, camping equipment, generators, and food. Jay, Clem and Ludo have confirmed that everything arrived safely except for our deep drill, which, proof of Murphy’s Law, happens to be one of the most important pieces of gear. We knew it had been delayed in shipping for a few weeks and right now, it’s in Kangerlussuaq, waiting to get on a plane to Nuuk and then onto Kulusuk. Hopefully it will arrive Tuesday, but the latest news is another delay due to airplane maintenance that canceled the flight to Nuuk. There are still two flights that could get the drill there in time, so we are watching this closely.  If the drill does not arrive in time, we will have to delay the field work.

Right now the weather is beautiful in Kulusuk, so hopefully all the pieces (people, gear and weather) will come together for an on-time field season. Now I will board a plane, hopefully get some sleep, and send my next update from Greenland.

Greenland Aquifer Expedition: The Packing Begins

March 20th, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

Hello and welcome (or hopefully, welcome back) to yet another of my field blogs! It’s a chilly day here in Greenbelt, Maryland, and I am packing away my warmest parka and sleeping bags – yes, I said bags, in plural, since I will need two to keep me warm enough during my upcoming field work. This time, my team and I are off to southeast Greenland to investigate not ice, but water we believe is trapped within the ice. During this expedition, jointly funded by both the National Science Foundation and NASA, we will be camping on the ice for a little over a week in a very remote area of the Greenland ice sheet. We will gather as much information as we can about the captive water, which we termed a perennial firn aquifer. This will be a very exciting field campaign because it is exploratory: we don’t know much at all about the aquifer, so we will attempt to determine some of its basic properties and which tools work best for exploring it.

The (tiny) red star marks the approximate location of our drill site in Greenland.

The (tiny) red star marks the approximate location of our drill site in Greenland.

Let’s start with what we do know. In 2011, during the Arctic Circle Traverse (ACT), two of our team members, Rick Forster and Clement Miege, were involved with a drilling project to investigate how much snow falls in southeast Greenland. That region has the largest amount of snowfall in all of Greenland  (for Twilight fans, think of this place as the Forks of Greenland: cold, dark and wet. And let’s add windy to the list as well.) Because southeast Greenland has such high snowfall and is relatively far way from any established camps, it’s a difficult place to work. Hence, not many ice cores have been drilled in this region. That’s why the ACT traverse went to Southeast Greenland: to collect much-needed cores . When they were drilling their last one, closest to the edge of the ice sheet and about 65 feet (20 meters) deep, and they pulled up the drill, they found water dripping out the end of the core barrel. This was quite a shock. The ACT team looked at their radar data, which can show the top of a water layer but not the depth, and were able to trace the water mass. They drilled again a few miles away and again hit water. The drill they were using was not designed to drill into water, so they had to stop. But they had discovered something new. And why does it matter there’s an aquifer buried under the ice, you might wonder? It is important because water that is released from the Greenland ice sheer can directly raise sea level. We are not sure that this water will ever be released, or if the quantity of water is large enough to matter, but anytime ice melts to water and has the possibility to leave the ice sheet, we want to know more about it.

Now Rick and Clem have invited myself and two others to go back and find out more about this water.  So here is the formal team lineup. The team is lead by Rick Forster, a professor of Geography at the University of Utah who specializes in remote sensing of the cyrosphere. Clement Miege (Clem) is a PhD student from the University of Utah who studies accumulation using radars.  Ludovic Brucker (Ludo) is a research associate for University Space Research Association at NASA Goddard Space Flight and is an expert in remote sensing of the ice sheets as well as sea ice. (You may remember Clem and Ludo from the SEAT traverse blog in Antarctica.) Jay Kyne is a driller from the University of Wisconsin’s Ice Drilling Design and Operations (IDDO) program. And then there’s me, Lora Koenig, a remote-sensing glaciologist from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

From top left, clockwise: Rick Forster, Ludo Brucker, Jay Kyne (his furry friend won't come to Greenland), Clement Miege and Lora Koenig.

From top left, clockwise: Rick Forster, Ludo Brucker, Jay Kyne (his furry friend won’t come to Greenland), Clement Miege and Lora Koenig.

We have assembled a great rough and ready team with a broad assortment of tools to learn as much as we can about the aquifer. We will all be traveling to Kulusuk, Greenland next week, which was conveniently featured by NASA’s Earth Observatory recently. From Kulusuk we will pack our gear, including ice core drills, temperatures sensors, a down-hole video camera and ground penetrating radars, into a helicopter and onto the ice sheet. We hope you will join us for this expedition. You may want to start watching the weather. Our fist put in date will be April 1, (April Fools’ Day – but this is no joke), weather permitting. Over the next few weeks, will we publish more blog posts about our science, the logistics of getting all our gear to Kulusuk, and life on the ice.

I guess there is just one last thing to do, and that is to name our team. The official title of this project is “An initial investigation of the Greenland perennial firn aquifer,” which I admit is not very exciting and I can’t seem to turn into a catchy acronym. So for now we will be the Greenland Aquifer Team. If you reader come up with a better name for our team, please post it in the comments section. We may just adopt it!

Notes from the Field