Halos

Auroras may grace the polar skies at night, but the day sometimes brings phenomenal halos and sundogs. It’s hard to describe the intangible beauty of these phenomena – vibrant spots of rainbow on either side of the sun, glowing pillars of light from the sun, a brilliant stream of light encircling the sky parallel to the horizon…a good display is simply awe-inspiring.

In general atmospheric optical phenomenon (sundogs, halos, rainbows) are not uncommon. Frequent halos and sundogs can be seen around the world when ice crystals in the atmosphere reflect and refract light. Infrequent halos are more often seen in polar regions or at high elevations with colder temperatures and more ice in the atmosphere. A common occurrence with halos is “Diamond Dust” which is essentially a ground level ice cloud filling the air with glittering ice crystals.

All photos below were taken by me, click on any of the images to open the full photo with caption.


The different crystal shapes generate different optics, however ice crystals form in hexagonal symmetry, thus while the crystal might be long or short (columnar or plate-like) the internal angles are always the same. Here at Summit the ICECAPS project, housed primarily in the MSF, is researching these crystals and cloud formations to better understand the complex processes involved in these systems.

The following website is a brilliant source of information regarding atmospheric optics and identifying features: www.atoptics.co.uk. An impressive full list of optical phenomenon can be found here: https://wikipedia.org/Atmospheric_optical_phenomena. For more Summit specific photos and information check out the Polar Field Services blog, Field Notes.

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Photograph of a good halo display – 22° halo, upper tangent arc, 46° halo, and parhelic circle at Summit Station, Greenland

 

Below are some of my favorite photos of optics that I have witnessed in the Arctic and Antarctic. If only I’d had my wide angle lens in past seasons! Click on images to bring up caption and full picture.

 

According to atoptics.co.uk, 120° parhelia are infrequent, but not super rare. They are often faint and short lived however, I have only ever seen them twice. Below is a panorama at Summit showing bright 120° parhelia.

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Bright sundogs, 22° halo, and definite rare 120° parhelia! (Summit)

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Looking opposite the previous photo – the 120° parhelia can be seen along the parhelic circle (Summit)

Moon halos are not uncommon either, but require a nearly full moon and darkness as well as halo forming conditions.

 

Other interesting optical phenomena include the green flash and fogbows. The green flash lasted a few hours at the South Pole Station in 2013 (check out my post from that sunset with more green flash photos here). This photo was taken through a telescope. It’s a bit blurry due to heat waves and light distortion near the horizon, the same process which causes the green flash to be visible. Fog and fogbows are a frequent occurrence at Summit, Greenland.

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 Happy belated equinox and sunrise at Pole!

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Autumn

It is autumn on the ice sheet; Nights are growing longer and darker, days ever slightly colder, the winds are variable and often brisk. We often have freezing fog and rime grows on everything.

It’s been a month since the last plane departed from Summit Station and the five of us have settled into our roles and routines. The two science techs monitor the year-round science on station, troubleshooting issues, launching weather and ozone balloons, conducting accumulation surveys, and GPS measurements to calibrate ICEBridge data. The Mechanic keeps our lights on and water running – but he is also busy catching up on all the little projects from summer, tuning up snowmobiles, winterizing equipment, and cleaning the shop. Our heavy equipment operator has put the CAT D7 bulldozer to work completing the winter berm and pushing snow away from the station buildings. He’s made significant progress, but there is an infinite amount of snow and he’ll be busy until his last day here. As the station manager I have familiarized myself with the station and all the little changes that have occurred in the last year. I do all the admin/paperwork/email for the station as well as lead up safety and communications. This past month I’ve put my heavy equipment skills to work in the loaders cleaning up station, consolidating cargo, placing items on the winter berm, and doing water runs.

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Mostly we’ve been busy preparing for winter – making sure everything is up above grade, flagged, and photographed. We’ve winterized the summer buildings and moved them up to the berms. Air vents are covered, windows and doors secured, everything that shouldn’t freeze has been moved inside. Heavy equipment that won’t be used through the winter is parked up on berms, the air intake and exhaust taped up, the batteries disconnected and moved inside.

The station is nice and quite with just 5 people. While the summers are exciting and non-stop, the winters are slow and steady with time to catch up on projects. The summer professional cook is missed, however everyone takes turns cooking now and it’s fun. If nothing else, we’re burning so many calories in the cold and altitude that everything tastes good!

We’ve had a lot of overcast and cloudy days this month, though we’ve also had a few amazing sundogs and other atmospheric optics – more on that in my next post. Temps have dipped down to the -30F range, but our average day is around 0F to -10F with 10kt winds.

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A fog bow above station

Summit Station is at 72°N. For comparison Barrow, AK is at 71°N, Eureka Nunavut is at 79°N, Reykjavik Iceland is at 64°N, Longyearbyen Svalbard is at 78°N, and McMurdo Station in Antarctica is 77°S.

At 72°N we’ll have two and a half months (10 weeks) of 24 hour darkness, but unlike at the South Pole where there is one long day and one long night, we do have some day and some night for most of the year. In mid-August when the last plane left the sun was rising at 0305 and setting at 2205. Today it rose at 0555 and will set at 1857.

Below is a graph showing sunrise/sunset times for Summit in 2016 (note: times will shift one hour back in Oct for daylight savings)

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Summer’s End

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The summer season is coming to a close and Summit Station is as busy as ever wrapping up projects and preparing for winter.

The last Herc for the year is scheduled for Aug. 17th. We’ll be left with 5 souls on station and a lot to do before the storms hit. Autumn comes fast on the ice sheet with high winds, monster drifts, and reduced visibility. As winter approaches daylight dwindles and temperatures drop as well, though most of our preparations are for the storms.

To winterize station we move the handful of summer buildings (carp shop, summer berthing, storage units, short term science space etc) away from the main station. We park equipment out in the flat white and put all implements and drags on small berms raised above grade. All cargo on station is consolidated onto pallets or crates and placed on one long berm above grade as well. With nearly a meter of accumulation each year and an infinite amount of drifting possible things get buried. It’s just one of the difficulties of life here. So we mark edges and corners with colorful flags atop long pieces of bamboo. A lot of effort is put into marking, mapping, photographing, and documenting where things are put.

We are in the midst of turnover here – as the station manager this means I am in the office long hours reviewing SOPs and where documents are stored, as well as emergency plans, schedules, and tasking to be done before winter comes. The rest of my crew has been here since June and are mostly settled into their roles. I held this position last year so most of it is review, but there are some changes here and there and it’s good to go over everything before we’re on our own. The next flights won’t be until mid-October when a Twin Otter will fly from Iceland to Summit to change out part of the crew.

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Summit Deployment

Welcome Back! After a few months off to enjoy the world of trees, mountains, swimming in lakes, and not wearing 40lbs of extreme cold weather gear the time has come to deploy again. I’m on my way back to Summit Station in Greenland. I’ll be returning as the Station Manager, the same position I held last year. This time however, I’ll be running the station through the cold, dark, arctic winter from August to  February.

In the short summer season from April-August Summit Station is a busy and exciting hub of activity. Construction projects are completed, cargo is moved with the Air National Guard, it’s home to lots of people (up to around 35), the GrIT traverse comes and goes, and multiple groups conduct their research. The sun is up 24/7 and temperatures range from -20F to 30F. Current weather graphs for Summit can be found here.

The summer is brief however, and the Hercs are needed elsewhere to support science with the US Antarctic Program (USAP) on the other end of the world. In mid-late August Summit Station shuts down for the winter (see my post here from last year: https://antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/2015/08/23/summers-end/). From August to April a skeleton crew of just 5 maintains the station and several year-round science projects. There are no LC-130 Hercs or flight periods (https://antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/flight-period-4/) to deliver fresh food or new faces, just a few Twin Otter flights in October and February for crew change-outs.

At 72°North, Summit is not at the Pole, but it is above the Arctic Circle and thus has very long days in the summer and very long nights in the winter. This year the sun has been up since May 5th, but on August 6th it will set at 11:59pm to rise again just 22 minutes later at 1:21am. Gradually the “night” will lengthen until November 14th when it will become dark 24 hours a day 7 days a week. For the next few months we’ll have beautiful sunsets.

Check this link out for August sunrise/sunset times at Summit: http://www.timeanddate.com/sun/greenland/summit-camp?month=08&year=2016

It’s not as intense as winter at the South Pole, but temperatures have fallen as low as -89F and the Aurora Borealis is stunning. Check out this post on Polar Field Services Blog Field Notes about the winter at Summit in 2009: polarfield.com/blog/greenlands-summit-camp-in-the-winter.

We’ve arrived in Schenectady, NY and from here we’ll fly up to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland via the New York Air National Guard aboard Lc-130 Hercules planes. A day or two in ‘Kanger‘ and then it will be onward to Summit. It will be a busy next few weeks as we close up the station and prepare for winter.

For photos of the hercs and Kanger check out my deployment post from last year: https://antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/welcome-to-summit/

 

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West Antarctic Traverse

The Antarctic summer has come to an end wrapping up another successful and interesting season.

This year I was working as part of the WAS (West Antarctic Support) Traverse. Operating Tucker Sno-cats and Caterpillar Challenger 55 tractors we assisted in the removal of over 100,000lbs of cargo from Byrd. The cargo had accumulated over the years from previous camps. Buildings, tents, equipment, and field supplies such as tools and flagged bamboo etc. were left on the berm. The plan was to fly much of it back to McMurdo for reissue, however many of the scheduled flights to West Antarctica were cancelled due to mechanical issues, weather, and flight priority changes with other operations on continent. With fewer flights the pressure was on us to haul it all back to WAIS where it could be consolidated and flown out next year.

On November 24th we boarded an LC-130 Herc and flew from McMurdo to WAIS Divide in the Deep Field. The WAIS camp staff had been there for a few days already and camp was looking good when we arrived. We set up our tents, checked on our gear, and got to work. Our first priority was getting our equipment out of the snow and in working order. Much easier said than done…

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An LC-130 Herc loaded up and heading to WAIS Divide field camp

 

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A Tucker buried under winter accumulation and drifting

It’s a fact of life out here – over winter the accumulation and drifting buries everything. Berms help, raising things on stilts is better, but there is always a lot of digging to be done come spring! This process was much easier with the D4 bulldozer…but even then it took about a day with equipment and another day by hand and hermie to clean out the crevices and melt out the engine blocks.

Once the equipment was cleared of snow we did a complete overview, conducting preventative maintenance measures such as fluid and filter changes. Then it was time to set up the sleds. Modern traverses generally use long sheets of high molecular weight (HMW) plastic to haul cargo and fuel. We use black not only because it’s much harder to lose in the flat white, but also because it absorbs solar radiation creating an ultra thin layer of melt water underneath (much like an ice skate). The overall goal is to reduce friction, thus increasing the mass that can be pulled.

Cargo can be placed directly on top of the HMW, but especially in the cold it doesn’t take much to damage the surface. Once scratched it cannot be used for fuel bladders for fear of damaging the bladders and risking a spill. A scratch is also a weak point and in the extreme cold everything becomes brittle. The HMW flexes and bends quite a lot as it moves over sastrugi, upsetting carefully stacked cargo.

Plastic pallets and vehicles are placed on the HMW while air force pallets are placed on decks. The decks, aka ‘dance floors’ or ARCs (Air Ride Cargo) are wooden platforms supported by air-filled kevlar pontoons. Secured to the HMW they protect the plastic sheets and also provide a stable platform on which cargo can be loaded.

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Traverse Tucker 1 with a load of new skiway flags and and arcotherm heater for Byrd

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Traverse Tucker 2 with “living module” tent, food, and surival gear

By December 4th our gear was unearthed and our systems in place. The Challenger 55s required a fair bit of maintenance and repair so we took just the Tucker Sno-Cats on our first two traverses. The Tuckers can pull around 10,000 pounds each so we were limited to just two sheets of HMW. One Tucker pulled our traverse gear (an Arctic Oven tent, food, and survival gear) while the other pulled replacement skiway flags for Byrd and other gear for the WAS Recovery team.

WAIS bid us a grand farewell and we were off. It was just Tyler and I for the first few trips as our mechanic was tasked with getting the Challengers up and running. I have to admit it was exciting, heading off to drive across Antarctica from one camp to another! The whole idea of traversing in Antarctica is exciting and rich with history (as I touched on here:antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/traverses). We were not charting new territory; there have been many traverses between WAIS and Byrd. Nor were we bound to see anything other than flat white and more flat white…no mountains or icebergs or animals (except for a bird or two). Nevertheless, this was my first traverse and I was thrilled!

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Leaving WAIS

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First stop for the night

We drove all day, planting flags every half-mile so that we could have something other than the GPS to look at and also to help us stay on the same path as subsequent trips would be much easier on a ‘road.’ The visibility dropped and it became disorienting to say the least. Loaded down we could only go 7-10mph and I tried to relax. With nothing else to look at I stared at the little arrow on the GPS. I tried to drive straight…but after a few moments the arrow on the GPS would swing wildly and I realized I’d somehow slipped severely from our course. From the air I’m sure it looked like a random zigzag; a weaving, wavering track from point A to point B. It was easier when the visibility was good, especially once we had old tracks and flags to follow, but even then it was amusing to drive in the rear and watch the lead tractor drift to one side then swing back to the flag and drift to the other. Uneven track tensions, weight distribution, soft snow or sastrugi and the tractor would pull to one side or the other, throwing another variable into the mix. Far more difficult than it would seem!

We stopped at 6pm to refuel and chip the ice off the equipment. Dinner was heated in our little propane-powered oven and then we climbed into our unheated sleep kits – fleece liners inside huge sleeping bags nested within bulky over-bags. It was eerily quiet once the equipment was shut off. We had a small 5K generator, but for the most part we didn’t need it. Generators or equipment of some kind is almost always running in even the smallest camps. If the wind isn’t howling you can bet on hearing the roar of the gens. Out in the flat white between camps it was silent…just the tinkling of snow being blown across the surface like crystalline sand on a beach. WAIS and Byrd are only 100miles apart, but at 7-10mph it’s a very long day. We generally took two days to complete the traverse.

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Traversing across the flat white is less like a road trip by car and more like motoring across rough water in a skiff. It’s hard to steer straight and in the flat white there’s nothing to steer by. Sometimes the snow is flat and soft, and other times it’s rugged and hard. The HMW flexes and the whole load moves quite a lot. When things are tied too tight straps and HMW break, too loose and things slip and slide around, carefully stacked pallets disintegrate and fall apart. Every few hours we would take a break and a walk around to check the loads and straps.

 

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The second trip with the 297

The WAS Recovery crew at Byrd had settled in nicely and had made major progress by the time we arrived. They had the Galley Mod opened up, heated, and in use as the galley and comms area. A yurt-like Arctic Chief tent provided an alternative heated space and an area to dry clothes and hang out, while individual Artic Oven tents were set up for sleeping. We stayed for 4 days grooming the skiway, raising flags, and excavating the berms with the Tucker blades. Then on Dec 10 it was back to WAIS. Two days to get there, a day to PM the Tuckers, unload the cargo from Byrd and load it up for our return trip, a day to shower, do laundry, and rest, and On Dec 14 it was back to Byrd. This time our load included the Caterpillar 297 skid-steerer – a dense little machine at almost 10,000lbs alone!

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The Caterpillar Challenger “Drag Queen”

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Returning for another load

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A full load of cargo

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Putting pallets from Byrd up on the WAIS winter berm

The plan was to stay at Byrd for another few days, but as soon as we arrived we received a call on the iridium phone that the Heavy Equipment Operator at WAIS had been injured. So we unloaded our sleds as fast as we could and left early the next morning. WAIS needed us back to keep camp going until they could get a replacement HEO from McMurdo and to train up the new HEOs on operating in the deep field. This time we took only one Tucker, leaving the other at Byrd so they could keep grooming and excavating. Taking turns driving we made it back to WAIS late that evening. At least we didn’t have to worry about it getting dark!

At WAIS Divide we bucketed and pushed snow, forked pallets around, groomed town and the skiway, built pallets, and loaded Hercs. Another Tucker, China Doll (the one we’d had at Byrd in 2012-13) was needed at Shackleton camp. Being most familiar with the machine, I got to drive it onto the Herc! It was fairly exciting as there was no room for error.

While at WAIS we also got an opportunity to fly out via Twin Otter to help retrieve gear from a small camp at Pirrit Hills. This site is located closer to the base of the peninsula, an area I had never before visited. Mountains appeared on the horizon and then the hills themselves appeared ahead of us. The term “hills” is misleading…it’s an epic, jagged peak rising from the glacier with razor sharp ridges and massive granite faces: Utterly awe-inspiring.

 

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The Twin Otter

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The impressive “hills” rise several thousand feet from the surrounding ice.

We spent two weeks at WAIS helping with camp operations and training up the new Heavy Equipment Operators. On December 31 it was time to leave again. This time we took the Tucker and one of the Challenger 55s. The Challengers can pull 70,000 pounds…7 times as much as the Tuckers. We hooked up three sheets of HMW with a “CRREL tool” and secured several decks for cargo. The New Year found on us halfway between camps, in the great, empty, flat white of West Antarctica.

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The Challenger hooked up to a CRREL tool and sleds

Already into January we had our work cut out for us. Almost all the flights to Byrd were cancelled for one reason or another and every flight that cancelled meant more cargo for us to haul back on traverse. We did six traverses in three weeks, using both Challengers and a Tucker, and closed out Byrd on January 17th leaving just a few of the larger pieces on new tall berms. Byrd has a long history (…link to hx page…) and I’m sure someone will return someday. Perhaps it will be a short seasonal camp again or maybe even the eventual hub for USAP operations in the West Antarctic as it was in the 1970s and 80s. The long legacy of research and infrastructure here unfortunately means that there is quite a lot of buried stuff. Old buildings are certainly scattered beneath the surface and I am sure there is plenty of lost and buried cargo as well…rumors abound telling of lost bull dozers and shipping containers. We had a GPR (ground penetrating radar) unit with us on traverse and scouted around the Byrd area mostly checking to make sure we hadn’t lost anything from this last go around. We didn’t see anything recently buried, but there were plenty of buried items deeper down between 20-60ft. I have no way of knowing exactly what they are and I guess I never will, but it certainly is intriguing!

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Returning for another load

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Putting the Tuckers to use grooming the skiway

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Digging out old cargo at Byrd

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Ready to roll

We cleaned up the last of the pallets, sent off the WAS Recovery team via Twin Otter, and headed back on our last trip to WAIS Divide. It was late January by then as we had just a week to clean up and winterize the traverse equipment and gear. Back to McMurdo on Jan 27 and back to beautiful New Zealand on the 30th!

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Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, Traverse, WAIS Divide

Around Mac Town

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Ross Island dominated by Mt. Erebus in the center as seen from out on the ice shelf. McMurdo and Scott Base are located on the dark area to the left.

The weather in Antarctica is notoriously capricious, especially in the stormy West Antarctic, and its storms are legendary. Teams heading out to the “Deep Field” are brought into McMurdo several weeks in advance to complete training and preparations for the field, but also to give a buffer for deployment to field sites. Weather delays of a week, or two, or three are not uncommon especially when combined with ageing aircraft and shifting priorities with many groups needing to utilize flights. Once field preparations are complete we volunteer with other departments and projects and take advantage of the hikes and activities offered around the main USAP hub of operations. It can be frustrating at times to have clearly defined projects and goals and not be able to start. On the other hand most deep field camps are on the bright flat white so the majestic mountain views, hiking trails, and wildlife are savored while amenities like hot showers and warm dark rooms are appreciated. I wrote a post about McMurdo back in 2012 – not too much has changed : ) Check it out here: antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/mcmurdo-station-aka-mac-town and another here: antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/2014/11/10

CRREL: This year I’ve spent a fair bit of time assisting some friends with the Cold Regions Research and Engineer Laboratory (CRREL) as they conduct ground penetrating radar (GPR) and GPS surveys of the McMurdo area. One project is looking at the structure of the McMurdo ice shelf. With the airfields and runways built out on the flat ice it is an integral part of USAP logistics and would pose a huge problem should a large piece calve away unexpectedly. To do the survey we towed 200MHz and 400MHz GPR devices behind snowmobiles along predetermined transects using a precision Trimble GPS unit to record location and elevation. Ice cores were manually collected to determining the depth of the brine layer – essentially the ice depth at specific points. The cores ranged from 5-16 meters deep!
The sea ice, which may break up during the summer, is roughly 1-7m thick, while the ice shelf which remains frozen year-round reached depths of greater than 40m!

Another project was examining the geology and bedrock structure of the McMurdo area in town. While there are still significant patches of ice and snow it’s starting to melt out and most of the roads are clear by now. We made an amusing sight: one person in the lead with a rope around their waist dragging a bright pink plastic sled loaded with a big orange box along the gritty uneven rock roads and hillsides…the other person walking next to the sled wearing a yellow backpack with a big antenna sticking out the top.

SPOT: The South Pole Traverse is heading out around this time of year too so there is a lot to do to help them get cleaned up and on the ‘road’ to Pole. I spent several days helping the SPOT teams reorganizing drums and securing cargo to their sleds. While their set-up is much larger and more complicated than ours will be, the theory is all the same and it was good to re-familiarize myself with the Cat Challengers, though the ones we will be using at WAIS are far older and a bit smaller. See my previous post for more information on SPOT: Antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/spot

Dive Tending: One morning I got to assist the Divers. On that particular day they were recording water column visibility along a steep drop-off not far from the station. We met in town and loaded up a Pisten Bully with all their gear and supplies. Out on the ice we stopped at one of the “Fish Huts.” Small brightly colored buildings, the heated huts sit over maintained holes in the ice at designated dive points. Bundled up in long underwear, a full insulated down suit, and a sturdy dry-suit the two divers were uncomfortably warm while we got everything ready. Gear was brought inside the hut and a line was tied off to the hut wall and then lowered into the water with strobes, flags, and an emergency air tank. In the dim light under the ice and with very limited places to surface it is imperative not to lose the dive hole! Then sitting at the edge of the hole, with practiced efficiency, they pulled on their hoods and masks, strapped on their weights and flippers, locked on their thick lobster-claw mittens, and hoisted on their air tanks and regulators…and then they slipped into the hole!

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With a burst of bubbles they sank down the 3-4ft hole through the sea ice and disappeared into the dark water. Once they were gone I lowered the ladder and closed the shutters of the hut. The sunlight filtering through made the ice glow an electric blue around the black water. The dive lasted about 20 or 30 minutes as I watched from above noting feathers, or platelets, of ice growing on the surface of the ~28F water and keeping an eye out for the divers as they swam under the hole.

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The second diver about to enter the water

Before I knew it there was a mass of bubbles and one of the divers appeared in the hole. I assisted with hauling out their heavy air tanks so they could climb the ladder and warm up next to the stove. Then it was back to town in time for lunch!

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Pressure Ridge: An interesting feature in the McMurdo area is the pressure ridge. An area of ice that’s been forced together by ice flow and tidal movement it forms each year right in front of New Zealand’s Scott Base. With unrelenting pressure the ice is driven into the air cracking and breaking to form stunning features – the snow bright white and the ice glowing a deep blue. With so much relative ice movement thin spot and air holes form making it very popular with the Weddell seals in the area.

A friend’s website with some amazing photography of pressure ridges and more can be found here: www.benadkisonphotography.com/antarctica

Ob Tube: The Observation Tube (aka Ob Tube) offers a unique glimpse under the sea ice just in front of McMurdo. A tube, anchored to the ice surface, houses a ladder down 10ft or so to the base where there is a small round area with windows. Not for the claustrophobic, it is a tight fit and is quite dark. Some light filters through the ice to illuminate sea stars on the ocean floor while tiny fish, jelly fish, and pteropod “Sea Angels” float past the thick ice rimmed windows. Perhaps most notable is the texture of the sea ice base. While the top of the sea ice is a varied terrain of snow, blue ice scoured clear, or area of melt later in the summer, the base is comprised of delicate sheets and leaves of ice called platelet ice. The seawater is below freezing here at ~28-29F on average and as the fresh water freezes a salty shimmering brine solution is formed just below the ice level.
Later in the summer the ice will thin and possibly break up here so the Ob tube is a temporary feature only deployed for a few weeks in November.

Check out this post from a fellow polie about the Ob Tube here: http://davidpablocohn.com/ob-tube

Arrival Heights: Arrival Heights is an area just Northeast of McMurdo Station proper, not far from the Castle Rock hiking loop trail. It is an area reserved for clean air sampling and radio and light sensitive experiments – a bit like Summit’s Clean Air Sector and South Pole Dark Sector combined. Several special camera suites study auroras so in the winter the use of lights is kept to a strict minimum. Other experiments are looking at the ionosphere and magnetosphere (space weather) utilizing huge antenna arrays which are highly sensitive to radio transmissions.

As an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) it is off limits to the public at large, however occasional guests are permitted as long as they are accompanied by official personnel and traffic, either by foot or vehicle, is limited to designated routes only.
Exposed to some brutal winds it also offers one of the most beautiful views with the Royal Society Mountain Range clearly visible to the West and unhindered views North towards Cape Evans and the sea ice edge.

 

Cape Evans:
About 20km North of McMurdo Station on Ross Island is Cape Evans. Named for Robert Falcon Scott’s second-in-command Lieutenant Edward Evans it was the staging point for the British Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1913 .
The expedition’s hut, now dubbed Scott’s Hut, was prefabricated in England and reconstructed on Cape Evans in 1911. It was built to house the 25 men of the expedition during the following winter while they prepared for the journey inland. With lessons learned from Scott’s previous, and frigid, Discovery Hut (located on Hut Point, just a short walk from McMurdo Station and used by Scott during the 1901-04 Discovery Expedition) the 1911 Cape Evans hut contains two stoves, better insulation, and is surrounded on some sides by a covered stable and storage area. Some of the men reported that it was “warm to the point of being uncomfortable.”
In the austral spring of 1911 Scott and several of his men set out to be the first men to reach the South Pole. For more information on that check out this fantastic 2011 article Race to the South Pole by the National Geographic. They arrived on January 17, 1912 to find a tent and a note from Roald Amundsen who had reached the South Pole first on December 14, 1911. Their dreams dashed, they headed towards the coast, however suffering from malnutrition and cold injuries there were no survivors.

This is of particular historic significance as it was this brutal expedition that arrived at the South Pole (just behind Norwegian Roald Amundsen) and from which Scott never returned. Several men remained at Scott’s Hut for the winter of 1912 to search for Scott’s party, however in 1913 they left Antarctica as well, leaving Scott Hut stocked with supplies.

The Hut was used again in 1915-17 by 10 men from Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea party after their ship, the Aurora, with the rest of the crew, broke adrift and was taken North in the ice in May 1915. The Ross Sea party was the counterpart to Shackleton’s 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition expedition, the ill-fated attempt to cross the continent. They were responsible for laying supply depots for Shackleton’s return from the Pole, however Shackleton trapped in the ice aboard the Endurance, failed to ever reach the continent itself and so the entire effort was for naught.

Due to sub-freezing temperatures, low humidity, and conservation efforts by the US and New Zealand and the Antarctic Heritage Trust both Scott’s Hut and Discovery Hut have remained much as they were left in the early 20th century; Beds are made with shoes tucked beneath, a desiccated and partially dissected penguin lies on a table, glass vials of medicine and solutions line shelves while the kitchen is well stocked with tins and cartons of various food stuffs. A massive pile of seal meat is stacked out in the covered storage area, fairly well preserved for being over a hundred years old, though smelling a bit rancid…The entire site is full of amazing artifacts from the expedition such as snowshoes for their ponies, and cartoons tacked to the wall.

Check out Amusing Planet’s page on Scott’s Hut for more information on the hut’s artifacts and the expedition in general: www.amusingplanet.com/captain-robert-scotts-hut-in-antarctica.html

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Antarctic Traverses…

There is a long history of traverses in Antarctica. From the original expeditions to explore the mysterious frozen continent and reach the South Pole accomplished via foot, ski, and sledge to the modern day tractor traverse endeavors. One of the first tractor traverses was across West Antarctica from the Little America base to establish Byrd Station during the 1956-57 International Geophysical Polar (IGY) year.

The 1957 Little America to Byrd Traverse!

The 1957 Little America to Byrd Tractor Traverse

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1960-61 Byrd Station to South Pole Traverse (Courtesy of: southpolestation.com/trivia)

In the late 1990s and into the 2000s there was the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE) that covered much of the West Antarctic high routes and along the Transantarctic mountain range. See this link for one of their official informational posters: http://www2.umaine.edu/USITASE/images/poster/poster.jpg

In 2007-08 and 2008-09 the Norwegian-U.S. Scientific Traverse covered much of East Antarctica collecting data on past climate. Since then there have been several more traverses to assist the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) camp and WISSARD project. Last year and this season traverses were used to retrieve cargo left at Pine Island Glacier and Byrd.

For more information on various traverse routes check out the National Ice and Snow Data Center’s map: http://nsidc.org/data/thermap/antarctic_10m_temps/traverses/us.html#map. A list of traverses by date can also be found at the National Snow and Ice Data Center website here: http://nsidc.org/data/thermap/antarctic_10m_temps/dates.html or on Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Antarctic_expeditions

There have been a number of traverses in Marie Byrd Land in West Antarctica alone. Experienced Antarctic mountaineer, Forrest McCarthy, wrote a great blog post on Marie Byrd Land exploration and history which can be found here: http://forrestmccarthy.blogspot.com/2012/12/west-antarctica-driving-guide-to-marie.html

While there are a growing number of small tourist/exploration traverses via trucks or ski, most modern traverses support scientific projects that require mobility and various sample sites along the traverse route. Alternatively, some traverses are simply for moving cargo and/or fuel. However counterintuitive, it is much cheaper to drag weight over the snow behind tractors than it is to fly it! Our little traverse this year and the PIG traverse last year fall into this category.

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The PIG-WAIS Traverse leaving Pine Island Glacier during the 2014-15 season

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The Byrd-WAIS-PIG Traverse leaving Byrd in 2012-13

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The Byrd-WAIS-PIG Traverse fuel bladders leaving Byrd in 2012-13

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An AN-8 fuel tank at the South Pole

Perhaps the most well-known traverse is the South Pole Overland Traverse (SPOT) that hauls fuel from McMurdo, where it is supplied via ocean tanker, to the South Pole Station. The Antarctic Sun published an article in 2008 covering SPOT which can be found here: antarcticsun.usap.gov/features. All operations down here rely on a low-grade jet fuel. It’s what the LC-130 Hercs and other aircraft burn as well as being close enough to diesel that all our heavy equipment and generators run on it as well. Some additives are added for Antarctic operations to lower the freezing/gelling point – thus the AN-8 or JP-8 terms used.

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A remote fuel drum cache for aircraft near Byrd

At the South Pole large generators burn this fuel to supply power to the station. The waste heat is captured to melt snow for water and to heat the main station. Heavy equipment is necessary to clear snow from around the buildings and berms, groom the skiway for the planes, and move cargo. It’s vital to supporting science and life down here. They burn over 300,000 gallons annually. Summit Station in Greenland on the other hand, burns only about 40,000 gallons while WAIS Divide (a large deep field camp) goes through roughly 45,000 gallons during the summer season. WAIS burns so much fuel in part because it initially supported a 24/7 deep ice core drilling operation, which required massive generators. Since drilling has ceased they have primarily supported airborne surveys of the region with Twin Otters and Baslers, which also uses significant amounts of fuel.
At the year-round stations the big push in the short summer season is building up the fuel reserve for winter. Ideally 50,000 gallons are on site at Summit Station in Greenland before the end of summer and more than 400,000 gallons at the South Pole station!

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45 tanks (10,000 gallons each) sit inside one of the arches at the South Pole

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Looking along the fuel arch at Pole

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The emergency fuel cache tanks at the end of the world at Pole

A field camp 10,000 gallon bladder at Byrd

A field camp 10,000 gallon bladder at Byrd

Typically, fuel is flown in via Hercs, however this is a terribly inefficient process. I’ve been told various ratios and it depends heavily on winds and cargo loads, but on flights to the Pole Hercs burn between one and three gallons for every gallon delivered. A few years ago the South Pole Traverse was developed as an alternative to supplying fuel to the South Pole.

In Greenland a similar operation called the Greenland Inland Traverse, or “GrIT”, is used to haul fuel from ocean tanker supplied Thule on the NW coast to Summit Station.

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The South Pole Traverse delivering fuel at Pole

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The South Pole Traverse parked for the night at Pole in 2010-11

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The Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT) arriving at Summit Station in 2010

Fuel tanks at the end of the world

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Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, GRIT, History, South Pole, SPOT, Traverse, WAIS Divide

WAS Traverse!

Old Man Tucker at Summit (1987)

After a full week of traveling around the world from Greenland to Antarctica I arrived at McMurdo Station on October 23.This year I’m working as part of the WAS (West Antarctic Support) Traverse driving across Marie Byrd Land between WAIS Divide and Byrd camp in the “Deep Field” of West Antarctica. It’s a small endeavor with just 3 of us:  two heavy equipment operators and a mechanic who will stay at WAIS for the season.

The rest of the deep field team is here already: the 2-man crew for Siple Dome camp, the larger WAIS Divide staff, and the 4-person WAS  Recovery team headed out to Byrd camp. For more on the interesting history of Byrd Station check out this Antarctic Sun article from 2009: antarcticsun.usap.gov.

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The WAIS-PIG Traverse Tucker (2010 model) at Pine Island Glacier in 2014-15

Once WAIS Divide puts in and gets somewhat settled we’ll fly in to dig out our gear and equipment that wintered there. Meanwhile, the WAS Recovery crew will fly out to Byrd and begin setting up camp and unburying the berm. We’ll stay at WAIS for a few weeks while the machines get thawed out and our sleds set-up with all the gear we’ll bring with us. Then the two of us will load up two Tucker Sno-cats and drive the roughly 100 miles to Byrd. At Byrd we’ll help the WAS Recovery team dig out cargo and camp supplies, rebuild pallets, and load up Hercs with stuff that can fly out. We’ll also be available to haul back loads as needed to WAIS for use, storage, or to be returned to McMurdo. Our season is flexible, we’ll make at least 2 trips, possibly more, using Tuckers and/or Challenger 55s as they get brought up and checked over.
WAIS Divide was established in 2005, as the site of a deep ice core. A decade later it is still in use providing support for several science groups and a population of up to 50. There will be a full galley mod, a designated cook, and a wash tent with showers though we’ll sleep in unheated tents on the polar plateau. Byrd on the other hand will be minimal, much like PIG last year. We’ll have unheated “Arctic Oven” tents, aka AOs, to sleep in, the hard-sided galley mod, and a yurt-like Arctic Chief heated tent as a secondary heated space. The Traverse will be comprised of two pieces of heavy equipment and two mountain tents (2 person 3-season) to sleep in. We’ll take two days, though it’s just 100 miles, so as not to strain the equipment especially while pulling a load. In the heart of the West Antarctic ice sheet the terrain between the two camps isn’t the most exciting: Flat White. Still, I’m looking forward to the experience of driving between camps.

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The red star marks roughly the site of WAIS Divide while the yellow is Byrd

We’re not entirely sure what to expect at Byrd. We did a brief trip out there last year to recover some high priority gear needed for groups this season, but that area of the continent gets a fair bit of accumulation so we’re hoping it’s not too buried!

Some photos of WAIS last year:

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WAIS Camp: 79° 28.49’ S 112° 4.56’ W and 1797m

And of Byrd last year and three years ago in 2012-13 when I spent a season out there with 2 other women (click here and here for blog posts about that season):

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Byrd Camp fully set up in 2012-13: 80° 1.09’ S 119° 35.18’ W and 1533m

Scoured cargo last year

Scoured cargo on the Byrd berm in January 2015

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Ice to Ice

Phase II has come to an end. It was a great season and an especially interesting experience with both summer and winter operations. The new crew arrived right on schedule on October 8th via two Twin Otters from Akureyri, Iceland. The following week was a whirlwind of turnover with the new crew: training them on equipment and procedures, reviewing protocols and paperwork, getting them accustomed to the 10,550ft elevation and -30F temperatures and helping them get settled in with all the various idiosyncrasies that make up Summit Station.

On October 16th we officially handed over the reins. Two Twin Otters were scheduled to land just after noon, but the day had dawned with 20-25 knot winds and a fair bit of blowing snow in the air. Visibility was below their minimums with a worsening forecast. Still, the weather in Akureyri, Iceland and in East Greenland was clear and beautiful and they were going to try. As the day progressed we continued to submit hourly weather reports – the Phase III manager doing the observations. I stood by to answer any questions and assist with preparations for the flight. They had off-decked that morning on time, so while we were mentally prepared for them to cancel we also had to be ready to go. As their ETA drew closer the visibility stayed between 300-400 meters. The SOB was barely visible from the Big House.
The first Twin Otter called on the Air to Ground radio when they were about 15 minutes out asking for a current weather observation and confirming that they would attempt a landing. They could see the skiway markers, it was a localized storm, only a couple hundred meters high, and the wind was coming straight down the skiway. The mechanics pulled the loader and fuel tanks out to the taxiway, turning all their lights on to increase visibility, and the science techs readied their snowmobiles to transport freshies to the Big House and pax bags to the plane. We held our breaths and strained to see the plane in the whiteout as they reported over the radio that they had landed safely…”Norlandair 4 is on deck…but, we’re having a hard time seeing the flags, would it be possible to get a snowmobile escort to the fuel pits?” We escorted them in, began fueling, and unloaded the fresh food for Phase III. The pilots were unfazed and friendly. The second plane landed a few moments later without issue.

The first plane fueling with blue sky above

The first plane fueling with blue sky above

Norlandair!

Norlandair!

When we deployed in June 2015 we flew commercially to Scotia, NY where we boarded Air National Guard LC-130 Hercules planes and flew north to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland via Goose Bay, Canada. After a few days in Kanger we continued onwards up to Summit still on the Hercs. Redeploying now in October the LC-130s have flown South leaving Greenland for a period of maintenance before beginning the main summer season in Antarctica. Travelling to and from Summit then is done via Twin Otter – flying East with a quick stop in Constable Pynt on the rugged and isolated coast to refuel and Southward to Akureyri, Iceland.

I’ve never been East of Summit in Greenland and at first it’s the same flat white. The storm is indeed localized, not 15 minutes away the clouds clear and the sastrugi glitters in the sunlight as we cruise above.

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Fair weather just away from Summit

But then darkness appears on the horizon: mountains. Undulations form on the surface and a slope becomes apparent. I can see the ice flowing together and pulling apart, forming a more defined glacier – crevasses gape, indicating an increase in veloIMG_2677city. There’s no scale to show how huge they are. A nunatak appears, the tip of a mountain peaking above the ice. Then more – the ice lowering gradually, revealing mountains. Soon the ice is flowing between rock. Sheer granite walls rise above massive, epic, classic glaciers. Jagged peaks reach to the sky, dribbling rocks down their flanks to the ice below. Perhaps it is simply because I’ve seen only the flat white since May, but it is stunning and I can’t contain my excitement as I move from window to window. The sun is starting to set and the light is beautiful. It’s an inhospitable land: impossible to traverse. Perhaps some lichen or moss exists here, maybe the occasional bird, but there can’t be much else. Precipitous cliffs press against crevasse riddled ice as far as the eye can see. Further on, liquid water appears and the ends of the glaciers crumble into the dark reaches of the fjord. Icebergs! The sun sinks lower, behind the mountains, bathing the landscape in gold and pastel pinks and blues and we begin our abrupt descent to Constable Pynt. Not much more than a landing strip scraped clear of snow and some fuel tanks, it’s a quick stop and then we’re off over the far North Atlantic, heading south now to Iceland.

Inside the Twin Otter - the pilots up front, then the ferry fuel tank (extra fuel for the long flight) and us in the back.

Inside the Twin Otter – the pilots up front, then the ferry fuel tank (extra fuel for the long flight) and us in the back.

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Crevasses

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Constable Pynt, East Greenland

Refueling in Constable Pynt

Refueling in Constable Pynt

Arctic foxes (one white one brown) at Constable Pynt

Arctic foxes (one white one brown) at Constable Pynt

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It’s dark when we land in Akureyri. The town lights gleam and the air is laden with the smell of fall; the sweetness of decaying leaves, the hint of fresh grass and life, the salt from the sea. It’s windy and we couldn’t be happier. The next morning we fly on to Reykjavik and after a long layover, back to the U.S.

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The cathedral in Reykjavik, Iceland Oct 17

It was a record fast turnaround for me this year. Less than 48 hours to unpack and repack, take a bath, enjoy some crisp fruits and veggies, then back to the airport. Greenland to Antarctica in less than a week!
This year I’ll be working as an equipment operator on a small traverse shuttling materials from Byrd camp to WAIS Divide. There are no plans for a camp in the near future at Byrd, so much like last season (Pig DiggersWAS Recovery) it will be a skeleton crew working to return material back to McMurdo where it can be used for other projects. WAIS Divide is a fairly significant camp as far as deep field camps go – a staff of 15 will support a number of science groups operating out of there. Byrd however, will have a crew of just 4; their primary task being to excavate the cargo stored out there and either return it to WAIS Divide via our traverse or fly it back to McMurdo via LC-130 Herc. As far as traverses go ours will be pretty minimal with just two of us driving Tucker Sno-cats over the 100-mile stretch between the two field camps. In the field, far from the main stations, we will have no internet access though we will be carrying satellite phones and a portable HF radio.

Byrd has a long and varied history – from a year-round station to a summer only field camp. The Antarctic Sun did a nice piece on the history of Byrd history: Antarcticsun.usap.gov

I also reviewed some of it’s history back in 2012-13 when I was working as the equipment operator out there for the summer: antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/byrd-surface-camp-2012-13

So thanks for following along this summer! And stay tuned for the next grand adventure…The West Antarctic Support Traverse 2015-16!

Kiwi graffitti

Kiwi graffiti in Christchurch, New Zealand Oct 22

Welcome to Antarctica!

Welcome to Antarctica! Getting off the C-17 in McMurdo, Antarctica on Oct 23

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Filed under Arctic, Flights, Greenland, Winter

Storms and Aurora

The Big House at sunrise (HDR)

The Big House at sunrise (HDR)

We awoke yesterday to the wind howling. The Green House was filled with a deep Summit_Sunrise_HDRresonating sound as the wind vibrated wires on the roof. I peaked out my window. Seeing only flying snow in the pre-dawn light I pulled up the weather page: 35 knots. I pulled on my windproof layers, complete with goggles and stepped outside. The Big House was completely lost in the blowing snow…this is why we put up flag lines. I followed the flags to the Big House and found our mechanic inside sipping coffee. Gradually the others trickled in. As we ate breakfast and commenced the morning meeting the wind rose to nearly 40 knots, swaying the Big House on it’s stilts. Con 1: No travel unless absolutely necessary and check in via radio upon departure and arrival when moving between buildings…

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Halfway to the Big House with 35kt winds and blowing snow filling the air. Behind me the Green House was already gone.

We hunkered down, working on indoor projects and getting ready for turnover with the next crew who are due to arrive later this week. The winds stayed strong most of the day, tapering off at sunset. Darkness fell quickly. Inside the Green House after dinner we all gathered to watch a movie when one of the Science Techs went out to prepare for their nightly weather balloon. “Umm…You guys might want to pause that…there are some pretty good auroras…” After a quick look outside, I quickly threw back on all my layers and grabbed my camera and tripod. The sky was filled with one of the brightest, most active aurora I’ve ever seen. Curtains of bright green light tinged with red danced across stars, swirling and spreading.

I turned off the outside light on the Big House, however in the 2-8 second exposures the other lights on station lit the building up in a surreal light – it was not photoshopped into the picture🙂

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All bundled in the -35F temps

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Filed under Arctic, Greenland, Stations, Summit Station, Winter