80deg 0.9min S, 119deg 33.5W
West Antarctica is notorious for its weather. So not surprisingly we’re delayed in McMurdo. The number of aircraft here in Antarctica are at a minimum, so any delays wreck havoc on the flight schedule. Our first Basler and Herc were ideally supposed to put camp in on Monday, but weather moved in around Byrd and Siple which cancelled those flights. A flight to Casey Station in East Antarctica has cancelled due to weather, stranding a group of Australians hoping to make it to their base. The weather here in McMurdo has been lovely, sunny and relatively calm, but it’s either foggy, or too cold, or too low visibility for the planes to land at any of their destinations. Often they’ve taken off and had to return, or “boomerang”, after flying several hours. It’s not easy, but as we often say for anything that isn’t just right – “it’s a harsh continent!”
For the past two weeks we’ve been working and training in McMurdo, collecting and packing gear, packing food, checking our equipment, and going over flight schedules, cargo weight limits, and emergency plans. Now that we’re delayed we’re free to either tie up any loose ends in town, or help out with other departments. I’ve been working with Waste in preparation for winter and with the South Pole Traverse team.
We won’t have internet or email once we get into the field, so I thought I’d write a bit about “Byrd Surface Camp,” what I’ll be doing this summer, field camps and research projects in West Antarctica at large, more about the research and set-up of Byrd this season, and give you lots of pictures and links…I will continue this blog once I get back to a place with internet so save your questions or post them below!
Byrd camp is one of the oldest Antarctic field camps. Named after Admiral Richard E. Byrd and set in the heart of Marie Byrd Land of West Antarctica, it was first established by the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1956-57 as a year-round underground station. In 1972 it was changed to a summer-only field camp, but aside from a gap between 2005-09 it has been in near continuous use.
An October 14, 2012 satellite image of the Byrd winter berm shows heavy drifting. At the end of the summer everything is closed up and placed on the berm. The square “Galley Module”, heavy equipment, boxes of extra food, drums of fuel, two snowmobiles, the tents we will sleep in are all there. On the lower left there are 4 squares in a line a little ways from the berm – these are the fuel pits, four 10,000 gallon bladders of fuel. The large item near the middle and just to the left of the berm is the sled used to load and unload the largest and most awkward cargo. There’s no denying that there is a lot of digging ahead of all of us, but it’s promising that some individual structures are still visible and are even casting shadows!
This season I will be working as the heavy equipment operator, one of three women staffing the camp. My primary job will be using the 2010 Tucker Sno-cat to groom the skiway and camp, though we will also have a CAT 931 tracked loader to move snow and cargo. We won’t have too much cargo going through camp, but every flight will likely be bringing fuel and with such a small camp staff we will all be busy.
Over the years, Byrd’s population has fluctuated between 3 and 50. The projects and goals have also changed dramatically. Our primary purpose this season is to support the Pine Island Glacier (aka P.I.G.) Traverse, a “mini traverse” to WAIS, and the aerial survey project GIMBLE in January.
There have been a number of camps and traverses in West Antarctica since the 50’s, but today the region is of particular interest for those studying climate change. Computer models indicate West Antarctica as becoming increasingly unstable if the current warming trends continue as expected. The break up of the Larson ice shelves, alarming amounts of melt, and dramatically increasing acceleration of glaciers have prompted a number of studies over the past few years. If the entire West Antarctic ice sheet were to collapse it could potentially raise sea levels by 6-7 meters. Countries around the world have been supporting various research groups to better understand the systems involved and improve climate models to predict sea level rise. This year, USAP is supporting five main “deep field” camps in West Antarctica: Siple, Pine Island Glacier (PIG), West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide (WAIS), WISSARD, and Byrd.
Siple, or Siple Dome, is the smallest of the five with only 2 people. It has a long and interesting history and was a site of an ice core in the late 90’s, but today only a few small tent structures, a skiway, and a fuel cache is all that remains. It is in essence, a glorified gas station and a backup for planes flying the capricious weather of West Antarctica. Note: there was an old station called Siple Station which was fairly expansive, but this was on the other side of West Antarctica, near the base of the Penninsula and the Ronne ice shelf.
The Pine Island Glacier project is comprised of two components: PIG camp itself and the PIG Traverse. PIG camp is located 1,300 miles from McMurdo, near the coast of the Amundsen Sea. The traverse will haul fuel from Byrd to WAIS, and on to PIG. Surprisingly, this is the more cost effective option than flying it in via Herc. The project, lead by Robert Bindschadler of NASA, is hoping to deploy instruments below the ice to measure various parameters of the seawater under the glacier tongue and the dynamics of where the glacier transitions from bedrock to seawater. Their hypothesis is that warming ocean currents are melting the ice from beneath, increasing the velocity up the length of the glacier. Helicopters will transport researchers and equipment to various points along the glacier to drill and deploy instruments. Recently, they’ve discovered a major rift in the glacier. “What makes this one remarkable is that it will lead to calving of a significantly larger iceberg than PIG has produced in the last few decades,” says Joseph MacGregor, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “It is likely that the front of PIG will be farther back than any time in the recent past after the iceberg calves.” The satellite images can be found here.
The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide, or WAIS, has been in progress since the 2005-06 season and has been in the process of extracting the most recent ice core in West Antarctica. On December 31, 2011 they reached their goal depth of 3,405m, making it the longest U.S. ice core yet. While they have finished drilling there is still a lot of research to be done with the borehole and the project will continue through this season. More information on the research going on at this camp can be found on their website: http://www.waisdivide.unh.edu
WISSARD, or Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling, (http://www.wissard.org) is a fascinating new project. Over the past two summers they have conducted surveys using ground-penetrating radar and have found a subglacial lake of interest. This year they will begin drilling – hoping to deploy a suite of instruments into the borehole and isolated lake beneath. Here is a short animation they put together for PR of the route from the U.S. to the Whillans ice stream.
The group has also posted an interesting and informative video on YouTube (“Researchers prepare to drill through Antarctic ice”) explaining the main goals of the project and the “clean drilling” technology used.
This season Byrd Camp will be supporting the science group GIMBLE/ICECAP. This is a collaboration between the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC), the Australian Antarctic Division, Laboratoire d’Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales (LEGOS), the universities of Edinburgh, Exeter, and Texas at Austin. ICECAP (or “Investigating the Cryospheric Evolution of the Central Antarctic Plate”) is interested in using ground penetrating radar, geomagnetic data, and lidar to measure the top and bottom surfaces of the ice – essentially mapping the bedrock of Antarctica beneath the ice, and hoping to gain insight to the evolution of the Antarctic ice sheet. This is important for constraining ice flow and climate models, and for knowing more precisely the volume of water locked up in the polar ice caps that could potentially melt, causing sea level rise.
The following website gives a good explanation of one of the affiliated projects, BEDMAP-2, which measured subglacial topography in Eastern Antarctica:
This group has done quite a lot of work in East Antarctica already, around Australian Casey Station and Russian Vostok. Check out this 2010 Science article for more information: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5986/1630.full
They will be doing much of the same measurements in West Antarctica, based out of Byrd.
Comparatively, Byrd will be a quiet, cozy, little camp. Last year there was quite a large camp set up at Byrd, with nearly 40 people. This year we will have close to 20 for put-in and take-out, but there will only be 3 of staying for the entire summer: Abby the Camp Manager, Tara the Field Coordinator, and myself, the Heavy Equipment Operator. We will be the only all-female staffed field camp this year, and potentially the first ever all-women deep field camp in Antarctica. (If anyone knows of others outside of the Dry Valleys, let me know!)
Byrd sits at an elevation of 1,553m (~5,000ft) Byrd is located 1,400km (~870mi) from McMurdo and 1,120km (~700mi) from the South Pole. We won’t have email or internet access, but we will have two HF radios, two IRIDIUM satellite phones, and VHF radios for on-site comms. We will check in with McMurdo daily and I’ve been told the BBC still broadcasts news on HF. Flat mail will be delivered on the 12 or so Hercs scheduled throughout the season. While some folks might balk at the idea of leaving the grasps of modern media, I find I’m really looking forward to the break.
Our work will be to maintain the camp, supporting the PIG Traverse, flight ops, the research group, and fighting the never-ending battle against being buried under drifts.
The rough outline of the season is as follows: Put-in will take place during the first week of November, in late November the PIG Traverse departs for PIG camp, leaving a heavy mechanic and a second operator behind, in early December those two will launch a “mini traverse” to haul fuel the 100mi to WAIS Divide. In late December a carp crew will come in to set up some more tents, and then in early January the GIMBLE group with their Basler and crew will arrive.
I won’t be able to post anything until I return to McMurdo at the end of the austral summer, but I will be sure to take lots of photos. In the meantime, here are some cool links about Byrd now and then. Byrdcamp.com is an awesome, interactive website created a few years ago when the population was large enough to warrant cooks, GAs, medics, and many others. We won’t have half as many people, nor will we have as many tents set-up, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The Antarctic Sun published a couple short articles in 2009 that are also worth taking a look at – Byrd History and Byrd Camp Resurfaces
Have a wonderful Thanks Giving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!