Monthly Archives: November 2015

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!

McMurdo_Sound#Life_below_the_ice

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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Filed under Antarctic, McMurdo, Science, Stations

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

1960 Trav

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

2012-13 Byrd-WAIS-PIG traverse

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

2012-13 Byrd-WAIS-PIG Traverse Fuel

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.

Fuel drum cache Byrd!

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

Pole Fuel tanks

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.

SPOT 2011-12 at Pole bladders

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.

2014-15 PIG Traverse Tucker

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.

Red and yellow

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:

WAIS 2014-15

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):

Byrd 2012-13

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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Filed under Antarctic, Field Camps, Traverse