Category Archives: Pine Island Glacier

“The PIG Diggers”

Our crew's sticker (a field camp tradition) The WAS Recovery Team has returned victorious and with smiles on our faces yet! To quote our project manager announcing the successes of the season: “…The Pine Island Glacier (PIG) Traverse arrived back at WAIS Divide field camp yesterday afternoon, Sunday January 25th NZDT, completing the full return of ~ 90,000 pounds of camp infrastructure and equipment from the PIG C site. The excavation of the buried equipment and cargo by the 4-person recovery team prior to the arrival of the traverse proved critical to the success of this effort.” We had a great season in the field, making it to all three sites: PIG, WAIS, and Byrd. We had no internet access out there, only an HF radio and two iridium phones. So let me start at the beginning… On November 19, after several weather delays, we finally boarded a LC-130 Herc and departed McMurdo for WAIS Divide. The first day at WAIS was spent digging out the PIG Traverse berm and sorting our cargo into first and second flight loads for the Twin Otter. We put-in at PIG on the 21st with the Twin Otter making two trips – first with some of our cargo and then a second flight with the four of us and more of our survival supplies.

The Twin Otter loaded down with our gear and cargo

The Twin Otter loaded down with our gear and cargo

Coming in for the landing at PIG

Coming in for the landing at PIG

PIG_20141121_15 A deep field put-in requires shelter, comms, and a heat source before the plane is allowed to leave. We had delegated tasking beforehand and the Scott tent was erected right away, McMurdo Operations (MacOps) was called on the Iridium phone, and our little whisper-lite stove was fired up to prove we could melt snow for water.  The Twin Otter pilots said their good byes and headed back to WAIS. Thankfully it was a calm and beautiful evening and we spent the next few hours settling in. I dug an outhouse trench and set up a little tent over it. Andy, our mechanic, got busy digging out and setting up the Nordic diesel drip stove which was wonderfully right at the surface of the snow on the PIG berm. DeVal, our camp manager, and Jen, the field coordinator, quickly excavated some proper floor panels from the berm and began shaving down a level area where we could set up the larger more comfortable Arctic Chief tent. Scott tents are great shelter – they are sturdy, but there isn’t much insulation and they’re quite small for a primary shelter.

Town set up

Town set up

By midnight that first night we had the Scott tent and the Arctic Chief up with the Nordic stove burning and a big pot of snow on top to melt. We sat in a circle and ate our dehydrated dinner packets then rolled out our sleeping bags and slept side by side on the floor. The next day we set up our individual mountain tents (Mountain Hardwear Trango’s) and unpacked and organized the rest of our food and cargo. Then it was time to get down to business…

The berm, buried to the top in places…

The berm, buried to the top in places…

Pine Island Glacier is located near the coast of West Antarctica – from the air you can just see a dark line that is the ocean and on a clear day on the ground you can see two little mountains peaking over the horizon. For the most part though it is flat white with awful weather, even by West Antarctic standards. Being so close to the ocean we were visited by a few South Polar Skuas and Snow Petrels! This area gets significant accumulation and it had been two years since the camp was closed and the cargo bermed. The satellite photo I posted earlier showed the cargo lines fairly clearly which was encouraging and some pallets were quite scoured. The Tucker however, was almost completely gone, with just a few inches showing above the surface!

Andy surveying the Tucker

Andy surveying the Tucker

We marked out the area to be cleared and fired up the chainsaws. The snow there is heavy and hard, more like sandstone than snow at times! Shovels worked great for the first half meter and for cleaning up edges and the bits thrown out by the chainsaws, but the chainsaws were really the star of the show. And the pick axes. The blocks were heavy too, the snow being about 50% water. Blocks were cut, heaved to the lip of the pit, and then loaded onto little sleds and dragged out of the way downwind. We did this in part to keep the working area around the pit clear and also to reduce drifting as we would eventually have to dig up buried items on either side of the Tucker as well. It took 5 days to fully clear the Tucker; to excavate around and under the vehicle, chip out the ice in the tracks, and melt out the engine and cab. And then we connected the battery and…it fired right up without a hitch and I drove it out of the hole! PIG_20141123_47

Making the first ramp cuts

Making the first ramp cuts

Hauling blocks downwind

Prying out blocks and hauling them downwind

It seemed to go a lot quicker once we were working our way down the machine itself!

It seemed to go a lot quicker once we were exposing new parts along the machine itself!

DeVal looking epic

DeVal looking epic

Nearly there!

Nearly there!

On November 28 we celebrated Thanksgiving, sleeping in and indulging in frozen corn and stuffing mix. With perfect timing the weather closed in and for the next two days we were stuck inside as the storm raged – filling in the giant Tucker hole we had just cleared. Then we started digging out the Cat 297 and fuel tank following the same process as the Tucker. 4 days later we drove that out of the ground and got to work digging out the other pallets of cargo. Just a few days after that we were hit again with another storm. And so it went…digging, sawing, and chipping out pallets of cargo, then when we’d reached a good stopping point a storm would roll through and we’d hunker down in the Chief. Old Star Trek movies proved to be a good source of entertainment and conversation.

The 297 almost ready to go

The 297 almost ready to go

Our in-house theater

Our in-house theater

Meanwhile, back at WAIS the PIG Traverse was working hard to get their sleds and tractors together and in working order. This far from McMurdo all fuel is brought in via LC-130s. Delays and cancellations meant that the WAIS Divide camp was low on fuel itself with none to spare for the traverse. So the PIG Traverse had to make a trip out to Byrd to fill their fuel bladders and on December 17th they finally headed our way. It was perfect timing, delays and all – On the 20th we unearthed our final piece, the groomer. We had been dreading this skeleton of metal, which would be rocked in hard with ice and snow. Big square things were easy to pull out, but something with so much open space meant we’d have to clear it out completely.

Digging out empty drums…

Digging out empty drums…

Triwalls to be dug out

Triwalls to be dug out

It was completely buried. If we didn’t have a photo of the berm before they’d left in Jan 2013 we’d never have known it was there at all! Only a flag marking the tip of the hitch was visible. Thankfully with a little help from our friend, the Tucker, and some chainsaw work it came out smooth as butter in just one day! We were done – all cargo excavated, ready and waiting for the Traverse to arrive.

Drilling down to find the groomer…

Drilling down to find the groomer…

The groomer emerging

The groomer emerging

As soon as we were done, with impeccable timing, the biggest storm yet closed in on us. We huddled inside the Chief for nearly 4 days waiting it out as it dumped snow and howled at 25-30kts. We read, and slept, made breakfast for dinner with some dehy hash browns and frozen eggs and watched movies on the little laptop – powering it via a little 1KW generator when the clouds were too thick for the solar panels to work. With the sun up 24/7 we had little need for electricity. A few light weight solar panels charged small electronics like our iridium phones, camera batteries, and kindles, but we had brought along a 1KW portable generator as well.

Stormy day at PIG

PIG Breezy!

A mountain tent nearly gone!

A mountain tent nearly gone!

Cargo drifts

Drifted cargo

The Traverse arrived late in the day on Christmas Eve bearing mail and baked goods from WAIS. The 9 of us crammed into the Arctic Chief for a special Christmas dinner and good times were had by all as we shared stories of the prior month and cracked open a few cans of egg nog.

The PIG Traverse rolling into town

The PIG Traverse rolling into town

Building up the cargo load for the traverse

Building up the cargo load for the traverse

Fueling the traverse tractors

Fueling the traverse tractors

The Traverse double teaming to break the load free

The Traverse double teaming to break the load free

The Chief succumbing to the ice…

After only 6 weeks – The Chief succumbing to the ice…

Andy’s contract was up at the end of December so the Twin Otter picked him up the day after Christmas – and we set to work digging out all the cargo for a second time. That big storm had created whales of drifts that had engulfed not only our tents, but the cargo we had so carefully unearthed. With everyone helping we got the traverse loaded up and on Dec 28th they left PIG with the first load of ~15 pallets. We stayed busy organizing and palletizing the remaining cargo while they drove halfway to WAIS and staged the first load. They returned a few days later and on January 4th with a break in the weather we flew back to WAIS. Job complete.

Welcome to WAIS Divide!

Welcome to WAIS Divide!

The metropolis of WAIS

The metropolis of WAIS

Tent city at WAIS

Tent city at WAIS

We spent a week at WAIS Divide, enjoying the home cooked food and the larger camp facilities like the showers…After 6 weeks at PIG with only baby wipes I didn’t mind shoveling a bunch of snow for a shower! The Twin Otter pilots had taken some photos of the buried Tucker and the folks at WAIS were pretty awed. The next task was to fly out to Byrd camp to repair the Tucker and bring it back to WAIS so it could be utilized at other camps as needed. While we waited for two mechanics from  McMurdo to join us, and then for a flight out to Byrd, we helped around camp. As an operator I mostly groomed and helped with the winter berms. WAIS_20150121_69 On Jan 12th we finally got good weather and permission to fly and it was off to Byrd. The berms at Byrd were the complete opposite from PIG, well scoured, still quite high above grade, and with much softer snow. We set up personal mountain tents to sleep in and opened up the hard sided galley module for cooking and as a DNF (do not freeze…aka heated) space. That week was spent digging out the Tucker, repairing it, verifying the fuel inventory, raising the skiway drags, and putting together a mini-traverse for the drive back to WAIS. Byrd and WAIS are only about 100 miles apart, but both sites are so remote and the environment so inhospitable that it could be very serious should anything go wrong. We loaded a piece of high molecular weight (HMW) plastic with survival supplies, the Scott tent, extra food, twice the amount of fuel they expected to use, backup iridium phones, and various other pieces of cargo to lighten the final Twin Otter flight. This ultra-slick material is the foundation for almost all Antarctic traverses these days. Then, on the morning of Jan 17th, one of the mechanics and our team lead departed Byrd for WAIS Divide. Thankfully the snow conditions were just right and the Tucker had no issues, and they sailed in to WAIS by the end of the day! The following morning the Twin Otter managed to fly out to Byrd and picked up the remaining three of us who had been left behind. We spent the final week at WAIS waiting for a flight to McMurdo and helping out around camp.

Jethro on the the Byrd Berms

Jethro on the the Byrd Berms

Fixing the Tucker

Fixing the Tucker

The mini-Byrd Traverse heading off to WAIS Divide

The mini-Byrd Traverse heading off to WAIS Divide

The Twin Otter loading up our last flight

The Twin Otter loading up our last flight

I’m back in McMurdo now, heading on to New Zealand shortly. The PIG Traverse just made it back to WAIS on Jan 25th successful in their final haul to bring the 90,000lbs of PIG cargo back. WISSARD, Siple, and WAIS Divide are in the process of shutting down. It’s been a great season with a great crew! I want to send a huge Thank You to all the McMurdo field support staff, the PIG Traverse guys, the Twin Otter crew, and the WAIS Divide camp staff!

The Herc at Willy Field, McMurdo

The Herc at Willy Field, McMurdo

Ivan the Terra Bus!

Ivan the Terra Bus!

WAIS Divide camp staff

WAIS Divide camp staff – and the vintage Alp 1 snowmobile

The WAS Recovery Team at PIG

The WAS Recovery Team at PIG (photo courtesy of DeVal)

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Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, Flights, Pine Island Glacier, Traverse, WAIS Divide

PIG

I’ll be out of contact for the next few months as we work in the field, but here are some interesting links.

Recent weather and forecast for WAIS Divide can be found here:
http://www.waisdivide.unh.edu/about/weather.shtml

Weather at PIG thru Oct 22, 2014 can be found here:
http://efdl_5.cims.nyu.edu/timeseries/NYU_AWS_PIG_timeseries.html

A weather tower with webcams was established at PIG a few years ago and apparently worked until Oct 24th:
http://efdl_5.cims.nyu.edu/aws_pig/overview.html

And general Antarctic weather from automated weather stations around the continent is posted here:
http://amrc.ssec.wisc.edu/data/

Below is a satellite picture of the PIG camp area from last March. A British Antarctic Survey group passed through recently to check on a fuel cache nearby and reported that while there was large and hard sastrugi there was also a lot of scouring and the bermed material was visible above the snow – good news for us!

A satellite image of the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) berm as of March 2014

A satellite image of the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) berm as of March 2014

A low resolution satellite image of the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) berm as of October 2014.

A low resolution satellite image of the PIG berm as of October 2014.

So for now, Goodbye!

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Filed under Antarctic, Field Camps, Pine Island Glacier, WAIS Divide

Mac Town Time

DEN-LAX-SYD-CHC

After four flights and over 28 hours of travelling I finally landed in Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s spring in the southern hemisphere and lovely, with vibrant leaves and birdsong. The next morning, we assembled at the Clothing Distribution Center (aka CDC) for a welcome briefing and our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear issue. The standard ECW set includes everything you need to work and survive in the Antarctic climate – the enormous Big Red, insulated carhartt bibs and jacket, fleece long underwear, hats, goggles, mittens, gaiters, gloves, socks, and boots – either the Bunny, or Mickey Mouse, boots or the blue FDX boots. While Bunny boots are the classic white USAP footwear, they’re rubber and don’t breathe. FDX boots are a bit warmer and are leather/cloth so they breathe, but the soles are very thick (part of why they’re so warm) and there’s no ankle support so can be treacherous at times.
A lot of it is personal choice. I generally bring my own long underwear (of varying thickness), my extra warm fleece neck gaiter which I’ve modified with chest/back flaps to protect against zipper and neck drafts, a thin gaiter more for sun and wind protection than cold, a knit wool hat with a fleece lining, a ball cap for sun, liner gloves, thick expedition weight socks, liner socks etc…

0014222d98500f73b15b06 This season I’ll be heading out to Pine Island Glacier, near the  coast  in far West Antarctica (75°45’S 100°16’W and approx. 850m  elevation), as part of the 4 person “WAS Recovery team.”  It will be  cold early in the season, but will become  downright warm by  Christmas and New Years – we’ve been told to anticipate heavy wet  snow and even the possibility of rain! So I made sure to  get good  rain/wind pants and a “little Red” jacket that is more of a  shell  than parka.
After getting our ECW and going through a few introductory briefs  we were given our mandatory flu shots then had the rest of the afternoon to enjoy Christchurch and the botanic gardens.
On November 3rd we flew to McMurdo aboard a US Air Force C-17. The whole West Antarctic family is here now: WAIS Divide, the PIG Traverse, WISSARD, Siple, and now the WAS Recovery Crew. A week or two is needed in town for training, to finalize cargo lists and put-in plans, and to round up all the gear and material needed for the season. A lot of these camps have been used season after season and most of their supplies were left overwinter on the berm. Our team is a bit different; while PIG was a large camp in 2012-13, this year we won’t be setting up the buildings or supporting any science. Our goal is just to recover the material.
As soon as WAIS gets established we’ll fly out there on an LC-130, spend a night or two then load up a Twin Otter and fly to PIG, set up a few mountain tents and get to work excavating the berm. While there are a lot of supplies buried out there most of them are useless to us, our outfit is pretty bare bones. Without a skiway the planes can’t take in much cargo. We’ll be living in small mountain tents with one larger heated yurt-like tent. We’ll have no running water or showers, and will be cooking and melting water on camp stoves. There’ll be no internet or fresh food either.
Our main focus this week in McMurdo has been to decide what to bring with us: how much food, what cargo, and which flight it will go on. We’re planning for two planes. The initial “put-in” flight will bring in our survival gear and us. The cargo list for this flight includes our tents, survival bags, sleep kits, stoves and some fuel, a basic medical kit, comms equipment (satellite phone, HF and VHF radios), our Personal Locator Beacon (PLB for emergency use), a human waste bucket, a water jug, and our shovels. The second plane will bring spare parts, fluid and fuel for the vehicles out there, more food and tools such as a heater to warm up and melt out equipment.

Our cargo staging cage

Our cargo staged in the BFC cage (the taped off plastic jugs and bottom two shelves are for a different project)

Of all the cargo, our shovels may be used most. We’ll need shovels to knock down sastrugi to clear spaces for our tents, to dig out equipment so we can dig out the pallets, to clear drifts created by the wind, to mine snow for water. We’ll be shoveling every day. Professional D-1 Operators.
“So what kind of shovels should we bring?” Our team lead asked. Immediately all four of us agreed: short shovels with square blades and D handles. We’ll bring a long handled one as an extra. Then we all laughed shaking our heads…not only do we know the types of shovels, but we didn’t have to think about which type we like best for shoveling this kind of snow! Is that a good thing….or have we been doing this too long?
The long ones are great for deep pits, or for tall people. The rounded blades that come to a bit of a point are good for dirt and rocks…but for snow I prefer the short handled small square blades – It’s short enough to wield without knocking into things, the small blade is sturdier and less likely to crack while trying to pry out chunks of hard snow, the flat edge cuts clean blocks, which is most efficient. You can also carve smooth walls and scrape flat surfaces, and if you need a point you can use the corner. Maybe I have shoveled too much…

We were originally scheduled to fly out to WAIS Divide on the 15th, but there have been significant weather and mechanical delays so this date may well get pushed back.

McMurdo!

McMurdo as seen from Ob Hill. (HDR)

"Roll Cage Mary" on Hut Point. Ob Hill and McMurdo are in the background.

“Roll Cage Mary” on Hut Point. Ob Hill and McMurdo are in the background. (HDR)

Mount Erebus on Ross Island

Mount Erebus and Castle Rock on Ross Island. (HDR)

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Filed under Antarctic, Field Camps, McMurdo, Pine Island Glacier

WAS Recovery Crew

Bag Tags

The migration South has begun again. This year I’m heading back as the equipment operator on a small 4-person team: The West Antarctic Support (WAS) Recovery Crew.
Two years ago (2012-13) there were several active camps in West Antarctica: Pine Island Glacier (PIG), the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide, WISSARD, Byrd, and Siple. My post summarizing these camps and projects can be found here. With the Government Shut-Down last year the removal of the PIG and Byrd camps could not be completed and the supply berms were left to drift over. These regions have large accumulation rates – averaging over a meter annually in some coastal areas in addition to drifting snow.

Surface mass balance (1989–2009) in kg m−2 year−1. From Van den Broeke et al., 2011

Surface mass balance (1989–2009) in kg m-2 year-1. From Van den Broeke et al., 2011

Pine Island Glacier is quite a ways from McMurdo, way out “west” towards the peninsula (point A on the map below). Because it’s so far away and because the weather is so notoriously bad Hercs heading out to PIG relied on WAIS as a fueling point and Byrd as their back up. It’s easier to fly to WAIS so to initially establish PIG camp a traverse was organized to haul materials that were flown into WAIS. The projects utilizing PIG were completed in Feb 2013. The plan for cleaning up the camp was a tractor team to traverse from WAIS to PIG, collect the materials, and haul them back to WAIS where it would be used or flown via LC-130 to McMurdo. Then the government shutdown happened and the traverse had to be cancelled…So this year, two years since it was left, we’re going to try again. Our team has been organized to augment the traverse, making sure this stuff gets unburied and removed before it flows into the ocean.

A map of the West Antarctic deep field camps. The 2012-13 PIG Traverse route is shown in red.

A map of the West Antarctic deep field camps. The 2012-13 PIG Traverse route is shown in red. The traverse this year won’t go to Byrd so will just travel between points F and A. The South Pole traverse route is marked in yellow between McMurdo and Pole.

The rough schedule is to fly down to McMurdo in early November. After getting our equipment together (tents, stoves, safety and comms gear etc) we’ll fly out to WAIS. From WAIS we’ll get on a Twin Otter and head out to PIG by mid-late November. We won’t have the support of a full camp, it will just be the four of us and a few small tents (Arctic Ovens – “tent-city” tents). We’ll dig out the equipment, get it up and running, and use it to help dig out the supply berm, establish a field skiway for Twin Otters, and greet the PIG Traverse when the roll in hopefully around Dec 10. Once the traverse is loaded up and underway we’ll fly back to WAIS and out to Byrd. There isn’t a traverse planned for Byrd, so our job will be to repair some known broken equipment and try to move supplies to a new berm, or at least the snow surface as able. By late January we should be heading back to McMurdo.
As I mentioned earlier, the weather in West Antarctica is notoriously bad and delays are expected. Our schedule is flexible with options to assist with other projects if we are delayed longer than expected at one site or other.

It will be a challenging season. At WAIS there will be very limited text email, satellite phones, and radio, but there will also be cooks and galley (mess tent), and even snow melters for showers. At PIG it will be roughing it, even by Antarctica standards. It’s not as extremely cold as at Pole, but it’s wetter, which can be even more difficult. We won’t have any showers, or bathrooms, nor cooks. We’ll sleep in small unheated tents and hope for good weather. It’s close to the coast, but not close enough to see animals or water, mostly it will be back in the flat white…

For more information on PIG check out some of these interesting links:
Forrest McCarthy was a mountaineer with the PIG Traverse which left from Byrd in 2012-13. His blog here has a great page on Pine Island Glacier with a sweet video and some awesome photos!

The NSF also has a site: www.nsf.gov/news

NASA’s official site for Pine Island Glacier: Pigiceshelf.nasa.gov

The Berm at PIG at the end of the season in Feb 2013 - photo taken by Dean

The Berm at PIG at the end of the season in Feb 2013 – photo taken by Dean

PIG 2012

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Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, Pine Island Glacier, Traverse, WAIS Divide

Byrd Surface Camp 2012-13

Our sticker/logo/image for this year – courtesy of August Allen (PIG camp)

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.

The photo below shows the tractor traverse on December 4, 1956 heading out to establish the first Byrd Station.
Photo: Jim Waldron/Antarctic Photo Library

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!

The Byrd winter berm on which everything is stored.

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.

Map of West Antarctic Field Camps – Some of the main deep field sites are shown here, along with the PIG and South Pole traverses. WISSARD is not shown, but sits just above the H point.

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.

There is more information on the NASA project website: http://pigiceshelf.nasa.gov/
And the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Island_Glacier

A satellite image of the Pine Island Glacier with notable signs of disintegration

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:
http://www.antarctica.gov.au/science/cool-science/2011/bedrock-map-reveals-ice-free-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.

A rough map of the Antarctic bedrock – blue areas are under the current sea level. Note the extremely high Transantarctic mountains. There is also a little muontainous region within Marie Byrd Land. – BEDMAP Consortium/BAS

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!)

A photo of Myself, Abby, and Tara at Hut Point near McMurdo. We’ve been called the Byrds, Lady Byrds, Skittles (for the bright purple, green, and blue jackets), Charlie’s Angels…

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!

The flat white – several hundred miles from any visible rocks, Byrd is just as much on the Flat White as Pole.

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Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, History, Pine Island Glacier, Science!, Siple, Traverse, WAIS Divide