Winter

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After 4 days of weather delays the final turnover flight made it to Summit on November first. We unloaded several hundred pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables and various other resupply items then refueled the plane and loaded it up again with bags and passengers. The fall crew had finished their tour of duty and were heading home at last. The rest of the afternoon here on station was mostly spent settling into winter rooms and unpacking the fresh food and supplies.

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Freshies!

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The walk in refrigerator, aka “freshie shack,” stocked up for winter with fruits, vegetables, and dairy. It is cooled with outside air and warmed with heat reclaimed from the generators (a little electric heater on the far wall augments heating when temps get super cold)

Fresh food, aka “freshies”, is a big deal in the polar programs. A few stations (such as the South Pole) have green houses and are able to grow some fresh food, but most stations do not have such facilities. As with everything else, freshies must be shipped in from elsewhere. For McMurdo and field camps these come from New Zealand. Here in Greenland it depends on the season – in the summer (Apr-Aug) we get supplies via LC-130s with the NY Air National Guard out of New York state, so food and cargo can be shipped directly from the US. In the winter the hercs are deployed to Antarctica and so for the few crew turnover flights (Oct and Feb) we rely on chartered Twin Otters from Iceland.
Even a few minutes’ exposure to extremely cold temperatures will blacken banana skins and wilt lettuce so freshies from Iceland are sent up in styrofoam boxes to prevent freezing while being transported to and from the plane. We won’t get any flights until February so the freshies we get at the Oct turnover are it – We have to make them last as long as possible. Lettuce goes the fastest and there isn’t much we can do to preserve it so we try to eat that first. Cabbage, carrots, potatoes, beets, onions, and squash can last for months and can also be frozen. Even apples, bananas, and oranges will last weeks to months before we are forced to freeze them.

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Earth’s shadow to the North

Now that turnover is complete the station is relatively calm and quiet. We are stocked up with food and fuel and are looking good for the months ahead. Winter is a drawn out marathon compared to the frenetic summer season – there’s less overall to do, but everything takes longer. We won’t get another plane until late February 2017 so it’s just a matter of keeping ourselves alive, the station functioning, and our year-round scientific instruments, such as NOAA’s observatory and ICECAPS, in working order.

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An almost noon sun behind the Big House

It is now officially winter and it’s starting to feel like it. Today the sun rose at 9:13am and will set at 1:20pm, tomorrow it will be 9:22am and 1:12pm…the last sunrise will be on November 14th (www.timeanddate.com/summit). Temperatures are variable, but they are dropping lower and lower. Current conditions here are publicly available at: summitcamp.org/weather. On Thurs evening we reached a new low this season of -52F and with the cold and the dark come auroras!

Welcome to Winter!

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Fall-Winter Turnover

Schedule a plane and you’ll get a storm…or so it seems more often than not!

Our first flight since mid-August was scheduled for Thursday Oct. 20th, but it was delayed a day due to extremely high winds Wednesday evening and into Thursday. We were hunkered down in Con 1 here (see last post) and made the best of it. On Friday morning I woke early to start weather obs. Because we are not an official airport the station supervisor is required to provide current weather observations in METAR form starting 3 hours prior to take off. The flight was scheduled to take off from Akureyri, Iceland at 9am which meant with the 2-hour time change I had to get up at 3:30am to start obs. We only have a handful of flights so that’s fine with me. Thankfully the winds calmed down significantly and the weather looked good. The obs only take 10 minutes or so every hour so I had plenty of time to make a big breakfast for everyone.

Here are a few sample obs:

M BGSM 200750Z 15006KT 9999 FEW100 M27/M30 2992 RMK CLDS DSNT HGT EST SDG/HDG (a beautiful day with 6kn winds, clear horizon, a few clouds at 10,000ft and -27C)

M BGSM 201150Z 150T31KT 0100 -SN BLSN VV003 M22/M24 A2865 RMK 8sc SDN/HDN (a less beautiful day with 30kn winds, 100ft visibility with falling snow and blowing snow, socked in with only 100ft visible vertically, -22C, and no surface or horizon visible)

In the summer we use LC-130 Hercs – big lumbering beasts that can haul thousands of pounds of cargo and dozens of passengers. In the winter however (Sep-Apr in Greenland), the ski equipped Hercs are put to work down in Antarctica and we rely on Twin Otter planes. They are much smaller than hercs, but they can take off and land without much of a skiway and have no temperature limitations. We use them often in the deep field of Antarctica as they do not need a skiway to land.

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On Oct 21st the Twin Otter took off on time and we got everything here ready – fuel tanks were pre-warmed and staged, the skiway was tracked and the flags cleared of frost, baggage/cargo going out had final weights taken and was staged in the SOB, and I switched on our air to ground radios. The Twin Otter stopped at Constable Pynt (Nerlerit Innat in Greenlandic) on the coast of Greenland to refuel and I got a note from the airport there that they were on their way!

When they were about 15min out I got a call on the radio from the plane asking for current weather conditions, confirming outgoing weights, and requesting fuel. We were ready and waiting with the fuel tanks and snowmobiles with sleds at the flight line. The 6 incoming passengers had just arrived from sea level and would not be used to the 10,500ft elevation or the cold. An hour later the incoming passengers were settling into the Big House and the plane was fueled, loaded,

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Training the new science techs

and on its way back to Iceland.

 

The past week has been a whirlwind of training and turning over duties to the new crew. Half of the incoming winter crew has been here in past seasons so that helps tremendously. The other two have a lot to learn, but they have both worked down in Antarctica so they have a good idea of what to expect and are almost fully up to speed. The new energy and enthusiasm is revitalizing.

 

The second flight of turnover was scheduled for October 28th. Unfortunately, while weather here at Summit has been decent, weather in between Iceland and Greenland has been poor and they have cancelled 4 days in a row now. Weather delays like this are not uncommon, but it’s never easy on morale especially with those pax due to leave. This flight is the last one until crew turnover in February. It’s bringing in fresh food and a few resupply items for the winter season and will take out the

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remaining fall crew. Everyone except me is leaving – I’m here through February.

While I don’t have to do any turnover myself I do have to do weather obs until the flight gets here. Now that daylight savings has ended in Greenland I have to get up at 2:30am to start obs…

The Green House looking intense at night

The Green House looking intense at night

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Early dawn and a partial moon at 7am in late October. The structures are the MSF and 50m tower.

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Hints of Hurricane at Summit Station

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Over the last 2 weeks we’ve had back to back wind storms with lots of drifting and blowing snow. On Wednesday, however, we got hit by the tail end of hurricane Nicole, by that time classified as a “post-tropical cyclone.” In a matter of hours our winds went from 20kn to over 60kn.

We follow similar weather criteria as the USAP: Condition 3 is visibility greater than 2000ft and wind-chill above -90F. Condition 2 is visibility between 2000ft and 200ft and/or wind-chill below -90F. And Condition 1 is the worst with visibility less than 200ft and/or wind-chill below -100F. When wind speeds exceed roughly 20knots snow is picked up reducing visibility and creating a white out. We’ve had a few cases of Con 2 recently with visibility under 2000ft, but I had yet to call on Con 1. Flag lines run between all the main buildings on station and during a storm all travel is monitored with radio calls including route and destination and check-in upon arrival. It can seem cumbersome at times, but it is also important to know where everyone is and that no one gets lost.

The day had started warm and a little windy with 20kn winds, but after midday they increased rapidly to 30kn then 40kn…finally hitting a peak sustained wind speed of 61kn gusting to 63kn! Unfortunately 53kn was the highest I saw on the station screen displaying current conditions.

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Current Conditions: -4F and 53kn winds

That was by far the highest wind speeds I’ve seen up here, though I doubt it broke any records. Winter and early spring storms can be vicious on the ice sheet. The Big House, up on stilts, rocked as each gust buffeted the structure. At around 35kn we went into Con 1 and I made the call over the radio. I could no long see the Green House from the Big House. Travel was restricted to emergency or well-coordinated necessary activity with no solo travel permitted. Two people were in the Green House and went down to the SOB together to get the mechanic and bring him back. Visibility was down to just tens of feet and we ran a rope line along the flags between the Big House and Green House. Even in those high winds it was not hard to follow the flag line, but if something were to happen, if someone were to be blown over and injured or become disoriented, the consequences would be disastrous. So we are cautious and careful.

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The storm was brief, however and winds died back down to 35kn pretty quickly. Overall the station fared well. A few large empty propane cylinders that are stored on the deck were blown over and there was significant drift growth around station. The buildings are far from perfectly sealed and we found several small drifts inside where ice and snow had been blown through a tiny crack. Walks around the berms revealed completely buried pallets in places and a few lighter items that had blown over, but not too much damage. We are prepared for potentially bigger storms through the winter.

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Wind speeds off the chart!

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Aurora Borealis

It’s a chilly evening in the heart of the ice sheet with temps hovering around -40F. We are outside, however, to witness a fantastic display of auroras! Tripods frost up, breath freezes on gaiters and hats, plastic becomes brittle, and above us the sky is alive.

I’ve written about auroras in a few previous posts here and here so I won’t go into too much detail, but a brief summary is that auroras are caused by energized particles from our sun striking gas molecules in the atmosphere (much like neon displays). The colors are due to which molecules are excited – green is caused by oxygen around 60 miles up while nitrogen causes the red-purple auroras. Solar storms and flares release waves of charged particles which can be predicted and tracked. To see the aurora forecasts and where they might be visible check out NOAA’s Space Weather page here: www.swpc.noaa.gov. NASA also has a fantastic page on Aurorae with photographs of aurorae on other planets!

Auroras dancing over the Big House

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The green line coming out of the far building in the last image is the CAPABL LiDAR I discussed in my previous post. The red light is the 50m tower.

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Lidar

It was lightly snowing last night, ice crystals falling from high, thin clouds as I walked from the Big House to the Green House. Looking towards the MSF there was just enough ice in the air to illuminate the ICECAPS LiDAR – a laser measuring cloud matter, phase, and crystal orientation. ICECAPS is a relatively large, long-term project researching cloud characteristics and their impact on climate. This knowledge is crucial in developing climate models as well as understanding our changing climate. More information can be found here: www.esrl.noaa.gov/arctic/observatories/summit.

Most of the time the laser is invisible, however with just the right conditions enough light can be reflected back to show the brilliant green beam. If you look carefully you can also see the vertical laser, however this is weaker and thus less visible. Beautiful science!

*If you are familiar with LiDARs you may have seen this spelled LIDAR, lidar, LiDAR, or LADAR – according to NOAA’s Digital Coast Blog all spellings are correct though LiDAR is gaining in popularity. 

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The ICECAPS LiDAR here at Summit

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The LiDAR at NOAA’s ARO facility at the South Pole Station

 

An example of the LiDAR data:

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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