Tag Archives: WAIS

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

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

“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

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