For the past four Antarctic field seasons that usually run from November through February, Ted Scambos and colleagues have been posting updates about their expedition to the Larsen Ice Shelf region, as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Larsen Ice Shelf System Antractica (LARISSA) project. LARISSA’s goal is to understand the causes and consequences of a rapidly changing part of Antarctica, from climate to ice to ocean and the seabed below, and then to the ecosystem evolving and adapting to the change. This year’s 2013 field season has been extended from April into May: Ted Scambos, Jenn Bohlander, Rob Bauer, Erin Pettit, and Ronald Ross will accompany a group of scientists from the Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI) aboard the KOPRI research icebreaker Araon.
Our move to the west side of the Peninsula renewed the challenges we have faced before in trying to get work done over the high, narrow Antarctic Peninsula ridge. The weather is rarely good on both sides at the same time, and communication can be more difficult. Iridium satellite phones or a powerful shortwave radio are needed. We have the Iridium system, which can be erratic when used across international Iridium numbers. And now, in early May, daylight lasts a mere seven hours.
Days passed with more or less the same appearance outside: dimly lit low clouds, often with snow flurries. In the week ending April and opening May, we tried three times to high-jump over the icy wall of the Antarctic Peninsula, aiming to revisit the first site we had scouted last month, namely the rocky overlook near Crane Glacier—perfect for our instrumentation. But we succeeded only once, and even then the helicopters found the outcrop covered in deep snow, hiding the many large boulders covering the site and making it impossible to land. It was time to head north. It looked like we would get nothing installed.
But on our path to the South Korean research station (King Sejong Station, on King George Island) lay one more worthy target—Cayley Glacier and the adjacent outcrop called Spring Point. Cayley Glacier is one of the largest west-flowing glaciers in the northern Antarctic Peninsula, and it has been thinning significantly in recent years. It represents a vantage point to observe the changes in western AP glaciers up close, and make some long-range measurements of changes driven mostly by the more recent and more dramatic changes on the eastern side. The ship sailed northward along the coast overnight, setting us up for a few hours at our last best place to measure climate change in the Antarctic Peninsula.
Next morning was snowy and gray, but still majestic with icy hills framing the large calving front of the Cayley. After some preparations, we boarded Zodiac watercraft (an inflatable landing craft fitted with outboard motors) and nine of us motored over to the Spring Point promontory. We loaded the Zodiac with a seismic monitoring station and an automated camera.
We could only man-haul some of the gear from the shoreline up the rocky hillside—the easy way to do it would be an airlift by the helicopters. But the weather was miserable—drizzle and snow, fog and low cloud. We were unsure if they could possibly manage it. From the hilltop we watched the back deck of the Araon, waiting to see if the cargo load would leave the deck by air (or we would have an arduous time with ropes and pulleys from the shore, requiring hours).
Despite the raw conditions, the pilots pushed on, doing three quick loads setting everything within 20 yards of our installation sites. A few hours of rock-bolting and assembling, and we had our site: three important instruments for monitoring change. The seismometer would record the fracturing and calving of the ice in the nearby glacier (about 2 miles away) as well as other glaciers up and down the Peninsula; the camera would witness the local calvings and the changes in the ice front; and a GPS system (installed earlier, but upgraded during our visit) would measure the rebound of the Earth as the great mass of ice slowly flowed off of the Antarctic continent.
We finally got ‘er done. Even better, that night was the planned End-of-the-Cruise dinner party—a huge variety of good food, sweet rice wine, beers, and very good company. We are now heading north to King Sejong station.
After returning from the day trip to the Crane Overlook site on April 17, we received satellite images that completely changed our plan. The images from both a NASA and a Canadian satellite showed that persistent westerly winds starting in early April had opened a large gap in the sea ice just to the east of the Larsen A, B, and C—a long highway of dark water that we could use to get to areas we have been trying to reach for four years. But the opened road on the eastern Peninsula came with a significant risk: at this point in the Antarctic season, such a path could freeze over or slam shut in a matter of days, making it difficult even for a powerful icebreaker like the Araon to escape.
The KOPRI (Korean Polar Research Institute) scientists were willing to take the risk, in part because the ship is fairly fast, capable of up to 14 knots, and because the science potential was high. The weather is much drier on the leeward eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, so we would be likely to fly more often. Communications and weather safety are better because one can see conditions approaching the ship or the field site from a long distance (without the blocking of the high Antarctic Peninsula ridge).
That evening, we took the ship as fast as possible over the northern tip of the Peninsula to the eastern side and sailed down into the gap less than two days later.
And there we were: at the fast ice edge of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, ready to fly with helicopters to the three major glaciers of our study area, one of them already fast-moving and thinning as a result of global warming (Crane Glacier), and two others (Flask and Leppard glaciers) that were poised to change if the last remnant of the Larsen B, the Scar Inlet Ice Shelf, collapsed.
The next day (April 20) was clear and warm. The forecast suggested a gradual shift to cooler southern winds by late in the day. We loaded the helos according to a complex plan, trying to get as much done as possible. We would identify a second rock outcrop and install a seismic monitoring station, and begin work on a multi-instrument AMIGOS site on a small crevasse-free section of lower Leppard just a few miles away from the seismic site.
The flight to Leppard was spectacular and revealing. The remnant Scar Inlet shelf from the once-vast Larsen B is now completely fragmented, as cracked as a windshield after an accident, with huge deep rifts indicating fractures on the underside of the floating ice as well. It is clear that the next warm summer will be the last one for this shelf. We were eager to get to our site and get going.
But there were problems. Our search on the mountain next to Leppard Glacier for a good seismic mounting site was hampered by bumpy winds around the peaks. Lower down, the rock sites were covered in gravel and loose talus, and were not suitable. So we decided to put the seismic station on the glacier at the AMIGOS site. Problems with the Iridium satellite phones arose. We could not contact the ship, except using the helicopter radios, and they had to be aloft to make a clear call.
Slowly things moved along despite these obstacles. We conducted a radar survey, skiing a few km across the glacier. The seismic crew began to build the station. A Korean geologist and I returned to the ship in early afternoon. On the flight back, I noticed low fog forming over the Scar, a very ominous sign. Fog had trapped a group of us for over a week in 2010, and that was in summery January, not April. When we landed I asked the pilots to hurry back and get the rest of the crew right away.
But after the helos left, we realized that fog was only the beginning of the weather change. Far from being a gradual wind shift, a sudden abrupt blast of south wind hit the ship, and within minutes we were engulfed in cold blowing snow and mist. Temperatures plummeted. Our sunny day was going to end with a powerful snow squall, with seven scientists still at the Leppard site. Conditions remained beautiful there, 70 miles away.
We radioed the pilots and told them about the declining conditions at the ship, and they loaded the passengers and headed back. By the time they arrived at the ship, a gale of 40 knots was blowing, and visibility was only a mile or so. The pilots made two amazing landings in the blustery winds, with all passengers and gear safely returned.
By nightfall, winds had risen to 60 knots out of the south, with temperatures near zero degrees Fahrenheit. The scientists and ships crew realized that these were exactly the worst conditions for keeping the narrow lane of ocean clear of ice. Cold winds would freeze the open water, and the pack to the east of us (full of thick older ice) would start to shift westward and close us in. The Araon put on all speed and glided through the gathering slushy ice, a gale at its back, until we were north of Robertson Island (the most likely ‘pinch point’ for the drifting ice to close us in).
We were not done though—as the first gale subsided the next day, we returned south again, finding that the road was narrow but not completely shut. We traveled past the Larsen B into the Larsen C, almost touching the Antarctic Circle (in late April!) and collected a core from a key site of the Larsen C. On our way north again, we launched a quick mission to recover gear that had to be left behind when the squall hit. Then we left for good, as the oncoming Antarctic winter was rapidly freezing the sea around us.
We now are again on the west side, in a fjord called Flandres Bay, just opposite our main instrument sites, with one more week to get some stations installed.
Tomorrow looks like flyable weather.
On Sunday, 21 April, we launched a series of helicopter missions to the lower portion of Leppard Glacier. The main objective was to find a place to install a very sensitive seismic instrument that my friend, Won Sang, and his team needed to deploy. Unfortunately, the rock sites surrounding the glacier were too unstable, so the decision was made to place the equipment on the ice next to where Jenn, Erin, and I were preparing for our radar ski traverse.
The ski traverse was planned so that we would cross the main section of the glacier, with the three of us roped up to each other and to the sleds, and with the radar antennas stretched between Erin and me. We had flown over the area prior to landing in order to see if we could pick a spot with a minimum of cracks—but a lot of those crevasses could have been hidden.
We put Jenn out on the front since she was the lightest, and it was her job to lead us along the route, moving slowly and looking for any sign of crevasses. I was next, tied to Jenn and a sled I was hauling.
Erin brought up the rear pulling the final sled. Luckily we had chosen right and saw no hint of a crack, but the skiing was tough due to the really rough ice and little snow cover.
We returned to our starting point, where Won Sang and crew were working, just in time to be picked up by the helos that had come out to warn us of bad weather sneaking in on the ships location. We loaded up and flew back to the boat, where we made a tricky landing in the wind and weather.
While we waited for a good weather window, the ship proceeded to a couple of different fjords in the same region as Beascochea, mapping the sea bottom and collecting shallow cores. Weather fronts and low clouds dominate the climate of the western Peninsula, where conditions are similar to the Olympic Range of Washington State: steady westerly flow of cool maritime air that brings almost continuous precipitation (here, snow). At last a gap appeared in the forecast on Wednesday, April 17, affording a window of opportunity for us to get to the first of our sites for science on the eastern side of the Peninsula.
It is tricky working from the west side. Weather can change fast on either side of the narrow spine of ice and rock that is the Antarctic Peninsula, and that means that flight conditions can end abruptly, potentially stranding a few of us off the ship for a few days. But the day dawned clear enough, with brilliant polar autumn sunshine on the mountains in the bay. We made our move, loading up several people in both helicopters for a survey of several sites and some quick work on our existing stations gathering data and replacing glitchy components.
Take-off is always a thrilling, dreamy experience, and to lift off in an Antarctic fjord is particularly spectacular. You sense a living power in the flow of the ice through impossibly steep, sculpted mountains. And then you head off into one of the many ice valleys and follow it, up, up, and onto the narrow snow plateau at the top of the Peninsula ridge. As we dropped onto the other side, into Crane Glacier, we noticed a buffeting wind. Cold air draining off the ice cap was pouring into the glacier valley, carrying powdery snow with it. This drew the air around the cliffs with it, causing the helicopter to lurch a bit, before our pilot settled it into the center of the main valley, flying downstream.
We were looking for a site for a seismometer station, and for the first Extreme Ice Survey camera in Antarctica. Extreme Ice Survey is a project led by photographer-artist-scientist, James Balog, that had recently produced an award-winning documentary on a camera’s view of the loss of Arctic glaciers, called ”Chasing Ice.” The seismometer and camera would enhance the science of the Korean project in the area: to listen to the glaciers as they break away and retreat, and then to watch (with the camera) exactly what the events look like as the changes progress for a couple of years.
As we flew down Crane Glacier, I was impressed with how blue the ice was. Clearly there had been strong winds in March and April that have blown off much of the snow, and allowed the ice below it to show through. A large lake that forms most summers was completely refrozen, looking like some giant primitive painting of a blue jellyfish, swimming up the Crane.
The helicopter approached our site warily: a rock outcrop about 500 meters above the glacier on the river, left side of the flow, right near the ice front. Our pilot, Carlos, asked us if this was the spot, and then patiently looked over the side, and felt the winds with the helicopter as he passed slowly alongside the landing area. Then he moved in and gently touched down.
The site was fantastic: rocks of many types strewn over a large bedrock hill that had been polished smooth by some past, much thicker version of Crane Glacier. We scampered all over it, giddy with being at this remarkable place, a perfect spot for this instrumentation. The ice front was right below, and a patio-sized area of flat polished rock was ideal for the seismic station’s rock-bolted base. Excellent.
We headed back after about 20 minutes exploring, a brief visit to the other helo group working on Foyn Point, and then back to the ship. Coming back into Beascochea, the ship looked like a tiny orange speck—but it was home to us and 80 others on board. Icebergs and sunlight played together in the fjord. A tight circle over the ship to look things over, and then we landed.
Video of Beascochea Bay, Courtesy Erin Pettit, University of Alaska Fairbanks
That evening, we saw from satellite imagery that the eastern side of the Peninsula had far less sea ice than just a few weeks ago. The winds that had polished Crane Glacier, and the other glaciers on the east side, had also pushed the ice away from the eastern coast, creating a broad path for the ship to sail into. This would greatly accelerate our work, because the east side is much drier (a bit like Patagonia, but much colder of course) so flying is generally easier. Moreover, there would be a lot of interesting things to do for the other scientists on board—more cores, more mapping of the seabed, and more biological study.
The ship is now heading at top speed for the Larsen A embayment. We think we may be able to fly again on Saturday or Sunday.
After preparations in Punta Arenas, including shopping for comfort food (cheese, bread, peanuts, breakfast cereal) that we thought we might not see for a while, the LARISSA glaciology team boarded the Araon, South Korea’s new polar research vessel. The Araon is a large ship, and very clean—it was commissioned in 2010. I noticed something right away walking through it—a new icebreaker smell, a bit like a new car. The labs and especially the cabins are quite spacious, and very comfortable.
With a late party on the night before departing (April 10), we boarded the Araon on the 11th and sailed out the Straits of Magellan, eastward, and then south. One of the first things we did was listen to a safety briefing video introducing us to the ship’s systems. At the end, the announcer told us that the Araon was “the ship of dreams for polar research,” and we had to agree. It was large, powerful, well-equipped, and new.
The food on board is indeed Korean, although on some occasions they have treated us to some western favorites: spaghetti, pan-grilled steak, eggs and bacon for breakfast. But in fact the best treats have been the Korean-style sushi and Korean barbecue: thawed fresh-frozen fish or grilled pork with lettuce leaves and rice and wasabi. And the soups have been very good; different, but very good. The chicken soup had a kind of dumpling made from rice paste, very soft and white and it had absorbed the taste of the stock very nicely. They allow a little beer or wine with dinner about every other night. Life is good; oriental, but good.
Sailing across the Drake Passage south of Cape Horn, we made very good speed, and the ocean was not very rough. We spent the time preparing the equipment: the K-AMIGOS systems (similar, but newer and upgraded versions of the AMIGOS systems we installed in previous years), and the “Balog Cameras” as we called them, for the project by James Balog known as The Extreme Ice Survey.
By the morning of the 15th we were off the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula at 65 degrees South in Beascochea Bay, just above the Antarctic Circle. This was the best location for flights to our target locations for instruments, all on the eastern side of the Peninsula. But it meant flying over the ridge of the Peninsula, a tricky thing both for the weather and for the helicopters (lots of climbing and shifting winds).
Still, we’re set, with a huge and capable ship, instruments ready to go, and plenty of things to do while waiting for a good weather window in the fjords of the Antarctic Peninsula.
We have been busy sorting our equipment and organizing our transfer from land to sea. In the few spare moments, we managed to see the sights and take a few photos.
Most of our time ashore was spent in the DAMCO and AGUNSA warehouses, looking at inventories and tracking down extra gear.
We are aboard the R/V Araon now and enjoying a relatively smooth ride. I think that will change here pretty soon, as the swells seem to be getting larger. We are tying everything down so that it does not slide across the deck of our rooms and lab space.
We’re all in great spirits and are looking forward to getting our boots on the ice!
On April 6, Ted Scambos, Jenn Bohlander, and I will be flying to Punta Arenas, Chile to join researchers aboard the Research Vessel Araon, a South Korean icebreaker. Our team will travel to the Antarctic Peninsula, sailing across the Drake Passage, to maintain the network of automated stations we installed over the last three years. Working with Erin Pettit and Ronald Ross, the team will also conduct radar surveys of the Flask and Crane glaciers. We are planning on assisting South Korean researchers in the installation of their observing stations–these “K-AMIGOS” will overlook the dynamic Crane and Flask glaciers, providing near real-time observations of ice conditions and weather information.