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First flight to Crane Glacier

April 18, 2013

Ted writes:

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.

Mountains surround Beascochea Bay.

Mountains surround Beascochea Bay.

The helicopters ready for take-off.

Helicopters ready for take-off.

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.

Cold winds blowing snow into the Crane Glacier drainage basin.  Above are "standing wave" lenticular clouds, similar to those seen in Colorado's  Front Range.

Cold winds blowing snow into the Crane Glacier drainage basin.
Above are standing wave lenticular clouds, similar to those seen in Colorado’s Front Range. (Credit: Ted Scambos, NSIDC)

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.

A large refrozen lake of meltwater in the middle of Crane Glacier.

A large refrozen lake of meltwater in the middle of Crane Glacier. (Credit: Ted Scambos, NSIDC)

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 calving front of Crane Glacier - 6 km wide. Note the glacier  trim line of past glacier levels on the far side.

The calving front of Crane Glacier – 6 km wide. Note the glacier
trim line of past glacier levels on the far side.

Youdong Cho, mountaineer and Won Sang Lee, geophysicist, look over the outcrop of rock selected for a planned later deployment of the seismic instrumentation and the Balog camera.

Youdong Cho, mountaineer and Won Sang Lee, geophysicist, look over the outcrop of rock selected for a planned later deployment of the seismic instrumentation and the Balog camera.

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

Helo pilot Carlos has found the Araon.

Helo pilot Carlos has found the Araon.

Iceberg in Beascochea Bay.

Icebergs in Beascochea Bay. (Credit: Ted Scambos)

The Araon in Beascochea Bay.

The R/V Araon in Beascochea Bay. (Credit: Ted Scambos)

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.

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