The last best placeMay 6, 2013
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.