Archive for January, 2010

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Rothera tour and Palmer visit

January 29, 2010

Ted writes:

The group took a tour of the island that Rothera lies on, which is rich with polar marine wildlife. As we described in December, Rothera is a medium-large base with generally about a hundred people there. The key is that it has both a good gravel runway and a pier for ships, making it a logistical hub for the region.

Our science liason with BAS, Tamsin Gray, offered to lead us on the trail to the north, along the rock and pebble beach there. It was a living nature park; penguins, sea birds, and several kinds of seals.  Adelies like to dance, Tamsin explained, fur seals are grouchy, and Weddell and Crabeater seals seem to be smug and puppy-like.

The ship, the N.B. Palmer was on its way to Rothera, to drop off our gear after our pull-out from the ice core camp, fuel up,  and drop off Martin Truffer, the missing member of the ice team. Our plan for deploying the AMIGOS and other sensors will be done by more Twin Otter flights, allowing the ship to move to the east side and spend much of that time working southward toward the Larsen B,  where were supposed to have been all along. It’s been quite a trip so far.

By noon, we could see the ship in the distance, and by 1:30 it was approaching the quay at Rothera, with most of its crew and staff standing on the deck waving. We held a planning meeting for the science, and a planning meeting for the Rotherites and Palmerainians. The idea was to give Palmer a taste of shore life, especially a taste at the tiny pub in Rothera’s main building. It was very successful.

Erin’s bike was on the ship, so she went for an evening bike ride before saying goodbye to it for a while. The Palmer departed at midnight with a happy glow surrounding it.

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48 hours on the ice

January 28, 2010

The LARISSA team flew to Site Beta, Ellen Mosely-Thompson's ice core camp, to install an AMIGOS station.

Ted writes: The day after our first attempt to get in to the Peninsula ridge crest, we awoke to a near perfect morning, a clear and bracing breeze blowing across Barilari Bay (Chocolate bar is claimed, it is pronounced bari-LAR-i, in other words, Italian style). The promising weather brought early wake up calls and some fast preparations to the whole crew. By 6 a.m. the ship was wide awake and moving ahead with helo ops. We mapped out a very full day, to take advantage of the weather. We would install our first AMIGOS at Site Beta, the ice core camp of Dr. Ellen Mosely-Thompson, where we surveyed in December. Then we planned a reconnaissance flight of the next three sites on the glaciers feeding the Larsen Ice Shelf. After that, we would try to install the GPS site on one of them (Leppard). We had a brief delay, though, because the weather at the ice core site still had not cleared by 7 a.m. It was surprising, because we could see such a good sky above them. By 8 a.m., though, the camp manager, Thai Verzone, gave us a better than even chance of getting in. We took it.

The grease ice, or very thin frazil ice, in Barilari Bay, gives the water a shiny luster.

The climb off the ship was a rush; it always is. Usually a song pops into my head on take-off (like ‘Back in the USSR’ by the Beatles), but this time it was a poem: High Flight, by John G. Magee. And our day matched the words: clouds and sky and swooping, flowing, frozen terrain, things you have not dreamed of. The sun glinted off the water. A freezing slurry of ice crystals forming on the surface gave it a surreal appearance. We charged upward, needing altitude to reach the ice camp, through a glacier we called The Gateway. (Yes, I’m a professional glaciologist. No, I don’t know its name. There are 160,000 of them. Some of the names have slipped by.) It was covered with cracks and crevasses, written there by the churning and grinding forces that move the ice. At the top, one last, broad semicircular crack, a bergschrund, marked the start of the ridge plateau.

The helicopter flew over this glacier on the way up Site Beta.

On the narrow ridge of the Antarctic Peninsula, we felt like we had left Earth behind and arrived on an ice planet. Within about ten minutes, we could begin to see a scattering of specks on the snow so small: a working science town of six, 150 miles from the nearest permanent base. Dr Ellen Mosely-Thompson, the pixie-like director of the Byrd Polar Research, and Thai Verzone, cheery and linebacker-sized, greeted us as we landed. I hugged Ellen, and felt as if I nearly broke her. Then Thai hugged me and I knew what that felt like.

Ellen has been pursuing climate records of Antarctica for a good while now, and she is dead set on getting the past few thousand years’ record from this site. The Peninsula is warming rapidly because of global climate change. How does this cycle of human-caused climate change differ from those warmings and coolings of past millennia? She hopes the answer lies here.

Researchers discuss how to un-stick the ice core drill, inside the dome tent.

Two large tents dominate the camp: the dome, where the drilling happens, and the cook tent, where the eating happens. In Antarctica, the two require almost equal amounts of time, with sleeping coming in third sometimes.

Erin and I walked over for a look inside the dome. Inside were Ellen’s colleagues, Victor Zagorodnov and Vladimir Mikhalenko, two Russian  and Ukrainian scientist-engineers who know ice coring the way Stradivarius knew violins. As we stepped in, a strong smell of ethanol assailed us. They are using the fluid to keep the cold, deep core hole open against the tendency of ice to flow. The core was temporarily stuck, at 380 meters, and it was impressive to hear Victor and Vladimir discuss ideas for clearing it. Remember, we are in the middle of nowhere.

Ellen Mosely-Thompson, Erin Pettit, and Thai Verzone

“We could make a tubing for antifreeze by stripping the insulation off an extension cord, Vladimir.”

“Yes, Victor, and then perhaps the bailer could be re-configured to deliver the antifreeze with a weight and nail that would puncture it just above the drill head.”

In fact, the whole team was working the issue. Benjamin Vincencio is a Peruvian scientist who has worked with the Thompsons for many years, and Roberto Fillippi is an Italian graduate student on his first trip to the ice.

Adjoining the dome tent, sunk into the snow, is the accumulated 380 meters of time in a bottle, the ice cores that record nearly every detail of the areas past climate.

We heard a helicopter approach again. Ronald and Terry had arrived to build the AMIGOS system. But stepping outside, we saw that the weather was declining. Terry and Ronald got right to work on the tower, thinking that we were going to get this in just under the wire. In fact, the wire had already swept past, with the ship and the ridge-top coming under increasing cloud and wind. Not terrible, but cloudy and frosty, with an ice fog and temperatures of about 10 degrees F.

We realized we would have to spend the night. The weather at Site Beta has been notoriously bad since December, when we were stuck in our tents waiting for pick-up. It could be ten days before a weather window that included the ship and the ridge-top site occurred again. Was the ship going to be pinned in Barilari Bay for ten days, waiting to fly us out? That would be a huge amount of resources to tie up. Not to mention boring the heck out of 44 of the worlds best polar scientists.

Ellen Mosely-Thompson provided tents and sleeping bags for the visitors.

We had minimal gear, just the survival bags that NSF issues anyone going into the field. But one of the keys to building a great survival bag is that you don’t want people using it unless the alternative is not surviving. So the gear is pretty light and simple. Fortunately, the camp had spare tents and gear. In fact, it was the bundled-up camp that Erin and I had worked from in December. By afternoon, Erin and Thai had set up a new suburb of Beta City, three tents and sleeping bags inside, for the four of us. Martin had stayed on the ship to organize the aborted follow-on installations.

We had a fun afternoon, snow falling, puttering away on the AMIGOS tower, snacking, chatting with the drill team. Dinner was a very international thing: Russian jokes, American jokes, Peruvian jokes, Girls on Ice jokes, and Swiss jokes (don’t tell Martin).

When not in the dome tent drilling ice cores, Ellen Mosely-Thompson's team spends much of its time in the cook tent.

But we were concerned about what we were going to do. Another day passed, and the weather was still bad. The helo pilots managed to fit in one flight, bringing up the main contractor from the ship for a look around; but it lasted just twenty minutes, in weather that was near impossible. Later, another pull-out was scheduled, but conditions were terrible: at one point, we saw the underside of the helicopter passing overhead, but it couldn’t land. We could stay for an extended time, there was plenty of food and fuel, but we would be unable to work on anything, and we would be holding up the ship.

We came up with a plan for a pull-out of ice core by Twin Otter (an aircraft  a two-engine delivery truck with wings) based in Rothera, a British base about 150 miles to the south. Could we go to Rothera and free up the ship to sail north to biological sites and use the T/O to do our installation work from Rothera?  We began making calls (on Iridium) and emails (on digital Iridiums).

The next day brought beautiful conditions to Site Beta, a rare day indeed. But the ship was totally socked in. No final word yet on our Twin Otter plan, but a Twin Otter was already on the way, to take ice cores to the Rothera freezer.

Terry Haran smiles after "body surfing" the Bruce Plateau.

Erin and Terry did a last re-survey, to ensure we had good GPS topography data of the region. Erin drove, and Terry rode along to hold the GPS upright. But in blue-sky, sunny, dry snow conditions, any outing is a joy ride. “I body surfed the Bruce Plateau!” Terry said.

We asked for space on board and in exchange for five boxes of time coming out, there was enough room for us. We flew. On laughter-silvered wings.

Ronald Ross, Erin Pettit, Ted Scambos, and Terry Haran squeezed into a Twin Otter for a flight from Site Beta to Rothera Station.

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Barilari: A flight over the west coast

January 22, 2010

This map shows the location of Ted and Martin's goal near Barilari Bay.

Ted writes:

The LARISSA glaciology team flew again today. This time Martin Truffer and I looked at the possibility of a flight up over the ridge of the Peninsula to our target sites on the east side. Bad weather (clouds, and blowing snow at low levels) has hampered our attempts to get to any of the regions near the Larsen B embayment.

The Palmer has moved south, to a fjord called Barilari Bay, just across from the Site Beta ice core drilling location, which the LARISSA glaciology team surveyed in December. This is a very scenic area, even prettier to my eye because the bay is smaller and ringed by glaciers that flow down right into the water. It is clear that this area had a small ice shelf itself at some time in the fairly recent past, perhaps a few centuries ago. Our marine geology group will look into that possibility while we wait for good weather.

By the way, free bar of chocolate to the first one at NSIDC or in the reading public that can tell us all the correct pronunciation of Barilari. Right now, most of us are going with an Aussie inflection, rhyming with “Hillary,” but we also have a “Barry-Larry” dialect, and a rather odd quasi-euro version, “ba-rEE la-REE.”

We took off at 9:48 this morning, and headed north to peer into the glacier troughs for some kind of path with thinner clouds overhead and less mist and blowing snow below. En route, our pilot (Barry James) wisely steered around a magnificent spire of rock looming like our own Matterhorn over the bay.

“It doesn’t look at all like the Matterhorn,” mutters Martin Truffer. And with his Swiss accent, who can argue with him?

We climbed the most promising trough in the ice, but as the ice rose towards the Antarctic Peninsula ridge-crest, the fog and clouds seemed to meet — no go for the east side today.  We turned to go back to the Palmer, and as we approached we had an excellent view of this ice-rimmed bay, and a look at just how tiny our floating village (the Palmer) is at the Antarctic scale.

Erin and Terry were there to greet us after our thirty-minute flight. Spirits are still high, and we expect a better break on the weather tomorrow.

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The wild wild west

January 21, 2010

Ted writes:

We’ve been on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula for about a week now, and we’re all very impressed with the scenery and the wild life. These pictures were acquired by the science staff of the LARISSA cruise in the past week.

Martin Truffer is an associate professor at the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute

Eugene Domack is the Chief Scientist of the Larissa Cruise, a professor at Hamilton College

David Honig is a graduate student in Marine Ecosystems at Duke University

Ronald Ross is a electronics consultant for the LARISSA Glaciology program

Erin Pettit is an assistant professor at the Department of Geosciences, University of Alaska

Sun Mi Jeong is a graduate student at the Korean Institute for Polar Research

Mike McCormick is a professor at Hamilton College

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Waiting for clear weather

January 19, 2010

A moment of sunshine reveals the landscape of the western Antarctic Peninsula

Ted writes: The N.B. Palmer now sits off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. We are waiting for clear conditions to install the AMIGOS stations and other instruments. Most of the time the landscape invisible with drizzle, snow flurries, and fog. It’s quite amazing when the fog lifts momentarily to reveal an astoundingly stark and majestic setting. We are typically cruising in fjords with 1000-foot cliffs, ridges, and glaciers surrounding us.

Almost as soon as we arrived, we saw the closest thing to a break in the clouds. Marin and Erin set up a flight to recon the AMIGOS and UNAVCO GPS sites, and from this side it looked like a “go.” As we watched from below, the helo took off, heading for the glacier pass to the eastern side of the peninsula, and then slowed,hovered, and moved in sequence to each of the valleys, peering at the ridge crest. Within 20 minutes they were back. The entire eastern side was clouded, with no breaks at all.

We are continuing to improve the software and integrate the newest sensor on the AMIGOS, a precision GPS sensor (centimeter to millimeter level positioning) incorporated into a single electronic board (built by TopCon, Inc., a new system called GRS-1). Ronald and Terry have most of the AMIGOS brains–the white boxes that contain their electronics–out in the workspace on the first deck of the ship. Ronald and Terry are re-writing the code that they will run when we install them to maximize data collection and power/upload efficiency.

We await clear weather…in one of the cloudiest places on Earth.

Patience.

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Radar survey of Röhss Glacier

January 14, 2010

Martin Truffer, of the University of Alaska, tows a radar sled across Rohss Glacier.

Ted writes:

On January 11, two of the glaciology team aboard the N.B.Palmer, Erin Pettit and Martin Truffer of University of Alaska, flew to nearby Röhss Glacier to conduct a radar survey and test the science equipment. Although not part of the original LARISSA mission, the Röhss Glacier is similar to the glaciers of the Larsen B embayment in that it is rapidly retreating and thinning in the aftermath of ice shelf disintegration, in this case, the disintegration of the Prince Gustav Ice Shelf in January 1995. The Röhss has retreated nearly 25 kilometers (16 miles) in that time.

The survey tested the deep radar system that we plan to use on the Larsen B glaciers, which measures ice thickness. We also measured the glacier flow rate at the site using precision GPS systems. Early results show that the glacier is roughly just 200 meters (700 feet) thick at this point, and flowing at about 200 meters (700 feet) per year.

Erin writes:

Ted has been studying this glacier’s retreat through satellite imagery, so he was pretty happy to have Martin and I get some ground data to supplement his satellite work. It was, of course, a glorious flight over with Chris. We stopped on a bedrock knob next to the glacier to set up a quick GPS base station. It’s all volcanic rock over there, with lots of crumbly pumice.

Ted had given us approximate coordinates based on his satellite images for landing on the glacier. The entire lower part of the glacier is broken up with crevasses due to its fast retreat, so the point Ted gave us was in the middle of a crevasse field. But as it was the most interesting part of the glacier for the data we wanted, we chose a broad, flat icy area between two large rifts. The flat area was probably 200 or 300 meters (700 to 1000 feet) long and 30 meters (100 feet) wide. It was snow-free, with dirty ice showing through, so we new it was safe to land and work.

We put a GPS on the glacier to measure its motion. Martin’s processing of those data this morning show that it’s moving about 60 centimeters (24 inches) per day. We also strung out our radar system (two 20-meter antennas, which spread out quite a ways on our little ice ledge). We profiled as much terrain with the radar system as we could safely between crevasses,  about 200 meters. We had fun navigating around snow patches, which can hide crevasses. We also jumped over a few tiny crevasses in the ice, where we could see what was solid and what was not.

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Out of Drake Passage and into the ice

January 13, 2010

Stormy weather in Drake Passage made everyone sea sick.

Ted writes:

Much has happened since our last entry; the rough Drake Passage took a day from everyone. We spent the following days, with calmer seas but grey skies, preparing and testing equipment on the ship. Our first attempt to reach the Larsen B Embayment area was blocked by thick rounded floes on the southeast side of the large James Ross Island, which sits like a small white pea under the bony fingertip of the Peninsula. So we took a chance on the Prince Gustav Channel, to the west, between James Ross Island and the main Peninsula. This passage was filled by impenetrable ice shelf until 1995; and so what we were attempting would have been impossible just 15 years ago. But in this year, a solid sheet of landfast sea ice filled the channel from coast to coast, with no breaks or floes. The hope was that this ice would snap neatly under the cutting prow of the ship.

It looked good at first, with open water in the north, but near the 64 degree S line we saw a thin white sheet laying across our path. The ship plowed through it like butter, at first. But as we approached the mouths of two large glaciers, we were stopped again. Chunks of glacier ice from last summer had drifted into the channel, and were trapped by the ice, congealed into very thick fast ice and hard blue glacial blocks. The  Palmer might still have crossed the frozen obstacle course, but at the risk of being in a position where forward was the only option.

While considering options, the weather cleared. We found ourselves in an absolutely magnificent landscape of ice, rock, sky, and ocean. You get the sense that here there is a landscape struggling to emerge from the ice, that there is a land of canyons and mesas slowly pushing out from beneath the white mantle

After crossing the Drake Passage, the Palmer found itself in a magnificent landscape.

We decided late Sunday afternoon to conduct a day of science on Monday. We activated the helocopters, gave the pilots some practice as well as the science teams. One group visited rock outcrops to the west; the glacier team (Erin Pettit and Martin Truffer) went to the large glacier on James Ross Island. Other groups collected ice and water samples, and a separate helo flight scouted the sea ice route to the south.

On the ship, the AMIGOS team (Terry Haran, Ronald Ross, and Ted Scambos) readied the first AMIGOS ‘skeletons’ and tested their instruments and some new software. We have five instruments on these systems: a camera, a weather station, a sun sensor, a thermistor string, and a GPS; more on these and the science objectives behind them later.

Sunday night, with clear calm weather and a near-midnight sun, the light and sky were extraordinary. Brooding mountains, a firey sunset, and an ethereal moonrise behind the ice amazed everyone. There was a quiet reverence on the ship: it was truly awesome.

The moon rises over the ice.

This evening (Monday) we are now embarked on an even greater gamble than before; we believe the ice is impassable ahead, but melting; an so we are going to the west side of the Peninsula for perhaps three weeks to try to do some work and wait for conditions here to improve. The west side is currently completely sea ice free, and we will try to conduct some of the science by using the helicopters to fly over the ridge of the Peninsula to the east side. The gamble is that the weather is rarely good on both sides of the ridge at once. But the AMIGOS and ice team is ready to give it a shot. We will be in place on the west side by Thursday morning.

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A sketch of the field camp

January 12, 2010

Erin Pettit sketched the field camp during the first part of the LARISSA project.

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The Palmer Departs

January 5, 2010

Ted writes:

The Palmer slipped the surly bonds of the Punta Arenas pier at 5:20 p.m. yesterday, in a beautiful evening sun. The gear was stowed, labs secured, and a full compliment of staff and scientists were aboard. The temperature was about 62 degrees F, and there was a 15-knot breeze. We ate dinner at 6, and after a day of rushing to do the final shopping and securing, the adventurers relaxed, talked with energetic anticipation of the plans ahead and the past cruises that they’d enjoyed.

The AMIGOS crew–Ted, Terry, Ronald, Erin, and Martin–were continuing to build the system software, especially for the new GPS boards, and improve the radar acquisition and analysis software as well. I downloaded our image collection for the survey regions and re-evaluated our selected sites with respect to crevasses, using MODIS, Landsat-7, ASTER, Formosat-2, and other data.

Some early adjustments to the plans included adding a reconnaissance flight to evaluate as many of the sites as possible prior to any deployment of GPS or AMIGOS. We’re planning a loop flight across the Crane and Flask Glaciers, to literally see the lay of the land and the potential risks. Current heavy sea ice conditions  in the western Weddell Sea mean that other science operations may be delayed or progress more slowly than planned, so the AMIGOS team may see a lot of action in the early part of the cruise. We are planning to install three to four sites  between January  10th and 20th.

The sun set off the stern starboard bow. The Palmer is sailing east and north, towards the Atlantic, before a hard starboard turn towards the Drake Passage.

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All aboard for the LARISSA cruise

January 4, 2010

Research Vessel (RV) N.B Palmer, dockside Punta Arenas, Chile

Ted writes:

Things are nearly packed, and the full crew and science team are now living aboard the N.B. Palmer. But we are still at the pier in Punta Arenas, awaiting a few items for the science work. Already, though, it is as if the cruise has begun: most of us eat our meals in the galley, the labs are busy in preparation, the hallways are bustling, and the decks are active with moving and strapping down cargo.

The LARISSA 2010 cruise will depart today at around 2 p.m., head east through the Straits of Magellan, then turn right and cross the fabled Drake Passage. The Drake Passage may be churning with monstrous waves and intense gales, or if we’re lucky it may be calm. The Lawrence Gould (another U.S. research ship) recently had a smooth and remarkably easy trip, and we’re sure that means the Palmer is in for the works. With luck, we’ll be across in four days or so, and then we’ll begin a huge science agenda. Every facet of earth and life sciences will be of interest to this group, and we are equipped to measure all of it.

The LARISSA AMIGOS and GPS team is all packed. The gear is on a flat-rack in the hold and we have set up an office and workshop in one of the dry lab areas aboard ship.

Ronald in the lab onboard the ship

Cargo 'flat-rack' in hold of the N.B. Palmer

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