Cable Guys – Foyn PointFebruary 20, 2014
February 17 dawned clear and warm — an incredible third day in a row of good flying weather, and we were up next. We rolled out of our bunks at 6 am, checked the weather from the AMIGOS stations we installed to the south of our target at Foyn Point — the camera system at Cape Disappointment. It too was clear, with a few high clouds. Lift-off was set for 8, and we actually left the ground at 8:05.
The helicopters, Russian-built Mi-17 ‘Hip’ models are big, although slightly less big than I initially thought – about the same as the Argentine Navy (Armada) Sea King helicopters. But they are far easier to work with. A large loading ramp opens in the back and the interior is big and boxy. In our case, there was a bit less space because two large interior fuel tanks had been moved inside — with these, the range radius of the Mi-17 is truly incredible, over 200 miles. We were traveling about 140 miles from Marambio. In addition to the three of us (Ted, Terry, and Rob) there were six others in the aircraft. It was still mostly empty. Properly configured for a shorter flight, I think it could hold 20 people.
We lifted slowly and moved west over the barren dirt of Seymour Island and across a berg- and sea ice dotted ocean towards James Ross Island. I think of this island as the ‘ice cream island’ – a mesa of brown rock topped by a soft white ice cap that is flowing over the edge. Beautiful and you really sense the nature of ice and its ability to flow — but at the same time you realize that the flow takes centuries. We zoom low past a dozen ice cream fountains along the south edge of the island.
For many miles we cross sea ice – huge flat plates of broken ice only now cracking up in the Larsen A embayment. This year has been a very extensive ice year throughout Antarctica setting a record (nsidc.org/sea_ice_news). In the Peninsula and Weddell Sea (the ocean to the east of us), there is still heavy ice even though it is mid-February – usually the ice-free time of year for the northern Peninsula.
As we head toward Foyn, we fly past a much smaller Argentine base sometimes occupied in summer, although not this year. The base is Matienzo, designed to hold 8-12 people and support over-ice traverses and helicopters for exploring the glaciers of the Larsen area. Built in the 1960s, Matienzo is a bit weather-beaten since it is now rarely used; but we hope to make use of it more in the coming years.
Right next to Matienzo is a section of remnant ice shelf that is now the most northerly ice shelf in Antarcitca — the Seal Nunataks Ice Shelf — or at least, that is our working name for it. Technically it is a remnant of the Larsen Ice Shelf, stuck between the Larsen A and Larsen B embayments.
After about 90 minutes, we are there — Foyn Point, a large rock outcropping emerging from the ice cap, and the cape that marks the north side of Crane Glacier. We can see our two stations through the large porthole windows on the helo. After a few quick passes for a closer look, the pilot moves in and lands — so gently that touchdown was undetectable inside, and we are off and working. The helo went back to Matienzo to wait, engine idling.
We got right to it, photographing the stations and assembling our gear for the surgery. The stations were in remarkably good shape, corrosion-free despite being next to an ocean. This may be a result of the near-continuous ice cover for the past few years — a string of cool summers since about 2008 have slowed the pace of ice evolution, and kept sea ice on the Larsen B embayment for the past four summers now. Unlike the Larsen A bay, the Larsen B shows no real signs of breaking out this year.
We first repaired the seismic sensor, attaching cables and re-booting – after all, we are the Cable Guys. The seismic sensor is intended to monitor large iceberg calving events on the nearby Hektoria and Crane Glaciers, and any continental seismicity that may be present. The sensor is located beneath a mound of rocks next to the power and communications box. A key step in the repair is the Jump Test — do we see a signal from the sensor reaching the box? ‘I got this!’ Rob says. And indeed, this is the job he was born to do. A thunderous leap and impact threatened to crack off the entire cliff we were standing on…. but when the dust had cleared, there it was: a clear spike in the data, practically spelling the word ‘Rob’ — or perhaps ‘Help!’.
We then repaired the GPS sensor, and called the groups managing the data reception on our Iridium phone. Success, and proven success, because the data was seen to be arriving back in the U.S. We celebrated with a lunch extracted from our massive box of ‘snacks’ (just under 50 lbs).
On our return, we had a brief ground visit to Matienzo, to take some pictures and get a quick evaluation of how it would be useful to a larger group as a logistical base. It looks perfect, but in need of a little sprucing up.
We are now waiting on weather again for one possible opportunity to go to the second site – Cape Marsh, but we are prepared to depart at the next opportunity to go north. Looks like that may be February 26, a bit later than we’d hoped.