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Polar training wheels

November 27, 2018

On November 21, a Dash-7 airplane from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) was awaiting us on the tarmac of the Punta Arenas International Airport, shiny and electric orange in color, the color of high visibility in Antarctica. We boarded around 10 am for the four-hour flight to Rothera Station. The Dash-7 is a remarkably versatile aircraft, four engines and a high wing, capable of carrying about 8,000 pounds. For BAS, it is configured as a mix of a cargo and passenger plane—gear was strapped to the bare front half of the plane, while sixteen airline seats stretched in the back. A coffee station and tiny bathroom in the back made the flight more comfortable. After three hours of smooth conditions, the first icebergs and a distant mountain view of the Peninsula appeared.

After landing and stepping into a sterilization pan for sanitizing our boots (to avoid contaminating Antarctic soil), we were warmly greeted by the station manager, Dave, and our field guide, Tom Lawfield. A brief walk to the main building (called New Bransfield House or NBH) followed, for introduction slides and a cup of tea. Tom gave us the training schedule, a series of modules set at a fast pace that will keep us busy for the next three or four days—everything from weather training to snowmobile driving, and lots of safety briefings on first aide, crevasses, survival, and how to use the renowned Primus stove and Tilley lamp in the tents. The design has not changed much since the days of Scott and Shackleton, because they work so well.

Most buildings here are named for dog-sledding teams from earlier pre-BAS expeditions when dogs were still allowed on the continent. In the 1980s and early 1990s, after some concerns about dogs possibly running off and even surviving in the wild, the last Antarctic groups with dog teams gave up the practice. Lynn is staying over at the Admirals building, while Ted, Bruce, and Clem are sleeping at Vikings, a newly-assembled building made of about eight pre-fabricated shipping containers put together in a neat way to provide nice, clean, and cozy sleeping accommodation. After settling into our rooms, we headed over to NBH for dinner and got a first taste of the fantastic hospitality from our British hosts.

Our following days were made of various training modules that are required before heading into remote field sites. We started off with a set of short lectures on airplane procedures and safety, how to take accurate field weather observations, where the various support groups were on the base, and rules to follow while here. We also visited the station doctor to get familiar with our medical kit that will accompany us to the field. The afternoons involved outdoor training modules such as mountaineering 101, crevasse rescue, snowmobiles 101, and linked-snowmobile travel for uncertain terrain. Another module was “campcraft,” where we got the chance to spend one night outdoor, practicing setting up our pyramid tents and digging emergency snow trenches in case we got caught in a blizzard unable to find our tent. We learned it is best to anchor down instead of proceeding further and getting more lost.

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Clem plays with his ice axe while Tom is pulling out his crampons as part of the mountaineering 101 module. Credit: Lynn Montgomery

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On a sunny afternoon, Ted and Bruce are doing their best to stop Lynn and Clem from falling simultaneously into a crevasse. Credit: Ted Scambos

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From the crevasse perspective, Lynn and Clem appear safe, but they were scared by what just happened. Thankfully their falls have been stopped. Credit: Ted Scambos

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Ted inspects the roof of his snow grave to make sure it will give him sufficient protection from the blizzard. Credit: Ted Scambos

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On the last day, Bruce and Tom are practicing the linked snowmobile travel that we will use while in the field to collect the ground radar data. Credit: Clément Miège

Once the training period was over, we could dedicate two days to prepare our science equipment and get our science cargo ready for the put-in flight. A lot of time was devoted to updating the AMIGOS stations from past sites and working with the sensor systems selected for Firn Aquifers. We have been lucky that our field guide Tom got all our camp equipment ready well before we arrived in Rothera. Thank you, Tom!

The few photos below illustrate critical moments as we are getting our science gear ready for deployment into the field.

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On the deck of Old Bransfield House, Bruce tests the data-transmission module of the AMIGOS station. The AMIGOS stations have a long history in the Antarctic Peninsula research work, with the acronym standing for Automated Meterology-Ice-Geophysics Observing System. Credit: Ted Scambos

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Lynn carefully applies a thin coat of solder on each of the thermistor wires to prevent the stranded wires from coming apart. Credit: Ted Scambos

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One of our last science preparation tasks consisted in testing a phase-sensitive radar in our office to see if we could get a signal transmitted and recorded by the computer. Ted is happily taking apart the receiving antenna after successful testing. Credit: Clément Miège

This takes us to November 26, which was our first put-in day. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating and we have been on hold since, ready to go once the sun shines on the Wilkins.

Finally, we wanted to add a short biography of Tom Lawfield, our field guide, which will be responsible for our safety and managing our camp while in the field.

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Tom Lawfield. Credit: Ted Scambos

I am a Field Guide with the British Antarctic Survey, based at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. Day to day, I may be delivering training for glacial travel and field living, assisting deep field research projects within British Antarctic Territory (BAT), or running operations at a deep field runway such as Sky Blu. My work usually involves a fair amount of shoveling snow. When not in Antarctica, I run expeditions, skiing and climbing courses in the UK and worldwide. I have an MA in Environmental Security from the UN mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica, and an MPhil (Cantab) in International Relations, where I was interested in the link between climate change and security. Read more about my life and work at Rothera here.

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