Archive for the ‘Preparation’ Category


Polar firn aquifers: Why are we doing this?

November 16, 2018

Often when people envision Greenland and Antarctica, they see desolate, snow-filled lands; and in general, that is pretty accurate. Other than a few coastal towns and seasonal base camps, these lands are uninhabited, except for a few tough species of animals. And, of course, there is lots of snow. As snowfall settles, it compacts under the weight of new snow and the battering ram of the wind. This compacted older snow, at least one winter old, is called firn—still porous, but between fresh snow and glacial ice in density.

Where we are going to in Antarctica the firn has a special feature. These regions are known for very warm summer conditions, with lots of melting and lots of snowfall over the course of the year. The summer melt can percolate through the snow and firn grains to form a water-saturated layer that sits above the denser glacier ice. Like a well in sandstone, this is a kind of aquifer in the firn, almost like a natural snow cone. Without the syrup.

Firn aquifers have been observed on a few mountain glaciers, usually for just part of the year, but never on ice sheets until a discovery on the Greenland Ice Sheet in April of 2011. Since then, NASA Operation Ice Bridge data has mapped their extent over several regions of Greenland. In some parts of Greenland, they appear to persist for decades.

More recently, a mapping algorithm using satellite data correctly located the firn aquifers in Greenland. We applied the same method to Antarctica—and there they were, a signal in the data just like Greenland’s aquifer areas. Antarctica’s potential for firn aquifers is at present unconfirmed, yet application of a similar technique indicates that they likely exist in coastal and ice shelf regions that have climate conditions similar to firn aquifer areas in Greenland. That is what we are going to check out.

Firn aquifers are important because they could cause a kind of water-driven fracturing on ice sheets or ice shelves called hydrofracture, where water seeps into cracks in the ice and breaks them open, leading to a speed-up of a glacier or crumbling of an ice shelf. This kind of fracturing has led to some spectacular break-ups in Antarctica, or significant acceleration of glaciers in Greenland.

The objective of the Antarctic Firn Aquifer expedition is to verify the presence of firn aquifers on the Antarctic Ice Sheet by surveying two key sites on the Antarctic Peninsula: the Wilkins Ice Shelf and the southern George VI Ice Shelf. These field sites were identified using our mapping method and data from two satellite microwave instruments: a C-band radar scatterometer (EUMETSAT’s Advanced SCATterometer – ASCAT) and an L-band microwave radiometer (aboard NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive Satellite–SMAP). The longer wavelength of ASCAT and SMAP microwaves, and their sensitivity to the presence of liquid meltwater, allow them to see firn aquifers on ice sheets or ice shelves as deep as ~60 meters (200 feet). Over time, distinct patterns in the microwave signals can be used to distinguish firn aquifers from areas that do not store meltwater at depth.



Once again to the Antarctic Peninsula

April 5, 2013

Rob writes:

On April 6, Ted Scambos, Jenn Bohlander, and I will be flying to Punta Arenas, Chile to join researchers aboard the Research Vessel Araon, a South Korean icebreaker. Our team will travel to the Antarctic Peninsula, sailing across the Drake Passage, to maintain the network of automated stations we installed over the last three years. Working with Erin Pettit and Ronald Ross, the team will also conduct radar surveys of the Flask and Crane glaciers. We are planning on assisting South Korean researchers in the installation of their observing stations–these “K-AMIGOS” will overlook the dynamic Crane and Flask glaciers, providing near real-time observations of ice conditions and weather information.

Crane Glacier

Crane Glacier


Much ado about batteries

October 30, 2012

A set of eight batteries left over from the 2010 Nathaniel B. Palmer LARISSA cruise that are to be sent to Rothera Research Station to replace any British Atlantic Survey batteries that I use on my current trip.

Terry writes:

Went for a bit longer run northeast of the hotel along the ocean highway. Walked over to the AGUNSA warehouse, which is next door to the DAMCO warehouse and is being used for staging the equipment for the Lake Ellsworth crew. Their leader, Chris Hill, asked if I had any extra batteries. I said I need five myself and would check back with him.

Back over at DAMCO, I met Gene Domack who had arrived on the Lawrence M. Gould (LMG) icebreaker around three in the morning. We started looking for some of Gene’s batteries that he had unloaded that morning off the LMG, but we immediately found a set of eight batteries with a C-514 TCN label assigned to Ted Scambos that were from our 2010 LARISSA Palmer cruise. I gave two to Chris Hall of the Lake Ellsworth drilling project, so when they make their big discovery of unique bugs in the lake this season, we can say, “Those guys used some of our batteries!” Chris was going to charge and test them, and let me know if they are okay. He and his crew will be stopping in Rothera next week.

Took a nostalgic tour with Chris Linden of DAMCO to the Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP) icebreaker, which is in Punta Arenas until January. Got invited to the end of cruise dinner at Mamasita’s, drank too much wine, crawled to a couple of bars with the dwindling LMG crew, and staggered back to the hotel around 2:30 a.m.


Prep work in Punta Arenas

October 29, 2012

Terry writes:

Took a fifteen-minute walk to the DAMCO warehouse from the hotel and met Octavio, Gonzalo, and Paul who helped me check out my Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing. Gonzalo gave me my Iridium satellite phone, and Marcella brought me my four cases, which she had kept in the DAMCO van overnight since the warehouse was closed.

I was told that I wouldn’t be flying the next day due to delays in some British Atlantic Survey arrivals to Punta Arenas. Bought some crackers, cheese, cookies, and fruit at the local Unimarc, tested my satellite phone with a quick call to Sue, and the spent then entire evening until 11 p.m. watching the CNN International coverage of Hurricane Sandy as it came ashore.


Silence from Scar Inlet and Cape Disappointment

September 8, 2012

NSIDC researcher Terry Haran returns to Scar Inlet and Cape Disappointment this fall to figure out why two AMIGOS units have been silent.

Terry writes:

I return to Scar Inlet and Cape Disappointment in a month.

We haven’t received any communication from AMIGOS-2/4 at Scar Inlet since January 9, and AMIGOS-6 at Cape Disappointment has been silent since June 6. We think the AMIGOS-2/4 battery box may have shorted out due to the incursion of melt water. As for AMIGOS-6, that may have had its tower blown over or incurred some other kind of damage during a 60-knot wind event prior to its last communication. The UNAVCO continuous GPS units appear to be working but are in need of a communications upgrade, and the ones at Flask and Leppard glaciers may need their solar panels raised.

I’ve been busy preparing for the trip. I shipped AMIGOS replacement parts to Ronald Ross in Australia. Did the usual paper work for travel, began the physical qualification process required by the National Science Foundation-U.S. Antarctic Program, and collected a shipment of mechanical parts to be sent to Punta Arenas, Chile via Port Hueneme, California.

We’re not planning on visiting AMIGOS-3 since it continues to work well. It could probably use its solar panels raised, since the snow is just now touching the bottom panel. But that’s something we’ll leave for Ted during the upcoming Araon cruise with our Korean collaborators next year.


Antarctica for one, please.

November 2, 2011

Ted writes:

I’m beginning to feel like some kind of migrating bird. For the past three years, like clockwork, as the calendar passes Halloween and heads into the leafless days of November, I find myself boarding planes and flying south. Once again, I’m at South America’s jumping off point for Antarctica, Punta Arenas, Chile. Usually I have someone from our team with me, like the redoubtable Terry Haran, or the indomitable Rob Bauer, or the highly toutable Jenn Bohlander, but this year it’s just me. Me, and some top-drawer assistants at the British Antarctic Survey base, Rothera (I have yet to meet them).

I’ve heard Punta’s climate described as windy sunshine, and it’s a description that sticks. I’ve been here 4 or 5 of the calendar months, and the only question one seems to ask about the weather is, “How windy is it now?”  The answer ranges from “Kinda,” to “Holy vacuum cleaner, Batman!” A bad hair day here means actually having your hair blown off. There is an occasional spritz of stinging rain, but for the most part it is intense sunshine, scudding low clouds, haggard-looking llamas and, well, wind.

The goal this year for the LARISSA Glaciology project is to repair and upgrade two of the installed measurement stations (a GPS station on a rocky cape, and our AMIGOS compadres sitting on the Scar Inlet shelf, a remnant we suspect will someday disintegrate like the Larsen B Ice Shelf did nearly ten years ago. We don’t plan to visit the other AMIGOS, on Flask Glacier, although it now sits up to its mechanical neck in snow. (Later, we will return for it, too.) The most important part of this year’s visit is to install a new system, with a much better camera, on a cliff overlooking the Scar Inlet shelf. The camera will provide a series of images showing how the ice front and surface change during a summer, and hopefully some details of the processes during a break-up. All the gear is already waiting down in Rothera.  If we can manage this installation, it could be a fantastic record of one of the big open questions in glaciology: how does an ice shelf disintegrate? But we have to get it set up out there first. I suppose I should mention the name of the cliff is Cape Disappointment. Not a good omen. Stay tuned.


Still waiting

November 16, 2010

Martin writes:

When I was thinking about the timing on this trip to the Peninsula, I imagined us sitting in the Rothera bar by this time, telling tall tales about the big snow pit we had dug. With every beer the pit would get a bit deeper, and the weather a bit nastier, but us Antarctic explorers prevailed, rescuing the AMIGOS and pushing the frontiers of science by another nanometer.

Instead we are still waiting to get off the ground. The daily routine is pretty repetitive. Ted gets up in the morning and looks out the window. “It looks a bit better today”. That means you can see the next building now. Full of hope for what this day will bring we drag ourselves to breakfast. Ted sometimes joins the morning weather briefing, where decisions about the day’s flights are made. I see him come into the breakfast room with the look of a rejected suitor, and no more questions need to be asked.

The rest of the day we spent in our office room catching up with things left unfinished before leaving on the trip south. Ted obsessively downloads weather forecast maps: “Look, there is a weather window of 2.3 hours on December 23. I’m sure we’ll make it.”

Jenn is trying to be productive and make the best of the situation. She regularly talks to school kids back home, so she decided to go around and figure out what various people do on base. She got us a guided tour to the marine lab yesterday, which was pretty cool. They have an aquarium with a variety of sea spiders, clams, sea stars, etc. Mostly they look at the impact of climate change, and how these guys react to warming water. They have nice laboratory facilities for dissecting, cooking or whatever else biologists subject their critters to. The most amazing thing though is that they have a regular year-round diving program, which comes with its special challenges in the icy water.

Yesterday we had a visitor. A lonely Emperor Penguin showed up. It’s the largest of the penguins, and they don’t usually make it to Rothera. Apparently they get one or two a year, so people are excited. Penguins are just always a lot of fun to watch.

A lone Emperor Penguin pays a visit to Rothera Station. Photo courtesy Martin Truffer.


Storm at Rothera Station

November 12, 2010

Ted, Martin, and Jennifer are still stuck at Rothera Station, waiting out a strong storm. Once the weather clears, they will fly out to the field to work on the AMIGOS stations.

Wind and snow have kept flights grounded at Rothera Station for the past week. Photo courtesy Jennifer Bohlander





The sun dips down near the horizon at 11pm last night. Photo courtesy Jennifer Bohlander


Jennifer at snow school: part 2

November 10, 2010

Jenn writes:

The reason I have time to write so much today is that there is a terrible storm at Rothera today: windy and snowing.  None of the research planes can fly, and since that’s what we need to get our work done, we just have to sit and wait.  I’m thankful I’m doing this waiting at the base however and not in a tent.

So continuing on with snow school.  After retrieving Mark, we had to go back down to the base to gather our gear for the overnight portion of our training.  We loaded up our stuff and went about four kilometers away from the base.  The four of us got on the back of two skidoos that would take us up to the campsite.  The skidoo I was on was also towing a sled with all our sleep gear, which is important to note because on the way up the slope the sled tipped and some of our stuff fell out and starting sliding down the slope.  Our poor instructor had to go chase after it because there were dangerous areas on the slope.  So we got up there and started to set up two tents that sleep two people.  The tents are large heavy tents, not the kind you would backpack with.  Anyway, at about this point I realize, “I’m going to have to sleep in a tent with one of these guys.”  Another thing to mention is there was no place to go to the bathroom up there, not even the bucket that I will have available when we get to our research site.  So I was thinking it’s a very good thing I packed my GoGirl for this overnight trip. However, when I came up with my brilliant GoGirl plan I never factored in a man sitting in the tent next to me.

At the site, the wind was blowing very hard in short gusts and sometimes it came from one direction and then the next time it came from another direction.  Our task was to put some tents up without any part of them blowing away.  After we got the tents up we went into the trailer they have set up to have a cup of tea. In the trailer, Ben taught us about lighting the stove and lantern that we would have in our tents.  Then wind was blowing so hard outside that something from our gear flew by and Ben had to go get it.  I was thinking this poor guy must be so exhausted. He had been teaching us non-stop since 9:00 this morning and it was about 7:30, and now he had to go out chasing our gear.  After our tea we learned how to use the radio. We practiced talking back to Rothera Station to let them know we were okay.  I felt like reporting back, “I need to pee Rothera, got a solution for that?”

After radio it’s on to the tents and here is where Ben tried to get past the awkward part that one of those guys had to share a tent with the girl.  Two of the men were already kind of chummy, so they defaulted to each other, and that left poor Mark with me–Mark who I pulled off the mountain. I can’t really imagine what this kid was thinking, but I was thinking, “I still have to pee.” We got in our tent and set up our sleeping stuff and our stove and all.  Then we boiled some water to make our food, which is called “man food.” They call it “man food” to distinguish it from “dog food,” a remnant from when people used to bring dogs down here.  The bag of “man food” I had was vegetable casserole and the package read, “Best if used before 08/2006.” Very excited to have dinner, but I still had to pee.

To make “man food” you boil water and add it to a bag, seal the bag, and wait a few minutes.  I have to admit it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. After dinner Mark said he was going out to go to the bathroom and I then had to tell this 23 year old boy that I have a bottle and a GoGirl and I’m going to take this opportunity to do the same.  He says “Okay, I’ll ask you if you are ready before I come back in.” Awkward! I was thankful to have the GoGirl though because the wind was still raging and I didn’t want to go outside and pull my pants down on this large flat expanse where we were camping–nowhere to hide!

Camping wasn’t too bad.  That lantern kept the tent warm and my sleep gear was pretty good.  In the morning it was cold and of course windy and I woke up pretty early and had to, you guessed it, pee again. So then I had to wait until Mark woke up, which seemed like an eternity, and wait for him to go outside again. Thankfully when we are in the field doing our work I have my own tent and can go whenever I want.

In the morning we packed up and started back to base.  This time not only did our gear flip going down the slope, but the skidoo flipped!  Before I knew it I did a flip in the air and landed facing the skidoo. The other guy on the back of the skidoo got his leg hit with the tow bar and he was in some pain.  I was just amazed by the acrobatic feat I retrieved from my past to help me avoid getting pinned under the skidoo.  Ben felt pretty bad about the whole thing, this poor guy, I can’t believe he has to go though this every time new inexperienced people come to the station. He has incredible patience, I would have lost it!

When we got back I found out that Ted, Martin, and I cannot be flown out to our site today.  This is not good news because the longer it takes for us to get out it potentially effects how long we will be here.  The planes are unable to fly in bad weather.  There is a very large storm going on today and it looks like we can’t fly until possibly Saturday!


Jennifer at snow school

November 10, 2010

Jenn writes:

I woke up Sunday morning and reported to snow school.  This is where they teach me how to live out in the field and save someone if something happens.  There are four of us in the class, three men and myself.  Our instructor, Ben, starts us off with putting up a basic tent and getting equipment to sleep on in the field.  I got my sleep gear issued from the US program while I was in Punta Arenas, but I watched the other guys get all their gear.  I have to say I was really shocked at how much warm comfortable stuff they get to go into the deep field:

US sleep kit (mine): foam pad, Therm-a-Rest pad, sleeping bag (a zero degree bag, which I thought “what the hell, it gets well below zero”), and a fleece liner.

British program: foam pad, Therm-a-Rest pad, some kind of shag carpet looking sheep skin thing, fleece liner (a thick one), and a great sleeping bag that cost like three times as much as the REI one I was issued.

We were all talking about the differences between the gear, and Ben said, “Maybe it’s because you Americans are so much tougher then us Brits.” I promptly corrected him and said, “No it’s either because we are just not as smart, or we’re cheap, or probably a little bit of both.”

After this, we got our climbing gear together to go learn crevasse rescue.  A crevasse is basically an opening in the snow that may or my not be visible.  If you fall in one it’s bad because sometimes they are VERY deep.  So if you are going walking around on the ice, you need to be roped up to one another.  Anyway we head out up over this hill that’s by the base to this area that has a cornice, which is like a shelf of snow hanging over a cliff.  So Ben proceeds to show us everything you have to do to save a person who falls into a crevasse (we just used the cliff for demonstration, and stuffed a duffel bag full of snow for the person).  Since I’ve never actually seen a great climber do all this stuff first-hand Ben is now the coolest person I’ve ever met, and he does it all with a British accent, which makes it even better.

After lunch we head back up the cliff and Ben asks this guy Mark, who is also in the class if he wouldn’t mind hanging over the cliff for a while.  He says he doesn’t mind, and then I jokingly say, “And I’ll save you.” Ben says, “That’s right you are going to save him because you need to learn this stuff for when you leave for the field.”

So the first thing I have to learn is how to use and ice ax to actually stop Mark when he falls into the crevasse.  I actually have to stop us both because when he goes over his weight is going to take me with him.  So Ben is tied up to me and we practice this by him just pulling me down the hill and I have to stop myself.  What you do here is you have your ice ax in one hand and when you start to slide (which comes on quite fast) you have to flip around, face the mountain, jam the shaft of the ax into the snow, and hold onto the top to stop yourself.  Ben and I tried it a few times and I didn’t do great but I managed to stop myself. However, you want to try and do it really fast because the longer it takes for you to stop the further down the crevasse your partner goes, and if you don’t do it quickly enough then you fall down the crevasse too and you are then both screwed.

Ben says “Okay, now we are going to try it with Mark.” My thought, or I might have said it out loud was, “You’ve gotta be  kidding me!.” Ben says, “You’ll do fine, and I’ll be tied to you and I can stop both of you from falling if I have to.”  So I look at this Mark guy and I say,  “Are you okay with this?” He says he is, and I think, “You’ve got to be on drugs if you think I’m going to be able to stop you.” Now I’m pretty freaked out but I have to do it, so here we go.  Mark is walking off toward the end of the cliff and Ben is reminding me that once I stop him I have to take this little rope loop (it has a name I just can’t remember) that is attached to me and wrap it around the ice ax to take the weight off my upper body.  So I give myself a little pep talk and, oh no, there goes Mark over the cliff. I turned around so fast and jammed that ax into the ground and used all the strength I had in my stringy arms, and to my surprise, I stopped him quite quickly. Ben then comes to help me remember what to do to secure Mark and then we go down near the edge to check on him. There he is just hanging and then Ben looks at me and says, “Okay, lets go pull him up.”  I say “okay,” but what I really meant to say was “no way.” So we set up this pulley system with all this climbing gear and then I’m supposed to be able to just pull him.  This guy wasn’t a huge guy, maybe 160-170 pounds, but honestly, the concept that I can pull this guy up is just not mathematically solid to me.  I start to pull and I’m really making no headway since I’m standing in slippery snow.  Ben says, “Turn around and just dig your boots in and start walking up the hill.” (Easier said than done, Ben).  I turn around and I think my shear will to be done with this exercise gave me the strength to climb up.  It took everything I had and at one time I was practically crawling up this mountain.  But I did it.  I pulled Mark up.  By far the hardest thing I had to do in my life ever, even harder then advanced calculus.

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