Posts Tagged ‘Antarctic Peninsula’

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Cape Disappointment, Antarctica

November 16, 2011

Ted writes:

We have been to the Cape of Disappointment. And we have prevailed.

As is often the case here, the oddest of circumstances led to an opportunity. It wasn’t the way we drew it up on the blackboard, but it worked. Constantly in the back of my mind is this sense of foreboding about this site. It’s the name. It’s like it whispers to me. “You’ll face defeat. My name is Cape Disappointment.”

Tuesday morning, we learned two things: weather at the Cape had been spectacular on Monday, much better than had been forecast, and the weather was a bit marginal for Tuesday. By mid-morning, further satellite pictures had scrubbed our flight for the day.

Or so we thought. Another group working in the area gave it a try at a glacier valley about 25 miles southwest of the Cape, and got in. After a couple of visits to their instruments, they realized that they could use some spare components that they did not have.

I was sitting at my desk, typing. Handheld radios are everywhere in Rothera, so one hears snippets of conversations all over the place.  I am not paying much attention to this background noise, when I notice they are talking about me. No, not a paranoid suspicion (this time), they really were.

“Well if we could get Ted Scambos up to the control tower we might be able to resolve this quickly.”  The verbal equivalent of the Batman signal flashing in the sky! I ran up the control tower stairs two at a time, and burst into the room at the top, breathless but at the same time trying to be nonchalant.

“I’m Ted Scambos,” I said, casually, ‘What’s up?’  A pause.  “Hilmar has forgotten a couple of items, can you fetch them from his office and the hangar?”  Cracks in the Batman light appeared.  “Okay.”

“You know you’re going out to Cape Disappointment to deliver them, right?” Batman light reformed. “And you’ll need to round up your gear. Tamsin and Malcolm are on their way from the skiway to help you install that camera.” Batman light burned brightly now.

It was late in the day, though. We didn’t take off until about 3:15 pm. And I learned that the weather was now not so great at the Cape, and we would be out there until quite late in the evening. We loaded the plane in record time. I  thought.  “This is not the plan I had in mind, it’s too rushed, we’re too distracted, the weather is going to be an added challenge. “But we were in the plane looking down the runway. There was only one thing to do: Close your eyes and floor it. “Here we go.”

It took us until 5:30 pm to get to the area of the Cape. And, the weather: the other Twin Otter with Hilmar Gudmundsson had landed earlier, when the weather was acceptable. They set out a line of flags in the snow. Cape Disappointment is no airstrip. The ice cap (see pictures from last blog) is quite lumpy. And now a layer of heavy clouds had moved in, cutting off the light and making everything flat: no contrast, like a white-out.

But Doug, our pilot, plopped the plane down like a ski jumper sticking the landing at the Olympics, and skidded to a stop. We taxied up to the other Otter. The other pilot, Steve, explained, “The weather has been declining all day. When we landed at 2, it was great.” We learned that the stuff we brought out won’t even be of use. It was the right stuff, but it was now a bit too cloudy and murky to try any more new landing sites for the day.

By now the clouds were fairly heavy over us, and a light snow had begun. But we set out with the gear on the sleds for the rock outcrop. A hill of ice obstructed our view, and I couldn’t even tell if we’d be able to see Scar Inlet Shelf from here.

We spotted the outcrop just a few hundred yards away as we rounded an icy knoll, and dragged the sleds with the gear over to it. The rock was shattered from freeze-thaw, so we couldn’t use the rock-bolts; but Malcolm had made wire baskets that we filled with rocks to attach the guy wires too. It went like clockwork. Everything fitted, we had parts for everything, the batteries were charged, and we moved in a very efficient sequence. Step by step.

The tower went up. Got secured. Solar panels bolted on. Sensor boom mounted. Main camera mounted. Camera direction looked good. Baskets filled with rocks. Guy wires tightened. I got out the laptop to poke around the inside of the mind of AMIGOS6. And it wouldn’t boot up. The battery was dead, or too cold. I warmed it up for 20 minutes against my stomach, but it still wouldn’t boot up the computer.  Wow. Now we had some gambling going on. It is now snowing and about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold and dark, and 9:45 pm with hours to go. OK. We have to gamble that it is all good.

The plane was loaded, but the weather was marginal. There was sort of a fuzzy horizon, one could sort of see the ice shelf a distance away, but it was more like being inside a light bulb. Diffuse. We taxied to the end of the flag line, and Doug was thinking hard, looking around, going through possibilities, contingencies. We could see the eight flags, yes. But it looked like they were painted on a featureless grey screen, just poles in space. We knew there was a drop-off in front out there somewhere. And a cliff, and mountains to the west.  But Twin Otters are amazing, short take-off, tough as nails, and climb like an elevator. Light snow begins to accumulate on the windscreen. Doug ponders.

Close your eyes and floor it.

Cape Disappointment AMIGOS-6 is working perfectly. All the pictures are pointing right where we hoped they would, and the weather station, GPS, and solar sensor have sent data hourly. The Nikon is showing scenes from the front of the shelf, and already it’s clear that there has been some evolution in the past few weeks/months, relative to satellite images. A total success.

BAS and everyone that’s here have been outstanding. Everyone has a good attitude and are fun people to work with to boot. I can’t say enough about this base: its style and its efficiency in putting deep field projects into difficult places. Thank you all very much. (All photographs courtesy Ted Scambos)

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Photo blog from the Cape Framnes GPS site

November 14, 2011

Ted writes:

On Friday, I took a quick tour of several sites near the Larsen C and B area with a British Antarctic Survey (BAS)-supported team including pilot Doug Cochran, general assistant Malcolm Airey, Frazier (sightseeing weather forecaster). The main goal of the trip was to repair a precision GPS station. The station measures rock uplift in the Larsen B region as a way of modeling both the past and present ice loss. For a change of pace, let me tell the story as picture captions. (All photos are courtesy Ted Scambos).

tents and airplanes on the antarctic ice sheet

Yankee Camp basks in the sunshine of northern Larsen C Ice Shelf. This is CIRES Director Koni Steffen and graduate student Dan McGrath's base for their radar surveys, which range out to 100 kilometers from this site. The Brits gave it the name, tongue in cheek. The funny thing is, Dan is the only American-born person there. We have stopped to drop off two fuel drums for the surveys. Dan and Tom (a BAS general assistant) are out surveying.

Chilean glaciologist Dr. Gino Casassa prepares coffee for a visitor inside the main tent at Yankee Camp. Koni brought two (yes, two) Nespresso machines to Camp Yankee. One is an emergency back-up, says Koni. A Pepperidge Farm Chessman butter cookie was also offered (and munched). The net value of that single cookie, delivered here on the Larsen C Ice Shelf, is probably on the order of $2. Thanks.

konrad steffen and gino casassa

Gino and Koni Steffen enjoy a very pleasant day on the Larsen C Ice Shelf.

cracking ice shelf

Large cracks line the northeastern edge of the Larsen C Ice Shelf. These are quite typical of ice shelves, and not an indication of change or warming by themselves. We are en route to Cape Framnes. In the distance there is a large shore lead of open water, then sea ice at the horizon.

cape framnes, antarctica

This photo looks north across the Larsen B Embayment, to an area of open water and sea ice that was once covered by thick shelf ice. Jason Peninsula is an ice-covered ridge of land with small flat rocky outcrops. The CAPF GPS station is located at the far side of the brownish half-moon-outcrop area. Note the bluish patches of wind-swept ablating ice on the flanks of the ice sheet. The sea to the right of the outcrop showed us that the wind was quite high, with whitecaps blowing off the tops of the waves.

airplane on ice

Malcolm Airey unloads gear in a stiff wind, preparing for a short ski run down a hill to the Cape Framnes outcrop, while Ted watches idly. Doug Cochran landed the plane on a shallow uphill slope, that flattened just at the end of the landing run. Winds gusted to twenty to thirty knots during our stop. Later, for take off, Doug turned the plane around and took it back over the slope break, downhill and downwind. With the wind at our back, we were doing 70 to 80 miles per hour over the surface before lifting off, heading rapidly for the outcrop we had just climbed away from. Finally the wings gathered air underneath them and lifted us away. It rivaled the Palmer Station landing of last year.

GPS station

The Cape Framnes GPS station had an electronics problem and required several new components.

With winds gusting to 25 knots, Malcolm strung an orange tarp to try to shield us from the chilly blast. It was partially effective. A bit like hiding beneath a summer dress during a hurricane.

Malcom and Ted repair the GPS system. It was a success.

Ted scambos in antarctica

"What do you mean, I have to drag the sled back??"

cape disappointment, antarctica

After a thrilling take off, we next flew to Cape Disappointment for a recon of the planned last AMIGOS site. Cape Dis extends eastward from the Larsen B coast, essentially marking the boundary between the disintegrated portion of the Larsen B (behind the cape in this view) and Scar Inlet. Our favored site for the AMIGOS is the left-hand cliff in the image. Between the foreground Cape peninsula and the mountain ridge is the Crane Glacier embayment, formerly the outflow of Crane Glacier, but now covered by sea ice. At the far left, behind Cape Dis, is Exasperation Inlet, and the small rocky knoll across the Inlet is Delusion Point. Somebody was really having a bad day.

cape disappointment site

This cliff is where we hope to set up the AMIGOS tower. I've marked the preferred site with a red dot, just above a break in slope that will give the camera an excellent view. The pilot thought a landing very near the outcrop was feasible.

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A short weather window for station repair

November 10, 2011
antarctic peninsula, moutnains, glaciers, and clouds

The mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula peek through the clouds. Photo courtesy Ted Scambos.

Ted writes:

As mentioned, this year’s expedition is all about repairing existing stations and setting up one new one; yesterday we completed the first of these repair missions. The site in question is arguably at the eye of the storm for ice shelf break-up, near the center of the Scar Inlet Ice Shelf, a remnant of the Larsen B ice shelf that disintegrated in 2002. Since the 2002 break-up, this shelf has calved at least three major icebergs, developed several huge cracks, and has sped up, as the obstruction of the Larsen B ice shelf plate was removed. Behind it, dammed up by the Scar shelf, lie two very large glaciers, Flask and Leppard.  The idea for this part of the LARISSA venture is to set up a series of stations to record the events leading up to the next break-up. If it happens, the Scar Inlet site is going to be a very exciting place. Briefly.

The weather window to do the work yesterday was rather short. An intense storm gathered offshore of Rothera, with contour lines of pressure resembling a large dirty fingerprint on the map. Already as we were taking off, the wind coming off the ocean was brisk, and from the ground I could see dark chunky clouds skulking around the nearby ridges, spoiling for a fight.

But from up above, as always, it was spectacular. It is the undersides of clouds that are fearsome. The upper sides are glorious, and in Antarctica you have a sun-splashed pallet of azure blue, wispy and sculptured white, ethereal cyan, and impossibly sharp black-brown, as sky, cloud, windswept or fractured ice, and rock form an ever-changing composition. A moonscape dressed in lace.The Antarctic Peninsula will someday be a world park of some kind, I am sure of it. It is breathtaking, and beautiful, and dynamic, and solemn all at once.

We flew past both the Larsen C and Larsen B ice shelves. Koni Steffen (a.k.a. Fearless Leader, and both words apply fully), graduate student Dan McGrath, and Chilean scientist Gino Casassa are now camped on the Larsen C, surveying the ice there at an earlier stage of response to climate change (the Larsen C is south of the Larsen B, and slightly cooler).

The Larsen B is closer to the point of destruction, and you can tell just by looking at it. I mentioned the huge cracks already, and there are massive crevasse trains where the large glaciers emerge from the mountains. But it’s more than that: the entire central shelf is a fine network of narrow fissures and slots, and in warm summers the entire area is covered with shallow melt ponds. The last intense melt season was 2006. If that season happened now, with the additional cracks and faster flow, I think we would see a disintegration.

Our pilot, Doug Cochran, flew several circles around our station; it was surrounded by these narrow spiderweb cracks. Last year, with less snow and more early melting, it was impossible to land here. Exposed cracks were everywhere. This year, the crevasses were still covered by icy spring snow. Eventually we gambled on one path, right along a flag line that we had installed when we first put in the station, in early 2010. It worked. Malcolm Airey,a BAS general field hand, and an expert climber and outdoorsman and I skied 300 yards to the site, roped and loaded with “jingly-janglies” (the UK slang for climbing gear: they say this phrase with complete British seriousness). We replaced the weather station and the main processing box including a much better communications system for getting the data off in a hurry, and we were done: 90 minutes.

True to forecast, the storm broke upon Rothera just as we were landing. Within minutes, we had 50-knot winds and clouds of blowing snow everywhere. Dragging our gear back the short distance to the base was far more arduous than the real work on Scar Inlet. This evening, the wind is howling, ice-choked waves are crashing against the coast, and the building is shaking (60-knot gusts, I’m told).

But we’re in the pub, enjoying the events of the day.  And fearing the walk back to the dorm building.

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The fragile fringe of West Antarctica

November 4, 2011

Ted writes:

In the past couple of days, I’ve been gathering some of the clothing and other gear I need for the trip south. This being my fifteenth trip south, I guess I’m a bit jaded, it’s almost like packing to visit family. Since it’s the Peninsula, I’m unlikely to see temperatures less than -5°F, so I think a windbreaker will do. Parka schmarka. (Don’t worry, the windbreaker has room for several layers underneath. One does not boast before the Antarctic ice gods. At least, not twice.)

With these preparations in place, I asked if I could tag along with a NASA group here working on Operation IceBridge, an airborne mapping and measurement program intended to bridge the gap between the ICESat satellite (a laser-ranging mission that measured the elevation and height changes of the polar caps from 2003-2009) and the upcoming ICESat-2 mission, planned for launch in 2016. The primary aircraft is a specially modified DC-8 airliner, packed with instruments, consoles, computer screens, and quite a few nice business class seats for the instrument team and visitors. To me, the interior looks a bit like a Russian space station – part high-tech, part military, part baling wire.

A weather briefing the evening before showed that much of the north coast of West Antarctica would be clear, and in the morning the IceBridge project team leader, Michael Studinger of NASA Goddard, picked the Getz Ice Shelf as the day’s target. The Getz Ice Shelf is an interesting, relatively unstudied area of West Antarctica that has recently shown some major changes, similar to the changes occurring in the Antarctic Peninsula. But unlike the Peninsula, instead of major air warming leading to surface melt and shelf break-up, the Getz area appears to be responding to warm ocean currents. These currents are brushing along and under the bottom of the ice shelf, and the effect is a bit like aiming a hot water hose against the lower edge of an ice block. The ice on the underside of the shelf, especially just where it begins to come afloat, melts back. This loosens ice from the bedrock, allowing the glacial ice inland to increase in speed and the surface to lower.

The plane took off at precisely 9:00 am. That is NASA for you: really amazing precision, and really bad coffee. The kitchen in the back of the plane looks like something from a derelict meth lab, and the coffee that comes out of it (you make it yourself, but it’s all pre-packaged) looks a bit like compost tea. The similarities don’t end there.

Off over the southern deep blue we sailed, four large turbofan engines pulling us along nicely for several hours (the DC-8 can operate for more than 12 hours straight). The flight took us over some of the wildest ocean areas on Earth, and they were white-capped and choppy-looking today, even from our cruise altitude of 37,000 feet. We reached the Antarctic coastline around 1pm, and the plane dropped lower to make a measurement run. As we did, the plane passed in front of the gigantic Pine Island Glacier, the largest glacier on Earth by annual flux, and worryingly out of balance. By itself, this glacier is responsible for about 10% of the Earth’s total sea level rise, and it has accelerated significantly over the past forty years. I wanted a look at this criminal of global change, but I must say that an airliner window simply cannot encompass it. It spanned a good quarter of the horizon from our vantage point, bluish and hazy in the distance, and so subtle and broad that you had to be told where it was by a map.

The Getz Ice Shelf was more tractable for the human eye: mountains, crevasses, ice waves, horizontal curtains of blowing snow racing out into the ocean, and ice cliffs perhaps fifteen stories tall stretching for miles.  Getz is like a fringe, a lacey ruffle, spanning 500 miles of coastline, with dome-like ice islands poking through it, and a textured surface a bit like well-used sandpaper.  The plane flew lower now, seeming to skim the surface, but in fact we were a comfortable 5000 feet above the snow. We crossed just above the coastline and then turned and flew out over the floating ice downstream of the coast, with one hard right to explore a large glacier and then back.

Getz has recently followed the pattern of the much larger Pine Island Glacier, beginning to rapidly lose elevation and mass. The current theory behind this mass loss is that a change in wind patterns related to climate change has led to a warm deep layer of ocean water periodically sloshing onto the continental shelf. For the Pine Island area, this process seems to have begun as far back as the 1980s, but for Getz the changes began just in the past ten years. The warmer water has always been out there offshore, around 2000 feet below the ocean surface, but by the gentle persisting wind changes spanning decades, it has been coaxed up to 600 or 700 feet at the edge of the Antarctic continental shelf, spilling over it.  From there, it tends to hug the sea bottom and reach in to the deep underside of the glaciers at the coast, melting them at the point where they emerge from the main ice sheet and begin to float. What we saw in the radar systems on our flight was that the Getz is quite thick (up to 1500 feet) and its deeper ice would sit squarely in this new warmer water. This has led to rapid thinning and acceleration.

With the main mission behind us, the plane climbed back to altitude and headed northward. Looking at the flight plan I noticed we would be flying almost directly over an island, Peter I Island, a lonely icebound mountain just a few miles across in the middle of the Antarctic ocean, rarely visited. What a cool opportunity!  All this instrumentation headed right for a bona fide piece of the unknown. I went over to John Sonnetag, the science lead for the flight, and asked if we could keep the sensors on for a few extra minutes. The teams all obliged. The pilots even nudged the great bird a mile or so sideways to more squarely cross the island. I watched on the high-resolution web-cam on board, aimed directly below.  Ocean and ice passed beneath, then a small iceberg, and then a rugged ice cliff and mountain ridge. In perhaps ten seconds, it was over, and we were back to crossing our thousands of miles of southern ocean. I checked with the teams – every instrument worked perfectly for the whole flight.

Unless you count the coffee maker.

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Success

November 22, 2010

Ted writes:

Clear weather finally prevailed on the morning of November 18, and after one last check of satellite imagery, we bolted at noon in our 1970s-vintage DeHavilland Twin Otter (with brand-new instruments and engines) off the runway at Rothera, headed for the Larsen Ice Shelf. Aboard were myself, Martin, and Jenn, BAS pilot Doug Cochran, and a BAS staffer named Andy “Boat” Wilson – known as Boat because he is a diver and a boatman for the base, and a sturdy guy to have along.

A few puffs of grey cloud passed by on our way upward, but then gave way to one of the most glorious spectacles in glaciology: the Larsen Ice Shelves and the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Spilling ice from the ridge, which sits in the southern storm track building snow, flows down like marshmallow cream through black, jagged peaks, and then spreads out to an impossibly flat, broad sheet of ice. Only the subtlest of rolls and ridges mark the history of the bending that the ice endured to reach the sea.

What we saw confirmed what we’ve learned from the data streaming in from the AMIGOS and other stations. While the west side of the Peninsula has experienced unusual snowfall, the east side, where our stations are, has been bone-dry and very warm all winter. Already there are melt ponds slowly filling, and the dry warm wind has scrubbed the surface down, exposing every crack and ridge.

Our first rendezvous was at the Scar Inlet AMIGOS site. Although the station is still functioning, two of the most important measuring devices have gone silent or intermittent over the winter: weather and ice motion. The camera is still working well for now. But as we circled the site, we realized that the landing last year was something of a miracle: the site is surrounded by dozens of narrow (2-foot wide)
cracks and slots. The pilot circled several times, determined to give us a landing if there was any chance; but the risk of bending a ski on the airplane was too great. We did manage to get several pictures of the site, and in some ways the news is good. The station is still standing, and with the anchors still firmly in place.

We then flew up the first major glacier feeding the Scar Inlet Shelf, Flask Glacier. A second AMIGOS there is working very well, but needed new software and a new snow reflectivity sensor. We use the snow reflectivity to gauge when melting occurs: the snow darkens quite a bit when it is wet. The landing went perfectly; right on the tracks from last year, and Doug pulled the plane right up to the station. The wind was brisk, but warm, right about at freezing. The station has about 70 centimeters of snow around it, but it is an oddity–everywhere around it is evidence of windswept snow surface.

While we were standing there, the camera came to life! It moved to the six set shots that Terry had programmed in months ago. I tried to remember the sequence, and started leaping around in the snow, trying to get in every picture. But the camera was too fast. So, in every one of those pictures, one second later, I’m standing right there smiling. Martin, Mr. Smarty-pants, let the camera come to him, by standing still, and Jenn just shrugged and kept working. Jenn and I opened the station and changed the software chip, while Martin removed the old snow sensor and installed the new one. A quick call to Terry confirmed it was all working again. We took off.

Martin’s main goal was to repair the GPS station on Leppard, and that was our next stop. Here again, the dryness and warmth of the winter and spring amazed us. There were crevasses and even melt ponds all over the glacier. We found the station, and as we had guessed, the solar panels had blown over during the winter. We had expected a major digging effort, but in fact the panels were just below the surface. It required about two hours to excavate them, stand them up again, and re-secure them. On the sat-phone again, the UNAVCO office confirmed we had a working station. Next!

It was getting late, now, the sun definitely lower as we rounded a cape on the ocean and approached the rusty-looking outcrop at Cape Framnes. Here Doug really had a challenge. None of us had seen this site before, and it was steep, icy, and loaded with narrow cracks. The outcrop was perfect for helicopters, deadly for an aircraft. We made three different low approaches, each one ending with some new Scottish swearing (Doug is from Glasgow), and a proper decision not to touch down. We eventually found a site 2.5 miles and 400 meters above our outcrop. Martin, Andy, and I hopped out, grabbed ice axes and the new satellite modem, and started hiking.

It was beautiful now, light winds, cool and refreshing, and we were walking downhill towards a stunning seascape. Walking and walking. The last 400 yards before the rock was a windswept blue ice surface, slick enough so that footing was tricky, but then we made it onto the rock.

The outcrop had a blasted appearance, shattered fragments covering a primeval surface of lakes, sand, gravel, boulders nestled between blue ocean, turquoise sunset sky, and pale blue ice. Truly: an end of the earth, and a spectacular place to be. The fix went quickly, and we paused to take in the surroundings before the hike back to the waiting plane.

***

I want to take this opportunity to thank the people at Rothera and British Antarctic Survey. At every step they have been generous, helpful, responsible, and eager to see us get our work done. I especially want to thank Doug Cochran, who did an outstanding job of piloting, and made the right decision on every single landing and attempt (IMHO). He pushed for our success, but never lost sight of the far more important safety decision. Andy “Boat” was a ready, cheerful helper for whatever we had to do (and he practically dragged my lifeless body up the hill after Cape Framnes, after a very tiring, hugely successful day.) And, when we finally flew into to the Rothera hangar, at 20 minutes to midnight, both Clem Collins (a veritable institution at Rothera) and Andy Barker were there to help get the plane in and unload our gear. Thanks.

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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

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A taste of success

February 11, 2010

Ted writes (via Iridium modem):

On Saturday, a long-awaited spell of clear weather threw the LARISSA Glaciology Team into fast action. Three of the five stations we hope to put in this are now up and running. Our highest-priority site, Flask Glacier, which flows into the last remaining part of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, is now fully instrumented.

Clear weather over Flask Glacier allowed the team to fly to several sites to set up AMIGOS stations.

The weather was spectacular for nearly three days, beginning on Saturday. With our first flight, our pilots, Richie Cameron and Dave, brought out the GPS system, a continuously operating precision GPS designed to record any subtle changes in the ice flow, even ones at a tiny scale, occurring on a daily or monthly basis. The GPS will also provide a detailed record of any general acceleration if the ice shelf thins and breaks apart.

Every time the plane engines rev, and the plane starts to move, a song just jumps out of my head, like a second heartbeat; Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones for the first flight; Ode to Joy later that day; Ring of Fire by Mr. Johnny Cash on the way back from the ice core camp.

Setting up the Flask GPS took us about 4 hours, and in a second flight, we moved down-glacier to the Flask AMIGOS site. AMIGOS is a heavily instrumented science station, sort of a super weather station with measurements of the ice added in. Terry and Ronald began to assemble the station even before the tents were set up, and had the basic framework laid out by evening. All five of us then set the lower Flask camp, still basically a mountaineering setup with backpack tents and few luxuries. But with five of us now in the cook tent, there was a camaraderie that made up for some of the tough conditions. For dinners lately, we’ve had chili, pan-grilled steak, tofu thai curry, and tonight, with luck and a bit of imagination, jambalaya.

A day trip on Sunday back to the Ice Core Camp got the AMIGOS station there stood up and operational (we had it running, but not erected, for about a week), and on Monday we finished the Lower Flask AMIGOS, the most sophisticated yet. It contains a full-precision GPS (from the GRS-1 board built by TopCon Inc.), a steerable camera system, a full weather station, a sun and reflectivity sensor, and a thermistor string extending 12 meters into the snow. We worked 13 hours that day, until darkness came.. Darkness and night have begun to return here.

As we worked on Monday evening, the fog and snow returned. Tuesday we managed to survey several short radar lines, but fog and poor lighting conditions made it risky to explore too far; the camp is surrounded by huge crevasses. Wednesday we returned to our waiting-for-sunshine mode, that is, looking over the data, sorting the food, reading books, walking short distances for exercise, quoting old movie lines and other trivia games, and just generally hanging around, until the next break.

And with the end of southern summer coming on, we need that break soon. One last push to go.

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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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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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