Posts Tagged ‘Flight’

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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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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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A Ride on the NASA IceBridge DC8

November 4, 2010

Ted writes:

Jenn and Martin are here in Punta Arenas. All is well, and we did the clothing issue right after they flew here on Tuesday. Jennifer is now known as “Polar Jenn” (see photo).

There is another group here in town, working on the NASA IceBridge project. IceBridge is a research program that measures the large ice sheets using several highly instrumented aircraft. NSIDC is the data management center for IceBridge, and I am working with a couple of people at NSIDC to augment the archived data with some derived products – taking two measurements, or three, and calculating a new parameter. The aircraft they use here is a DC-8, a large old jetliner that NASA has used for years on many projects. It can carry up to 40 people, in addition to the dozens of instruments, so Martin (who is on the IceBridge User Working Group for NSIDC) and I decided to request a flight on board. We got our chance Thursday.

The flight plan was simple: a round trip to the South Pole. The concept is to use a very accurate laser altimeter (actually two) to survey an area where many satellite data tracks converge near the pole. This will allow a careful calibration of all the data (mostly ICESat -1 data).  On the map, the route looked a bit like a golf tee with a golf ball on top, but very stretched out. At 9am we were lifting off the runway, bound for the South Pole at 40,000 feet and 12 hours round-trip.

The feel aboard the IceBridge DC8 is somewhere between a commercial flight and a shuttle mission. Everyone is relaxed and chatty, joking around, but there is an undercurrent of technical precision. We all wear headphones when seated to communicate with the pilots. Shortly after take-off, they announced they were ready to “execute maneuvers.” I looked at Martin quizzically. What maneuvers? The huge plane then began to pitch up and down like a car on a hilly road, followed by some snappy wing rolls. Those big planes we fly in every day? they are a -lot- more nimble than we ever let them be in the airline world.

Inside, it is surprisingly large: most of the seats are removed, and the remaining 40 seats are all business class size, scattered around the plane. Most of them are in pairs right in front of large electronics stations for the instruments. The sensors are poking out of about seven holes in the aircraft, and there’s a big pod, like a blister, on the bottom of the plane that holds a special ice-penetrating radar. We have two lasers, three cameras, something like 12 GPS, an infrared heat-sensor, and a coffee maker. I’m pretty sure the panic starts when the coffee maker breaks down.

It was a long, rather peaceful day, chatting with the instrument teams, getting ideas for the data products and the archiving work that NSIDC has to do, snacking, and watching the largest mass of ice on earth roll beneath us.

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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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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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A quick update

December 16, 2009

Rob writes:

Erin, Ted and I are out of the field and are back at Rothera Station. The previous two days, we were basically tent bound, trying to stay out of the to 50 knot winds, blowing snow, and zero visibility.

Richie and Dave flew the Twin Otter to the field site during a brief break in the weather. With their help and assistance from two British Antarctic Survey members, Allen and Andy, the team managed to break camp and beat the weather.

A science update will follow shortly, outlining our results – stand by!

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