Posts Tagged ‘N.B. Palmer’

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Last day on the ice

March 1, 2010

Note from LARISSA team: our sympathies and best wishes to the people of Conception and Santiago, Chile, and the other damaged areas. The Earth can be mighty and implacable, as well as beautiful. Humanity alone knows compassion, and this is our strength

Terry writes:

Our first evening back on the Nathaniel B Palmer was quiet, calm, and starlit. Orion was setting, head down, in a cloudless southern sky. We were in Andvord Bay on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, planning the last few possible installations for the cruise. All of them required helicopter flights over the ridge to the Peninsula’s east side. We could only hope that the weather would be clear enough on both sides to allow that, which so far during the cruise had only happened once, and never while our glaciology group was on the ship.

Terry climbed ten feet up the tower to install the replacement camera.

The next morning, Sunday February 21, Ted woke me at 6:15 with the news that we had clear skies around the ship. Erin and Martin’s trip to Foyn Point to install a seismometer was on. Then he said I should get ready to replace the AMIGOS camera at Scar Inlet later that morning as well–even though that was not planned at all. Erin and Martin took off in Barry James’s helicopter around 7:45 while Ronald provided me with some tips on how to test the camera after installation, and how to set up pointing for pictures. But by 8:15 Erin was back on the ship telling us they had turned around due to low clouds on the east side. They were going to try again in an hour or so. This gave me extra time to consolidate the clothing, tools, and climbing equipment I’d need to perform the replacement. They did indeed leave again on Barry’s helo around 10:45, and by 12:30 I had wolfed down a quick lunch, had my replacement camera, my computer, and the rest of my gear loaded onto Chris Dean’s helo. I climbed into the front passenger seat and got strapped in. This would be the third helo flight of my life, but my first one in the forward seat. The feeling up front was somewhere between space capsule and soap bubble.

We lifted off the pad in bright sunshine, the blue waters of the fjord peppered with house-sized icebergs calved from the surrounding glaciers. We flew southeast above Bagshawe Glacier, passing a huge black wall of smooth vertical rock wall laced with an intricate network of snowy cracks. Below us lay a blue-white quilt of ice and snow with a patchwork of seracs (standing ice blocks) and their intervening crevasses. The helo approached the summit of the brilliant Bruce Plateau which at first loomed above us as an insurmountable hurdle (picture), but then flattened into a sloping plane as we came closer. A quick look behind showed an ominous sea of fog approaching our tiny orange ship from the northwest. I feared we’d be racing a closing weather window: the helos had already lost one such race, and the pilot and two explorers had camped on a rocky beach for three days as a result.

We stopped first at Foyn Point to pick up Erin, who would serve as mountaineer at our next stop at Scar Inlet. Just as we landed at Scar Inlet, we received word from the NB Palmer that the fog was only a few miles from the ship. Chris responded that we would leave in about an hour.

We were worried about the crevasse risk, given our experiences on the day we left the AMIGOS site.  Since then the Scar Inlet AMIGOS had been reporting afternoon temperatures as high as 6 degrees Celsius (about 43 degrees Fahrenheit). Warm temperatures can soften and weaken the snow pack covering hidden crevasses, such as the ones we found during the deployment. So immediately upon stepping out of her seat, Erin anchored her rope to the helo skid and then probed with her ice axe outside my door. The top 12 inches or so seemed fairly resistant to probing, so she then instructed me to step out of my seat and to clip into the prussic (a sliding loop of smaller gauge rope) she had rigged for me on her rope. After stumbling for a moment with the prussic, I gingerly stepped into each of her leading footprints until we reached the tower. The whole thing was as close to a space-walk as you can get, I think, on this side of space anyway.

Amazingly, we managed to test the replacement camera, climb ten feet up the tower, and install it, in a little over an hour. The tower moved a bit with both of us hanging on it, but we were chosen to perform this task because we were the lightest-weight team members.

Our return flight went northwesterly, straight back to the ship in Andvord Bay and directly over the outlets of several glaciers that flow east into the Larsen B Embayment. I pulled out a 30 meter resolution Landsat satellite image map from my computer case so I could identify and call out each glacier as we flew over it:  Flask, Stubb, Starbuck, Rachel, Pequod, Melville, Mapple, and Crane. I found it was relatively easy to match up individual ground features seen out my window with the corresponding features from the image map: a distinctive line of peaks here, a tributary glacier flowing in there, etc. The weather was still very clear where we were, although I did notice some fog obscuring the sides of Crane Glacier where I was hoping to see the “trim line” that marks the previous level of ice before the dramatic drawdown of the glacier that has occurred since 2002. I was so busy looking for the trim line on Crane that I completely missed noticing the calving front that was clearly visible from the our left side seats as revealed by Erin’s photos. Oh well, maybe next time.

Later that evening Ronald and I were able to confirm that images from the Scar Inlet AMIGOS were indeed being received and that the camera seemed to be working perfectly. And although we needed to adjust the camera positions (which we can do remotely), it turns out that just by chance one of the views appears to be looking directly up Flask Glacier, which is one that we’ll probably keep.

We did it. We used every resource in the program to do it, but we did it: three AMIGOS, and two GPS, sitting on some of the most dynamic, vulnerable ice on Earth.  Now we’re sailing north towards Punta Arenas, packed up, and wondering what’s next.

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Palmer to Palmer

February 24, 2010

Ted writes:

The LARISSA Glaciology Team made its way back to the RV Nathaniel B. Palmer, in two unusual leaps.

After getting picked up from Scar Inlet, we landed in Rothera Station, in the southern end of the Peninsula. We knew that if we wanted to get anything further done, we needed to get back aboard the ship. We had installed everything we had brought on Flask Glacier and Scar Inlet. We still needed to fix the SCAR inlet Web cam, and install a seismic listening station for glacier calving, and the ridge-top high-resolution AMIGOS camera. And time was running out: it was now February 17, and the Palmer would head north no later than the 26th.

The team saw these crabeater seals during a boat ride near Rothera Station.

As usual, the staff at Rothera were amazingly generous, taking us on an evening boat tour of some nearby islands while we waited for good weather for the next step. The boat ride was spectacular. Every shoal and beach teemed with wildlife.

The next day was February 18, my birthday. Not a birthday present in sight, but I thought if we could get back to the ship, well, I’d take it as a sign from The Big Guy that I was doing okay by him (or her). That morning, the Twin Otter pilot gave us some cause for hope. His plan was to fly us to Palmer Station, the U.S. base, and have us wait there for a helo pick-up from the ship. The only trick was the runway at Palmer, set on a small ice cap behind the base. The ice has been badly eroded by the warming climate in recent years. It has rarely been used since 1990, and in fact the only landing in years was a medical evacuation in 2009. I was thinking how ironic it would be if I were the first casualty of Antarctic global warming.

We flew between the bases (song: “The Blue Danube“) over the icebound landscape. Though every glance out the window was a masterpiece of landscape art, we at this point were able to read or nap as the dramatic sculpted architecture of the continent rolled beneath us.

And then we saw the “runway.” It was the most rutted, cracked-up, slush-pit of a glacier I’d ever seen. It was sloped, with the end of it as steep as a ski run, leading straight to a boulder field. The line of runway marker flags looked like some kind of practical joke. Even more humorous, the flags were numbered, in descending order, like a countdown in some movie thriller, “Four-hundred meters to self-destruct.”

A crowd from the station had gathered, taking bets no doubt on whether or not we would survive. But they picked the wrong pilot to mess with. Richie circled once, and then slapped the plane down on the uppermost third of the bobsled run—I mean runway—and then threw the prop into reverse (Amazing fact: on a taxi-way, Twin Otters can actually back up under their own power). We bounced to a stop, not quite crossing the “6” on the doom countdown.

The Palmer people (total population 38) were really welcoming. But I was shocked when Ronald pointed out a “Happy Birthday” banner in the galley. As it happened, February 18 was also the birthday for the Palmer Station chef, Staci, and the back-up chef, Diane, had gone all out for a celebration dinner and cake. All I had to do was shout “and Ted!” at the right moment in the birthday song. We had a fun night at the Palmer bar and hot tub.

The team caught a ride from Palmer Station back to the the N.B. Palmer aboard the research vessel Lawrence M. Gould.

At Palmer Station, we noticed a large orange ship parked in front of the base. This was the RV Lawrence M. Gould, the other major U.S. polar research vessel, used mostly for oceanography around the continent. We learned that the ship was basically on stand-by for an entire month with little to do. We hatched a plan.

We pulled away from the pier on the afternoon of February 20th, with a thousand pounds of gear strapped to the deck of our new water-taxi, the Gould. Officially, the Gould was out to replenish its water tanks (it desalinates the sea-water) and pick up some devices for sediment studies from the Palmer. But for the five us, it was one fine ride.

This was my third birthday in Antarctica. So I guess I’m 3 in Antarctica years. Looking at the photo on our way out of Palmer, Martin informed me that Antarctica years seem to be a bit more taxing than even dog years. But as the two ships met up, at sunset in a coastal fjord, it seemed as if things were proceeding nicely for this toddler.

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Rothera tour and Palmer visit

January 29, 2010

Ted writes:

The group took a tour of the island that Rothera lies on, which is rich with polar marine wildlife. As we described in December, Rothera is a medium-large base with generally about a hundred people there. The key is that it has both a good gravel runway and a pier for ships, making it a logistical hub for the region.

Our science liason with BAS, Tamsin Gray, offered to lead us on the trail to the north, along the rock and pebble beach there. It was a living nature park; penguins, sea birds, and several kinds of seals.  Adelies like to dance, Tamsin explained, fur seals are grouchy, and Weddell and Crabeater seals seem to be smug and puppy-like.

The ship, the N.B. Palmer was on its way to Rothera, to drop off our gear after our pull-out from the ice core camp, fuel up,  and drop off Martin Truffer, the missing member of the ice team. Our plan for deploying the AMIGOS and other sensors will be done by more Twin Otter flights, allowing the ship to move to the east side and spend much of that time working southward toward the Larsen B,  where were supposed to have been all along. It’s been quite a trip so far.

By noon, we could see the ship in the distance, and by 1:30 it was approaching the quay at Rothera, with most of its crew and staff standing on the deck waving. We held a planning meeting for the science, and a planning meeting for the Rotherites and Palmerainians. The idea was to give Palmer a taste of shore life, especially a taste at the tiny pub in Rothera’s main building. It was very successful.

Erin’s bike was on the ship, so she went for an evening bike ride before saying goodbye to it for a while. The Palmer departed at midnight with a happy glow surrounding it.

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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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Out of Drake Passage and into the ice

January 13, 2010

Stormy weather in Drake Passage made everyone sea sick.

Ted writes:

Much has happened since our last entry; the rough Drake Passage took a day from everyone. We spent the following days, with calmer seas but grey skies, preparing and testing equipment on the ship. Our first attempt to reach the Larsen B Embayment area was blocked by thick rounded floes on the southeast side of the large James Ross Island, which sits like a small white pea under the bony fingertip of the Peninsula. So we took a chance on the Prince Gustav Channel, to the west, between James Ross Island and the main Peninsula. This passage was filled by impenetrable ice shelf until 1995; and so what we were attempting would have been impossible just 15 years ago. But in this year, a solid sheet of landfast sea ice filled the channel from coast to coast, with no breaks or floes. The hope was that this ice would snap neatly under the cutting prow of the ship.

It looked good at first, with open water in the north, but near the 64 degree S line we saw a thin white sheet laying across our path. The ship plowed through it like butter, at first. But as we approached the mouths of two large glaciers, we were stopped again. Chunks of glacier ice from last summer had drifted into the channel, and were trapped by the ice, congealed into very thick fast ice and hard blue glacial blocks. The  Palmer might still have crossed the frozen obstacle course, but at the risk of being in a position where forward was the only option.

While considering options, the weather cleared. We found ourselves in an absolutely magnificent landscape of ice, rock, sky, and ocean. You get the sense that here there is a landscape struggling to emerge from the ice, that there is a land of canyons and mesas slowly pushing out from beneath the white mantle

After crossing the Drake Passage, the Palmer found itself in a magnificent landscape.

We decided late Sunday afternoon to conduct a day of science on Monday. We activated the helocopters, gave the pilots some practice as well as the science teams. One group visited rock outcrops to the west; the glacier team (Erin Pettit and Martin Truffer) went to the large glacier on James Ross Island. Other groups collected ice and water samples, and a separate helo flight scouted the sea ice route to the south.

On the ship, the AMIGOS team (Terry Haran, Ronald Ross, and Ted Scambos) readied the first AMIGOS ‘skeletons’ and tested their instruments and some new software. We have five instruments on these systems: a camera, a weather station, a sun sensor, a thermistor string, and a GPS; more on these and the science objectives behind them later.

Sunday night, with clear calm weather and a near-midnight sun, the light and sky were extraordinary. Brooding mountains, a firey sunset, and an ethereal moonrise behind the ice amazed everyone. There was a quiet reverence on the ship: it was truly awesome.

The moon rises over the ice.

This evening (Monday) we are now embarked on an even greater gamble than before; we believe the ice is impassable ahead, but melting; an so we are going to the west side of the Peninsula for perhaps three weeks to try to do some work and wait for conditions here to improve. The west side is currently completely sea ice free, and we will try to conduct some of the science by using the helicopters to fly over the ridge of the Peninsula to the east side. The gamble is that the weather is rarely good on both sides of the ridge at once. But the AMIGOS and ice team is ready to give it a shot. We will be in place on the west side by Thursday morning.

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The Palmer Departs

January 5, 2010

Ted writes:

The Palmer slipped the surly bonds of the Punta Arenas pier at 5:20 p.m. yesterday, in a beautiful evening sun. The gear was stowed, labs secured, and a full compliment of staff and scientists were aboard. The temperature was about 62 degrees F, and there was a 15-knot breeze. We ate dinner at 6, and after a day of rushing to do the final shopping and securing, the adventurers relaxed, talked with energetic anticipation of the plans ahead and the past cruises that they’d enjoyed.

The AMIGOS crew–Ted, Terry, Ronald, Erin, and Martin–were continuing to build the system software, especially for the new GPS boards, and improve the radar acquisition and analysis software as well. I downloaded our image collection for the survey regions and re-evaluated our selected sites with respect to crevasses, using MODIS, Landsat-7, ASTER, Formosat-2, and other data.

Some early adjustments to the plans included adding a reconnaissance flight to evaluate as many of the sites as possible prior to any deployment of GPS or AMIGOS. We’re planning a loop flight across the Crane and Flask Glaciers, to literally see the lay of the land and the potential risks. Current heavy sea ice conditions  in the western Weddell Sea mean that other science operations may be delayed or progress more slowly than planned, so the AMIGOS team may see a lot of action in the early part of the cruise. We are planning to install three to four sites  between January  10th and 20th.

The sun set off the stern starboard bow. The Palmer is sailing east and north, towards the Atlantic, before a hard starboard turn towards the Drake Passage.

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All aboard for the LARISSA cruise

January 4, 2010

Research Vessel (RV) N.B Palmer, dockside Punta Arenas, Chile

Ted writes:

Things are nearly packed, and the full crew and science team are now living aboard the N.B. Palmer. But we are still at the pier in Punta Arenas, awaiting a few items for the science work. Already, though, it is as if the cruise has begun: most of us eat our meals in the galley, the labs are busy in preparation, the hallways are bustling, and the decks are active with moving and strapping down cargo.

The LARISSA 2010 cruise will depart today at around 2 p.m., head east through the Straits of Magellan, then turn right and cross the fabled Drake Passage. The Drake Passage may be churning with monstrous waves and intense gales, or if we’re lucky it may be calm. The Lawrence Gould (another U.S. research ship) recently had a smooth and remarkably easy trip, and we’re sure that means the Palmer is in for the works. With luck, we’ll be across in four days or so, and then we’ll begin a huge science agenda. Every facet of earth and life sciences will be of interest to this group, and we are equipped to measure all of it.

The LARISSA AMIGOS and GPS team is all packed. The gear is on a flat-rack in the hold and we have set up an office and workshop in one of the dry lab areas aboard ship.

Ronald in the lab onboard the ship

Cargo 'flat-rack' in hold of the N.B. Palmer

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