Posts Tagged ‘Ted’

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Falkland Islands

November 28, 2011

Ted writes:

The white sand beaches seem incongruous with the sub-polar climate, more appropriate for a tropical setting. The sign is a warning about possible landmines from the 1982 conflict.

After a very successful field season at the British Antarctic Survey’s base in Rothera (thanks again to the group there), we flew to the main re-supply post for the UK’s Antarctic work: the Falkland Islands. We landed at the Mt. Pleasant airfield, a military base built after the Falklands conflict in 1982. The base is mostly khaki and dun green, being military, but in fact the entire island is about the same color, covered in grasses and low shrubs across thousands of square miles. I regret to report that the Falklands appear to have been invaded again, this time by sheep, and the Falklanders are seriously outnumbered. There are approximately 800 sheep for every person.

Windswept. Desolate. Rocky. Stormy. These words seem too small to encompass the Falklands landscape. Shattered boulders from the cliffs seem to flow in streams off the hilltops—a type of formation I’ve never seen before (called stone runs, according to Wikipedia). And it is a very empty land. Nearly all 3,000 of the inhabitants live in Port Stanley, a hamlet overlooking a small bay.

Perhaps the most telling thing about Port Stanley is the number of shipwrecks. There are at least eight wrecked ships scattered around the bay, in various states of disintegration. The story seems to be the same for many of them. Some great and proud ship rounds Cape Horn in a fierce storm, and becomes severely damaged. The vessel limps into Port Stanley, which is very well protected, but the town and the mariners realize that repairs are nearly impossible here. There are no trees. Shipping the needed items from the north is deemed too expensive, and so the ship is anchored in the port as a warehouse. Then one day another terrific storm springs up, and the ship is ripped from its moorings, wrecked within the harbor, and left as a derelict. The mast of the largest ship in the world as of 1845 sits in a city park. That is all that is left of it.

We arrived on Thanksgiving Day, and aimed for the best restaurant in town. It was a spectacular evening, as we realized that we had seven nations represented, one person each: US, Switzerland, UK, Iceland, Poland, Germany, and Chile. It was a perfect way to end the expedition, at a great UN meeting, an international Thanksgiving feast. (Photos courtesy Ted Scambos)

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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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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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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.

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One last look

November 24, 2010

Ted writes:

On Saturday, weather again looked to be clearing over the area of our lost “Site Beta” AMIGOS station, as well as over the Larsen C, so I joined a flight that was planned for another group (Dan McGrath and ‘Puma’, a Chilean graduate student) to get an overflight of our last unvisited site. The flight included the chief pilot for BAS/Rothera, Alan Meredith, and several BAS staff hands, Ben Tibbetts and Ian, to assist with the main objective, raising a Larsen C AWS station managed by Dr. Koni Steffen (also of the University of Colorado) higher to keep it from suffering the same fate as Site Beta. The difference is that the Site 108 AWS received about 2 feet of snow since last year. Site Beta received 30.

As we left Rothera behind us, we could see clearing ahead, and soon we were flying over the crest of the Peninsula. But below us the situation still was not good. Long streamers of blowing snow trailed off the surface, and from every rocky ridge. As we turned, I could see that the snow was moving about half the speed of the plane–and the plane was moving at 120 kts. Alan turned to me and said, “I’m sorry Ted, it’s just not going to happen.” I had to agree. We were still 20 miles from the site, and already there were low clouds building in addition to the snow streamers.

The plane turned east, and landed a short while later, in surprisingly calm air on the eastern side. “That turbulence we passed through on the way down,” (it was just a bit of bumpiness) “was the shear layer in the air. The high winds are above us now.” We spent the afternoon refurbishing a full weather station, raising it 3 meters higher so that it will survive at least 3-4 more years.

The team headed north on Sunday, November 21, arriving in PA around 6 pm. We’re now en route home, just in time for Thanksgiving, with several repaired stations and a plan to return next year.

The LARISSA AMIGOS Team of 2010/2011 wishes to thank AGUNSA, NSF, and especially BAS in Rothera for the excellent support we received, and for pitching in to help when needed.

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Flask Glacier and Scar Inlet

February 18, 2010

Ted writes:

The LARISSA Glaciology team continued to get things done in the Larsen B embayment over the past week, but at this time of year the region has a very frustrating weather pattern.  Snow, fog, mist, and even drizzle can shroud the area for a solid week.

The majestic Melville Coast emerges from a thinning haze.

After several days of heavy snow at the Flask AMIGOS site, we awoke to a gradually clearing mist on February 13, and prepared to move fast. Terry Haran and Ronald Ross returned briefly to the previous site at the crest of the ice cap, to re-connect a sensor that failed during our last hour of installation there. Meanwhile I, Martin Truffer, and  Erin Pettit, moved to a second glacier, the wide but relatively smooth Leppard Glacier, to install a continuous-monitoring GPS system.

By flight time the weather was excellent: clear, sunny, and dry with light winds. The flights went perfectly, and within one hour we had the teams at the two sites and making progress. But through it all, to our east, we could see a grey formless shape, a hazy pancake of fog lurking over the shelf. We worked like an assembly line on the Leppard Glacier GPS station, the team barely needed to speak as we worked: this tool here; that method works best for this, here’s this idea to avoid the problem last time, but the fog rose like some inexorable hand, slithering up the glacial valley. How long would it be this time? How long would we be stuck? Worse, we were now a split team again. Terry and Ronald could not rejoin us at the next site, the Scar Inlet Shelf, the lower site, in the center of the fog.

The Scar Inlet is the last vestige of the Larsen B ice shelf—less than 20 percent of a shelf that in the 1980s rivaled the size of Connecticut. Scar Inlet is the southernmost bay of the shelf, and therefore in a slightly cooler climate that the areas that broke up earlier. Its potential for collapse in the next few years, should warming continue even a little, is the driving motivation for our work. Can we get instruments on it ahead of time, and track both the processes of break-up, and the response of the glaciers? In 2002, both of these were stunning: a massive shattering disintegration of a thousand square miles of shelf ice, 700 feet thick, in the space of just a few weeks, followed immediately by a surge of all the glaciers flowing into the affected area, to as much as six times their speed prior to the event. Only the Scar Inlet ice remained; only the Scar Inlet glaciers were un-affected. Scar Inlet stands at the front line of climate change in Antarctica.

As we hunkered down in our tents on Leppard Glacier on the night of February 13, fog and darkness shrank the world to just two dome tents.  Scar Inlet seemed beyond our grasp, a prisoner of a colder, damper summer than most.

February 14 was our lucky day. The fog retreated back down the valley, and the airplane was there within 90 minutes of our weather call. Terry and Ronald were dropped off at the new site first and we joined them by early afternoon. It was by no means a full retreat of the mist, but there were enough ragged holes in the blanket covering Scar Inlet that the pilots managed to get the flights in. The AMIGOS tower was already underway, like a mechanical Frankenstein, slowly coming to life.  As they left, the lead pilot shook his head: “I’m worried about this fog. You guys are going to be here for weeks.”

As I said, Scar Inlet is on the verge of collapse, rent with shallowly buried crevasses, because melt in summer removes nearly all the winter snowfall. But we had no idea just how precarious the situation was. As part of building camp, Terry dug a pit, to “accumulate food wastes,” shall we say, and nearly lost the shovel down a narrow crack about 50 feet from the tents. We took it seriously. Erin put on skis and her harness, and with Martin watching, she probed the area around camp. We found one part of the crevasse that might be wide enough to pose a hazard, and marked it. Overall, the camp seemed safe. Traversing with the radar that evening, we probed on skis for 6 kilometers (4 miles) to the north, and found no more weak areas. Needless to say, we dug a different pit.

Erin probes the ice fracture outside of camp.

February 15 was cool, dismal, even dank, as the fog and clouds closed in again. At this low altitude, just barely above sea level, the air felt heavy and wet. We had seen nothing beyond the runway flags, except occasionally the lowest parts of hazy rocks in the distance. For the most part, we were once again floating in an infinite grey ball, with no horizon. But we worked continuously to get the AMIGOS station in, and by 9 p.m., we had raised the tower and secured it, digging three deep pits and a central large pit for the anchors and the tower base.

The next day, we sensed a change. The mist was thinning. The sun was still obscured, but too bright to look at. We saw shadows for the first time in days. Not quite flying conditions, but close. We radioed a report on the trend to the pilots at Rothera Station, and then took off quickly for a second radar survey.

About a mile out of camp, it happened. Behind us as we skied, the fog began to thin to nothingness, and a stupendous landscape emerged. Martin was the first to notice it, as he knelt to adjust the radar system. It was as if we had been standing in a national park, a world heritage site, that had been hidden behind curtains. The satellite images could never do this justice: Leppard and Flask glaciers flowed down toward us, past a giant rampart of rocky peaks to merge at our feet into a vast plate of ice. In the harnesses, we were giddy: we stopped, snapping pictures, laughing and joking. Our camp seemed like a few fallen toys on the snow at the foot of the range and glaciers. I’m sorry: I just could not get it all to fit into the camera. The majesty of the place was beyond recording.

Ted and Martin Truffer ski across Scar Inlet.

But February 16 was to be a roller-coaster day. As we skied back to camp, looking forward to a return to Rothera, we noticed something odd about the AMIGOS tower in the distance. There was a large black lump clinging to the side of it. Skiing closer, we could see that Terry was near the top of the tower. Something was wrong.

As we got to camp, we learned that the camera on the AMIGOS had failed sometime after we hauled the tower upright. Fixing it would require hours, and even that was not certain; and the planes would arrive within 45 minutes, and they could not wait.

Wow. To have all this to look at, and all the events that might indicate an impending breakup, and no eyes on the AMIGOS. Ronald informed us that there was no way he could fix it out here, and so dejectedly, we removed the camera from the system.

The planes arrived. The distraction of the broken camera, and our long ski back from the radar traverse meant that we were completely unprepared for them. Camp was still scattered and unpacked. But the pilots pitched in, (I want to say: outstanding pilots, Richie Cameron and Dave Edenborough, both in flying and in supporting the science work), and began to help us pack the two aircraft.

That is when the second stunning event happened. We had been at the camp for three days, stomping around everywhere, and had skied for kilometers, finding just one narrow crack. But as one of the pilots dragged some heavy cases across the snow, we heard a shout – and turned to see him waist deep in a 2-foot-wide crevasse. The chasm was nearly black at the bottom, at least 20 feet; it was a “dead” crevasse, formed upstream, and the sides were coated with icicles and frozen rivulets of water from previous summers. The pilot was shaken, unhurt, but the shock of it drew us down even further. Martin probed a safer route, and the mountaineers and I did the rest of the packing, on skis for safety.

The song that came to mind on takeoff: “Whipping Post” by Eric Clapton. But as we flew, and talked things over, a new resolve came to us. We could fix the camera with a quick helo flight and appropriate precautions. And crevasses comes with the territory of exploring active places on ice, places that are changing as climate changes.  With one more week on the ship, we might, just might, be able to put in another station or two, on some of the most interesting ice terrain on Earth

Erin found some food in her pack, crackers ground nearly into gravel, chocolate, and some cheese. It would have been trash by any ordinary standard, but by this point Terry and I were in full ‘field mode’: this was food, and we were hungry.

Terry and Ted enjoy a much-needed snack.

By the time we landed, the song had switched to “Fanfare for the Common Man.” That is how to fly over the Peninsula landscape.  We are now waiting for a flight from the British base to rejoin our colleagues aboard the Palmer.

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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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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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Happy New Year

January 1, 2010

Rob Bauer has returned to Boulder, while Ted, Terry, and Ronald Ross are preparing for the main LARISSA cruise, which starts around January 1st.

Ted writes:
Things are going well in Punta Arenas. Ronald and Terry are setting up an electronics lab area to test the AMIGOS systems prior to deployment. I’ve got the GPS boards just about figured out, but we still need to integrate them into the AMIGOS stations. These are new single-board, highly miniaturized full GPS systems from TopCon (GRS-1 boards) that offer dual-channel centimeter-level precision in the size of a small calculator (and energy use of one as well).

The helicopter pilots seem like they’re ready to fly us where we need to go, but the ice conditions may be challenging.  The sea ice is starting off quite heavy this year on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula (western Weddell Sea), and the embayments that we wish to visit are still clogged with fast ice.

Our camping and science gear takes up about two-thirds of a semi truck trailer (a mil-van in sea cargo parlance). The other third is oceanography equipment for another scientist, Bruce Huber of Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO).

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