Ain’t nothing but a hole-digger…

So the majority of the time at camp was actually spent away from it at seismic stations that needed to be dug out, boxed, brought back to camp, and readied to be shipped off the continent. 9 of the sites were near enough to snow-machine to, the rest we have to fly to.

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Our closest station to McMurdo was in sight of Erebus.

All the sites are pretty similar. There’s a solar panel for power (also with a GPS unit and Xeos transmitter that allows us to monitor the station’s state-of-health throughout the year), a large orange box that contains the datalogger and batteries (this weighs 200lb and is buried about 4 feet down), and a sensor that is buried about 6 feet down. Needless to say that’s a lot of digging, but after the first few stations everyone gets into a rhythm of what to do and usually everything’s finished in about 2 hours.

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Photos C/O Glenn McClure

After all the equipment is extracted from the ground, we load up the sleds/plane and head off to the next site and start digging all over again! Usually a team of 4 or 5 can get two stations done in a day. Once we return to camp (and rest up sore backs and wrists!), the data gets downloaded from the datalogger, and backed up multiple times. The data is why we’re there and all this would be for nothing if we lose it.

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The aftermath!

I’m now back Stateside, so information as to the current state of the deployment is limited, however I’ll try and get an update as to what has happened over the last week in the next post.

~Martin

Life on the ice II (deep field camping)

tl;dr: it’s cold

MISSION UPDATE (still sticking with it for some reason!): The planned pull out of the science team from camp was today (Monday 21st Nov)…sadly it was cancelled so we’ll try again tomorrow. We’ve also had no opportunity to go and get more stations this last weekend due to the weather setting in at McMurdo over the weekend.

Snow/ice camping really shouldn’t be daunting to an experienced camper. So long as you have the right equipment (which we do down here) then you are generally comfortable. You really just have to accept that you won’t be warm unless you are wearing a lot of clothes!

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“Tent City”: many, many mountain tents!

Often the first thing you do when you’re dropped off, literally in the middle of nowhere, is set up a shelter before the plane takes off and heads back to base. This is usually in the form of erecting a Scott tent (a century of technology really hasn’t improved on this design for quick and sturdy shelter). In our case, our camp was coined “Yesterday Camp” due to its proximity to the International Date Line (-78.9723˚S, -179.8868˚W)… the other side from McMurdo Station (-77.85˚S, 166.6667˚E).

Personal tents are usually of the form of mountain tents that are much warmer and comfortable than the Scott tent that, due to its removable floor, usually gets repurposed as an outhouse! Then there are communal tents used for cooking, eating, communications and science (in our case, storing computers for downloading data from the seismic station hard drives). This time we had heaters in a couple of tents which made any down time way more comfortable!

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Morning meeting 7am sharp….ish! (photo C/O Glenn McClure)

The routine at camp generally starts with breakfast at about 6.45am with a morning meeting discussing the day’s plans at about 7. If the weather’s good and there’s a plane at camp then we can fly and that takes priority. Ideally we want to get wheels off by 8.30am to make the most of the day and get as many stations dug up as possible. The sites that we can snow-machine to are much less dependent on weather conditions and many of them are less than 20km from camp (driving about an hour or so). Lunch is generally of the “packed” variety and it’s obviously a good idea to bring plenty of water in a thermos. Even though it’s cold, it can get pretty hot and sweaty digging 6-foot holes in the ground all day, plus the air is so dry it’s really easy to get dehydrated. I’ll try and cover the actual station recovery in another post otherwise this one will be way too long!

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By the time we get back to camp there’s usually a bit of time to relax, grab a hot drink, and rest any aching muscles before dinner at 6pm. Dinner is usually pretty high in calories, plenty of carbs and fat to help keep the body’s engine warm. Mostly it’s all food that can be frozen or is canned, fresh fruit and veg is pretty much out I’m afraid. We do have a plentiful supply of beer and chocolate though so it’s not all bad! Granted most of it is well past its sell-by date…

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Ice frisbee

If the weather is nice and the winds are light, it really can be a pleasant experience to be out in the middle of nowhere, away from it all…oh and the American election…ugh. We brought with us some entertainment with some cross-country skis, board games, a frisbee and even a croquet set! Sadly we didn’t get to pay croquet while I was there…it’s not the flattest of ground so it would have been interesting.

~Martin

The end’s in sight

It’s been 10 days since we left for camp and so much has happened that I’m not going to try and sum everything up in one post, but….

MISSION UPDATE: As of Thursday 17th Nov, we had successfully recovered 22 of the 28 seismic stations planned to be picked up from camp. 9 of them by snow machine, 11 using Twin Otter flights.

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Flying over a crevasse on the Ross Ice Shelf about 15km south of our camp

Returning to McMurdo has been slightly chaotic. I was repositioned (technical term) to McMurdo last night in order to definitely make my flight to Christchurch on Tuesday. Between now and then I can still help out by doing day trips from McMurdo although that is weather-dependent. Indeed, today I was hoping to fly back to our camp and go pick up two more stations but it’s currently snowing.

The plan (again weather and plane reliability depending) is to try and pull all the science team from camp on Monday by LC-130 Hercules. Some of the team may arrive over the weekend if we can get a Twin Otter back to the ice shelf. The remaining 6 stations can be picked up on day trips from McMurdo.

There are further 6 stations in Marie Byrd Land (on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as opposed to the Ross Ice Shelf) that need to be recovered, however to do that a team will have to fly to Siple Dome camp to go fetch them. This will happen after I leave for Christchurch but I’ll try and keep updated with what’s going on!

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I’m really hoping this snow clears up soon…

~Martin

And off we go…

Looks like the weather gods have been kind to us. We’re off to camp on the RIS for a couple of weeks. With any luck we’ll get everything pulled out quickly and be back at McMurdo in no time. I’ll be without internet out there but I’ll take plenty of photos and update things when I get back.

See you in a bit!

~Martin

Day trippin’

We’re definitely getting in to ‘muddy season’.

MISSION UPDATE (yeah I’m sticking with it): Mixed news really. We have successfully picked up 1 station, though our other flight was less successful and was unable to dig out the instrument in time before the weather set in. We sit in hope for flights this week, it really would be great to get out to camp!

Currently we are waiting on our camp to get its final round of supplies so that we can fly in and start picking up stations as soon as we get there. We’re really hoping that will be tomorrow and then we can try and get a flight on Tuesday. In the meantime, we are not just content to sit around McMurdo, we can try and get a plane to do a day trip to a couple of stations and bring them back. This would shorten our stay out at our camp on the Ross Ice Shelf, but the weather really has to be kind to us.

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Taking off in a Twin Otter from Williams Field

We got some luck on Friday when 2 planes became available. One heading to the often difficult to get to Roosevelt Island (no, not the one in New York) on the eastern side of the Ross Ice Shelf. The other (my team) was heading to the southernmost station (RS18) of the network. Unfortunately, when we got there, on first assessment of the snow (which was mainly ice and less easy to dig) we realized that we’d be pushed for time to get this station out, so apologies there aren’t any photos of what the station looks like. There’ll be plenty of chances when we get to camp and run skidoo trips and time is less of an issue – and all the stations look the same anyway!

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3 hours, and 6 feet down into the snow we found our seismometer and electronics box that contains the precious hard drive that contains the last year’s data, we packed everything up and headed to a fuel cache to fill up the plane. On landing at the cache, we radioed in to McMurdo and found out that fog had set in during the afternoon. Not ideal. Plenty of backup plans were made so there was no need to stress too much, and in an hour we found out the fog was clearing and we could make our way back to Williams Field.

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Returning past Minna Bluff near McMurdo

The other flight was less fortunate. After 3 hours hacking through mainly ice on Roosevelt Island, they ran out of time and had to head to a fuel cache. It was discovered though that the cache had been snowed over and there were no clear signs of it left. All they could do was head as far back to McMurdo as possible and wait for another plane to come out to meet them with fuel. After a few, cold hours they made it back at 10:30pm. All safe, but sadly no stations.

Still, it’s a start!

Our final round of camp cargo is being put in today (Monday 7th) so we should be expecting transport to camp any day now. At last…

~Martin

Hurry up… and wait

MISSION UPDATE: Good news, everyone! After three days of delays, our camp on the Ross Ice Shelf is finally being set up today. We will hopefully be running a few day trips out of McMurdo to pick up some nearby stations before heading out to camp on Saturday or Monday.

Ah weather delays. An inevitability of Antarctic science.

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The view north across the sea ice of McMurdo Sound

If you get 1 work day in a week, that’s a good week down here. After pushing hard to get through training as quickly as possible, we have been waiting on flights to start picking up seismic stations for most of the last week. We’ve had clear skies over McMurdo for most of that time, but the weather over the Ross Ice Shelf as appeared cloudy on satellite images (the only information to make weather forecasts from). It’s a really hard job to predict the weather, even for the next day, in Antarctica. It can be a beautiful clear day in one place, and a hundred miles away it could be blowing a gale.

The first time I came to Antarctica I was delayed 5 days in Christchurch waiting for a flight to the ice. We even “boomeranged”: flying all the way to McMurdo, taking a look at the weather, then flying all the way back to Christchurch. 10 hours in an uncomfortable military plane, through the middle of the night, just to land back where you started. That same trip, we were then delayed getting to our field camp for two weeks waiting for the weather to clear. When we eventually got to the camp, we managed to get all our work done in 5 days. Less than a week’s work during a 1 month deployment!

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Pressure ridges forming at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf near Scott Base

Last year, during the service for the seismic stations, the team were stuck at a summer-only field camp (Siple Dome) for two weeks without a plane. They even built a shrine to the airplane gods – I think it involved a pineapple… They finally got a plane an made it to all the remaining stations in about 2 days.You need a lot of patience down here.

The main way to travel about the continent is by plane. USAP runs three different types:

  1. LC-130 Hercules – these heavyweight cargo planes do most of the grunt work. They’ve been retrofitted with skis to be able to land on ice and ungroomed runways (though they really don’t like doing that!).
  2. Basler DC-3 – a mid-size plane, runs cargo and science missions including airborne radar.
  3. Twin Otter – These nimble planes can land pretty much anywhere (including on icebergs!). They’re great for day trips to sites to pick-up and drop off instruments. They were also used during the winter trip to the Pole in June this year which I mentioned in an earlier post.

There are also, occasionally, traverses. Overland convoys that take the 1000-mile “highway” between Pole and McMurdo to ship supplies and heavy equipment that would be difficult to ship by plane.

In the meantime, it’s been good to get out and hike some of the trails around McMurdo (see the first 2 pics at the start of this post). With any luck though, we’ll be working tomorrow… famous last words!

~Martin

Life on the ice

MISSION UPDATE (I know… cheesy!): Our plan of getting camp put in on Saturday 29th has now been delayed until Tuesday 1st November. We’re hoping that we can get to a few stations from McMurdo before we also head out to camp but as always, we are dependent on the weather. In the meantime:

McMurdo.

It’s the base of all U.S. operations on Antarctica. The largest of the permanent Antarctica bases, and home during the summer to some 1500 people either here to do science or to support science. It is a huge logistical operation and as such the town has much more of a mining town feel than that of a research station.

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McMurdo Station

It is said that McMurdo has 3 seasons throughout the summertime: snowy, muddy, and dusty. To deal with the conditions, there are a mix of vehicles used to transport supplies around base from pickup trucks and tractors, to PistenBullys and Deltas. The last 2 may not be as recognizable but both are pretty efficient at moving people and goods around on snow, ice and dirt.

The buildings in town range from those that were built to just stay warm (the older ones from the 60s and 70s) and the more recent, energy efficient ones such as the Crary Science Lab. There’s also an Alpine chalet, a “hotel”, fire house, hospital, recycling facility and harbor (that is when the ice becomes thin enough to break through with an icebreaker).

It is (arguably) the most comfortable place to live on the continent. There are generally a lot of events going on outside of any work or training that you have to get done. There are 2 informal science lectures a week open to the general audience of the base. These are a great way to see what others are doing on the continent, be it biologists, astronomers, geologists or marine scientists. There are parties on all the holidays. We just had our halloween party on Saturday night, a raucous affair. There’s also ‘Icestock’, the Antarctic outdoor music festival usually around Thanksgiving or New Year. And Christmas is also suitably festive. There are 3 bars in McMurdo. Gallagher’s and Southern Exposure have a dive bar feel, and often host music events or sports nights. There’s also the Coffee House that has a much more laid back feel: board games, reading and a bottle of wine are the norm here. Plus they have an espresso machine which is great for those early morning wake-ups.

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Warren Maxwell of TrinityRoots plays Gallagher’s bar

Cabin fever is never far away, but you can get off base if the weather’s good enough. There are various walks ranging from a couple of miles over dirt tracks to day trek over the ice. Skis can be provided for any cross-country fans wanting to hit the trails.

It’s also a short walk over the hill to the Kiwi’s Scott Base. Much smaller than McMurdo at about 100 attendees, they hold weekly America nights where they invite us USAP folks in for a beer or two. And there are a few historical sites to see nearby too. The McMurdo area is about the furthest south the sea ice opens up enough to allow ships in. As such it was a base for the early explorers such as Ross, Scott, and Shackleton.

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Discovery Hut built by Scott in 1902
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Inside Discovery Hut: some of the supplies used on the expedition

Sometimes though, after a couple of weeks of weather delays, it can seem a little dull. Then you remember you’re in Antarctica and that the time here is definitely something  worth savoring!