Many Plan B’s & C’s in the Blustering Wind

We had gusts of 50 knots and blowing snow…we really should have stayed in camp, but we’d planned for a long day on the upper slopes of Marble Hills, and so we’d left early and before getting an up-to-date weather forecast. Had we stuck around for our daily “sched” with Rothera base (this is essentially a check-in to let them know we are safe and well, and to get news and weather info, etc.), Phil and I would have learned that the winds were due to pick up throughout the day. We were halfway up the Marble Hills before they finally did. The wind was blowing a steady 30 knots and lifting snow well over head height; these are conditions you can find on the Cairngorm Plateau on a blustery winter’s day, and they are relatively common here. With temperatures below -10° C and added wind chill, it’s enough effort just to walk in these conditions. At our high point on the massif, the winds were gusting strong enough to blow you off your feet if you were not expecting them! In these conditions only the bare minimum gets done. My notebook contained a few barely legible notes and I don’t think we ate food until the early evening. The battle for most of the day was simply trying not to let fingers freeze or to lose the contents of our bags every time I needed a rock sample, which was often.

The rest of the group experienced similar conditions over at the Independence Hills where they had hoped to do some laser scanning before the winds picked up. Strong katabatic winds meant they had no chance to complete the scanning and they had no option but to retreat to camp and call it a day. It’s days like these that remind you how our life in Antarctica is totally dependent on weather! It defines the type of work we do each day, where we work and when we work. The visibility, contrast, cloud level, temperature and wind speed all have an effect on travel conditions and, in particular, geophysical equipment. As a result, it becomes a juggling act to plan each day’s work. I’m not sure how many Plan B’s or Plan C’s we’ve resorted to this season, when we woke to find the weather conditions unsuitable for our first option. The good news is that we are making excellent progress despite this juggling act, and we are still on target to complete the science program (at least our key priorities!), in time for our uplift early next week. It’s hard to believe we are already counting down the days to the end of our second field season!

At this stage of the trip we are beginning to consider things like how much fuel we keep in the skidoos; apparently they are required to have less than a ¼ tank when they are put on the plane, although I’m not entirely sure why. Apparently the fuel is less safe in the skidoo than in a jerry can, and if they have too much we’ll have to siphon it out! So we are only fueling the skidoos once we are definite on the day’s travel plan. Food is another consideration. We theoretically have enough food to last until our uplift flight next week and therefore we are trying not to open a new sealed box of food unless absolutely necessary. This means we are now counting chocolate bars, eating slightly odd concoctions of rice and pasta, and generally trying to eek out what remains. On the plus side, we still have a couple of bottles of wine and a bottle of whiskey to get through, and our plan is to enjoy these this weekend to celebrate the end of the field season, and more important, Shasta’s birthday! I’m hoping for homemade ice cream for dessert!!

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Currently tent-bound, but making progress

January 16th, 2014

It’s another tent-bound day due to snow, low visibility and contrast, our second in a row.  We get occasional glimpses of the Patriot and Marble Hills, and they are caked in a fresh layer of snow.  It looks perfect for skiing, but not great for our work.  This is our third day of inactivity due to weather (since arriving just over a week ago) and the reality of our unusually good weather last season is starting to set in.  Still, we’ve managed four good days work since arriving last week and we’re well on track to achieving our key objectives for this field season.

So what is our plan?  The key priority and the main reason for a second field season is to quantify the changes in blue ice areas over the course of a year so we can learn how the moraines are forming today.  This means the 3-D laser scans Stuart produced last year need to be re-measured to account for surface change, as does the entire grid of glacial poles that were installed last season to determine the amount of surface melting that has occurred around the glacier, as well as the total amount the glacier has moved the poles.  John and Kate spent the first few days obtaining laser scanner data from the Patriot Hills.  At first the cold and windy weather and damaged seals within the laser scanner unit caused problems with condensation and frustration.  However, all came good a couple days ago and they were successful getting the data they need.  Today, in near whiteout conditions, they are pressing on heroically to obtain their GPS data!

Shasta and I are focusing on the long-term evolution of the ice sheet and formation of blue ice moraines.  Over the past year we have been working on rock samples David and I collected last season to determine the age of these surfaces.  The rocks contain rare cosmogenic nuclides that accumulate within rock minerals when exposed at the land surface.  By measuring the concentration of one or two of these rare nuclides we can determine when the glacier deposited the rock; in this way we can track, for example, the thinning of the ice sheet through time.  In some cases we can determine whether a rock has been continuously exposed at the surface without interruption, or whether the rock has been periodically buried by ice; this information allows us to build a more complete picture of how the ice sheet has evolved through time.  The preliminary data obtained from last season is now helping to guide our sampling for this season.

So what have we learned?  Well, without going into too much detail, we now know that elevated blue-ice moraines have survived for hundreds of thousands of years.  We know there are parts of the mountains where warm, erosive ice conditions existed and other parts that have been buried by ice frozen to the bed of the glacier, thereby preserving the underlying material.  Our focus this year is to better understand this interaction between cold- and warm-based ice through mapping the landforms and further sampling of rocks for exposure dating.  A key priority is to visit parts of the Marble Hills that we did not manage to visit last season. It is about a 40 km round trip, so we’ll be spending a lot of time this season on skidoos!  So far we’ve managed two successful trips there and we reckon another 3 – 5 should see us finished with this site.  Unfortunately, given the distances involved, we need pretty stable weather to carry out our work at Marble Hills and by the look of it now, it’s going to take a good few days to get rid of all that new snow!  At least the forecast looks favorable!
A couple of days ago with weather prohibiting travel to Marble Hills, we took the opportunity of being in this remote part of Antarctica to collect data for another researcher.  We set ourselves the challenge of extracting a 30 cm block of debris-rich ice from below the blue ice surface at the Patriot Hills.  This is to study microbes that may survive beneath the ice sheet.  Since blue ice areas are locations where ice and debris from the bed of the glacier make their way to the surface it may be an easy alternative to study microbes without drilling to the bottom of the ice sheet!  The ideal tool for the job is a chainsaw but we didn’t have one (the idea came at the last minute before leaving the UK).  So we’ve been left to devise our own way of extracting these blocks with the tools on hand…a fun little project!  With a circular saw, ice drill, angle grinder, ice axes, rock hammers and chisels, we finally managed to excavate a 40cm block of ice from below the surface.  It was quite satisfying getting this chunk of ice out in one piece!

Well, the stoves are on and it is nearly time for another freeze-dried culinary delight! That’s it for now!

Welcome back to the Ellsworth Mountains!

January 10th, 2014
30-knot winds and blowing snow…welcome back to the Ellsworth Mountains!  We’ve made it to our field site in what felt like record time.  We had just three full days at Rothera before flying out; enough time to train (Shasta and Kate) and pack (John and I), ready for the field.  It wasn’t all rushed; we did have time to enjoy life at Rothera.  The weather was ‘dingle’ with blue skies and no wind, and we made the most of it with walks around Rothera Point to see penguins and seals chilling out on shore.  There were even Orcas spotted in Ryder Bay west of Rothera, which apparently Kate and Shasta saw but neglected to tell us! I took the opportunity to go for a run up the glacier to the ski way above.  It’s not often that your morning run involves views of icebergs and ice-clad mountains towering above.  Rather nice.

The weather elsewhere was not so good and for a while it looked as though our departure from Rothera would be delayed.  The plan was for one plane to take us to our field site at the Patriot Hills, 800 miles further south, in two loads.  Scott and I would leave on Wednesday.  The pilot and co-pilot would return to Rothera on Thursday and bring the rest of the group out on Friday.  Like weather, plans change fast in Antarctica!  Wednesday morning we discovered that bad weather elsewhere meant we now had a second plane; this meant our whole group could leave immediately!  In a bit of a scramble the others managed to send frantic emails and pack their bags in time to get out on the second plane by mid-day.  Nine hours later, after stopping to refuel twice, our pilot Ian landed the plane at our field camp at the Patriot Hills.  As it turns out, this was just the start of our day.

The depot of supplies we created at the end of last season was completely buried after spending a winter exposed on the glacier surface.  This meant that the four skidoos, four sledges, all our food and fuel had to be dug out before we could do anything at all.  We couldn’t even eat until we’d recovered our food boxes!  So, the four of us on the first flight, including the pilot and co-pilot, set to work on the skidoos and found the snow had set like concrete.  It was the kind of snow that you had to hit as hard as you could with your spade about three or four times before a small chunk gave way.  It was demoralizingly slow and painful, and in the end it took 5 hours just to free the skidoos!  You can imagine how relieved we were to see the others arrive that night to lend a hand until we all finally gave in to hunger and sleep sometime in the early hours.  The following day was spent clearing the depot and setting up camp in preparation for our first day of science.

With blowing snow and gusts over 30 knots, I get the feeling this season’s weather is going to penguins2be a little different to last season.  Perhaps our view of this camp as ‘Costa del Patriot’ after last year’s balmy weather may be about to change.

 

A new year and a new field season

January 4th 2014

A new year and a new field season!  I write this with a cup of tea and an incredible view of the Cordillera Darwin below.  It’s hard to imagine a year has passed and we are flying back to Antarctica for our second field season.  A lot has happened in between, but right now it doesn’t feel like it; it seems we were here only yesterday!  We’re making the jump over the Drake Passage between Punta Arenas in Chile and the British Antarctic Survey’s research station at Rothera Point in Antarctica.  The flight should normally be a quick four hours; today, it will be more like ten!  Some crucial cargo means we’ll be hanging a left soon at Cape Horn to make our way to Rothera via the Falkland Islands, which are actually north of Punta.  The detour south is to avoid Argentinian air space in this rather sensitive region.  So far we’ve endured 40 hours in transit from the wet and storm-lashed shores of the UK and we are all looking forward to a descent sleep tonight at Rothera!

Our team has changed somewhat this year. David Sugden, Stuart Dunning and Malcolm Airey won’t be joining us.  David is moving house, Stuart will soon be a dad, and Malcy is taking a 6-week break in between back-to-back winters at Rothera; they will be missed!  John Woodward and I (Andy Hein) are returning this year along with our field GA Scott Webster.  New this year is Phil Stevens, Kate Reid and Shasta Marrero. Phil is a new BAS field assistant at the start of an 18-month stint.  Kate is John’s PhD student and she’ll be spending the season dragging the radar across the ice and helping out with laser scanning.  It’s Kate’s first trip south but she’s no stranger to cold and remote places, having already done fieldwork in Greenland and Svalbard, the former when she was just 16!  Shasta is a cosmogenic nuclide expert who will be helping me in the lab, and we’ll also be working together on the mapping and sampling in the field.  She’s already been working hard in the chlorine lab to produce first results in time for this trip.  It’s Shasta’s first trip to Antarctica and I hope we get there soon because she looks ready to explode with excitement!

That’s it for now; look out for photos soon!

– Andy Hein