This will be my last entry in this season's blog. I had hoped to tell a different tale the past two months —one of successful science being done in a harsh, remote place by hardy individuals dedicated to getting information that had direct relevance to your lives and the lives of others you know and will never know. But the field season unfolded in a vastly different way. I have prepared an outbrief for the National Science Foundation that speaks to the good and the bad, what went right and what went wrong, and how to use what was learned this season to improve our chances for success next season. That document is the official record and won't be shared here, yet it contains no surprises from what you have read.
For this blog, I want to be more reflective and to emphasize those more personal aspects of Antarctic field work. It takes a lot of people working together to undertake a project as ambitious and as challenging as this one. This season, a lot of us involved in various aspects of this enterprise came together and grew to know each other a lot better. We did not always see things the same way, but I think just about everyone came away with a greater appreciation for what the project is all about and what talents each player has contributed to the greater enterprise. This was most apparent at PIG Main Camp where the great distance from McMurdo provided a clarity of purpose that often gets muddled in McMurdo. Following our limited success in the final days, I was impressed with how the Main Camp staff shared their congratulations with us. That success made their efforts at camp worthwhile. Our assistance in many of their camp chores showed them that we appreciated their efforts. That is the magic of a deep field camp. Even the Twin Otter pilots, who only dropped in for two days, felt good because we accomplished some objectives together.
I regret that the helicopters never came. I have little doubt the same camp magic would have occurred there, too. I question whether managers of the individual U.S. Antarctic Program components, who spend no time in the deep field, really understand how the deep field camps actually operate. There is a bonding motivated by the Antarctic environment that is much stronger in the deep field than in the more "civilized" McMurdo. Even large, multi-project camps can sometimes be absent of this mystic, but PIG is not of that ilk. You do not resent the person who has helped you set your tent, who you have helped shovel out a fuel bladder, who has watched you to make sure your nose is not frostbitten, and whose sled you have helped pull. The shared experiences bring people together and make for one. Every one of the camp staff expressed their hope to be chosen to come back next season.
As will we. We will succeed. Despite the limited scientific accomplishments this season, we are better positioned (with all the camp material, most of the scientific equipment and scads of fuel already at PIG Main Camp to spend the frigid winter) and logistically wiser to design a better field effort for 2012-13. We have to—it will be our last chance for this project. We'll use satellite imagery for an early look next October. In November, Twin Otters will be used to assess the surface character of the ice shelf and to deliver a skeleton crew allowing us access to the wintered cargo, the fuel and to start on-site weather observations. By December, before the main camp even gets set up, the drilling team will arrive and be transferred to the ice shelf with the drilling equipment by those same Twin Otters. Building the Main Camp and transferring the helos out will come later, much later if need be. Fewer Herc flights, earlier traverses and more Twin Otter time is a much more palatable recipe.
It saddens me to think that even today we should be working out of PIG Main Camp, making day trips to collect radar and seismic information on the shape of the ocean cavity beneath the ice shelf. Instead, our field team has disbanded. We flew to Christchurch together on Monday, but now we are scattering across the globe on various commercial airline flights. I've received word that the second traverse has arrived at PIG and this week there should be the final two flights pulling out the camp staff after they have put all the wintering cargo up on high snow berms. A recent satellite image taken last week shows the camp and the AWS webcam is still keeping watch from the ground. It looks like another beautiful day there.
I'm not exactly sure how to end this blog. I hoped you've enjoyed the story. I suppose I could just say that we now reenter the planning phase. There is yet more pressure on us now because we have one more shot to get it right. I think we will, but as always, the big unknown is what Antarctica has in store for us next time.
The Story Continued
Delayed flights seem to be the rule this season. Our flight to Christchurch was cancelled late Thursday night because of expected bad weather here. On the next try, there was a mechanical problem that required a part that had to be shipped to Christchurch, so I'm still in McMurdo. The next attempt by the C-17 will be to fly to Antarctica on late Sunday. If successful, we will board it in the early morning hours of Monday and we'll be smelling the lush summer greenness of New Zealand five hours later.
Let me return to the saga at PIG Main Camp. I left the tale at the point that I was being told on Friday, 6 January, that if the helos had not been flown to PIG by the end of the following day, they would not be delivered this season and my field team would be returned to McMurdo—game over, season ended. I objected—not to the date, nor to the conclusion that there would not be enough time to execute the drilling/ocean profiling part of the field work. What I objected to was calling a halt to other science activities that still could be supported with the helicopters. I pointed out that our second science objective did not require a separate camp on the ice shelf, but could be supported by day trips based entirely from the PIG Main Camp. In this case, four days would not be spent transferring people and equipment to the ice shelf camp, and another four days returning them. These could be spent gathering data from isolated places on the ice shelf only accessible by helo and everyone would be back in Main Camp every night. There were many days still left where important science could (and should) be done. Better yet, by not having a remote camp that could only be pulled off the ice shelf by the helos, the helo schedule for disassembly for return to McMurdo was no longer at risk. But the helos still had to be flown out to PIG to do this work.
"No" was the answer. I was stunned. Something very fundamental had failed to be understood while I was in McMurdo; our science program had many components and when I had presented our prioritization of the individual elements and focused on achieving the most important element (the drilling and ocean measurements), it did not mean that it was "drilling or nothing". Once the drilling objective could not possibly be met, the next step was to consider how to achieve the next most important objective. Not only could this second priority objective be met (there were still nearly two weeks we could have worked on it), but the risks to the helicopter schedule were much lower. The logic was ironclad, yet no one in McMurdo supported my appeal to still fly out the helos.
"No" remained the answer, and when it came from the National Science Foundation's on-site head of logistics, there was no point in continuing to stress either the science to be gained or the reduced risk to the helo schedule. Most scientists will bristle when sound logic fails to persuade and so it was with me. This made no sense to me and I was not receiving any suitable explanation over the sat phone. Enthusiasm for this project on the part of the helo operators had noticeably decreased as the schedule delays mounted, but supporting this new science objective reduced their risk. However, I feel they now had what they wanted—a deadline that had passed that reduced their risk to zero and they would not let that go. Science wasn't going to get done. That was my problem, not theirs. Nor did NSF seem to care enough to order the helos to PIG. ^%$^%#&*!!
I was done, right? Not quite. I'm nothing if not dogged in my determination to get something to show for the extraordinary effort that had led to us being where we were. At the very bottom of our science priority list was the task of setting out five GPS receivers and seismometers on the ice shelf to monitor the flexing and cracking of the ice shelf that we think is driven by the spatial variability of the strong melting of the ice shelf's underside. Because the Twin Otter had landed already in the area where these instruments could be useful, I pleaded for enough Twin Otter time to put out a minimal set of three of these instruments. I expected three days would be required (they had been willing to provide two days to help set up the drill camp, so I had some hope this would be feasible in their minds). There was silence on the phone, but shortly McMurdo voiced some willingness to consider this request. They would have to see if the impact of this new request could be accommodated, but they were optimistic. Whew, not much, but something!
The next day I was told that we could expect three days of Twin Otter support to put in three GPS/seismic stations; not just any three days, but Monday through Wednesday, but that I should try to accomplish it in two. And it would start…tomorrow. The very next day?! I had to accept. We had to hustle to pull out of our cargo the required pieces (as the lowest priority activity, these pieces were scattered around and well buried in other gear) and pre-fab as much of the instrumentation as possible before the Twin Otter arrived. We worked late into the night and went to bed hoping that the weather improved enough that the Otter would come the next morning.
Morning clouds parted quickly the next day and we heard to expect the Otter to arrive by 10:30 AM. We were (just) ready and had a quick conversation with the pilots about what we wanted to do to set out five (not three) stations. We loaded 1500 pounds of gear and within 10 minutes three of us were off, bound for the ice shelf. The day was absolutely brilliant. Winds were calm and the temperature above freezing. I recalled the day almost exactly three years earlier when I had last been on the ice shelf and experienced similar weather. It took us a few hours to complete the first installation. While we were working, the Otter returned to the Main Camp and returned with Mike Shortt, our team member from the British Antarctic Survey, who had joined our group to make special radar measurements that, when repeated at precisely the same spots next year, will be able to determine the local rate of basal melt. We were done by mid-afternoon, so we returned to Main Camp, picked up a similar pile of gear for the second installation and were successful in getting that established, returning to camp for a late dinner. It was a heady achievement and everyone shared in the joy of it. We had been in Antarctica for five weeks. Finally, we had some science to show for the time.
Our dinner respite was brief. We felt we had a good shot at getting our remaining three stations in the next day, but we had to complete the pre-fabrication on each of them. Oh yes, tomorrow was also going to be the day the Herc came. This was the first Herc since we arrived a week earlier. It would not have the much-hoped-for helicopter on it, rather it was coming to deliver camp-take-down material and return six of our field team. The only scientists allowed to remain were the four who were putting in the stations. The others had worked all day reorganizing our cargo into pieces that either stayed for the winter, or returned to McMurdo and home institutions. It was a big job. Everyone worked well into the night. Some stayed up very late despite the bone-chilling wind to ensure that we were ready for both events the following day.
The forecast called for good weather Tuesday, but when the day began, the fog was thick in the direction of the ice shelf. Not good. It was clear that my three days of Otter were counting down. A delay for weather and we would probably lose the Otter. The other science group at Byrd never wanted to see it go and was very anxious to get it back. Fortunately the Otter crew heard some encouraging words from the weather forecast center (in Charleston, SC) and by 10:30 was willing to try to get back to the ice shelf. We loaded the plane quickly and were airborne inside half an hour. The pilot found a way to skirt the fogbank and to our delight (and considerable relief) found our desired sites sparkling in the sun. Stepping out of the Otter, we were greeted again by warm conditions and very little breeze. Perfect!
The third installation went in without a hitch. It was all I was approved to do, but we had the other two ready and I was not about to stop. We rushed back to Main Camp picked up the fourth kit and had it in place and collecting data three hours later. Because of the late start, the Otter crew was beginning to look at their watches to make sure they did not exceed their allowable hours. Travis, the pilot, told me that if we could install the final site in two hours, he would get us there, but when he said it was time to return, we had to stop right away. Confident of our increasing efficiency, I was game but I got a little concerned when we returned to Main Camp to pick up the final setup and discovered a big smelly Herc sitting in the fueling area. That was the one spot on the entire Antarctic continent where we had to be right then and it was taken! This was the Herc that I had so desperately wanted to bring a helicopter. Instead it sat there in my way, loaded with the remainder of our crew, taking them back to McMurdo without ever being given the chance to do the work they came to do. Out of the way!
The minutes of delay seemed like hours, but the Herc evenutally vacated the spot. We loaded and refueled so quickly we almost beat the Herc into the air. The four of us were all primed to get this final installation done in record time and with the help of the Otter crew, we succeeded with time to spare. That was it; our season was over. Five weeks of plodding, waiting, anticipating, concluded by two hectic days of installing secondary equipment on the ice shelf. Nevertheless, something was far, far, far better than nothing at all. We were exhausted, the camp staff shared our joy once we returned, but again we had to forego a long night of sleep to ensure that we put all the tools and gear we had used the past two days in the right places and that what was to happen to every piece of our equipment was clearly understood by those staying behind to close down the camp. Each piece of winter-over material would have to be carefully arranged on a tall snow berm to (hopefully) survive the long, harsh winter.
The next morning was our last at PIG Main Camp. Another Herc (the next to last for the season) would not come for seven days, so we were permitted to fly with the Twin Otter as it returned to Byrd Station. Much to our amazement, when we arrived there, we were told that a Herc was due in an hour. All we had to do was wait in the galley sipping tea and sampling their excellent baked goods. Three hours after boarding, we were back in McMurdo.
Done in a Flash
McMurdo (Antarctica), 12 January — The optimists following this blog would have likely assumed that the absence of new postings this past week meant that we were finally in the field and that the work was finally underway. Those optimists would be half-right; we were at the PIG Main Camp this past week, but the work was not getting done. There is so much that transpired since my last blog post concerning the possible flight deploying us to PIG Main Camp that to avoid a very long story, I will start with the ending and fill in the middle bits as time permits in subsequent entries, ending with an epilogue.
The helicopters never arrived, we were hammered by strong winds, a small subset of us installed some scientific equipment by Twin Otter to monitor the ice shelf, and we were ordered home much, much too early. The flight from McMurdo to Christchurch, NZ leaves early tomorrow morning. I'm manifested on it, have dragged by bags and had them taken from me, but because of some medivacs expected to be on the plane (burn victims from a Korean fishing vessel nearby), some of us may get bumped off the flight. I've been in McMurdo less than 24 hours. We arrived by taking a Twin Otter from PIG to Byrd Station yesterday, then waiting two hours and catching a Herc back to McMurdo. Jeez, connections like that just don't happen in Antarctica (it was not planned).
The Twin Otters were at PIG because I practically begged NSF to provide me with some resources to execute at least part of our science program. A decision had been made by NSF the day we left McMurdo that if the helos were not able to be flown to PIG by Saturday, January 7, this year's field work would be cancelled. I was never told this directly by NSF (I'm still frosted about that), and the messenger couldn't find me, so he told others in my group (also not the best approach—McMurdo isn't that big that anyone can't be found—and it was known when I would be heading for the skiway).
So we actually did make it to PIG Main Camp on an early flight Tuesday, January 3. The weather there was beautiful—a slight breeze and brilliant sunshine. The camp workers provided a very nice reception; they were happy to have some working scientists on hand. The carpenters and camp staff had done an excellent job putting a camp together quickly and were still working on the last couple of buildings. The skiway was wonderful, allowing us to glide smoothly to a graceful stop just by the fuel pit. The combination of staff, carps and scientists added to a camp population of 35—too much for the small galley to accommodate at one time, so we planned to eat in shifts. We were given a quick orientation of the do's and don'ts, the where's and the who's. Then we hustled off to set up tents, while the good weather held.
The weather continued to hold for another day, but the helos didn't come. The weather forecasts were dismal at both McMurdo and PIG, but in actuality, the weather remained good at both places. This was frustrating, especially when the weather the next day started to deteriorate. We worked through our cargo—some had not been seen for two years when we tested our equipment at Windless Bight—preparing for either helos or the Twin Otter to start moving us onto the ice shelf. Neither came. Weather worsened. And we were into our first storm warning. Camp prepared by putting many more flags out to help people find their way from the tent area to the stronger buildings. Most chose to ride out the storm in their tents. I built a pretty high snow wall. It was a noisy night with winds gusting to well over 40 knots, but no one had any hair-raising experiences. Lots of drifts built up and a few folks had to shovel them down once or twice during the night.
Better weather usually follows a storm like this, but it didn't lead to any flights coming our way. When Friday arrived, the great powers that control everything in the US Antarctic Program notified me that they had to talk to me. The message was a reminder of the "drop-dead" date…
(Here, I'm going to have to stop temporarily. My flight to Christchurch is scheduled to arrive very early tomorrow and I need to be prepared for it. I'll pick up the story in my next entry —shouldn't be too long a wait.)
Probably Not My Last
Got up early again this morning, but to no avail. Nowadays as I leave my dorm, my head spins right to look onto the ice shelf for any sign of fog. It's become a habit now. This morning it is crystal clear. I can see the Pegasus skiway out there. When I reach the mess hall, I pause at the handwashing station to read the scroll on the TV with information regarding flights. And there it is—Mission E005 to PIG is on a "weather hold". What that means is that we aren't expected to appear for a shuttle ride to the skiway. We are simply supposed to wait until the message is updated.
I call the Movement Control Center (MCC) and ask if they have any updated time for our transport to the skiway. They have to check with Air Services (this seems unduly complicated) for the current status. I'm told it is likely that the second mission to PIG today (carrying the helicopter) which was to be in the afternoon will be cancelled and that our mission will slide to the later slot. The transport time for the later mission is 12:45 PM, so that's their best guess of what will happen. About 15 minutes into a slow and sad breakfast wherein more of our group show up, that's exactly what happens. We have another six hours to wait.
I gather what information I can about PIG, but it is pretty limited. It is only just after 6 AM and the regular day workers are not in their offices yet. I go back to my room and catch a short nap.
Later I reemerge and try to put together the story. The weather observations from PIG are indicating visibility limited to 800 meters, 18 knots of wind and blowing snow. The wind is not the problem, but the limited visibility is. It was the reason the flight was put on hold. The webcams indicate some reduced visibility, but a number of us are surprised it is being reported as only 800 meters (.5 miles). We have little say in this—the eyes on the ground are gospel.
It's now just past 11:30 AM. Lunch has started and I need to plan for the transportation. I'm going to eat, then see what, if anything, has changed. We may still get our ride to the skiway—a none-too-pleasant 45-minute jostling—and it may come to naught, but it is all we can do at our end.
That close. We were that close to leaving McMurdo yesterday; literally, a few feet from the airplane. The day started early, but with great promise. Everything was going so smoothly. Everyone showed up for breakfast dressed for the cold weather, our flight lunches were ready for pick-up, transportation was on time and we packed into the monstrous Delta vehicle (a small compartment atop huge tires, designed to span bumps and holes in the road) for the 50-minute drive to Pegasus, the skiway on the McMurdo ice shelf. The only ones ahead of us were the flight crew, the cargo handlers and a few ice runway work crew. This was the last day before the 2-day New Year weekend. We counted ourselves fortunate to be escaping McMurdo and getting to PIG so we could begin sorting our gear and be ready for Monday's first move onto the ice shelf.
As we transferred from the bumpy Delta to the softer seats of the passenger transporter (used to take passengers from the rougher road traveled by the Delta onto the snow apron where the airplanes are) the pilot came over to say that there was a maintenance issue with the plane. It seems there are ten radios onboard and while all but one have backups, the one without the backup was the one that didn't work. Maintenance was investigating. Just to cover themselves, the crew had also begun pre-flight checks on the only other airplane available. Usually a second airplane is not available, but PIG seemed to be the only spot on the continent scheduled to receive a flight that had good weather. It was a luxury and gave me more confidence that we were sure to get away. The race was not against the weather today, rather against time; the length of the mission would be over 11 hours and crews are not allowed to have their "duty day" (which starts when they first check weather reports) extend beyond 14 hours. So although it was still only 7:30 in the morning and the mission was set to launch at 0900, we could only delay two hours. If the mission couldn't get off by 1100, we weren't going. We waited in the very Spartan and deserted galley for further word.
Pre-flighting the second aircraft turned out to be a judicious move. The radio technician identified the problem, but the replacement part was in Christchurch. The scramble began to get our five pallets of cargo off the first airplane and on to the second. We were called from the galley back to the transporter and were driven to the second airplane, so we could get on quickly once the plane was ready. We waited, and waited, and waited, mentally assisting each forklift that grabbed a pallet from the first plane and lined up in order to deposit it on the tail ramp of the second aircraft. Done. Now what? We stared out the windows, trying to interpret the comings and goings of the ground crew. I've taken countless Herc flights in my many years here and I have yet to understand all that goes on inside these Hercs as the crew prepares them. Too much time gone already as 10 AM came and went. Doubt started to seep into our once-excited conversations. Finally, the pilot (a large piece of Air National Guard beefcake) came out and tossed the heavy survival bags (the big red ones in the picture) through the crew entrance door. I joked that he was going to load us the same way. Our mood returned to a spirited banter and we rapidly made sure that our bags were zipped up and everything was set. We expected to be called to board any moment.
That moment didn't come, didn't come and still didn't come. 10:20 AM stretched to 10:30 and even 1045. Opinions varied on the likelihood of success. At 10:55 AM, the pilot stepped off the airplane, strode across the few feet of packed snow to our vehicle and knocked on the door. When he addressed us, he didn't mince words; we weren't going, the mission was a "maintenance cancel". He explained that the aircraft has two altimeters and that they are checked to be sure they agree to within 75 feet. These did not. Maintenance personnel had tried to determine why, but time had run out for the crew.
Everyone knew what this meant; we would have to wait until Monday for the next try and bad weather was forecast to move into the PIG area on Sunday. This was a crushing blow to our hopes. As far as our project timelines go, the scrubbed mission only translates into a single day delay if we can work through our cargo at PIG faster. Mentally, it just dials up the pressure yet further. It won't be a relaxed weekend. We can't accomplish anything here.
What a Drag
This post may read a little rushed because, well, I'm rushing today. The stakeholders meeting Wednesday afternoon resulted in an accelerated timeline and we have been "hot-footing" it ever since.
The "drag" in the title is for bag drag. It is a good thing. It means you are being checked-in, weighed and being given a boarding pass (yup, they use them here, too). It means you are about to go someplace other than the mess hall (for yet another meal). It means you have had to clean out your room (can you believe they have inspections to make sure you are not leaving your bad habits behind?) For us it means we are going to PIG tomorrow.
This morning I called a meeting of our team to discuss what will happen once we get to PIG Main Camp and what will the sequence of cargo and people be once we start moving over to the Drill Camp. It was our last chance to meet in a comfortable format, all seated around the same table. Things will change radically tomorrow. The camp already has 19 people in it; 23 after the four new arrivals on today's flight (#4). These are split roughly equally between camp staff and carpenters. We ten will drive the total to a bulging 33. There are two tents up. We will likely have to eat in two or three shifts.
Our work there will focus on finding our traversed cargo, combining it with what will be flown out with us tomorrow, and organizing the total into time-sequenced loads destined for the ice shelf. Monday (or more likely the next good-weather day) we are supposed to receive a Twin Otter from Byrd camp that will begin to move people and cargo to the Drill Camp. We will start with a few people, survival gear and shelter. The Otter will help us again the next day (we hope it will stay overnight, but its orders are not to get stuck at PIG) to continue to move to the Drill Camp. Ultimately we have over 30,000 pounds of stuff to move, so we will not be able to complete the move these two days.
Also on Monday, there will be two Herc flights to PIG (that's right, TWO), each carrying a partially disassembled helicopter. Once they are reassembled (a two-day task), they will continue to move our stuff (we're saving some of the most heavy and awkward pieces for them). I hope we can finish this off in one more day, but I'm fearful it will take two more, so it is very likely this moving will be interrupted by bad weather. Thus, we are trying to be careful to ensure that the right people are at the right place with the right pieces to be able to be productive even if the weather is not conducive to helo flying. Yet another puzzle. There have been many and it is the nature of field work.
This next phase will be a bit of a scramble. If we do it right, everyone will be pretty busy and we will be making progress all the time. That scrambling may make future blog entries more difficult. I am in the advance party going to the Drill Camp. Until the dust settles there with most of us arriving and the critical first tasks out of the way, there won't be any posts, not even short ones, from me coming out from PIG. Again, it is just the nature of the work.
I can't remember being able to write two good-news messages in a row this entire trip, so I hardly know how to react. On the heels of the successful Twin Otter recce, yesterday's Herc flight made it to PIG Main Camp. It was scheduled to depart later in the morning to avoid possible fog. As it turned out there was no fog, but then I had to worry that some other issue would confound the attempt. Taking a pessimistic view seems to be working wonders, because the flight took off early, successfully delivered cargo and camp staff to PIG, and was able to return to McMurdo without even having to refuel. It's enough to make a scientist superstitious.
The weather continues to hold. That big old high pressure over the middle of West Antarctica is doing a great job and is expected to stay in place through the beginning of the weekend. I spoke with the Guard planner and he said that not only was PIG on their schedule every day this week, but because this weekend is another two-day holiday, they are thinking seriously of scheduling two flights to PIG on Friday. That would be #'s 5 and 6 (assuming success today and tomorrow). And if that wasn't enough, they are likely going to be raising the ACL (allowed cargo load) so that yet more people and stuff can get out there.
Helos and Otters are in the offing, as well. The first of the helicopters will be "taken down" this evening. This means they will start to disassemble it (blades, rotor, skids and half the transmission come off), so it can squeeze into the Herc cargo bay. It might be ready for a Friday flight to PIG. The second helo would be a day behind. Meanwhile, Otter schedules are being reviewed so NSF can decide what Otter could come to PIG and how long it could stay.
All these developments have led to a whole new series of talks with various players here that have taken on a noticeably different tone. The cargo sequencer is telling us that we should be ready to fly out to PIG as early as Friday. After so many delays and the increasingly dark cloud that had grown over the project, the sudden change is like being hit with a bracing bucket of cold water. Suddenly it is time to start moving again!!
The rest of this week will either see us break the back of the delays, or it will likely end the project for this season. Spirits are extremely high.
In a Fog
McMurdo leapt back to life the morning after the 2-day Christmas weekend. It was a jarring transition from the solitude that had permeated the town to the rumble of vehicles churning up wisps of cindery dust as their operators resumed their various tasks. There was a revival of energy everywhere, including a recommitment to making substantial progress on PIG. We can expect to be on the flight schedule every day this week.
And so we were today. The webcams told us that the Christmas storm at PIG was over. The report from the field by the traverse party was that the storm had not brought much new snow and that they were able to keep up with the wind's efforts to make new sastrugi on the skiway. The weather forecast for West Antarctica is as positive as I have ever seen it--a dominant high pressure is sitting squarely over the ice sheet keeping all storms well offshore. Nothing is vying to push the high pressure anywhere, so PIG should be clear at least through Thursday!
Voice: "Not so fast, Bob"
Bob: "Who 'dat?"
Voice: "Look outside"
Bob: "I'll check on my way to breakfast"
(a short time later…)
Bob: "Oh nooooo, is that fog I see down on the ice? Yes, it is. You wouldn't….you couldn't…"
Voice: "O yes I can…and I did. I stirred up a little fog this morning, just to keep the planes from taking off. Did you forget that you need good weather at BOTH ends?"
Bob: "Well it will burn off later this morning, so we can still complete the mission."
Voice: "Wrong again. All I need to do is delay the plane long enough that the crew's return time exceeds their allowed duty day."
And that's pretty much what happened (except I haven't really begun to hear voices just yet). The fog lifted 30 minutes AFTER the crew had to be taken off the mission. They had time enough to fly a fuel-run to South Pole, so the plane was used productively, but we made no progress on PIG.
Yet there is good news to report, so allow me to share it. The same Twin Otter that cancelled their reconnaissance of the ice shelf last Friday, was able to take advantage of the good weather blanketing West Antarctica and completed their mission. Sridhar Anandakrishnan, the geophysicist on our team, who has been at WAIS since we arrived in McMurdo, was picked up by the Otter and went along. It took all day to hear the results, but after the morning's disappointment, this news was worth waiting for: Drill Camp is a beautiful spot. It appears totally uncrevassed and quite smooth. It looked so good that the Otter crew even landed and walked around. A picture Sridhar took is attached.
This is the second airplane to land on the ice shelf--ever. The weather was similar three years ago when I was landed on the ice shelf, but the surface was less inviting. There are some sastrugi under the thin layer of surface snow, but overall everything we want to do at this site can be done here. It's not hard bare ice, it's not deep soft snow, it's not rough and sastrugi-filled. Camp set up will be easy, equipment placement will be straightforward, and calm conditions like today would allow us to get an enormous amount of work done.
Even better, the Otter pilot indicated that if the largest bumps are eliminated, then they could probably transport 3000 pounds per load. That's tremendous news because the helos are limited to about 1000 pounds per load. We now know the huge benefits of having a Twin Otter help us. However getting one is by no means certain. There are 4 Otters supporting US science here right now and they are very busy with other projects. I have to put on my negotiating hat again. Time is getting very short.
On the day I thought the mission would fail, it succeeded. I'm threatening to take on the role of "project pessimist"—hey, whatever works. The Guard has been nothing if not persistent. The forecast for PIG was not promising: a major storm moving onshore bringing not just higher winds, but significant snow. But they launched mission E001 yet again. At this end, we nervously checked the TV scroll for any news of cancellations and routinely refreshed the link to David Holland's PIG webcam (even though it isn't updated quickly enough with the hourly pictures to actually give us a real-time sense of bad weather moving in). Five hours can move very, very slowly.
Yet shortly after 2 pm there it was!! The air operations page read that at 1407 mission E001 arrived at PIG! "Arrived" in aircraft parlance means more than merely being in the vicinity, it meant they had actually touched down /landed/put skis on the snow. Sweeeeet! McMurdo being what it was, everyone knew almost as quickly as I could go to some key people in the enterprise to tell them and thank them.
There was joy, relief and satisfaction, but the celebration was subdued. Town also had received word that less than an hour before the successful landing, Christchurch had been hit with another severe earthquake with multiple afershocks. McMurdo residents and the US Antarctic Program have many very close ties to the people of Christchurch. A number of people here were in Christchurch at the end of last season when the first quakes hit. All of the major operations here (NSF, Air National Guard, Raytheon) have personnel in Christchurch, so while our success was playing out at PIG, these groups were trying to account for their employees in New Zealand. The juxtaposition of these two events provided a stark reminder not only of what matters most, but that science needs to be about people, too.
Add to this emotional bucket the facts that the winner of the new 10-year contract for supporting the US Antarctic Program was announced (leaving many questions about who would be rehired and who wouldn't), a 2-day holiday period was about to begin, and there were many departmental Christmas parties kicking off in the evening, and people around here had a lot to deal with. I regard the PIG landing as an early Christmas present. It didn't matter to me that it might get lost in everything else going on. It was significant progress.
Yet for today and the remainder of this brief holiday respite here, I'm taking a break from Pine Island. Others are in need. McMurdo is already discussing ways to help those in the Christchurch who are in need. I intend to be part of that effort.
Headbangers, Surgery and Pow-Wows
Weather wins. How easy it is to forget that. And weather can change fast, really fast. Antarctica just isn't in a cooperative frame of mind these days. Monday's weather was really good at PIG, but really, really bad at either Byrd or WAIS (the two possible refueling stops), so the mission was cancelled early. The longer range forecasts for Byrd and WAIS were also pretty stinky so I didn't hold out much hope for Tuesday either. So I was surprised when I got a call and was told that the Guard suggested trying to get to PIG again, but by using the camp at Siple Dome as a refueling station. Siple Dome is farther away from PIG and closer to McMurdo which meant less cargo could be carried. The contractor decided against it because they were told the repacked cargo couldn't be undone and this would put us behind in all the cargo that was queued up for PIG. But when I found out that if this flight was successful the Guard would remove the requirement for a separate refueling camp for all subsequent flights, I saw immediate and long-lasting advantages to making this flight attempt. I rushed over to the contractor's office and stressed how important this flight was. I guess they finally understood, because I was able to get my way. All this in the 4-5 pm hour—a stressful way to end the day.
Tuesday's weather was still great at PIG and continued skiway grooming was having a positive effect. The skiway was ready and, according to the groomers, as good as many other skiways on the continent. The traverse party was hoping their task was done. They thought they were going to run out of food in a week (and thus, had to high-tail it back to Byrd very soon), but they found a big stash of food in the wintered-over cargo line, so PIG Crisis #245 (I actually am not keeping count) was averted. Siple Dome's weather (now the new key piece of the necessary 3-way puzzle) remained good and was forecast to remain so for at least 12 hours—plenty of time to complete the mission. It was a good morning. Lunch, too. We were gonna finally get going.
Then I overheard a word you never want to hear in Antarctica: "boomerang". What mission boomeranged? Certainly not E001 (the mission to PIG). I left the dining hall to check on my precious flight. Mark Sakadolsky (on-site commander of the Guard) intercepted me as I carried my tray toward the disposal station. I couldn't read his expression. But he could read mine—it said "please reassure me that the boomeranged flight was not the "PIG flight"". It was. Noooooo! Why, what, how???? Siple Dome's weather had gone bad in the last hour, just before the plane reached the necessary turnaround point to be able to return safely to McMurdo without refueling (called the Point of Safe Return, or "PSR"). So they turned around and just like that, we were no closer to getting our project going. Mark was extremely understanding and sympathetic. He and I spent the next 30 minutes in his office going over all that the Guard could and had done or could not do to support the project. Their willingness to remove the refueling station (i.e., fly with a PSR) on all flights after the first one is a huge concession and one that will have an enormous benefit—once that first flight gets in. But the forecasts suggest that once the weather improves at Byrd, WAIS and now Siple Dome, it will be bad at PIG. This is the dreaded see-saw I have always feared would cause problems with air operations to PIG.
In light of rapidly disappearing days to get our scientific work completed, I called a meeting where the entire science team revisited our entire program and decided the priority of each piece. This involved some pretty radical surgery to science—always a painful process for scientists. It was agreed that there was no hope of drilling in a second location, but that drilling in the first location was critical and without starting the ocean measurements, the season could not be deemed a success. We submitted our proposal for this work 5 years ago. The work will provide a central piece of information necessary to project Antarctica's contribution to future sea level. Sea level continues to rise at an increasing rate, affecting tens of millions of people right now, and will affect hundreds of millions of people in the years to come. We strongly feel the urgency of starting these measurements. We can't leave Antarctica without that. There also is the issue of resolving the pathway by which the warm water moves across the ocean cavity and reaches the deep ice of Pine Island Glacier as it first comes afloat. Without this knowledge, we will not know where to put our profilers next year, so we agreed that this second activity of finding the warm-water pathway was also critical to scientific success this season. Everything else, although important, was set at lower priorities—most could be addressed next season, if we couldn't manage them this year.
With our scientific house in order, we were well prepared for the meeting that happened yesterday among all the "PIG Stakeholders". I won't bore you with all the details. Surprisingly, despite my having had many discussions with everyone there, it was the first time we all were sitting around the same table. Although I had distributed our revised science priorities list the morning of this afternoon meeting, most people weren't quite ready to see how this new prioritization altered their particular piece of support (camp, Hercs, helos, Otters, cargo, etc…). There were some misunderstandings that could be cleared up, but some incorrect or old information and interpretations surfaced that indicated some groups were still holding onto requirements and schedules based on the original science plan, rather than our new one. Lots of problems, deadlines, concerns were expressed—not many solutions. Last night I kept going over it all in my head (rather than sleeping). This morning I met with my co-Is to go over it all. I feel that it is up to us to push folks to workable solutions. Sigh, it has always been ever so. As such, I have a lot more conversations I have to have with people today. Another meeting is tomorrow. We hope by then that we have some answers from the Twin Otter folks based on their reconnaissance and the Guard can tell us about a successful Herc landing at PIG.
And what of the weather? Pretty good at WAIS, improving at both Byrd and Siple Dome and rotten at PIG. Snow is plastered against the webcam lens. It would probably have been a nice Christmas on the ice shelf, but it looks like we're not going anywhere real soon.
Let me shift gears and close with some Christmas cheer. The Kitchen holds an annual "Gingerbread Construction Contest". The entries are put together by anyone (or usually teams) who have an idea of something to build with sheets of gingerbread and any other food items available in the kitchen. The kitchen is well stocked and it's remarkable to see all the creative designs which are displayed in the area of the dining hall where we get our food. The attached picture is my choice of the winner—a rendering of Scott's Discovery Hut, which is a historically preserved site within sight of McMurdo. A second web photo shows the actual hut with McMurdo Station in the background.
Getting a Wish
Well, it is the holiday season and we are being forced to recognize it by accepting fewer Hercs and fewer crews to fly them for these two weeks (not to mention extending the no-fly Sundays to no-fly weekends both weeks). So maybe we should expect to have at least one wish granted that might bring us some holiday joy. Our granted wish comes in the form of a Twin Otter flight to assess whether that airplane can land at or near our desired drilling camp location on the ice shelf. This could be a real "game changer" because it not only would allow us to get onto the ice shelf earlier than having to wait for all the helo support infrastructure to be set up at the PIG Main Camp. But it would also free up some helicopter time, allowing us to limit the helo work to those tasks that can only be done with the helo, helping us recover some lost time. There are no guarantees, however. The difference it would make has motivated the program coordinators to arrange for an Otter flight early this week to find out. Weather today (Monday) was poor at Byrd (where the Twin Otter is) so we wait until tomorrow.
Meanwhile there was great anticipation this weekend for another attempt at the Herc put-in to PIG Main Camp on Monday, but the report from the group at PIG grooming the runway was not optimistic. Again, their words vividly describe what the Herc pilots would have faced:
"The large 3' sastrugi has been knocked down, but there are still large rollers…the drop off cliffs have been smoothed over, but there are still many humps approximately 30 meters wide."
"Most camps have a flat skiway with sastrugi on the surface. PIG is not level underneath, but has long rollers, waves, and ripples, with the sastrugi on top of that, so it is taking awhile to groom."
"The Heavy Equipment Operator feels that three quarters of the skiway has inconvenient rollers. One quarter has more dangerous features since the plane will hit them at an angle, and there is a small, potential risk for a wing to hit."
Would you want to fly your $60-plus million airplane there before more work was done on the skiway? I wouldn't. So I was neither surprised nor indignant when Tim McGovern, the top NSF person in McMurdo right now, told me that he and Mark Sakadolsky, the commander of the Air National Guard operations here, had decided to wait one more day before trying to land a Herc at PIG. It's the prudent approach.
In hopeful anticipation of a positive report back from the Twin Otter pilots, I called a science team meeting today to discuss science priorities. There could be a massive shift in the ordering of flights to PIG in the offing. We could have ourselves and much of our science cargo moved ahead of a lot of the Main Camp material and the accoutrements required for the helicopters. Eventually we will still need the helicopters out there to accomplish some parts of our science program, but the possibility of getting going sooner is palpable. Your "picture for the day" shows us discussing our plans.
The Thick Brick Wall
It was just weird. The Herc mission to land the put-in team at PIG had become a daily mainstay of the schedule I saw on the TV monitor as I walked into breakfast every day for the past week. Sometimes the cancellation came before breakfast was finished, sometimes I was able to carry my hope with me as I left the cafeteria. If the forecast suggested currently poor, but gradually improving conditions, they would hold the mission back until the weather picture became more certain. To date, certainty usually shifted toward deteriorating conditions at either PIG or Byrd (the required refueling camp) leading to yet another cancelled mission.
Tuesday the mission actually launched, the PIG webcams (http://pigiceshelf.nasa.gov and click on the "available web cams" link) showed gorgeous weather there and many in town held their collective breath. It was the topic at lunch—the flight was two hours out, three more to get to PIG and still heading the right direction. Unfortunately, a short time later word came back that the forecast for Byrd was getting worse. The refuel camp was changed to the WAIS camp, roughly 100 miles away, where the forecast was better. But soon thereafter, the WAIS forecast worsened and the mission was ordered back home. The poor folks on the plane ended up flying for five hours and got off the plane at exactly the same spot where they boarded—McMurdo—still no closer to PIG.
Wednesday's mission tore at the heart even more. It was a good weather trifecta—sunny at McMurdo, PIG and Byrd. Mission off-deck at 0931, ETA at PIG by 1400 (2 PM). Forecasts remained good at all sites and we constantly updated our webcam links hoping to witness a successful landing. It never happened. Limited information came to me, but the most important info was clear—they had not landed and were returning to MacTown with everything and everyone still on board. I couldn't believe my ears. Having learned from past field experiences to set aside my emotional reactions right away, I discussed the possible explanations with the head of the Herc squadron. Maybe they had the wrong coordinates? Coordinates can get confused because some use degrees, minutes and seconds, some use degrees and decimal degrees, while even others favor degrees, minutes and decimal minutes. You'd be surprised at how often this happens and how much this can matter. I checked with a mapping support person who could download spectacular two-foot resolution images of the area taken both as the camp was left last February and how it looked this September (see the pictures below). Knowing I had the right coordinates, I rushed back to Herc operations to see if I could redirect the plane if they had gone to the wrong spot. Radio communications with the plane weren't great, but good enough to hear that they saw features that told them they were, in fact, at the proper spot. Details would have to wait for their return.
They came back very late, with the delays of having to refuel at Byrd and then debrief and take the long ride back to town from the ice runway (now nearly an hour-long, bone-jarring ride). Still no word by dinner, I sat with the Herc commander, Mark Sakadolsky, just to be sure to get as close as I could to any information. He's a friend from past seasons here together and an easy guy to talk to. Everyone in town knew the plane had reached PIG, found the weather excellent, yet turned around without landing. There were lots of ideas why; McMurdo is well known to be a fertile rumor mill. I didn't get the official word from Mark (and Charles Kirkland, who will be the PIG Main Camp manager) until the next morning. There were large sastrugi (snow dunes) crossing the old skiway. The pilots couldn't see many skiway markers; most were buried under the 1.5 meters (5 ½ feet) of snow that has accumulated since last season, but they could orient themselves well enough relative to the drifted cargo berm and fuel bladders to know where the skiway had been. Landing that direction made little sense because they would have chattered their way across numerous sastrugi, possibly damaging the plane. (I've been there, done that, and don't want to do it anymore, so this was a wise decision). Their next option was to land parallel to the sastrugi and although they received permission to do this, as they lined up on their final approach and had their skiis nearly touching the tops of the sastrugi, they decided the sastrugi were just too big to land safely. So they got close, really close, literally a few feet from landing. I'm not sure if I want to call that progress or not.
For those of you following this saga, you know that this story is being written with many subplots. So you may ask "and what of the traverse?" Good question! The traverse has been lumbering onward and may arrive tonight! Their imminent arrival figured strongly into the Guard's decision to forego any further PIG missions until the traverse party has a chance to unhitch their heavy machinery and use the skiway groomer (left in the PIG cargo line) to level those dangerous sastrugi and prepare a smoother landing strip before the next Herc arrives. The additional benefit of having the traverse there is that the "fuelie" (definition: a person who handles fuel lines, fuel drums and fuel bladders, responsible for fueling vehicles and planes) can tap into the 27,000 gallons of fuel there to refuel visiting Hercs directly, removing the need for that troublesome third camp refueling stop for PIG flights. Thus, we are on the verge of a much-improved situation for getting cargo and people to PIG. If this is an early Christmas present, I'll take it—even without the bows and wrapping paper.
So Thursday was a strange day. No PIG mission on the schedule. The only project contribution I could make was to transmit positive vibes to the traverse party. Nothing broke or slowed them down, so maybe it worked. I also kept talking to some of the key people here. I suggested to Mark that for every day we don't have a mission, I want him to think of us banking one for a later date. I tried (unsuccessfully) to convince the Guard and the National Science Foundation (the institutions that manage U.S. Antarctic operations and logistics) to increase either the number of planes or crews that would operate during the two-week holiday slowdown. Numbers are reduced from six planes and six crews to three planes and four crews and an extra no-fly Saturday for Christmas and another for New Year's is added to the cast-in-stone no-fly Sunday. These are massive reductions in capacity. I have complained for 30 years about this (along with many other deep field scientists), to no avail. Call me Mr. Scrooge or The Grinch if you like, but this is Antarctica. We have a limited amount of time to work in the "deep field" so we can answer questions being put to me in Congress and by governments around the world. Check your holiday spirit when you pass south of 60 degrees south latitude! Our holiday comes when we go home. Deep field camps don't have holidays unless bad weather affords them the luxury. (Grrrrr!)
The other unusual thing about Thursday was the visit of the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg. As I've written before, I had already met with his advance committee. The Prime Minister shot through McMurdo very fast so he could ski the last 10 km to the pole with a group of 4 Norwegians (who had skied the entire Amundsen route) and arrive at the South Pole exactly 100 years after Amundsen. He had two hours to see McMurdo on his way back north and I was asked to prepare a short presentation on the PIG project. His schedule was delayed by South Pole weather so he never made it to the science lab and never saw the poster (but you can—it is posted on our project web site at http://pigiceshelf.nasa.gov). Better than the short presentation I couldn't give was the fact that I was invited to join the PM at a dinner being hosted at Scott Base by the New Zealanders. To make sure that I had the chance to discuss my project with Jens, I was seated directly across the table from him and next to his Executive Secretary. I took advantage of the arranged seating and had a very engaging conversation with him. Norway is very proactive in responding to climate change. I was as impressed with the variety of steps he described Norway is taking as he was with the science of climate change and the importance of our particular piece we are trying to accomplish on the PIG ice shelf this season. Jens and Ron (the Scott Base manager) gave speeches (very good speeches, actually). Ron surprised Jens by offering him an après-dessert helo ride to both Cape Evans and Cape Royds where huts remain from Scott's and Shackleton's polar runs. I have no idea when they returned; I took an earlier ride back to MacTown to sleep, arriving at midnight. Prime Ministers don't sleep much.
An extra surprise for me that evening was to see Jan Gunnar Winter with the Norwegian delegation. Jan Gunnar is a colleague and a friend I have known for many years, and he's presently the director of the Norsk PolarInstitut. I didn't know that he was one of the 4 skiers repeating Amundsen's historic journey. His face was weather-beaten and he had some gripping stories to tell of their expedition. All of Norway seemed to be following them via daily broadcasts by the skiers—Amundsen had dogs to help him, these 4 had the extra burden of reporting to their countrymen every night and a deadline to keep. Jan Gunnar has become a national celebrity, but he was most looking forward to a week-long vacation in Thailand with his wife. No one has ever deserved this reward more. I'll take the easy route and fly to PIG.
(Warning: this entry is not for the weak of heart.) Woe is me. A logistics scourge seems to have befallen our project. The past two days have been filled with nothing but bad news. The traverse from Byrd to PIG not only has continued to encounter soft snow, but the transmission on one tractor has failed, and a hydraulic line on another one has a leak that has stopped it literally in its tracks. Much of the cargo being hauled by the tractors is loaded on sheets of very slippery, but strong, plastic. Well, maybe not so strong, after all: This is the second season these sheets have been used and they are starting to crack and break, forcing the traverse party to stop, jigger the load around and then start up again. All this leaves me with the mental image of bits of the traverse littering the trail from Byrd to PIG. Still, the traverse people press onward, with fewer vehicles and less cargo. Their estimate is to arrive at PIG on Friday, but unless they cover more than the 20 miles they've completed each of the past two days, it will take yet longer.
The flying side is not going much better. Bad weather continues to plague both of the possible refueling stops so the put-in flight has been cancelled every morning. The weather is forecast to improve at those sites, both of them in the interior of West Antarctica, but (you guessed it) weather at PIG is deteriorating now. We in the field party marooned in McMurdo test our mental mettle by checking a couple of web sites that allow us to view the weather forecasts for the key stations involved in this effort, as well as David Holland's web cam, which remains our lone virtual presence at PIG. It hurts to see sunny skies there and not be able to fly a plane there.
If this was a football game, the cargo managers would receive a penalty for "piling on". Yesterday we had a meeting where we heard that our cargo was not the 9,000 pounds that we had planned, but rather 15,000 pounds, necessitating an additional flight to PIG (#9, if you are keeping count). We were only slightly surprised, because I saw this coming. In fact, I was the one who asked for the meeting so we could address any problem early. As I explained in my previous post, we've had to add a number of items to our cargo line due to less being taken by the traverse. Also, our colleague Sridhar Anandakrishnan was sent to his early season work site without the skidoos he was supposed to use there, so we have to bring them to PIG via another route. I felt it was time to push back on the size and design of the PIG Main Camp. I said we would lower the priority of some limited parts of our project, so they could arrive on this later flight, but I couldn't shed all of the 6,000-pound extra cargo. I insisted on some sacrifices from the Main Camp. The head of construction there offered to consider downsizing some of the plumbing (!) and electrical components of the camp. Most others didn't offer much. If the Herc pilots like the runway when they get to PIG, they might increase the allowed cargo limit (ACL) of subsequent flights, so this problem might go away, but this strikes me as wishful thinking. Nevertheless, I'll be meeting with the head of the LC-130 squadron to discuss the benefits of even a 500-pound increase of the ACL. Exploring every possible way of getting us to PIG sooner is what my job here has become.
In that vein, I've come up with yet another strategy to recover some lost time. It involves having a Twin Otter airplane attempt a landing at our intended drill camp location on the ice shelf. This is a bit of déjà vu because three years ago I landed on the ice shelf in a Twin Otter only to be told the surface was too hard and rough for repeated landings. Some super high-resolution satellite imagery suggests to us the result might be different at this new site, so I want to try it again. I've had to write to my program manager back in DC to ask that he supports this request. I made the case that, if successful, we could get the drill camp up and running before helos arrive and are operational at PIG Main Camp. We still have work to do that only the helicopters can support, but we are feeling the increased time pressure of time and splitting the support load would definitely help. It could also eliminate the need for any helicopters next season if we can complete the helo-only work this year and the drilling can be supported by Twin Otters. I delivered my sales pitch to the Twin Otter pilots after lunch today, and I'll hear from NSF back in DC tomorrow.
On the bright side, I have plenty to restore a balanced perspective. Today is the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen's arrival at the South Pole. As everyone surely knows, Robert Falcon Scott and his field party reached the same spot a month later, but perished on the return journey. I am not about to set out to ski/man haul our cargo to PIG, nor I expect to suffer the extraordinary hardships of either Scott or Amundsen. Antarctic science nowadays is usually hard, often frustrating, but it is rarely life threatening. I'll take that as some much needed good news.
Well, nearly a week has whizzed by. We have been quite busy, but it doesn't feel like there's been much real progress. Every day seems to come with its own set of new problems and developments. This includes cargo hunting (yes, it was still going on until recently—but it's DONE now), remembering some item or tool that would probably prove useful (then finding it and getting it) or thinking of some small thing to build and then getting the carpenters or machinists to understand what we want, (then waiting for the item, packing it and getting it into the cargo system.)
Tying up these loose ends didn't add much weight to our overall cargo load, but we knew we were going to be heavier than we had planned for because there were some heavy items that failed to make it on flights to Byrd Station, where the over snow traverse was going to be taking them to the main camp at Pine Island. These problems originated way back in early September: Early season weather in West Antarctica was worse than usual, which meant fewer flights to Byrd and less of our cargo getting there when the traverse needed to start. Without sufficient cargo, the traverse managers held their departure back a few days. When they tried to start, one of the large tractors failed, leaving them with only three. This actually worked out better, since there was less cargo to pull. Now we hear that the traverse is encountering soft snow, slowing its progress even more. The image here is a map of the traverse's progress through last night. It's averaging less than 4.5 miles per hour and under 60 miles per day: At this rate, it will be another 5 days before it arrives at PIG.
It's a polar tortoise and hare race. The traverse is undoubtedly the tortoise, but the hare is having its own difficulties. Flights to PIG take "only" 5 hours (one-way) and were scheduled every day since Wednesday last week (except Sunday). Each one of them was cancelled because of bad weather at one or more of the required landing spots: McMurdo, Byrd or PIG. Good weather at Byrd is necessary to refuel the plane on its way home. Today's weather looked the best of all days and, unlike last week's flights, the plane actually took off from McMurdo. But two hours into the 5-hour flight, the weather went bad at Byrd. WAIS is another nearby station that could refuel the aircraft, but weather also went bad in there not long after. So the plane was ordered back to McMurdo before it was so far away and had so little fuel that it would get stuck somewhere out in the middle of West Antarctica.
It's anybody's guess who will get to PIG first: the traverse or the put-in flight. The traverse is more important, because it has the heavy equipment to dig out all the camp material left there at the end of last season (a small camp was set up then), groom the runway used last season (if the flags marking it can be found, that is) and tap into the all-important fuel bladder. Getting to that fuel is key because with it the LC-130 cargo planes (called "Hercules" or "Hercs", for short) can get enough fuel to get back to McMurdo without having to stop at Byrd or WAIS. This will make missions to PIG less susceptible to weather cancellations.
Our cargo handling is done. But, as I mentioned, since now we have to fly some items that didn't get to Byrd by the traverse's departure, our stuff weighs more than planned. Whether that requires another flight will not be decided until we hear if the groomed runway at PIG can handle heavier landing weights. It's all connected: cargo, tractors, fuel, airplanes and weather. Meanwhile, we will make our case for moving our necessary science cargo up in the queue, so we don't suffer more delays.
It's not all bad news. These past few days have contained some bright spots. Our project has received a lot of attention. A Blue Ribbon Panel, here last week to assess the effectiveness of the US Antarctic Program, really likes the social relevance of our mission and its interdisciplinary character. I gave a science lecture on PIG to a packed audience and got superb reviews. Many people here have touched the project in one way or another and I wanted them to understand what it was about and why we have to go to someplace that is so hard to get to. I also was singled out to prepare a poster and speak to the Prime Minister of Norway, who is flying to the South Pole to mark the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen's trip.
Attention is great; more progress would be even better!
Packing for Christmas
Stuff, stuff and more stuff. When you have to take everything with you to a remote place, you end up with a lot of stuff. When you add to that the equipment necessary to make the measurements we intend, the pile of stuff gets even bigger. That's what we've been doing that past few days: piling up stuff.
I mentioned before that many items we sent down to Antarctica were found in various locations around town. Finding each item was followed by getting the right label for it (with a unique tracking number), so once the label was attached, it could be moved to a common location. That is where our pile of stuff is now. After talking to the right cargo people here, looking at their documents and comparing their lists with ours, we are pretty sure that the stuff we can't find in McMurdo took an early 1000-mile flight to Byrd Station, where a glorified polar tractor will drag it on a sled for the remaining 400 miles from Byrd Station to the PIG Main Camp. This is not an exciting trip; the traverse participants lumber along at about 5 miles an hour and it takes them 7 mind-numbing days to complete the trip. They then will leave their loads, turn around and repeat the journey back to Byrd. What is exciting about this traverse for us is that with yesterday's successful flight to Byrd, the traverse party has enough material to get underway. So the project is finally taking the next step toward PIG—at 5 miles per hour!
Meanwhile, back in McMurdo, our task is to pull together the variety of other stuff we will need at our camp. Our cook, Jake, is handling all the cooking and eating stuff. We are checking tents, sleeping bags, radios, satellite phones, GPS's, shovels, ice screws, safety harnesses, ice axes, snowmobiles, generators, battery chargers, chainsaws,... The list is pretty long and detailed. McMurdo is well stocked with these types of items because many different field parties draw on this inventory. Those hearty souls that spend the entire winter at McMurdo do an excellent job of cleaning and repairing and preparing this equipment for summer field parties. We take our portion, pack it, weigh it, document it, label it and add it to our pile of stuff.
The next, and bigger step toward PIG may come tomorrow. The put-in flight is scheduled for a morning departure. It takes over 5 hours to fly there on a LC-130 (the "L" means it is a modified C-130 cargo plane—the modification is the inclusion of skis that straddle the regular wheels). The forecast is not good—40-knot winds now, increasing through the night. However, after that storm passes, the winds are expected to die down and we could have a day (or two? Please make it two!) of clear, calm weather there. Only five people are going to be getting off the plane if it makes it in. They will set up communications, erect a small communal tent and start the process of digging out the camp material left there at the end of last field season. It's their stuff.
P.S. You can view the PIG Main Camp site through daily photos taken by two web cams we set up last year. The link is http://pigiceshelf.nasa.gov (click on “cameras” on the left sidebar, then click on “available web cams” on the Cameras page).
The Alternate Reality
McMurdo is one of those unique places on the planet where things are so different from anywhere else that it feels like an alternate reality. Perhaps the spookiest part of this uniqueness is that, regardless of how long I have been away (in this case, two years), once the transport from the ice runway rolls into town I get this creepy feeling that I never really left. I'm sure I'm not the only one that feels this way because one of the dorms is nicknamed Hotel California (as the 1977 Eagles' song goes: "you can check out, but you can never leave").
McMurdo (or "MacTown" to locals) is best described as a frontier town. It's built for purpose, not beauty. Heating pipes and power lines take the shortest routes. People are left to find their own shortcuts between buildings. It has been cleaned up a lot since the days when the Navy ran the town, but there's only so much you can do when the ground is all volcanic cinders and the snow is nearly gone. Add warmer temperatures (it's been just above freezing for the past few days) and there are little creeks running everywhere. It's just not very pretty, but it's not meant to be.
MacTown is where we organize our cargo. Some was shipped from the States and arrived days to weeks ago. Other items, like most of our camping gear (sleeping bags and tents), we are issued here and have to pack ourselves. This year it's slightly different for me because PIG is a big project. Most people in town have heard about it and many are working on some aspect of it. I'm giving a town-wide lecture later next week.
PIG is on the Antarctic coast, 1400 miles from McMurdo and notorious for heavy overcast, high winds and above average snowfall. For those of you geographically inclined, 75o South latitude and 100o West longitude brings you very close to the precise spot of our planned drilling camp. The bad weather led the logistics planners to deliver most of the equipment for the support camp being built near the ice shelf via an overland traverse. Finding the route and proving its safety were tasks accomplished in previous seasons. It's being used this season to deliver additional supplies and helicopter fuel. The traverse was also supposed to deliver the parts of our equipment that could survive the bashing and crashing inherent to ice sheet traverses.
The first problem we encountered once we got our bearings in McMurdo was that much of our equipment we shipped down intended for the traverse was still here scattered throughout the town. The second problem was that the traverse had not departed yet—but it was leaving from Byrd station, quite a long way from McMurdo, so no new equipment could be added to the load. The third problem was that some of our equipment was unaccounted for (i.e., neither in McMurdo nor at Byrd). And the fourth problem was that the initial crew that was supposed to be flying to the helo camp location was still cooling their heels in MacTown. Welcome to McMurdo!
So for us, the primary task the last couple of days has been making sense of this apparent chaos. It has taken a lot of effort to unravel the whereabouts of each piece of gear, but we are pretty close to being there. Of course, what comes from this is a much-revised plan and timetable for getting everything and everybody necessary out to PIG. It'll work if the weather cooperates. We are already a week behind schedule.
Moving On South
I write this on the flight from Christchurch, New Zealand to The Ice. We are on an Air Force C-17, a monstrously large aircraft for transporting monstrously large amounts of cargo. In the old days, scientists and contractors travelling to the ice were treated much the same as cargo, but I'm pleased to have benefitted in recent expeditions from the Air Force's revelation that we are not quite the same. We used to be packed cheek to jowl in two rows of facing web seats, which forced us to literally rub elbows with our two neighbors and interleave knees with the people we faced across a nonexistent aisle. Most uncomfortable! Today I can stretch out my legs fully and not quite touch the pallet of cargo occupying the center of the aircraft. And there is more elbowroom between my neighbors than in economy class seats on most commercial airlines. The seats still can't be described as anything approaching soft, but for those of us who know the past, there are no complaints.
We were processed early this morning in a manner very familiar to most modern air travelers—with a few twists. By 6:30 A.M. we arrived at the processing center, where we tried on and exchanged our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear yesterday. We changed out of street clothes into the required ECW outfit (thermal underwear, bibbed overalls fleece jacket, red parka and polar boots). Regular luggage carts are used to push our many bags of remaining ECW and personal items 30 yards to the adjacent room where everything is weighed (even us) and our checked bags are turned over to the cargo handlers. Our passports are examined; we're given a boarding pass and told to wait in the lounge with just our hand-carry bag. And yes, there is a box into which our hand-carry must fit. Some venture out to get a breakfast at the Antarctic International Centre just across the green. We are asked to watch a 20-minute video introducing us to what we will encounter when arriving in McMurdo Station. It's not an Oscar-winning production, but I suppose it helps the newcomers.
From there we line up and have our hand-carry bags scanned, laptops and other metal items removed for closer inspection while we do the all-too-familiar metal detector shuffle. Outside, a bus awaits and everyone must lumber onto it, pushing their way down the too-narrow center aisle and flopping down onto a bench seat. It is not easy: your bag is heavy, your boots are multiple sizes too big for dexterous ambulation, and you are trying to tame your massive parka under your arm, but all it wants to do is snag everything you pass! Apologies abound. Oh, and have I mentioned that the sun is now up and the temperature is climbing? It is getting warm inside the bus. Inside your clothes, it's even warmer.
You have made a move so it is now time to wait—again. Waiting always seems to be required. Trying to get comfortable is not easy, moving is not easy, removing clothing is impossible. Stay still. The bus moves—hooray! The driver negotiates a couple of security gates and rolls onto the tarmac, stopping reasonably close to your next objective—the airplane stairs. But to reach this goal, you must first reverse the process suffered to get on the bus. I wish for a gently sloped jetway bridge, but know this is an unrequited dream—instead, I get an alpine traveling with lots of ups and down. Safely descending the bus stairs is harder than going up. This group is good; no one falls. But before you reach the airplane stairs, you have to figure out how to pick up the offerings of a water bottle and a bagged lunch. A third (or even fourth) hand would be welcome, but you manage and in this heavily overloaded state you must high-step your way onto the plane. Once inside, you are met with a stark reminder that this is how most cargo, as well as you, gets to Antarctica, and this is shared accommodation. There is enough room to stow your parka—now it comes in handy because it makes a hard seat acceptably softer—and you settle in while others find their own solution of where to sit and put their bags. The next safety briefing is nearly word-for-word identical to the one on commercial airliners, with additional instructions on the use of an over-the-head oxygen hood in case of emergencies.
Once airborne and at cruising altitude, people start milling about, careful to stay off the cargo, as well as read, sleep and converse (although the engines are rather loud and everyone is wearing earplugs). The only windows are very small portholes positioned more to inspect the engines and wings than to offer scenic views. Lots of laptops are out. Some people hit their lunch early. Others wait until hunger arrives.
The flight will take just over 5 hours. Our world is about to change.
I realized as the moment approached to get in the car and head for the airport that I have been mentally drifting south over the past couple of days. Going over the list of what to pack, then packing, and then mentally running through what I packed, caused me to try to envision every situation I might encounter (at Pine Island, McMurdo Station and even in New Zealand) and what I wanted to be sure to have. "Where's my ear sweater?" "I need to find my down booties." Those were the kind of thoughts going through my head. Personal comfort is a big deal in Antarctica—although you can't take everything with you, when the weather gets nasty you want to have the right stuff.
These same scenes are being played out in other locations; every member of our team is experiencing something very similar as they pack their bags and run through their own list of possible upcoming situations in their minds. Successful Antarctic field work is very much about accurately anticipating what is likely to happen so you are prepared beforehand. When you forget a tool, help is usually very far away and can't be counted on. You learn to make do with what you have.
Everyone on the team understands this and is preparing accordingly. When our proposal was first submitted, I called them the Dream Team. Some reviewers were offended by the term, but it's a good way to express the fact that we have the best Antarctic geophysicist, the best engineer of polar oceanographic instrumentation, the best ocean-ice boundary layer oceanographer, the best developer of ice borehole instrumentation and the best lightweight hot water drillers on the planet. Our collective years of polar field experience are measured not in months or years, but decades. I'm extremely proud of the team we have and am confident that if we can't do this job, this job can't be done.
Tomorrow, most of us will meet again for the beginning of two months together. We have flown to Christchurch, New Zealand from places scattered across the US: Alaska, California, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Maryland. We come here to receive our cold-weather clothing the National Science Foundation provides us. We try it on for size, change whatever doesn't fit, return what we don't want and request special items of personal preference. Each kit will be different in hidden details of shirts, vests, and even underwear, but in the end we all will probably have the same black ski pants/red parka exterior that scientists in the US Antarctic program take on. Good clothing is important—it's what keeps you warm. You pay attention to what you are given and what you take with you to "The Ice".
After years of waiting, our time has finally come. The years have not been empty. There have been hundreds of e-mails, scores of telephone conferences and a handful of face-to-face meetings to iron out the mountain of details required to support more than a dozen scientists' intent of unlocking critical mysteries within the light-less, frigid void beneath a thick floating plate of ice in one of the most remote regions on earth: the Pine Island Glacier.
What causes my team of scientific experts and me to focus on this seemingly innocuous location is a silent change that is unfolding and already affecting millions of people in their everyday existence, quietly threatening billions more. Ice sheets, those vast continental-sized slabs of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, are shrinking. The ice they are shedding is raising sea level across the globe. This is bad news. The good news is that the rise is gradual. My job is to understand the processes that cause ice sheets to shrink so that credible projections can be shared with policy makers and planners. If we get this right, societies will have the chance to adjust to rising sea level in a deliberate manner and minimize the human and economic impacts.
We are heading to a particularly remote corner of the planet, expecting to be greeted with bone-chilling temperatures, violent winds and dangerous crevasses (deep cracks in the ice) because this is where satellite data tells us that the Antarctic ice sheet is losing ice most rapidly. The Pine Island Glacier (called PIG, for short, from here on,) has nearly doubled it speed in the past 15 years and is thinning at rates of nearly 10 meters (30 feet) per year. It alone is responsible for 7 percent of the total global rate of sea level rise. The pattern of change satellites have captured shows that the changes are greatest at the coast and decrease inland. That means the trigger for these changes is located at the coast where the ice meets the ocean. PIG is 1200 meters (4000 feet) deep at the coast where it plows into the ocean forming a thick floating ice shelf. As the glacier forces its way into the frigid waters, the ocean resists its icy intrusion. The ice shelf can be thought of as a plug that limits the rate at which the PIG can drain the ice sheet. The little Dutch boy's thumb inserted into the dike to hold back the sea is a particularly apt metaphor, in this case.
The problem is that the ocean is melting the underside of this PIG ice shelf, making it thinner and allowing the PIG to flow faster. This is what we've come to study. This is where the key to ice sheet stability and future sea level will be revealed. Damn the wind, damn the cold, damn the crevasses—we are on a mission and we will get our answers. This is the level of drive and determination that is required to do the work we have given ourselves.
In future blog posts, we'll write about who we are, what we plan to do and, inevitably, how our initial plan changes as we wrestle with Mother Nature. For now I hope this captures your interest and sets the stage. I have had the luxury this year (this will be my sixteenth Antarctic expedition I've led) of enjoying Thanksgiving with my family, but already my mind is turning southward and my packing occupies a large corner of my bedroom. Yesterday was my last day in the office and I couldn't leave with the others who were thinking most about tomorrow's Thanksgiving pleasures until I felt all the unfinished work I left behind could withstand a two-month hiatus. It felt strange to close the office door that final time, but once I imagined the house lights being turned down on all the other work, I could feel the glare of the stage lights being cranked up to their full brightness on this field expedition. It's showtime! The waiting and planning are over and this adventure is about to begin.