This web page's content and links are no longer actively maintained. It is available for reference purposes only. NASA Official: Robert A. Bindschadler

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December 31, 2007

by Dr. Robert A. Bindschadler

Plan C and then D

air drop palette

A palette being prepared for air-drop. Imagine the pile of boxes replaced with 4 drums of fuel, the webbed netting strapped down tightly and a small parachute pack attached to the top and you have what is being prepared for us.

I’m anything but ungrateful. The efforts to get a few of the last field projects into the field are admirable. A lot of good ideas have been tossed onto the table both here and at the deep field camp, called "WAIS-Divide", where we eventually must go before our final destination. But it does require vigilance and flexibility to be sure you are aware of and comfortable with the current logistics scheme.

As last week finished, we heard that the decision to scout out a possible deep-field landing site for the large LC-130 Hercules aircraft to cache our cargo near the ice shelf, had been scrapped. In its place was a new plan to use the "Herc" to air-drop fuel so that the smaller Twin Otter could refuel and thereby move us and our material in small bits the 300 nautical miles between WAIS-Divide and the PIG ice shelf. In the end, I don’t think this plan gets us up and running on the ice shelf any faster, but there was a slight advantage for the other field party working on the adjacent glacier (Thwaites Glacier at 75.5° S, 108.5° W, for those of you who want to know where that camp is). And since I’m giving coordinates, WAIS Divide is at 79.4° S, 111.2° W and eventually our PIG Shelf camp will be at 75.1° S, 100.1° W. You can go to Google Earth to plot these positions and see how far we still have to go. Google Earth now includes the new Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica I worked on to give everyone a better sense of what Antarctica really looks like. Have a look!

But back to planning.

There were concerns about the environmental risk of air-dropping approximately 50 fuel drums and whether there were enough parachutes and netting to complete the mission. Fuel drops are subdivided into palettes of 4 drums each, with about 16 inches of corrugated cardboard beneath, to absorb the shock of impact, a parachute, to slow descent, and secured with heavy webbed netting, to hold everything together. They still come down pretty fast and can land lots of different ways depending on the winds aloft and the surface they land on.

By this morning, after most of McMurdo took a two day holiday (the regular Sunday off and then New Year’s Eve), it looked as though an air-drop was possible, but not until later this week. That’s when Plan D was spawned. Now maybe I’m out of date in the time it has taken me to write this blog, but what I heard this morning was that a second Twin Otter was heading for WAIS-Divide today so that they could start deploying the two field camps even before the fuel drop. What this means is that they will have to either stage some fuel themselves or take some along. Either way, they will not be able to haul as much of our camp and science cargo as quickly, but will be able to start right away.

These are the horns of a dilemma that is certainly not uniquely Antarctic. With frustration increasing and the season racing to a late February conclusion, there is certainly pressure to make any progress, even at a more limited rate. This is the driving dynamic now and I feel it is better to go along with it than to argue that we return to a more efficient plan. Of course, bad weather can make either course of action look wrong, but these planning decisions are more the result of consensus than a single person imposing their will.

If weather doesn’t disrupt Plan D (leading to Plan E), then our group will pack our socks and undies tonight to leave McMurdo tomorrow, arriving at WAIS-Divide sometime tomorrow evening.


December 28, 2007

by Dr. Robert A. Bindschadler

Hanging in McMurdo

I have been less prolific with my blogging because, well, I haven’t been doing much the past two days. I can check the flight schedules only so many times before it gets to feel like it’ll never change because I’m looking at it. This situation reminds me of a primary requirement of Antarctic field work patience.

Usually what demands patience is the infamous Antarctic weather. The concept of wind chill is very familiar, but few may know that it has an Antarctic origin. Dr. Paul Siple began his illustrious Antarctic career in 1928 by being selected from 800,000 Boy Scouts to accompany Admiral Byrd to Antarctica. He was 19 at the time and an Eagle Scout with 60 merit badges. Years later he formalized the concept of wind chill and even the term itself with seminal measurements during an Antarctic season recording freezing times of water at various temperatures and wind speeds.

It’s an effect you quickly adjust to down here. If you want to know how many layers of clothes to put on before leaving your tent, listen to the wind and don’t worry so much about the temperature. And when you are outside, keep your back to the wind. Turning into it invites the chill to plunge deeply into your parka, up your sleeves and down your neck robbing you of hard won warmth.

Snow Dunes

Sastrugi, or snow dunes, like these have endless variety of shapes. They are sculpted by the action of individual snow grains blown across the surface. Sizes can range from a few inches to a foot or more in height. In strong winds, they can be seen eroding in place and reforming downwind. (photo from National Snow and Ice Data Center)
High- Resolution Image 580x380 pixels, 36KB

On a grander scale, wind moves a lot of snow around here. I’m quite sure that most snow that accumulates in a spot doesn’t actually fall there, but is transported from far away. I’ve frequently had discussions with colleagues about how far blown snow may travel. I know of no scientific studies of it, but after experiencing my first Antarctic blizzard, I believe it can travel many miles. What ultimately stops some of the snow from moving is being jammed into the icy surface of a snow dune, called "sastrugi" (after the Russian for "snow dunes").

Another thing that blowing snow can stop is field work. While "drifting snow", snow moving along the snow surface, has little impact on working outside (unless you are trying to dig a snow pit), "blowing snow", snow moving in the air above the surface, can keep you in your tent for days. I’ve worked outside in it when I’ve had to, but it’s not fun. Like the wind that carries it, the snow finds its way into your clothes through even the smallest openings, where it melts and threatens to get you wet and COLD. Driven against your skin, it can feel as sharp as sand in a sand storm.

The best remedy for these conditions is patience. I’ve developed a fair degree of it over my many years working in Antarctica. Those who don’t have patience would have a very difficult time working here. So I, and others down here on other projects, know how to wait. This year seems to be my turn to exercise this trait. And the longer I have to wait the more I notice everybody else (well, maybe not EVERYbody) completing their projects and going home. I’m sure I’ve done all I can to position our project to get into the field as soon as possible. The weather will clear, the reconnaissance of our cargo cache site will take place, and the cargo will be flown there. Eventually, even I will fly out of here, deeper into Antarctica, where the mysteries of sudden and dramatic ice sheet movements wait to be solved. Watch out PIG, I’m still coming!!

Until then, I wait.


December 25, 2007

by Dr. Robert A. Bindschadler

Santa Gets Around

gingerbread house

A view of one of the best gingerbread houses on display.


christmas tent

A McMurdo Christmas tree made from a Scott tent with painted and decorated rock boxes in front, all set on top of a shipping container.


choir

The "McMurdo Philharmonic" preparing to serenade field stations across the continent.


santas

A renegade band of Santas and elves found wandering through the station spreading holiday cheer.

A polar "Ho Ho Ho" to you all. Today was a day of rest for the town. Little doubt of that when I got up at a leisurely 9 am to find the station as quiet as I’ve every experienced it. Sunday night was the Christmas party in the "Heavy Shop", where the largest vehicles are worked on. It has the largest open area and most of the town turned out: many in rather bizarre costumes like Harry, the station doctor, wearing a large peppermint striped bow-tie and a Santa hat with Mickey Mouse ears. The creativity of the populace here knows no bounds: a Santa on a skidoo; a 10-foot tall tissue-paper abominable snowman; and reindeer antlers made from exhaust manifolds were but a few examples on display.

It was unusual that Sunday was a working day, but it exchanged places with Monday, so both Sunday could combine with Christmas to make a two-day holiday. The spin up to Christmas has been gradual and none too subtle. Fancy gingerbread houses were on display in the galley and a plethora of Santa-hat adorned McMurdo citizens were scattered throughout the town. Decorations appeared on many doors and within many offices.

Yet I found the actual Christmas celebration rather quiet and personal. "Merry Christmas" was definitely the greeting most often given today, but I think many, including me, found this a day for a large amount of personal reflection. In my 15 trips to Antarctica, this is my first Christmas in town. I was glad to see a few very modest-sized presents set on the floor outside people’s doors. I gave small (unwrapped) gifts to my roommate and the two others in my field party. But presents were clearly not the focus. The internet and phone lines are crowded. I called home, too.

I was prepared to be in the field on Christmas. Had I been, I probably would have ordered a "work-optional" day and I expect most would have worked if the weather permitted it. But I’m not at our field site; nor am I home with family. To be in between leaves me with an odd feeling. Until I get into the field, I cannot make progress toward getting home. It’s a funny state of limbo.

My greatest pleasure this season has been the opportunity to sing in the local choir. As with most recreational activities, it is composed of volunteers. About 15 of us gathered to practice a few carols last week. We had three performances: the Christmas party; a version of Lessons and Carols prior to Midnight Mass at the Chapel; and today (Christmas) in "MacOps", the radio room to broadcast our carols to the field parties. They were all really great. South Pole Station even returned the good cheer by singing some carols for us! We traded carols back and forth for another 15 minutes.

Tomorrow work starts up again. The town will be rumbling to life by 6 am and at full throttle by 7:30. I have no doubt there will be some sleepy eyes at first, but I’ve said before, these folks work hard and they’ll be back at it bright and early.

For us, there are steps being taken tomorrow to assist our getting into the field. Lots of things have to happen in sequence, but the ducks are lined up and we can do little but watch them waddle on, urging them to move as fast as possible.


December 22, 2007

by Dr. Robert A. Bindschadler

Plan B

lc-130

The three aerial workhorses of the Antarctic this season: the large LC-130 Hercules can haul up to 25,000 pounds and supplies the major stations and large field camps;


dc3 basler

the intermediate Basler is a converted DC-3 and takes smaller loads into tighter spaces;


Otter

the Twin Otter does the precision work and is going to get us onto the PIG ice shelf in 2000-pound loads.

"Plan A" rarely works in Antarctica. You ultimately get to your field site by adjusting to the changes that invariably happen. Things were moving smoothly up until the Basler airplane was lost for the season (see an earlier blog). You can read the official description of the "incident" at NSF-chartered Plane Crashes While Taking Off from Remote Antarctic Field Camp. We were in line to use this plane later this week. First, our cargo was to be transported by the large LC-130 Hercules 1000 miles from McMurdo to the WAIS-Divide camp on the summit of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Then the Basler would transfer our 8000 pounds of field gear the next 400 miles to a site near, but not on, the PIG ice shelf. The possibility of crevasses on the ice shelf required the third aircraft, the Twin Otter, that can make much shorter take-offs and landings, to ferry our gear to our ice shelf camp, squeezing into a spot between crevasse fields.

Without the Basler, we needed a Plan B. To make a Plan B, I looked at what I had to work with. Either the "Hercs" or the Twin Otter had to get our gear beyond WAIS-Divide. Earlier this year, the Air National Guard (ANG), that flies the Hercs here, expressed an interest in adding landings at open-field sites to their Antarctic repertoire. I am part of a small group tasked to help them by interpreting satellite data of upcoming open-field landing sites. In the loss of the Basler, I saw an opportunity for the ANG to do what they said they wanted to do. I spoke to the ANG--they were thinking along the same lines.

Another important piece I worked with was the fact that just before deploying to Antarctica, we released the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica. This is a high-resolution, true color mega-image of the continent stitched together from over 1000 separate Landsat images. Check it out at http://lima.usgs.gov and http://lima.nasa.gov. I offered to look at this imagery and report to the ANG what I thought might be potential landing sites near the ice shelf where a Herc could land­with our cargo, just like the Basler. Plan B was coming together.

Last night I reviewed the imagery and saw some smooth areas of ice. Other data on my laptop confirmed the ice was moving slowly. This morning I showed this to the ANG. They were receptive, but Plan B was not finished. Before a Herc is attempts to land there, the ANG wants to confirm that there are no crevasses and that the snow is not too soft (buried skis), too wet (stick skis) or too hard (broken skis). Like Goldilocks, the snow has to be "juuuusssst right". Thursday a Twin Otter will take a small group of mountaineers to the two sites we selected to check out the snow. If all looks good, then we move ahead with Plan B. Meanwhile, our group waits in McMurdo.

"MacTown" is getting ready for a 2-day Christmas holiday. Like back home, many groups shut their doors a few hours early today. The whole town vibe is changing. People are transforming from very hard workers to a hyper relaxed and festive mood. Time to party (or just kick back). More on the holiday celebrations next time.


December 21, 2007

by Dr. Robert A. Bindschadler

Falling!!!!

Ascender Training

David, Cliff and Galen practicing ascending a rope. It may look like a short distance to go from the floor to the overhead beam, but Galen kept letting out rope to force us to climb a long way. You alternate lifting with your legs and sitting in your seat harness. Not too tiring once you get the "hang" of it. I tried to take pictures at the crevasse site, but my camera frosted up in the blowing snow.

And with that yell each of us took our turns jumping into a 20-foot deep crevasse and leaving a blizzard behind on the surface. Well, it wasn’t a real crevasse, it actually was a deep trench gouged out of the snow by a huge bulldozer and the blizzard was rather mild, but the simulation was real enough. Confused yet? Let me back up to describe how this day went.

There are more crevasses on the PIG ice shelf than I care to think about and than anyone will ever count. The plan is to avoid them all, but what if we were surprised by one? It’s best to be prepared. Part of the preparation is to be as ready as possible and skilled in dealing with a crevasse fall. We will travel on the ice shelf linked by ropes between us so anybody that does break through the surface into a crevasse will be caught by the rope before they fall too far. This strategy is safest if you practice it first so everyone knows the role in which they suddenly may find themselves, including the person falling.

Snowcraft-II is the name given to this crevasse-rescue course we took yesterday. Our instructor was Galen, a member of the field safety group at McMurdo Station and the mountaineer who will be with us on the ice shelf. No better way to build trust in a person than to count on them to hold you in a fall. I’ve taken the course many times before, but I needed a refresher to be more efficient. Time can matter a lot when someone is hanging on a rope or is injured.

No injuries today. We start inside a warm building with the basics: knot-tying and self-extraction using modern climbing gear. Ascenders are handles that grip the rope one way and slide along the rope the other direction. Better get your directions straight!! Once we get a feel for the mechanics of hanging on a rope, setting our ascenders and climbing up, it’s time to go outside for some fresh air.

With bag lunches at our side, Galen drives us out of McMurdo Station in a noisy, bumpy tracked vehicle, past Scott Base (the Kiwi station) and out onto the McMurdo Ice Shelf where we spot the bulldozer shoving enormous mounds of snow out of the "crevasse". We park beside the gaping trench and begin to hear about the other type of crevasse rescue when the victim (each of us in turn) cannot get themselves out. Just about then, as if on cue, the wind picks up, the sun goes behind a thick cloudbank and the snow begins to blow. We all move behind the vehicle, but the 25-knot winds swirls the snow so it finds us and covers our goggles and forces us to add a layer (or two) of clothing for warmth.

Class continues. This will not be a cakewalk, so we listen harder. The arrangement of ropes, carabiners (climbing hardware), slings and pulleys (more climbing hardware) gets more complex. We focus. An accident on the ice shelf could ruin a perfectly fine day there and we’ve heard that it is typically very windy there, so this is likely going to be the conditions we will be faced with.

After we are shown how to do it, it is time to really do it. Cliff, our climber/cameraman is keen on jumping in first. David and I find it easy to go along. David feels his weight is his greatest immediate asset so he takes the middle position on the rope. He will brake Cliff’s "fall" as quickly as possible. I take the third spot, at the other end of the rope. I will need to set additional snow anchors to relieve the pull of Cliff’s weight on David. Once freed, David and I reproduce the extraction pulley system and pull Cliff out. It takes about ten minutes, mistakes made turn into lessons learned and Cliff’s head eventually shows above the surface. He is covered in snow, but we have managed to avoid hurting him.

I’m next to jump in. I almost reach the bottom, but Galen is pleased to see that I cannot stand and have to "hang around" as David and Cliff work to pull me out. I wonder how this could be taking so much longer than before. I rise to the surface in about the same length of time it took to get Cliff out. Hmmm, I learn that time passes slowly on a rope. David knows he is next. He has never done any of this and jumping off a cliff does take some courage. He finds it and he is gone in a flash. I brake his fall quickly, but learn that he, too, fell nearly 20 feet, nearly reaching the bottom. Cliff and I are able to get him out a bit faster.

After each practice, Galen discusses with us what we did well and not so well, suggests improvements and alternatives. Although the blowing snow has persisted, it has become part of the scene and doesn’t affect our discussion. We all want to get as much as possible from this experience. Next time would be the real thing and lives might be at stake. Paying attention is easy. But for now, school is over and Galen drives us home. Snow has gotten everywhere, but we are able to start drying out in the warm vehicle.. I’m reassured by the group interactions we will work very well together once we get to the ice shelf.


December 20, 2007

by Dr. Robert A. Bindschadler

Staged and Ready, Then…

CDC image

My colleague Dr. David Holland testing his "baby", the automatic weather station. He had to set up a compressed version so it fit in the lab, but it all checked out. In the field the tower will be 14 feet tall and be rigged to support winds of at least 150 mph.

We completed our packing today. The last item was the very complex automatic weather station. Where we are going is the largest gap in ground weather observations anywhere on the planet. What this means is that we really don’t know what the weather is out there now, how much it snows and how hard the wind blows. One of our goals this year is to set up this weather station and have it "phone home" the local PIG weather via Iridium phone. Another very cool feature of our equipment is that we have two webcams, so not only will we be told the weather, but we will be able to see it. This may sound frivolous, but seeing what’s going on can be very useful if problems arise. And we expect problems there usually are whenever you try to force modern technology to last through the brutal Antarctic winter. We will outfit the weather station with 10 big batteries to power it through the dark period augmented by a wind generator and a solar panel. It’ll be interesting to see what survives.

Another thing that happened today is not so good. We received word that one of the cargo airplanes had a "mechanical incident" on a mission last night and is out for the season. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the "incident" was extreme enough to strip off the landing gear and damage the propellers. Ouch! Other planes are retrieving the crew and the field party.

Incidents like this remind us that Antarctic field work is hard. It also will show ultimately that the US program is made up of very creative people. The logistics plan everyone was working to yesterday now has to be scrapped and a new plan drawn up. A lot of thought and discussion has already taken place today. It affects five projects already on the continent, including mine, some others that have not even started their season yet, and now a recovery effort for the damaged airplane must be squeezed in. We are being asked to review our science goals this season and prioritize in case we cannot get to the ice shelf soon enough, be there long enough or arrive with all of our gear.

This type of disruption is not new and not the type of early Christmas present anyone likes. Each season has some form of rewriting the plan, however this airplane loss is fairly severe. Tomorrow will bring with it some decisions (probably made back in Washington DC by the NSF managers). I will be outside the station all day reviewing how to travel in crevassed areas and extract people that fall in we all get our chance to play the "victim".


December 18, 2007

by Dr. Robert A. Bindschadler

McMurdo Station, Antarctica: 77°50mS/166°40mE

McMurdo image

McMurdo Station is a bustling little town of about 1200 people during the summer. Part way-station, part frozen metropolis, it boasts a hard-working population of energetic specialists. You have the artisans of heating, mechanics, construction and food preparation that every community must have, but you also have the cargo handlers, air crews and loadmasters that support the busy airport and helo-port. This town is about science - doing science and supporting science - and gives McMurdo a very special personality.

Our team is on the "doing science" side and we have spent the last few days caught up in the endless stream of meeting with support people to pull together and prepare all we need before actually leaving McMurdo for our field site. We get no second chance. When we leave, we must work and live with only what we gather together these few days. And the things we seek are all over town: snowmobiles are in one place, tents and sleds in another; radios in the electronics shack… get the idea? It’s up to us to bring it all together at the cargo building, box it, weigh it and turn in slips of paper so others can take it away, still others arrange it on palettes and still others take it to the airstrip where it waits for a plane going to the right station. What makes all this seeming chaos work is the support people. They help us keep track of the endless lists of material, and do the same for every science group either working in McMurdo or working to get beyond McMurdo to some more distant site in the "deep field".

I cannot say enough about the dedication of these supporting people. I have forged many friendships with them that hibernate when one of us leaves Antarctica, but quickly warms back to a enjoyable partnership when we meet here again. Their experience is invaluable. Tricks and tips they learn from one group are passed on to other groups. Just yesterday, as we put our very complex automatic weather station together in the laboratory to make sure all the various instruments operated correctly and could be attached to the 17-meter tower without interfering with each other, we received invaluable advice from riggers about how to guy the tower to withstand 150 mph winds and machinists about how to mount instruments so they stand a chance of surviving such gales that will come in -60 degree cold when some metals and all plastics are brittle and fragile. You come to McMurdo thinking you are prepared, but you leave thanking those whose advice gives you a better chance to accomplish your project’s science goals.

Today I packed and packed: everything from solar panels to shovels, from toilet paper to thermistors, from dishwashing soap to a 12-foot long windsock pole. The largest box of incredibly miscellaneous parts weighed 531 pounds - we’ll have to unpack it into smaller pieces once we get to our jumping-off field camp so we can "loose-load" it into the smaller plane that will actually take us to the ice shelf. Tomorrow we pull our food from the shelves of the stockroom - warning, do not do this when you are hungry! - and pack it up. Thursday, we will pack up the remaining odds and ends and should be cargo-ready.

Friday, we will practice crevasse-rescue techniques in a nearby icefall area with genuine crevasses. This is an advanced snowcraft class that the field safety unit in town offers. Their basic snowcraft class is required of all persons departing McMurdo for distant field sites. I’ve taken it before, so I only required a refresher class, but my colleague on this trip is an Antarctic rookie. Today and tomorrow he is outside all day learning basic skills that will make him more able to handle survival situations in Antarctica. He will learn that you NEVER leave camp without shelter, warmer clothes and food. And he will learn what to do with those essentials if bad weather does separate him from his group. Just about the time I am writing this, he has probably prepared his shelter for the night. I’ll find out tomorrow whether he chose to dig a snow cave, construct a snow mound, or an ice trench. If he succeeds at building an igloo, a shelter far more complicated than the other choices, I will be most impressed. I have no doubt that he will come back tired for lack of sleep, a bit sunburned if he under protects himself like most students do, but absolutely exhilarated for the experience and far more confident that although Antarctica can be harsh, it is manageable and that when you become more comfortable with its frigid and unyielding environment, you can better appreciate its stunning natural beauty. It becomes a right of passage that stays with you the rest of your life and draws scientist and support personnel back to this gorgeous continent again and again.


December 15, 2007

by Dr. Robert A. Bindschadler

McMurdo Station, Antarctica 77°50mS/166°40mE

Antarctica! I finally arrived! It all seems very familiar. Maybe it should — this is my 15th trip over the past 25 years - but it was November 2003 when I was last here, yet it seems like I’ve only been gone a week. That’s a bit creepy. This is a place where things change slowly and many of the people return year after year. I guess you could say it moves at a glacial pace.

One thing that has improved is the flight getting here. Sure we still have to get to the airport and have our cold weather gear on before sunrise, but we can move around a bit more, get breakfast and the special departure lounge is more comfortable with softer seating. We go through a security screening just like at commercial airports and then have to squeeze ourselves complete with heavy orange carry-on bag, thick parka and bag lunch onto a school bus sized for children. We all look and feel like the Michelin tire guy and are about as graceful as we waddle around. The bus trip is so short as to make me always wonder if walking, I mean waddling, to the airplane wouldn’t be easier.

C-17 image

But here’s where the improvement is. The airplane we get on is a C-17 cargo plane. It is soooo much bigger and roomier than either the C-130 or C-141 planes we used to fly to The Ice in. In those planes we sat facing each other, in web seats facing each other, crammed in so tight our knees overlapped. Five to eight hours of sitting that way can make you wonder what ever interested you in going to Antarctica. But on the C-17, regular airline seats have been strapped to cargo paletes and spaced so that you have lots of room for your legs, bag and parka. It has two-story headroom and is much brighter. It’s still noisy, but earplugs help that. Honestly, the five hours go by much more quickly and it is more comfortable than many commercial flights I’ve been on.

And you’re going to Antarctica! There is an excitement in the air, especially from those in our group that are making their first trip. About 3 ½ hours into the flight you can get your first sighting of the continent. People line up to peer through the few tiny porthole windows. Usually the flight crew allows anyone a brief visit to the flight deck for a more panoramic view. It is bright, the ice sheet is very white with a wide apron of white sea ice off the coast. The mountains are spectacular and add a majestic scale to the view. Antarctica is BIG. Your eyes take in a expansive area, but all you see is more of the same frozen whiteness extending beyond the horizon.

Eventually we are called back to our seats. The descent begins, people start to put on layers of cold weather clothing. The reported temperature is very warm, only -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees F), but they say the winds are strong. The descent is extremely gradual and seems to take forever. We are too far from the windows to see out. People can only look at each other. Most stay quiet; each keeping their thoughts to themselves, anticipating the sensation of wheels touching down. Eventually the airplane shudders slightly from the ground effect, changes attitude as the tires squeeze the frozen runway and the jet engines ease. These are the softest landings I’ve known. The taxi seems to take forever and the eagerness of people is palpable, even through the multiple layers of clothing.

When the horn sounds we quickly unbuckle our safety belts but struggle to get to our feet. Once the door opens, those closest to it are greeted with an icy gust of frigid air that carries a sharp edge. The next breath is different. The cold travels deep down your throat. Antarctica invisibly enters the plane and transforms what had been a warm secure environment into part of the continent where cold is king. You can feel Antarctica embracing you and it is exhilarating! The world around you is about to change.

C-17 image

Stepping outside the airplane and down the few steps to the ice surface requires care and dexterity in what are now enormously oversized, heavy clumsy feet. This arrival was marked by a 40-knot wind. If you hadn’t greeted Antarctica yet, getting hit square in the face by this wind is rude awakening to where you are. The wind had removed most of the snow on the surface, leaving only smooth ice absent of anything for boots to grip. Looking a bit like a collection of awkward, overstuffed hockey tryouts, we shuffle around, fumbling for cameras to take pictures of the frozen chaos. We are shuffled onto a very large bus, sized better for our insulated girth, for the 20 minute drive from the airstrip to the McMurdo Station.

We are delivered to the "Chalet", headquarters of the station, where we are briefed on rules of conduct and given room assignments. We quickly disperse to settle in, meet our roommates and clean up. Having been dressed for extreme cold, we now realize we are overdressed and we quickly shed a layer, or two, to cool off. But options are limited--nearly everything we’ve brought is in our checked luggage which won’t arrive at the station for a couple of hours. Dinner is a similar wait. Still there is much that takes up time. I see friends from past seasons almost right away and conversations continue from years past. I quickly make the transition into this "alternate reality". McMurdo feels like a second home and it feels good to be home.


December 13, 2007

by Dr. Robert A. Bindschadler

Christchurch, NZ, 43°29mS/172°32mE

Well it finally felt like I was getting closer to Antarctica today. The weather in town was pretty dreary­rain and wind intermittent with brief periods of sun, not much to get one thinking about limitless snow and ice­but the task today was to get fitted out with all our cold weather clothing. This is done well north of The Ice (remember, that’s "our" name for Antarctica) because you have to be prepared for the cold before you actually get there. So all 37 of us that are manifested for tomorrow’s flight mustered at the Clothing Distribution Center. This is part of the Antarctic Centre complex.that is maintained here to support the Antarctic scientists traveling to and from The Ice. It used to be part of a US Navy base adjacent to the airport, but it’s a lot more modern now and very efficiently run. New Zealand is proud of their close connection to the Antarctic. It shows all around town, but no more so than next door where there is a very popular Antarctic attraction complete with a self-guided tour with Antarctic views, dioramas, cold wind and a track outside where people can ride and bounce in an Antarctic tracked vehicle.

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For us the task was to check out the clothing that had already been set out for us in two large orange square duffel bags. Everything from thermal underwear to parka, boots to hats and don’t forget the gloves. Sizing isn’t always perfect, so you try on everything. I’ve done this many, many times, so I have a good idea what works for me. My hands ALWAYS get cold, so I often take a variety of handwear and I have my favorite type of boots­big blue mukluks. With these giant boots on, I feel like a clumsy two legged elephant, but they grip the ice really well. After the hour it takes to try on everything, exchange what didn’t fit and return what you don’t want, you get to pack it all back into the orange bags, separate out other luggage you will be leaving behind in New Zealand, and you’re done. For me it was a quick return to town, a short rest, an early dinner and then to bed. Tomorrow we leave the hotel well before 6 am.

Our project includes a lot of people because we need a variety of skills to accomplish this project. Only two of us are making this trip, along with a cameraman who is documenting our trip for a later film about Antarctic research during the International Polar Year. My field mate this year is Dr. David Holland from New York University, an expert in polar ocean modeling. That expertise will be very important once we have much of the data on water behavior and characteristics beneath the ice shelf. Getting those data falls to Dr. Tim Stanton at the Naval Postgraduate School. He has pioneered customized ocean instrumentation in the polar environment and is an engineering genius. Getting these instruments into the water requires making a hole through about 550 meters of ice. For that Dr. Martin Truffer of the University of Alaska will use his hot-water drilling system to make a 5-inch diameter hole. It’s a pretty slick system using insulated hose, winches, car wash heaters and a portable swimming pool. Once we have the hole, Dr. Alberto Behar of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is going to give us the first ever view of the bottom of the ice shelf with a special video camera system he is building.

And we’re still not done. This is only information at one spot on the ice shelf. Using seismic equipment and helicopters to hop to selected spots all over the ice shelf, Dr. Sridhar Anandakrishnan of Penn State University will measure the ice thickness and the water depth. All this information will be crucial to David Holland and another oceanographer, Dr. Miles McPhee, in constructing computer models to reproduce our measurements to verify that we understand the important processes going on.

And then for many of this team of experts, we have additional collaborators in the United Kingdom with similar expertise. They, too, are concerned and interested in finding out what is going on between the ice shelf and the water and why. The full team is listed on the project’s web site and we will be adding some pictures and more information about them as the project moves on.


December 10, 2007

by Dr. Robert A. Bindschadler

My trip to "The Ice" (as Antarctica is often called) began this morning. It feels rather normal. I travel a lot on business, so commercial flying is nothing new. But this trip will be more grueling--30 hours of flying and crossing the International Date Line means it’ll be the morning of Dec. 12 before I finally arrive in Christchurch, New Zealand.

I’m starting off well rested. Most of the weekend was spent packing, repacking and mentally running through the lists of items to take. The US Antarctic Program (USAP) will issue to me a full set of cold weather clothing once I reach Christchurch. USAP gives you what you need, but doesn’t include some things you may want--personal comfort items such as music players, camera, comfortable indoor clothes and shoes. The program has processed so many Antarctic personnel over the years that their advice is excellent. Still, I have to plan for at least two days in New Zealand and a week or more in McMurdo Station, where some of the work is dusty and I plan on exercising at the modest fitness unit on base. Add to what’s needed for those activities to other personal items like underwear, sunscreen and computer and my bag filled up quickly to a plump 35 pounds. If I forget something, there is the time in New Zealand to find it and there is a very small store in McMurdo Station. But it’s best not to rely on these options and to get it right now. It just adds to the pressure of going to "The Ice".

Let me take the rest of this entry to give you a bit more of the back-story of this science project. I mentioned before that we are going to the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) ice shelf because satellite and airborne measurements have captured this region thinning rapidly and accelerating. So what? The answer lays in the fact that loss of ice causes sea level around the world to rise. Coastal areas around the world are hyper-valuable real estate, ecologically and economically. A one-meter rise in sea level will cost the world economy an estimated 1 TRILLION dollars! That’s serious money. Sea level has been rising at a relatively gradual 2 millimeters per year for thousands of years, but the rate has increased 50% in the past two decades and is expected to rise even faster in the near future. We could reduce the costs of rising sea level a lot if we knew how much and how fast sea level will change­but we don’t have a very good idea of these details. PIG drains a part of the West Antarctic ice sheet that could raise sea level one meter all by itself.

That’s where our research comes in. Even the best computer models can’t reproduce the measured changes in this area. And if we can’t simulate an active area, we have no confidence in predictions of future behavior of this or any other area. Our goal is to improve this embarrassing situation. The spatial pattern of thinning and accelerating of PIG (get used to my using this moniker) suggest the action is taking place on the ice shelf, the floating end of the glacier, and spreading inland. Our hypothesis (yes, the scientific method you learned in school is still how a lot of science gets done) is that warmer water is circulating underneath the ice shelf and melting more ice. We’ve seen on the Antarctic Peninsula that the loss of an ice shelf leads to much faster ice flow and thinning upstream so we expect a thinning ice shelf has the same type of response, but less extreme.

I’ll save a description of how we’re going to test our hypothesis and who is one our research team for my next entry. My flight is being called to board.


December 7, 2007

by Dr. Robert A. Bindschadler

"Christmas among Crevasses"

Every trip needs a theme. That’s going to be mine this field season. I like it because it touches on two very important aspects of conducting scientific research: scientists don’t always get to choose the time they work and we have to go to where the action is, even if it may be a dangerous place. Both are true for me this holiday season and I’m inviting you to come along by following this blog.

Today I packed up what I think I’ll need from my office: maps (images actually), laptop computer, a notebook and some work I didn’t quite finish yet (there always seems to be too much of that). I said goodbye to lots of friends there and received good wishes from all. It seemed odd to be wishing them a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, but I won’t see them again until 2008.

Why? Because I’m preparing for a field trip to Antarctica. It’s my 15th Antarctic field trip, so some things seem routine, but not where I’m ultimately headed. I am leading a new project designed to find out what is causing a major part of the West Antarctic ice sheet to become suddenly so active. Satellite-based observations, supported by some airborne measurements have shown that ice flowing into the Amundsen Sea is thinning rapidly (a few meters per year) and accelerating (a few percent per year). The spatial pattern of change suggests that the cause is warm water melting ice more rapidly underneath the floating fringes of the ice sheet. These floating fringes are called ice shelves and are hundreds of meters thick.

Why now and what’s the danger? The sun is up only 6 months of the year in Antarctica and we are aiming at mid-summer because we think we’ll have the best chance of good weather then. The danger comes from all the crevasses on this ice shelf. The fast motion of the ice (and I’m talking ripping fast for ice 10 meters PER DAY! that’s more than ONE FOOT PER HOUR!) breaks the ice apart. These crevasses are BIG tens of meters across and hundreds of meters long. Most are hidden beneath fragile "snow bridges" that can collapse if someone (like me) were to step on one. I don’t intend to, but that part of the story will come later.

This weekend it’s time to pack the rest of my clothing, say goodbye to wife and cat and start the journey. By Christmas we hope to be camped on the ice shelf that is fed by the Pine Island Glacier (PIG for short), so we call this project the PIG ice shelf project. We’ve posted more information about this project on a web site (http://pigiceshelf.nasa.gov). And I’ll let you in on more of the story, too, as the trip unfolds.