On the Ice

The end of the 2018-19 field season

When Elina and I returned to McMurdo on 22 January, it marked the final stretch of the team’s field season. One big objective that we still needed to accomplish was swapping out the remaining 4 AWS in the McMurdo area transmitting via UHF to Iridium. We didn’t waste any time upon return, and the team visited 3 AWS on 23 January: Willie Field and Phoenix by truck, and Lorne by helicopter on a “night flight”, meaning we flew after dinner with the night crew.

There were some issues to troubleshoot at Willie Field and Phoenix. We wanted to install an Iridium modem at Willie Field, and Phoenix was not transmitting properly. We figured that we would remove the enclosures from both sites to do the work on them in the lab. We could easily go back out to those sites to reinstall the enclosures and install a new power system at Phoenix.

Lee and Elina carrying gear to Willie Field.

Lee getting to work on the enclosure and Elina setting up the portable UNAVCO GPS unit at Phoenix.

On 29 January, Lee was able to get back to out to Willie Field and Phoenix to reinstall the enclosures and new power system. Both AWS are transmitting and functioning properly!

Later on 23 January, on that helo night flight, Lee and I went to Lorne to swap the UHF modem for the Iridium modem. It was a little tedious and got a little cold at times, but it was a success!

Lee installing the Iridium modem at Lorne, with the helicopter (left) and Mt Erebus (right) in the background. The low sun angle is definitely noticeable on these night flights, which is pretty cool.

On 25 January, Lee, Elina, and I, along with two boondogglers, went to Alexander Tall Tower! to raise the power system, enclosure, and install two disdrometers on the tower. A disdrometer is an instrument that measures how many particles hits it. We use this instrument to measure blowing snow, but sometimes it’s hard or impossible to distinguish between blowing and precipitating snow. Hence, we installed two instruments on the tower, one at about head height and the other about 20 feet above the surface.

Additionally, Lee needed to climb to the top of the ~88-foot tower to move a net radiometer, which measures incoming and outgoing longwave (earth) and shortwave (sun) radiation. He climbed the tower like a champ!

Lee climbing the tower, and the rest of us watching in awe and away from the base in case he drops something.

On 28 January, Lee flew out to Sabrina and Lettau to fix a cable issue at Sabrina and swap out the data card at Lettau. Initially, we were hoping to get to Emma on this same trip and swap its data card, but due to some issues at Willie Airfield that morning, the Twin Otter wasn’t able to depart until around noon which cut into the pilots’ duty day. Lee was the only one to go on this trip because Forbes, Elina, and I were on the helo schedule to fly to Cape Bird and swap the UHF modem for Iridium. We did not end up going that day.

On 29 January, while Lee drove out to Willie Field and Phoenix, Elina and I were able to fly to Emma to swap its data card and raise the power system. Luckily, the power system was only buried a couple feet. Keith from UNAVCO was with us because after our visit to Emma, we went to Ramsey Glacier to finish removing UNAVCO’s equipment from that site because their field team the previous day didn’t have enough ground time to do it for the same reason as us!

Emma after we raised the power system and swapped the data card.

The Twin Otter at Ramsey Glacier, with Keith on the left.

We stopped at a fuel cache at Ascent Glacier in the middle of the Transantarctic Mountains on our way back to McMurdo. It was a gorgeous flight.

On 31 January, Lee took a Twin Otter to Marilyn to raise the station while Forbes, Elina, and I waited for the weather to clear to go to Cape Bird via helicopter. Unfortunately for the three of us, we were put on weather hold until early in the afternoon, at which point we were canceled due to weather. Instead of sitting around in the lab for the rest of the day, Forbes and I decided to snowmobile out to Windless Bight to raise the station and swap the UHF modem for Iridium. It ended up being a great time, and once again since we were out later in the day/night, the sun angle made everything look extra good!

Windless Bight after we raised instrumentation on the tower, dug up the power system, and installed the Iridium modem and antenna.

A sign directed which us way to go. On our way back, we had to stop to take some pictures… Mt Erebus is in the background.

Our initial redeployment date was 4 February, so after our Windless Bight visit, we were all getting ready to pack up our things and close out the field season. We were still trying to get to Cape Bird, but a big storm hit on 1 and 2 February, keeping us from getting to Cape Bird. That also meant, however, that some northbound flights got delayed, thereby delaying our departure date by a day.

On 4 February, the night before Forbes, Elina, and I left the ice (Lee stayed for a couple extra days), the four of us were on the helo schedule to go to Cape Bird. The forecast was fairly unfavorable for Cape Bird, calling for 20-knot sustained winds with gusts to 35 knots. That didn’t bother us, though; we wanted to get this site visit done! As we were waiting in the helo passenger terminal, the pilot was expressing his doubts about being able to make it to Cape Bird due to the weather. But despite those doubts, we took off anyways. And… we made it there! The weather was actually fantastic. The temperatures were around freezing, and winds were much lighter than the forecast suggested. It was a great way to end a field season!

Cape Bird after we finished servicing, including installing the Iridium modem and antenna. The Adelie penguin rookery is in the background.

Adelie penguins on the beach!

The field team: me, Forbes, Elina, Lee! Wish you were there, Mike!

Lee stayed in McMurdo until 7 February to finish up some work at Willie Field AWS and install the MRI prototype PCWS next to the AWS at Willie Field. The MRI PCWS is now named Sarah, after Josh Thorsland’s late sister. Sarah is powered on but not transmitting, as we ran out of time to be able to verify Iridium transmissions. The prototype installs did not go quite as planned this season, with only one of the four installed, but good progress was made on the project throughout the season nonetheless. Servicing of the AWS network was a huge success this season, with Margaret being the only AWS we were unable to get to on our list. While the UHF-to-Iridium transition had its hiccups, all the new Iridium modems are transmitting (except for Minna Bluff)! That’s great! Once again, it was a long but exciting field season, and I hope you had fun reading along. Until next time…

Cheers! -Dave

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The final 5 site visits from WAIS

In our last 5 working days at WAIS, from 17 through 21 January, Elina and I visited the remaining 5 AWS on our list. It was a whirlwind of work, and timing was perfect for us to catch our Herc flight back to McMurdo on 22 January. But first, the site visits…

On 17 January, we went to Theresa and Erin. The plan was to go to Theresa first, then refuel at a fuel cache at the Ohio Range near Theresa. After that, we would go to Erin, then go to Fallone Nunatak nearby where POLENET has a seismic and GPS site. As such, two POLENETters, Andrew and Aurora, came along for the ride.

The weather conditions at Theresa and Erin were far and away the most challenging that Elina and I experienced this field season, especially at Theresa. Theresa and Erin are located south of WAIS camp, near the Transantarctic Mountains. They are near the beginning of the Ross Air Stream, which is a wind regime where strong winds are concentrated near the Transantarctic Mountains and flow parallel to them and to the north. Skies were clear on this particular day, but it was very windy at the surface. When we arrived at Theresa, the temperature was around -4 F (-20 C) and winds were around 30 knots and increased to around 35 knots throughout the visit.

Theresa upon arrival. Notice the “soft” horizon; that’s blowing snow, an indication of how windy it was.

Notice in the picture that the battery box(es) are buried. I could not find a record of when the battery boxes were last at the surface, so I had no idea how far we would have to dig for them. Regardless, while Elina and I did work on the tower, the others were digging exuberantly to recover the batteries. After Elina and I measured the instrument heights above the surface, we removed the instrument boom so we could attach a new tower section on top.

Elina and I on the tower, just after we put a new section on. Our digging crew was already making great progress.

The hole they dug to get the batteries!

The batteries were buried about 8 to 10 feet! It’s so awesome that they were able to recover them. The Antarctic environment thanks us.

Theresa after we raised the station and power system.

Next stop: the Ohio Range fuel cache, about a 20-minute flight away. This fuel cache is in a “blue ice” area, which means that winds are so high here that there isn’t much of any snow accumulation throughout the year. It all gets blown away, exposing ice that appears blue because any accumulated snow has been compressed so much that air bubbles are squeezed out and ice crystals become enlarged.

The fuel barrels.

After the Otter was nice and full with fuel, we headed over to Erin, about a 45-minute light away. The Transantarctic Mountains are also visible from Erin, though we weren’t quite as close to them as at Theresa or the Ohio Range. Erin doesn’t get much accumulation, so all we needed to do here was swap out the data card in the CR1000 data logger, dig up the power system (buried about 2 feet), and raise the enclosure and lower temperature sensor on the tower. It was still windy at Erin, but not as much as at Theresa. Winds were around 20 knots when we landed, and it was slightly warmer at around 5 F (-15 C).

Erin after our visit.

We were on the ground for about an hour. Then it was time to head over to POLENET’s site at Fallone Nunatak. A nunatak is a land feature, typically a mountain, then has exposed rock amongst a field of snow or ice.

The power system for the GPS system is in the foreground, with Andrew and Aurora servicing the seismic instrumentation in the background.

The weather was much nicer at Fallone Nunatak, with relatively light winds and temperatures around 20 F (-7 C). It was like being at the beach!

POLENET doing work.

After about an hour, they were done with their work and we were ready to head back to WAIS. It was another long but productive day of field work. Two days later, we had yet another very productive day, though not quite as long…

On 19 January, Elina and I flew to Harry and Elizabeth. Joining us on this trip were Scott Deaton (WAIS physician’s assistant) and Nick Chisari (WAIS cargo). We wanted to swap out the pressure sensor at Harry and raise Elizabeth. These two site visits were pretty straightforward.

Harry upon arrival. The pilots had cached fuel there earlier in the season, hence the red drums in the background.

Elina carried through a task of highest import, placing an AWS sticker on the enclosure and thereby signifying UW-Madison’s claim to Harry AWS.

Harry after servicing. We also raised the power system and installed a relative humidity sensor.

Next, we flew to Elizabeth to add a new tower section and raise the power system.

Elizabeth upon arrival.

The power system was buried about 4 feet down, which is nothing! We all were expert diggers at this point. The raise went very smoothly, and we were able to get back to WAIS before dinnertime!

Elizabeth after servicing (note the sticker).

Two days later, on 21 January, we went to our last AWS site on our list this season: Janet. The purpose of this visit was to replace the batteries which had failed over the past winter, indicating their capacitance was poor and they couldn’t retain their charge. Two members of UNAVCO came along, as well as Mark the mountaineer, as we first visited UNAVCO’s GPS site at Toney Mountain before going to Janet. UNAVCO had visited Toney Mountain once before, but the winds were too high (~55 knots) for them to safely do their work. This day was only marginally better than that; winds were a sustained 35-40 knots when we visited! Luckily it was a quick visit for them.

The UNAVCO power system (left) and antenna (right) at the top of the ridge. Notice the wispy white of blowing snow over the rock…

Looking back at the Twin Otter. You can see the “footprint” downwind of the Otter as it blocks the blowing snow at the surface.

We then skedaddled over to Janet, where the winds were much calmer but it was still a chilly -4 F (-20 C). While we successfully swapped the batteries at the station, the others began digging out a fuel cache nearby, where around 12 drums of fuel had been buried since they were placed there in 2012.

Janet upon arrival, with Elina setting up the portable UNAVCO GPS unit.

Janet after we replaced the batteries.

When we were done, we went over to help dig out the fuel barrels. The Otter filled up with fuel, and we loaded as many remaining fuel barrels that were empty onto the Otter to bring back to WAIS. It was quite the effort!

The fuel cache at Janet. Our AWS is in the upper left in the background.

We headed back to WAIS, which actually turned out to be a bit more of an adventure than we thought. There was unexpected fog over WAIS. We tried landing at the runway, but the fog was too thick and visibility too poor. So we flew back to the edge of the fog, landed, and then taxied for about 15 miles until we reached camp. The taxi took about 1 hour 15 minutes! But it sure did beat having to set up camp in the middle of nowhere!

The next day, 22 January, we packed up our things and got on a Herc for McMurdo. All of the science groups left camp that day, leaving the camp staff behind so they could finish out the summer season there and close down camp. The Herc didn’t arrive until around 8 pm, so we had all day to get our stuff ready. But that also meant we had all day for the Herc to cancel its mission, as it usually seems to do… But it didn’t! We enjoyed some delicious calzones for dinner, had one last drink (or two), and bid farewell to WAIS.

The Herc when it landed at WAIS, with all of us waiting to board the plane.

Cheers! -Dave

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The AWS team has redeployed!

The field season is over! The entire AWS team (myself, Lee, Elina, Forbes) have returned to the US… Elina, Forbes, and I left the ice on 5 February, while Lee left the ice on 7 February. Lee stayed an extra couple days to install the PCWS prototype at Willie Field and finish servicing our Willie Field AWS site. He also stayed longer to ensure that Cape Bird could get its Iridium modem installed. As it turns out, the four of us got to go to Cape Bird on Monday, 4 February, the night before the three of us left! It was a great “end” to the field season. But more on that later.

I will post one more blog post about our work out at WAIS (there are 3 more site visits I have yet to write about). After that, I’ll write a post about the rest of our work in McMurdo after Elina and I returned from WAIS. We all were very busy in the final couple weeks of the field season, which is what we were expecting and hoping for. That means we got a lot of work done!

For the time being, I’ll leave you all with a smattering of pictures.

The Twin Otter parked at Ramsey Glacier, a UNAVCO GPS site. 29 Jan 2019

The flagged route leading me and Forbes back to McMurdo from our visit to Windless Bight… Though we could have also just followed our outbound snowmobile tracks from earlier that day. 31 Jan 2019

Fata morgana on the horizon distorting buildings at Willie Airfield, viewed from the shuttle van on our way out to the airfield to fly to Tall Tower!. 25 Jan 2019

Lee climbed to the top of Tall Tower!! 25 Jan 2019

Adelie penguins at Cape Bird! 4 Feb 2019

Cheers! -Dave

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15 January: Evans Knoll and Thurston Island

We thought that we weren’t going to have enough time to do both Evans Knoll and Thurston Island in one day, as it takes 2 hours to fly to Evans Knoll from WAIS and then another hour on top of that to get to Thurston Island. Six hours of flying really cuts into our ground time. To boot, we needed to remove Evans Knoll by traversing across a crevasse and up a hill, which is no trivial task. But if the pilots are willing to fly to both sites in one day, we’re willing to try finishing our work.

Joining us on this venture were Mark Whetu, a mountaineer, and Andrew Lloyd, a scientist for POLENET. Mark is the expert in all things crevasse-related, so he came along to make sure we could safely cross the crevasse at Evans Knoll and hike up the hill to the site. Andrew came both as an extra hand and to service POLENET’s site at Thurston Island, which is near our AWS site.

Preflight. Elina on the left, Mark on the far right and Andrew next to Mark. The others pictured helped us bring gear to the plane and send us off from camp.

On the way to Evans Knoll, we flew over Pine Island Bay where Pine Island Glacier meets the sea. There are many large icebergs in this area. It’s quite a sight, especially in contrast to the flat white scenery of WAIS.

Icebergs!

A wall of ice.

An aerial view of Evans Knoll as we approached, annotated for your convenience.

I don’t think we could have picked a better day, weather-wise, to remove Evans Knoll. Light winds, “warm” temperatures around 27 F (~-3 C), and mostly clear skies.

After we landed at the base of the hill, Mark walked up to assess the crevasse as Elina, Andrew, and I organized our gear at the plane. Mark roped up and attached to a snow anchor below the crevasse before approaching the crevasse and probing the surface. He found a spot that was safe to cross, filled in the crack a bit with some snow to help solidify a “snow bridge”, then made a rope line that bridged the crevasse. As he hiked up the hill, he made several rope lines, all attached to anchors in the snow, that we would attach ourselves to as we ascended and descended the hill. This way, we would always be attached to a rope that would limit our fall and facilitate rescue if we were to fall into a crevasse.

Harnessing up and prepping our gear before the ascent.

Mark checking the surface around the crevasse to get a sense of how wide it is.

Mark above the crevasse, anchoring the rope to the snow. The first anchor is on the right, next to the bag. The AWS can be seen on top.

Once Mark got the first two rope lines established, we started hauling our gear up the hill.

We used a banana sled to haul the gray Hardigg case up the hill.

Mark finished the rope line!

HEAVE! (Thanks for the pic, Mark!)

It took us about an hour and 15 minutes to hike up the hill and reach the site. Once we did, Troy (Twin Otter captain) yelled up to us that if we wanted to go to Thurston Island, we had 1 hour to do our work here at Evans Knoll. We said “OK, you got it, Troy!” and got to work.

Aaannndddd…. ACTION! (Thanks again, Mark.)

It was a lot of fun as we frantically removed the instruments from the tower, loosened the guy wires, and removed the tower from the base plate. We all worked together and did our best to complete the removal as quickly as possible. One unforeseen hiccup was that the 2 battery boxes were frozen to rock at the base of the station, so that took quite a bit of time to chip them free. But we did!

Evans Knoll is gone. It took a few trips to bring the gear back down the hill, and the rest of the gear is packed up on the banana sled here.

On the safe side of the crevasse again. Mark is removing the rope lines as he descends.

We finished our work in enough time to go to Thurston Island! Our goal was to install a new Taylor high wind system on our AWS, as it gets very windy there and has consistently broken our wind monitors.

Aerial view of Thurston Island.

It was partly cloudy at Thurston Island but windier than Evans Knoll. It was interesting to note, too, how much windier it was at the AWS itself than where we landed. Once we did land, of course, we had to haul our equipment to the AWS from the plane. Naturally, we used a banana sled again.

Elina dragging the banana sled.

Thurston Island upon arrival. Note the wind monitor on the top is missing its propeller.

At our site, looking back towards POLENET’s site where the Otter is. Hi Elina!

Cool shadows.

Thurston Island after we finished our work. The Taylor high wind system is installed on the top of the tower.

The lighting during our visit was beautiful. It was late in the day, and since we were further North than WAIS, the sun was lower in the sky. This gave everything a nice hue towards the end of our visit. It was the closest to a sunset we’ve come in a long time!

“Sunset”

After a successful site visit for both us and Andrew, we headed back to WAIS. We needed to stop at the Turn 1 fuel cache, though, so we didn’t get back to camp until 9:30 pm. A long day, but a very productive and satisfying one! We saw some cool crevasses on the way back, too.

I think these crevasses resemble dry and cracked ground in a desert…

The low sun angle helped highlight these crevasses.

Cheers! -Dave

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12 January: Commence an epic 10 days with Austin

At the time, we didn’t know it, but when we went to Austin on 12 January this began a stretch of very successful flights and field visits. Between 12 and 21 January, we visited the remaining 8 sites on our list in West Antarctica. That’s 8 sites in 10 days, but really 8 sites in 5 days of flying! Whew!

12 January was a good day of redemption. Elina and I felt compelled to get the visit to Austin completed (of course) but our Otter pilots, Jordan and Alex, were equally passionate about making it there. We all felt cheated by the cloud cover on our previous attempt. This time, the weather cooperated with us.

We departed WAIS at 7:45 am. One of the benefits of working at a field camp is that “transport” from the camp to the airfield takes all of 2 minutes. We can pretty much leave as soon as we’re ready. In McMurdo, we would need to wait for a shuttle to pick us up from Crary lab, then take the 30 to 45-minute drive out to the airfield before departing. But I digress….

On the flight to Austin, the Ellsworth Mountains are visible in the distance. They’re still quite far so it’s difficult to get a good picture, but given the flat and boring landscape at WAIS, seeing any topography carries that much more weight.

Part of the Ellsworth Mountains. I zoomed in quite a bit and did some post-processing on this picture…

As before, we stopped at “Turn 1” fuel cache both to and from Austin. We arrived at Austin and were greeted to much better conditions than previous.

Austin upon arrival, with Elina getting the GPS powered on for the duration of the visit to record the coordinates and elevation of the site.

The site visit went well. Austin gets a lot of accumulation, so despite raising the power system to the surface one year ago, it was buried about 5 feet down. We dug that out, brought it to the surface again, and swapped the batteries from the power system. It turned out the batteries had poor capacitance (ability to hold charge) so they were failing, and the station wasn’t transmitting. We also swapped the enclosure, just to be sure that we got the station working again. And it is!

The hole to get the power system (black box at top of picture), taken while I was on the tower.

Austin after our work was completed.

Cheers! -Dave

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07 January 2019: Bear Peninsula

Elina and were getting antsy. We had now been at WAIS 9 days and hadn’t gotten to any of our planned sites. It’s nice that we got two extra site visits in, but we wanted to start checking sites off of our original to-do list. On 7 January, we finally got that opportunity, and it was even to visit our highest priority site, Bear Peninsula!

This site was highest priority because it is on the coast (far and usually bad weather), and we needed to replace a fraying guy wire. We also wanted to install a new Taylor high wind system, as the environment there is pretty rough on RM Young wind monitors.

Given all of this work we needed to do there, we had a lot of cargo to bring with us, including a generator, demolition hammer, and jerry can with fuel so we could chip out the large rock that has been fraying one of the guy wires. Fortunately, a couple people from camp, Andy Boyd (mountaineer) and Aurora Roth (PASSCAL), came with us and helped carry our gear from the plane to the site. The terrain makes it a difficult hike and carry cargo from the plane to the site, as we would need to walk up a hill that, for the first half, is snow and ice. The second half, where the site is located, is very rocky and uneven. Having extra hands was a huge help. It took us about 25 minutes to walk from the plane to our AWS.

Bear Peninsula (this was taken at the end of the visit), showing the snowy/icy hill that leads to the rocky top of the hill. Our site is not pictured but is on the other side of the hill.

Bear Peninsula on arrival. Note the wind monitor is missing its propeller.

It was a very nice day, with temperatures around 25 F and light winds, which did pick up a little bit during the visit but then decreased again. Everyone helped carry cargo from the plane to our site, then only Elina and I stayed to start the work as everyone else went back to the plane and the seismic site that Aurora had come to service. The first thing Elina and I did was chip out part of the large rock that was fraying the guy wire.

The rock (left) causing all the issues.

The generator used to power the…

Demolition hammer!

We used the demolition hammer as a chisel, but instead of needing to use a hammer to pound every strike, the demolition hammer does that automatically for us and at a much faster rate. It’s great! We were sure to wear safety glasses and cover our faces with a balaclava or neck gaiter, as lots of small bits of rock would fly up during demo-hammering.

Me starting the generator. The demolition hammer is in the foreground, with the chisel piece attached.

Me demolishing some rock.

Elina demolishing some rock.

It was very difficult to chip off sufficient rock (who knew??). One has to push pretty hard, straight into the rock, to make any progress. If you were at a poor angle, the hammer would just slide off the rock face. Once you started to make a dent/hole in the rock, it got easier to keep the hammer in the same spot. We essentially using the demo hammer to drill holes into the rock to weaken it, then chips of it would fall off. The whole process took about 30 minutes, but eventually we did it!

The chipped-out rock. I don’t think it should present a problem with the guy wire any longer.

Next, we needed to replace the bad guy with a new one (and remove the cargo strap that was acting as a fail-safe in case the guy wire snapped). At this point, everyone else had come back from the plane/seismic site to help and/or observe our work. Andy and I worked on installing the new guy wire while Elina worked on replacing some equipment on the tower and retrieving the CR1000 program.

The new guy wire.

We wanted to install new Taylor high wind system to replace the existing wind monitor which had broken a couple years ago (at least). Unfortunately, there was a plug mismatch between the cable plug and the enclosure, so we couldn’t install it. We removed the broken wind monitor anyways, as it wasn’t serving any purpose sitting on the tower. We did some other servicing at the site like swapping some radiation shields for the temperature and relative humidity sensors.

Elina on the tower, with Andy and Aurora sitting on the ground.

Soon after, everyone started to ferry gear back to the plane, and just like that we were done at Bear Peninsula.

Bear Peninsula after our servicing.

The view from the top of the hill, with the Otter at the base and Elina between me and the Otter.

Cheers! -Dave

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03 Jan 2019: Boomerang at Austin and a ski to Kominko-Slade

Austin is the second-furthest site from WAIS camp, with Thurston Island being the furthest. This is one reason why we had Austin as high on our priority list; it’s also not transmitting, so that’s a big reason, too. On the morning of 2 January, the forecast appeared to be good enough at Austin for us to do our work, so we headed that way. Due to the long flight, we needed to refuel on the way there and back at a fuel cache called Turn 1. It’s in the middle of nowhere, but sort of in the middle of many different sites in West Antarctica which makes it a useful location. It pretty much splits the distance between WAIS and Austin.

Both Otters were flying that day, with ours going to Austin and the other going to a POLENET site. We met up at the fuel cache on our way out!

Turn 1 fuel cache. The barrels of fuel are between the planes.

As we approached Austin, there was a thick, unbroken layer of cloud around 1000 feet above ground. The plane slowly descended below the cloud, and we were greeted to a wide expanse of flat light. It was nearly impossible to discern any surface definition. We ended up circling around Austin for half an hour. The pilots were hoping to find some semblance of surface definition so they could safely land.

Flat light conditions are very disorienting. As we were circling, it looked like we were flying between two very large, gray disks. One disk was the cloud layer above us, the other the ground below. At the horizon all around us was a thin layer of blue, where the cloud ended and we could see the sky.

For the first 15 minutes of our circling, I couldn’t tell whether there was a layer of fog or not at the surface. I also had no idea what our altitude was (turns out we were flying at around 500 feet), so when the plane would bank, it seemed like we were going to crash! Once, when the plane banked, it did it so smoothly that I couldn’t feel it. When I looked out my window and “down” I saw a line of blue. I thought that we were really close to the ground and the blue was a crevasse. I was incredibly confused. Then I realized what I was seeing was the blue sky at the horizon. It’s amazing what scenario your brain conjures up when you can’t get any bearings on what you’re seeing.

Only twice, and very briefly each time, was I able to see some sastrugi on the ground (turns out there wasn’t a layer of fog). The pilots never got a good enough view of the surface, so we had to boomerang back to WAIS. It was a huge bummer because we had made it all the way out to Austin, only to fly back. Alas, so goes Antarctic field work.

The next day, we weren’t on the Otter schedule. Weather was pretty good at WAIS, so we decided to take advantage of it and visit our site right near camp, Kominko-Slade. This site wasn’t on our planned list of visits, and as such it would be a very quick and easy visit to get some pictures and swap the data card. Since we both like to ski, I thought it would be cool to ski to the site. We were able to fit all the equipment we needed in a couple backpacks, and I wore my harness just in case I would need to be on the tower for a while. As far as I know, we are the first team to visit an AWS via skis!

Me on the skis at Kominko-Slade.

Elina after skiing to Kominko-Slade.

Cheers! -Dave

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1 Jan 2019: Happy New Year!

Happy New Year from WAIS! All of camp (except the chef, Anna) had both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day off. We rang in the new year in style out here. Anna prepared a big feast for us, so we set up the galley for a family-style meal.

The long table!

Ham and crab legs!

The assorted side dishes, including potatoes, roasted veggies, salmon, cheese, and crackers.

The bread and dessert table! So many good desserts, including babka on the near end of the table. Babka is a super tasty Russian dessert (the chef has Russian heritage). I think the dark swirls in the bread are composed of cinnamon and chocolate.

After the feast, we all had time in the evening to relax and watch a movie or just hang around. We of course had a solid party we dubbed WAIS-stock (in response to McMurdo’s New Year’s concert/party Icestock) with music brought to you by one of the Otter pilots Jordan, also known as DJ Pedro. Needless to say, it was a blast.

New Year’s Day was easy-going, and I spent a portion of it biking on a fat-tire bike that was brought to camp.

The fat-tire bike.

One can bike pretty much anywhere around camp on this, though the heavy equipment (bulldozers, etc) make the snow in camp pretty bumpy. It’s nice to bike on the skiway, though, as that is a nicely groomed area.

Speaking of recreational activities, there are also skis available, so on a nice day when people don’t have much work to do, it’s often that someone will go skiing around camp or on the skiway. It’s nice to be able to get out of the tent(s) every once and a while!

Me on skis on the skiway (Elina took the picture).

Happy New Year! -Dave

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30 Dec 2018: Camp life and Byrd camp visit

The population of WAIS has been at around 30 people. This consists of the typical camp staff (manager, field coordinator, cargo coordinator, mechanic, heavy equipment operators, medic, weather observers, chef, etc), science groups (AWS, POLENET, PASSCAL, UNAVCO, and various Thwaites projects), and two Twin Otter crews (two pilots and an engineer each).

The Science Module (center), housing all science projects at WAIS.

The two Twin Otters at camp. I took this picture from the snowmobile staging area. There are 4 snowmobiles available for general camp use.

A typical work day for us involves waking up at around 6 am and meeting in the galley tent (where we eat) to get the weather report from the Otter pilots.

The galley from the outside.

The galley, with decorations from Christmas still adorning the tent walls.

The pilots typically talk with forecasters in McMurdo around this time to see how the weather looks both for WAIS and for the locations where we want to fly. We will have some coffee and a bite to eat as we discuss options for the day. If we aren’t a go (bummer), the morning then has a pretty relaxed vibe for us. We can sit and eat, chat, and eventually have the morning camp meeting where James, camp manager, leads a discussion of the day’s schedule of activities, flights, and the upcoming weather forecast. If we are a go (yay), then we make a flight lunch, pack some snacks, get all of our cargo ready, and load up the plane.

Today me, Elina, and some POLENET folks flew on an Otter to Byrd camp to help get Peter and Caleb back to WAIS, as they had finished their work at Byrd. Their plan then was to take a Herc flight from WAIS back to McMurdo. Since the Otter flight was already going to Byrd, we took the opportunity to service Byrd AWS near the camp. It was a very simple visit, as we just needed to swap the data card and dig up the power system to the surface.

There are only 3 people at Byrd camp this year, so the setup is much smaller than WAIS.

Byrd camp… It’s quaint.

Byrd AWS on arrival. The Byrd camp weather observer, Jess (standing) snowmobiled Elina (crouching) and I to our site. Byrd camp can be seen on the horizon, to the right of Jess’ head (it’s very faint). The Otter at POLENET’s site, on the horizon and left of our AWS.

We only had to dig down a couple of feet to reach the batteries, which was a pleasant surprise. After swapping the data card and slapping one of our stickers on the enclosure, we were done.

Byrd after some TLC.

The three of us then drove back to the POLENET site to check on their progress (they were almost done) then went to camp to have lunch! The Byrd camp staff offered to host us, which was very generous. They were also probably excited to see other humans…. The camp chef made very tasty burritos.

The Byrd kitchen, with Jonathan fixing up lunch for us.

After a good meal and conversation, we loaded up the Otter and headed back to WAIS.

A bird’s eye view of Byrd. Fuel bladders are on the left, cargo line and tent city in the middle, and the kitchen module and mechanics module on the right.

Cheers! -Dave

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Dave and Elina are back from WAIS!

Elina and I have returned to McMurdo from WAIS! Spoiler alert: it was a huge success! I wrote some blog posts out there about our experiences, so I’ll post them one at a time here, starting with our arrival to camp.

29 Dec 2018: Dave and Elina are at WAIS

It almost seemed like we were going to spend New Year’s in McMurdo. The town had both New Year’s Eve and Day off, meaning no flying on those days. The weather outlook appeared poor for flying on Sunday, 30 Dec. By Friday, 28 Dec, Elina and I were going to be on the next Herc (LC-130) out to WAIS and if we didn’t “bag drag” or get our cargo, luggage, and weights into the system by the end of the day, then we would fly on Sunday at the earliest, suggesting we wouldn’t make it to WAIS. But by around 3:30 in the afternoon on Friday, we finally got word that we were going to bag drag that Friday night for a 10 am departure on Saturday, 29 Dec. It all seemed so sudden, and one of the most miraculous things in USAP history happened: we made it out to WAIS on our first try! We left McMurdo an hour later than planned, but other than that, everything went smoothly as we got to WAIS early in the afternoon on Sunday. To boot, Elina and I got to spend the majority of our flight in the cockpit of the Herc, including during takeoff!

Sitting in the cockpit of the Herc.

Proof positive.

Airborn!

There were four passengers on the Herc: me, Elina, and two people with Communications, Peter and Caleb, who were trying to get to Byrd field camp, a little over 100 miles from WAIS, to set up communications equipment. The comms folks had been attempting to get to Byrd on their own Herc flight, but delays prevented them from doing so. Their plan was to take this Herc to WAIS and fly to Byrd on one of the Twin Otters at WAIS.

Before we knew it, we had arrived at WAIS. It was a nice day, mostly cloudy but not too bad. We couldn’t complain.

Me and the Herc.

Elina and the Herc.

We said hello to the camp manager, James, located our sleep kits (very important for optimal sleeping!), and went to the “Science Module” where we would work. The mod, as we call it, was already occupied by POLENET/PASSCAL/UNAVCO (6 people) and would be stuffed with a couple more science groups in about a week. Things were going to be tight!

The mod, with Elina back in our designated corner.

Once we got things settled, we got situated with our sleeping tents. Both of us opted to use Arctic Oven tents, rather than the mountain tents that were issued to us. The Arctic Ovens are bigger, and I think, a little more comfortable. Elina took one that was already set up but unoccupied, and I set up one with the help of Elina and the camp Physician’s Assistant (PA), Scott.

My arctic oven tent.

Due to the larger population this year, the camp location is different than last. Last year camp was kept on the winter-over storage berms (elevated mounds of snow), but this year it’s set up in the standard “summertime” location upwind of the berms. One benefit of this is that camp is mostly flat, rather than on a hill.

Bird’s eye view of most of WAIS camp, taken from the Otter. The main camp buildings are in the middle line, with the other Otter at the bottom. Cargo lines are on the left, and tent city is on the right. The winter-over berms are not pictured but to the left of everything shown here.

Our plans here at WAIS are to visit 9 AWS sites by Twin Otter. There are fuel restrictions for our Twin Otter use due to the beginning of the Thwaites science project extravaganza, which is a 4-year effort between the United States Antarctic Program and the British Antarctic Survey to study the Thwaites glacier region, on the West Antarctic coast, with numerous projects. As such, we are only allotted 6 Otter flights. We’re planning on doubling up on some site visits for a flight or two to maximize our chances of visiting all AWS.

Map of West Antarctica with our AWS sites. WAIS camp is at the Kominko-Slade (WAIS) marker. We hope to visit all AWS circled in magenta. The red polygon denotes the approximate extent of Thwaites Glacier, including the ice shelf on the far left end of the polygon.

Cheers! -Dave

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