Published: December 21st 2007December 21st 2007
This year in Antarctica the buzzword (well, acronym) seems to be "AGAP" (A
mbertsev (Mountain) P
rovince) due to the incredible logistics involved in establishing a brand new deep field camp at a 12,400ft elevation (which feels more like 14,000ft at the polar latitudes due to the extreme cold conditions) in -40*F temperatures. The point of the science is to explore the Gambertsev Mountain range that is completely submerged below the snow and ice to decode how a huge mountain range came to be in the middle of the continent, what the climate past was like in this region, and how this could all be effected by rising temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations (notice a pattern?!?). For more about the science, here's a good article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6145642.stm
Judy, this is the research project that you emailed me about Washington University in St. Louis was taking part in and, ironically, Columbia's Lamont Doherty Earth Institute (where I used to work) is also one of the lead grant recipients as well. Due to logistics issues, there will not be any science performed from the camp this year (there is only a one month window of "summer" during which the temperatures are above -50*F and the
airplanes can actually land in the region) so they will be flying out of the South Pole station instead to do aerial mapping in preparation for next year's intensive studies.
Although we were scheduled to fly out on Tuesday, they were waiting for perfectly clear conditions to execute this high-risk flight as there was no precident for such an endeavor. After months of deliberation, it was decided that 3 "Tiger Strike" flights would be planned in which 1 hour of work was accomplished each time, therefore eliminating the need for a crew to acclimatize at a lower altitude for a few days before beginning the work. This is about how long a human can work before the low intake of oxygen begins to interfere with basic organ functions and the body experiences AMS (Acute Mountain Syndrome), HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), and/or HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema). They made us go to a "High Altitude Training" coarse and let me tell you how scary that stuff is. The scariest part about them is that you have no idea how well your body will react to being at high altitudes until you actually go- and what a better place to test
out my body than Antarctica! After 4 days of taking Diamox (a diarrheic prescribed for individuals going to high altitudes) and going to sleep early in preparation for our long day of flying, we finally woke up to a "flight delayed- transport time TBD" on Friday. Okay, so we were getting somewhere. I went back to sleep for a few hours and woke up around 10AM to learn that we were scheduled to leave at 1:45PM which put our return time near 2AM. Despite the 40*F temperatures in McMurdo (jealous at home?!? It's now warmer here than NYC!) we all put on 2 layers of long underwear, our insulated bibs and giant Big Red coats and boarded a Delta for the 45 minute trip out to the new Willy Field runway on the Ross Ice Shelf. We were shepherded onto the ski-equipped C-130 Air Force airplane waiting for us, cargo-strapped our bags down in the middle isle, and buckled ourselves into the jump seats attached along the sides of the plane. This was it- we were really off on an adventure! The C-130 is the largest ski-equipped airplane (and we have every one with skis in existence down here in
Antarctica!), and can land many tons of cargo anywhere within Antarctica (it's taking off again that poses a problem… read on…) with enough compact snow. It's funny because the Air Force guys are based out of upstate New York so it's great to see fellow Yankee hat wearers and people who speak English like me in this Colorado-and-Alaska dominated population.
We flew 3.5 hours to the location determined for AGAP, which is somewhere in East Antarctica in between the South Pole and Vostok, the Russian station where the coldest temperatures ever recorded on earth were witnessed. A few minutes before landing we all layered on a few more fleece jackets, 2 pairs of gloves, 2 hats and 2 face coverings along with our big goggles that we had taped the bottoms of to prevent breath vapor from going inside to cloud the lenses and then freeze over. We had to cover every single inch of skin (even under the goggle straps) because the ambient temperatures of -40*F plus the wind chill factor can attack without warning. After landing on the snow we taxied over to the camp location (somewhere in the middle of the white abyss), they opened the tail
of the airplane, and on-cue sent the two large pallets of tents and gear off rolling at high speed down the ramp and out onto the snow. What a rush! We drove a few hundred feet away, the plane came to a stop, and we all walked out the back ramp and immediately got to work setting up the Arctic Chief tents for an hour as we had done in our dress rehearsal (in full ECW gear in McMurdo- it must have been hysterical to watch!) the week before. As the fastest hour of my life came to an end, we were huffing and puffing but had completely put up both tents, dug deadmen all around to anchor them into the snow, had set up the furnaces inside and the fuel drums outside, and tied everything down to prevent it from blowing away.
We then re-boarded the C-130 and taxied back-and-forth for almost 2 hours (to pack down a runway so we could generate enough speed to take off). After the 2nd pass they told us all that we had to leave our seats and sit in the tail section of the plane to balance our weight for the takeoff.
It seems the lack of a runway coupled with the high altitude was making it extra hard for them to generate enough speed to launch. We climbed up onto the ramp perched at a 45* angle, they attached cargo straps across the plane so we could hold on, and made another pass. We reached a fairly high speed but could only get up to 55 knots so we got up, stretched, and ate as they taxied back for out 4th attempt. Finally we heard the loadmasters scream "this is it!" through our earplugs and we felt ourselves reach the necessary 65 knot speed to shoot off the JATO (jet assisted take off) rockets to launch us up to 90 knots so we could get airborne. Finally! There was an awesome display of fireworks outside the windows as all 8 JATO rockets shot off with a fascinating display of pyrotechnics... although my lungs will forever be scarred from the incredible stench that came up in the form of black smoke through the floorholes, watching space launches will never be as exciting again as I have now felt the propulsive power of jets… We flew about an hour and a half to
the South Pole and although were told that we would be able to get out there while they refueled, the loadmasters were eager to get "home" (back to their little bunks on the runway at McMurdo?!?) and jaded from their daily trips to the Pole (poor souls!) so we sat and took photos out the window as they refueled and prepared for another takeoff. Boo! Does landing somewhere count as actually "being" there?!? I could see the old "dome" building and new "elevated station" but the actual south pole was hidden on the opposite side so my phots are not as exciting as they should have been. This takeoff was nowhere near as crazy and I was soon lulled into sleep by the deafening drone of the engines for the next 3 hours back to McMurdo. We arrived back here at 2AM which meant that I got today off from work and gave me my 2nd true weekend in McMurdo (the next day was Sunday, our regularly scheduled day off). Yeah! Another group of Carps headed back out there on Monday, only to be "boomeranged" (they flew all the way out there, circled, decided it was too dangerous to land,
and flew all the way back to McMurdo- 7 hours total) and had to repeat the flight the next day. Once they finally got there they accomplished more than expected, so although we're scheduled again for this week (and have been bumped for weather twice already) to set up more structures, there is a chance we might not get to go at all before Christmas. If we do, I'm gonna bring someone's video camera so I can document the experience better and hopefully come up with a bribe for the Air Force pilots and loadmasters to convince them to let us off at the Pole so we can take photos with the barbershop pole (for real!) and breath some of the "Freshest Air on Earth" (as they claim it to be).
Just another week on the harshest continent on earth! I am so lucky to be able to go on these crazy adventures and I truly apologize about taking so long to write and post these blogs but my computer time is limited and the upload speed is scarily slow (the bandwidth for all of McMurdo is currently around the amount available to a single home in the States).
Thanks for the good wishes from everyone and please stay warm during all the snowfall that's pelting most of the Northeast! Hahahaha!
Random tip I learned during Happy Camper: When you want to stay warmest outside, never have a cotton layer next to your body. You should wear polypropylene, wool, or any other long-underwear type clothing as your base layer, and then put on many more layers of fleece followed by a wind-breaking "shell" on the outside. Don't wear cotton socks or tank tops (as I used to do) as they will get wet from sweat and then cool your whole body down as they try to dry. Also, your fingers will stay toasty warm if you wear gloveliners (thin knitted gloves) under your larger gloves and this also helps if you have to remove your glove to do some fine work for a minute or two. And the best tip of all- if you're starting to feel cold, SHOVEL SNOW and you'll be toasty warm before you know it!
There are more photos below