Friday, November 21, 2014

(there and) Back again: a Scientist's Journey

The past couple of days have been all about sitting on airplanes,
standing in long immigration and customs queues, and waiting in
airports.  The journey back from "The Ice" can be a long one.
Typically it si broken by a night stay here or there; Christchurch is
most common.  Our case was different, however, as our flight was
initially scheduled to arrive late in the evening, and was then
delayed 5 hours due to weather in McMurdo...

So here are the legs of travel between McMurdo and Hanover:

1) Fly from McMurdo to Christchurch, NZ on a USAF C-17 (~5 hours)
2) Fly from Christchurch to Sydney, AU, on Air New Zealand (~3.5
2) Fly from Sydney to Dallas/Ft Worth on Quantas (~15 hours)
3) Fly from DFW to Boston on American (~3 hours)
4) Bus from BOS to Hanover on the Dartmouth Coach (~3 hours).

In the end, we left for the Pegaus ice runway Wednesday evening at about 6:30 pm local
time, which is 17 hours ahead of EST.  I finally arrived in Boston  at
about 10 pm on Thursday, after a total of about 30 hours of continuous
travel, 26 hours of which were actualy spent flying on airplanes.  By
then it was too late to catch the last bus to Hanover, so after a
night in a Boston hotel, I boarded the bus for the final leg home.

That's it for this trip; it's been a whirlwind.  Tune in again next time!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Getting sorted

The process of coming back through McMurdo from a field camp is pretty remarkable, and I think of it as an exercise in shedding; of stuff and responsibility.  Our cargo from the plane arrives in a big bin- first we return our camping gear to the Berg Field Center, from which it came.  We give back our generators and mechanical gear to the Mechanical Equipment Center.  Our radios go back to the communication center.  Finally our science cargo is weighed, measured, tagged, and submitted to the cargo system.  We are then left with our personal gear and cold weather clothing.  We completed this process quickly today, and by evening (just after dinner), we took the near-final step in the process, the "Bag drag" which is essentially checking in for our flight.  We then shed almost the last of our posessions, and are left with the bare minimum; our essential cold-weather clothes (we're required to wear them on the plane) and a small hand-carry bag.  We then become (again) the "ungone"- those who have prepared everything for departure and are simply waiting for a plane.  And as I saw first-hand 2 years ago, this can sometimes take weeks...

Monday, November 17, 2014

Flight out!

Wouldn't it be perfect if the only weather window for days happened to
be on a Sunday.  This morning at 3, it was starting to look like this
might be the case...  But the hopful sign was that the barometer was
rising, a reversal of the trend of the past few days.  By 7:00, when
the pilots were making decisions about whether to fly or not, it was
starting to clear, but not perfect yet; the word came from McMurdo
that they would delay by 3 hours, and make a decision at 10.  I'd
begun the packing process at about 4:30, noting the improving weather
trend and hopeful.

And as it happened, the weather continued to get better and better, to
the point where it was practically 'hot' out by the time the airplane
arrived.  But not everywhere; the pilot said that it'd been foggy up
until only a few miles (about 10) from where we were camped...  whew!

We'd piled our cargo for loading on the plane and were ready.  We
loaded up the plane, hopped on, and after a 2-hour flight, we were
back at McMurdo again!

[Loading the plane.  As when we arrived, the only evidence of our presence is the borehole casing!  We've extended it in case it's a long time until the next folks come for a visit.]

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday is a no-fly day...

And wouldn't you know it, today 'dawned' clear- it looks like the
weather has broken, the barometer's rising.  It would be a perfect day
for us to fly out, but it is not to be as it's Sunday...

So we'll take advantage of this delay to make more measurements, and
we're hopeful for the weather to continue to improve for tomorrow.

Fingers crossed, and I'll be making weather observations starting at 3 tomorrow!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Tasks you just don't want to do!

You know how challenging it is to get out of a warm sleeping bag in
the morning?  Imagine you're having to do just that, but it's -22 C
outside.  Much nicer just to stay in bed, right?  Well, not an
option.  Getting out of the warm bag, putting on clothes, crawling out
into the pretty-much whiteout conditions...

Now imagine having to do that at 3 am.

And then again at 4 am.

And then again at 5 am....

And at that point, I just give up and figure the pleasure of being in
the warm sleeping bag is not worth the difficulty of getting out of it
again and again and again...   so at that point I just stay up.

Why am I doing this?  It's not what you might think.  On a flight day,
the aviation weather office in McMurdo wants hourly updates on our
current weather, starting 6 hours before the planned launch of our
aircraft.  Our schedule calls for the plane to leave McMurdo at 9, so
the first observation has to some in at 3.

So, now consider that you're not only getting out of your warm
sleeping bag, but you are then having to see the really lousy flying
weather, record it faithfully, and duly report it to the weather
office in McMurdo, knowing that it will mean the delay or cancellation
of your pull-out flight...

Now that's a task I could do without!  :)

Friday, November 14, 2014

What does "Nil and Nil" mean?

Well, 'nil' is short for nonexistant, or nothing, and in this case
each nil refers to a weather component, surface definition and horizon
definition.  The airplanes need both in order to fly, so they can see
to land- today we had none of either- it was a 'nil and nil' kind of

but we made the most of it, making more measurements in the borehole.
Still, we'd rather be flying!

 [Camp in 'nil and nil' conditions- it's impossible to see the horizon or identify surface features, this is what we often call 'flat' light.  Very different from a windy storm, but the effects on aviation are the same!]

Thursday, November 13, 2014

First flight attempt, scrubbed for weather.

After I wrote that last blog post, the aviation folks at McMurdo
offered us a chance to fly today, just in case, and we took them up on
it.  We were not optimistic either, but were just as willing to give
it a try as not...  and it got much nicer in the afternoon and
evening, so we were a little more hopeful.

So I was up at 3am to pass weather observations.  And even from
listening to the wind on my tent I could tell it wouldn't be good.  On
popping out of the tent to look around, I saw we had less than 200
meters of visibility in any direction, and no horizon or surface
definition.  Definitely not flyable weather!  But I dutifully called
it in every hour until the call came at 7:30 that we were cancelled.
Then we set up for some science today, making more temperature
measurements in the borhole.  Better than just waiting!

As I write this, the weather has cleared up again, in the
afternoon/evening.  So we are hopeful again.  We'll see what it looks
like tomorrow morning at 3:00!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Excitement is not what you want in borehole logging...

David took the night shift for logging and so I turned in last night
around 11 with good weather and everything working well.  But it
wasn't to last!  David woke me at 03:30 after suffering a power
failure; the generator running the winch cut out.  The reason this is
a big deal is that the winch uses power to hold itself stationary
(there isn't a mechanical brake).  So the winch began to freewheel,
spooling cable down the hole.  Fortunately David managed to stop it
and switch power over to our alternative source, a solar-charged
battery.  Once up, I got the generator going again, and we resumed the

But that's not all!  the weather has been nothing but blue skies for
the past several days, and this morning when David woke me up, we were
socked in with ice fog and a bit of wind (about 12 knots).  With no
horizon or surface definition, it'd be nearly impossible (and quite
dangerous) to land a plane, so the aviation coordinators at McMurdo
have decided to push back our scheduled flight for tomorrow.  We
talked with the weather forecasters and they are not too optimistic
for a clearing before at least a few days, and possibly a week is

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Final measurement log, and it's a doozy!

Today is our final log- we're doing what's called an 'incremental'
tempeerature log, running the probe down in increments and then
stopping to let the probe equilibrate.  In planning this run, we
figured on measuring at 10 meter increments for 10 minutes at a time.
With 762 meters to log, we'd have 77 stops (including the one at
"zero" just below the surface).  So, 77 stops, 74 10 minutes + 3 1 hr
stops = 920 minutes stop time.  Going down at 2 m/min, we will also
have 380 min of down time.  So 1300 minutes to get to the bottom,
assuming 100% efficiency.  Then going 4 m/min up, 190 minutes up, or
if we can go 8, 95 minutes.. say 100 to 200 minutes to come up.  So
between 1400 and 1500 minutes = 23-25 hours total.

As I write this, we're about 8 hours in.  Going to be a long night!

[Settled in for logging.  David at the controls, Maurice at the stove, and I'm, um...  Supervising.]

Monday, November 10, 2014

Almost there!

more Optical logging this morning.  Today we had a bit of a scare,
borehole-logging wise.  We had expanded the centralizers on the
optical televiewer, and this caused the instrument to hang up in the
hole.  When this happens, we need to react quickly, as it could be
catastrophic if too much cable is spooled down the hole, to tangle on
top of the stationary instrument.  This happened once when we were
logging at GISP2, and the result was a knotted cable with a lot of
weight on it; very scary.  Fortunately this time we caught it quickly,
and there were no tangles.  The log went pretty uneventfully after
that, and we started making plans for our EndGame.  We have another
long temperature log to collect tomorrow (between 23 and 25 hours by
my calculations), and then we will be ready to pack up and call in a
plane to take us home!  I'm only hopeful that the weather holds- it's
been beautiful the whole time we've been here, wouldn't it just make
sense if it gets stormy or foggy (the famous Roosevelt Island Fog)
just in time for us to be trying to fly out!

[Maurice, safety mountaineer, paramedic, and cook extraordinaire, making up some toast for a snack]

Fingers crossed for the weather!

Sunday, November 09, 2014

First Optical Log!

Another day, another borehole log.  Things went smoothly this morning,
and after warming up the gear a little, we were ready to log.  The
optical televiewer (OPTV) has to run a little more slowly than the
temperature logger, since we log both down and up at about 2 m/min.
So logging 700 meters (we start the log below the fluid level in the
hole, which is around 60 meters) takes about 350 minutes, or just
about 6 hours.  With the OPTV we log on the way up as well, so the
total trip time in-hole is about 12 hours.  For this reason it's
important to get an early start!  Things like making coffee, having
breakfast, they can be done while logging, but getting underway is the
highest priority since that puts a hard limit on your finishing time
for the day, and if we go too late (I've logged until 4-6am many times
in the past) it makes it difficult to put in a good day the next day.

[David and me about to remove the instrument from the borehole.  As you can see, I'm standing in a 'well' we'd dug in the snow, to access the borehole more easily from inside the tent.  David and I are both wearing gloves to protect our hands from the borehole fluid, Estisol-240, which has about the volatility of diesel fuel...]

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Temperatures, take 2.

Today I got up after a restful night, came to the Endurance tent
(where we have our kitchen and borehole logging setup), and checked in
via our HF radio, similar to a ham radio.  It worked well; many people
these days eschew the use of the HF radio in favor of more modern
satellite phones.  I prefer the HF if I can use it, as there are many
benefits, and we don't need satellites for this kind of simple

So, today was another tempmerature log.  We got going quickly, and
were underway down the hole by 9:00.  The whole log down went
smoothly, and we turned around efficiently and are on our way back up
the hole as I type this.  Maurice and David are right now out digging
up our winter-over weather station, while I tend the winch and make
sure things are going smoothly on the trip back up to the surface.

Tomorrow, we start Optical logging!

Friday, November 07, 2014

First Data!

This morning I kept waking up fearing that I'd overslept our daily
check-in call.  But I hadn't.  I just wasn't used to how light it was
in the tent all night...

After checking in with McMurdo to assure them that all was well, we
set about getting started with the business end of our trip;
collecting data.  Today was a temperature log day, so we started by
assemblign the system; temperature probe, 'sinker' weight, winch,
'logger box', computer, and a generator to run it all.  After a few
false starts involving diffoculties with the depth counter, we got off
and running with the log.  The first step is to lower the probe until
it reaches the borehole fluid, and then let it soak there for about an
hour while the tempearture of the probe system comes into equilibrium
with the fluid.  Then we started off down the hole, at about 2 meters
per minute.  So to go 700 meters (from the fluid to the bottom) took
us about 350 minutes, or just under 6 hours.  Then we took a look at
the data and started back up!  When bringing the tool back to the
surface, the cable that has been in the borehole fluid comes up wet,
and this is always a challenge and creates a mess.  But we'd rigged a
new 'cable wiping' system, which seemed to work perfectly!  Before,
we'd always had to have a hand on the cable, wiping it with an
absorbent pad.  This makes life much easier!  By the time we got to
the surface, it was close to midnight; a long day, but worthwhile as
we successfully collected our first temperature profile today!

[David, Dartmouth '14, pleased with the performance of the logging system!  The cable goes from the borehole on the left foreground, over the pulley and to the winch in the background- the logging electronics are housed in the blue-foam 'hot box' and logging is controlled by the laptop]

Tomorrow, another temperature profile, and setting up for optical

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Finally getting to ROOS!

Put in!

Today we finally got to get out to Roosevelt Island.  I've been waiting 2 years for this.  No cancellations the night before, so we got up early and packed up our bags and vacated our rooms, and went for breakfast.

I then went back to our office to wait for the phone call that would give us a go/no-go for the flight.  It was a go!  And as field team leader I needed to go down to the airfield with the aircrew so that I
could see them loading the airplane, in particular to ensure our emergency equipment was on board.

Then a 2 hour flight got us to Roosevelt Island, and the weather was still spectacularly clear.  They set us down right next to the borehole, shut the engines down, and we got off the plane to silence (except for the stiff breeze blowing).  The first thing was to get a tent up and get communications with McMurdo, so David and Maurice went for the tent while I fired up the iridium phone.  5 minutes later we had connected with McMurdo, and had our tent up; the air crew was busy unloading our cargo.  Then a few handshakes and they were off again, leaving us again in the quiet of the ice sheet, save for the sound of the wind.

[Here we are, unloading the plane (a repurposed DC-3 known as a Bassler), establishing camp on an otherwise empty expanse of ice.  The borehole casing, visible sticking up on the right, is the only sign that people have been here...]

Our next step was to transform our pile of cargo into a camp, putting up tents, getting a stove going, and making some hot drinks.  Then we started setting up the first of our science gear.  We'd set up our large Endurance tent over the borehole, so we were able to set up everything inside.  Once the gear was set up, we rigged our 'ice breaker' tool and went down to see if we could find the top of the fluid in the borehole, which often has a plug of ice that we have to break through.  To our surprise, we couldn't feel the ice at all!  The ice plug was either not there or just weaker than wwe imagined...  so
we brought the ice-breaker to the surface, and turned in.  A great first day!

[side note- this and subsequent posts 'from the field' were written in the field, and then posted later when I got back, but backdated to the appropriate day in the field.  Hope that's not too confusing!]

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Another busy day, all cargo processed!

Unfortunately no pictures from today- we were so busy getting everything done that I didn't think to snap any pictures.  Lets see- we started the day with some more training- our Environmental training (don't spill stuff on Antarctica) was the last in our required set of courses. 

Then we got busy, finding the last-minute items, packing them up, and in particular pulling out our FOOD!  Our goal is to spend about a week at Roosevelt Island, but given the way the weather is there, we're bringing a month's supply of food.  So that took most of the afternoon to get it all squared away. 

In the end, we have lifted, moved, packaged, weighed, measured, and tagged 2,578 pounds of cargo.  Now all we need is a plane in which to load it!  I meet with the flight coordinator to discuss this tomorrow; the most important piece of what we will discuss will be our ACL, or 'allowable cabin load', how much stuff we can safely put on the plane, which depends on the distance being flown, expected weather, and the conditions at the site.  Our ACL will be somewhere between 2,000 and 4,500 pounds.  Given that we've packed already over 2,500, and the three passengers and our gear will add another 600, if they want us to shave our weight down to 2,000, we'll have some very interesting conversations tomorrow! 

But I hope that won't happen.  Stay tuned to see if it does!

Monday, November 03, 2014

Day 2: Training, Training, Training!

Today we started a barrage of training:  light vehicle training, waste management training, fire safety training, light vehicle walkaround, field safety training...

In between it all we managed to get our communications gear and our generators, and package up some more of our equipment.  Soon we'll be ready to head out! 

And this evening we went over food.  That's one of the last things we need to collect and get packaged up.  We hope to be at Roosevelt Island only 7 days, but we're bringing about 30 days worth of food, as the weather out there is notoriously bad for getting flights in, and we want to be sure we don't go hungry waiting for a plane!  Tomorrow: pulling food, and packing up the last of our gear.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Productive first day in MacTown

On Sundays, most of McMurdo Station takes the day off.  As we arrived on station late on a Saturday evening, our first chance to get to some of the offices we need to work with to get our show on the road won't come until  tomorrow morning.  But we need to get turned around and get to Roosevelt Island as soon as possible, so we didn't sit idle.  We managed to find our cargo, check out our tents and camping gear, and get much of it packed up, loaded on a pallet, weighed and measured and ready to load on to the aircraft:

One half of our gear.  There's also a bunch of tents and other equipment.  And still to come are generators and radios, which we couldn't get on a Sunday.  But tomorrow's another day!  And it will be filled with training.  I'll report on it then!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Made it to McMurdo!

After another day's delay (that's why you didn't see a post from me yesterday...) we finally took off today.  It was a full flight, 103 passengers, and even a C-17 gets crowded with that many folks. 

But we made good time, arriving at McMurdo about 5 1/2 hours later.  Now we get to start checking out our gear, moving cargo around, and participating in more training...

Stay tuned!