Friday, November 19, 2010

A day trip to the Larsen B

Finally, a weather break. Yesterday late morning, all the weather signs looked good, and we took off in a Twin Otter from Rothera. It was cloudy here, but as we went north, the sky became totally clear and we were presented with phenomenal views of the Larsen C ice shelf. We were very surprised to see many melt pools this early in the season. It is shaping up to be a warm southern summer here.

Getting closer to Scar Inlet, a remnant of the former Larsen B ice shelf, another surprise awaits us: blue open water as far as the eye can see. This is the same area we were not able to access by icebreaker last year. Now, there is no sea ice in sight, and summer hasn't even really started yet. The picture shows the Leppard and Flask Glacier entering the Scar Inlet. We are interested in how these glaciers will react if the ice shelf falls apart.

The first landing side was on the Flask Glacier, where, last February, we installed a sophisticated weather station, that also measures the motion of the ice and uplinks data through the Iridium satellite phone system. We did some minor repairs here.

We had also installed a GPS station last February, which appears to be working just fine. So we didn't land there, but just flew by it. Imagine the surprise when we could still see the tracks that the airplane made (and even the sled tracks from hauling the batteries). These tracks were made more than nine months ago, before the southern winter. There was basically no snow fall here. At the same time, only a few kilometers away, at the top of the ridge, it has snowed about 10 m in the same time!
After a stop on Leppard Glacier to fix solar panels, we landed about 4 km away from a GPS station on land. This is used to measure the rebound of the land, as the ice load is reduced. We did a small upgrade to that station and had a late evening hike back to the plane.

Coming back to Rothera shortly before midnight we were treated with beautiful light as the sun was setting: the end of a successful day after two weeks of waiting.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

We've been stuck at the British research station, Rothera, for well over a week now, and no end of the stormy weather is in sight. Of course we are eager to get onto the glacier, but these are not the conditions to fly a plane in!

I always thought that Antarctica was supposed to be the driest, coldest, and windiest continent. I suppose the peninsula is a bit different. Windy, yes. Cold, not really (it's right around freezing most of the time). Dry, I wish. It's been snowing every day, although the snow tends to come more horizontally than vertically.

We do get the occasional clearing, but unfortunately it just hasn't lasted for more than a few hours.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In Rothera

We're in Rothera now, a research station of about 50 people run by the British Antarctic Survey. The 5 hour trip was mostly above clouds and unremarkable, except for the lack of cabin heat. The first view of the Peninsula came only shortly before touchdown. It also revealed many layers of lenticular (lens-shaped) clouds, a reminder of the windy conditions we can expect in the field.
We were in Rothera last February, late in the Antarctic summer. It looks different now with more than 1 m of snow. The icebergs and seals add a nice touch to the scenery. Now we're getting ready to catch the first opportunity of a weather window.
The picture below shows the Dash 7 after the arrival from Punta Arenas. The same type of airplane is also used all over Greenland for passenger travel, so I was quite used to it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

On the way to the Antarctic Peninsula

We're back in Punta Arenas, Chile, from where we departed on our ship-based journey to the Antarctic Peninsula earlier this year. This trip will be shorter (we think). The goal is to dig out a weather station that has seen about 9 m of snow fall since February and to do some upgrades on other instruments we have deployed. We will fly from Punta Arenas to the British station Rothera, from where we continue by Twin Otter. Right now we're waiting for the weather to improve, so we can get to Rothera.
While waiting, Ted Scambos and I got the chance to get on board a NASA DC-8. A team of about 40 scientists and research technicians is in town as part of NASA's Operation Ice Bridge to measure changes in the ice sheets.

The DC-8 is a spacious research platform, and more importantly, it can stay in the air for more than 12 hours. That way a large part of Antarctica can be reached from South America.

The aircraft is filled with instruments: two different kinds of lasers, an ice-penetrating radar, and a gravimeter. Our flight took us straight south, then in a long arc around the South Pole, and then back to Punta Arenas, flying directly over the South Pole (I pressed the shutter a few seconds too early)

We did indeed go around the whole planet yesterday. South Pole station was well visible, even from almost 40,000 feet, but we didn't notice anybody coming out and waving at us.
The ice sheet is a huge white flat place. And yet, there are often interesting things to see. Occasionally a mountain will peak through the ice cover. In the photo below you can see sastrugi, wind ripples that are common on snow. The larger patches are areas known as megadunes (I think), with large slightly darker patches, which are regularly swept clean of new snow. The very old hardened snow reflects light differently, so they stand out.

The most beautiful part was flying over the southern tip of South America though. Tierra del Fuego is a beautiful mountainous and glaciated landscape, and it is a rare treat to see it free of clouds.