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.

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