Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Jack Holt Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Back to the Future: Meet our Flying Laboratory Fri, 11 Dec 2009 00:06:13 +0000 Jack Holt MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Imagine it’s 1942 and you are a pilot ferrying a brand new Douglas C-47 twin-engine airplane from the factory in sunny Santa Monica, California to England to support the Royal Air Force’s efforts to stop Hitler.  The ongoing war is about the only thing on your mind.  What if someone told you that 67 years later this same exact airplane, having survived WWII and 6 more decades without a major mishap would become a high-tech flying laboratory with a comprehensive suite of state-of-the-art geophysical instruments?  And what if they told you this flying lab would be conducting 8-hour survey flights far into the interior of Antarctica, the ice-covered continent at the south pole?  I bet it would sound like science fiction, pure fantasy.  But that is exactly what happened.  Let me tell you why and how.

Enter the past:  The DC-3, or C-47 military variant, is intermediate in size and range between the Hercules and Twin Otter, and is one of the few types of aircraft that can be fitted with skis.  The first plane to land at the south pole was a C-47.  However, all of the existing airframes are very old and not suitable for sustained operations of the type we need for scientific exploration.  Fortunately, a company in Wisconsin gives these airplanes a second life by completely restoring them from the bare frame, adding more powerful and safe turbine engines, new electrical and fuel systems, flight instruments, you name it.  They even lengthen the fuselage by over a meter.  The airplanes are essentially new when they roll out of the facility.

The LC-130 Hercules (left) and C-47 (right).

Our project saw the need for such an aircraft and undertook the modification of one to conduct long-range airborne surveys in Antarctica and Greenland.  Last season in Antarctica we proved its capability by surveying a vast, largely unknown part of East Antarctica using fuel and facilities at the coastal stations of McMurdo (US), Casey (Australia), and Dumont d’Urville (France).  We made two stops at Concordia Station (French/Italian) in the interior and obtained about two dozen barrels of fuel there, but that was the only interior resource we used.  We were also able to pack up and move ourselves between these stations while conducting surveys along the way.  This is a first, and has opened the door to a new era of Antarctic exploration.

I have included some video of our unique aircraft and team members in action.  In the next installment I’ll explain a bit about radar and show you some data that we’ve acquired here, since that provides the first and best picture of what is below the ice.  Stay tuned.

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Exploring the Unexplored Continent Thu, 10 Dec 2009 00:26:59 +0000 Jack Holt MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– I’d like to do a little scene-setting here and explain what it’s like to explore the interior of Antarctica.  Using your imagination, consider an area a bit larger than the contiguous United States and Mexico combined, roughly circular, and covered by a dome of ice up to 4 km thick.  There are only about a dozen “cities” (research stations) inhabiting this strange land, nearly all of which are on the coast.  Your task is to map the ice sheet, including ice thickness, internal layering, buried mountain ranges, valleys, scores of lakes, and who knows what else.  And while you’re at it, precisely measure the elevation of the ice surface and also determine what kind of rocks make up the buried landscape.  Your first thought might be satellites, and that’s a good start.  You can map the surface quite well from space.  But getting at the hidden world below is an entirely different story.  So far we don’t have the ability to map through ice on Earth from orbit, even though we can do it on Mars.  You either need to drive all over the surface, which would take a really really long time, or find a way to do it from an airplane.

In the 1970’s, an international effort to fly ice-penetrating radar over Antarctica resulted in the first rough maps of the sub-ice world.  A ski-equipped Navy LC-130 Hercules was outfitted with radar and flown for long distances.  This reconnaissance was invaluable, but the program went by the wayside after the specially modified airplane crashed doing other work.  The concept was largely put aside until the early 1990’s when glaciologists and geologists got together and tried again.  By this point, it was clear to some that critical additional information could be obtained by including other measurements, namely gravity and magnetics to help understand the geology beneath.  Incredibly, the scientists stuffed all these instruments and a laser altimeter (we didn’t have satellite laser altimeters then) into a much smaller aircraft, a deHavilland Twin Otter.  The Otter is much cheaper to operate and supportable at temporary field camps, so it was perfect for high-resolution studies of specific problems.  

A ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules with jet assisted takeoff (JATO).

Field camps were built each season and LC-130’s delivered fuel for the Twin Otter to use.  This went on until 2001 and then again in the 2004-05 season, and many discoveries were made; however, the Twin Otter just can’t reach the deep interior without heavy support, and this has become very expensive.  Such resources are also very limited.  LC-130’s are very costly to operate, are much larger than needed for this type of work, and require a huge ground crew to support.

The Twin Otter.

The Twin Otter flying over Thwaites Glacier Remote Field Camp.

Having outstripped the capacity of Twin Otters, what next? In my next dispatch, I’ll tell you about what might seem an unlikely platform for Antarctica research: a twin engine aircraft that first saw action during World War II.

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