Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Jake Walter Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 One Month in the Deep Field, Part 5 Sun, 28 Dec 2008 18:43:18 +0000 Jake Walter CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND– For about a month, we worked every single day, taking turns cooking for each other (some meals more agreeable than others – there were some complaints about my dishes being too spicy!), sleeping in individual mountain tents, and mostly working on the seismic line, because with each new explosion, we needed to dig out 24 geophones and move the line a little farther. In addition, we had to dig a hole about six feet deep at each shot location due to a steam drill that broke down on us. It was work that left my back and shoulders in a miserable state of disrepair.

A sun dog over our camp.

So at the end and after another set of long Skidoo rides to prep the GPS stations for next winter and pick up the passive seismometers, the Basler came and picked us and our gear up and whisked us off to McMurdo. And after a few days of returning equipment and shipping other equipment home, we left for Christchurch, which is where I am writing this update.

Now that the Antarctica portion of the journey is over, you would think that the drama and excitement is over. However, with science, that’s not the case! Because our instrumentation is so sensitive, and we have collected so much data, it is often hard to know immediately what your data will yield – that’s why we have the rest of the year to toil in front of a computer screen! Our group is just now on the verge of making our little discoveries, because all the data must now be processed and interpreted, which is the fun part! It’s the scientific intrigue that brings people by the hundreds down South and the discoveries that come from that which makes all the bodily abuse worth it. The Antarctic continent has infinite mysteries still left to discover and we can only chip away at them one long and brutal field season at a time.

Professor Slawek Tulaczyk examines the data while still in camp.
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One Month in the Deep Field, Part 4 Fri, 26 Dec 2008 19:19:56 +0000 Jake Walter CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND– In Monday’s dispatch, I described how we use passive seismometers to measure the movement of Whillians Ice Stream.

The other science component of the project is to image the subglacial lake underneath Whillans Ice Stream. To do this, we set off a series of explosions, with instruments called geophones to measure the waves emanating from the explosions. Because the waves bounce off all the layers of the subsurface, we can then figure out how deep all the layers are and eventually produce a cross-sectional map of what lies beneath the surface! Have a look at this video of the explosions.

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One Month in the Deep Field, Part 3 Tue, 23 Dec 2008 22:26:57 +0000 Jake Walter CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND– After a month in the deep field, I’m back in Christchurch with an internet connection and able to share some of the video we shot.

We had fairly windy weather the whole time we were out, but were left tent-bound by a storm that lasted about three days. This was the coldest time out on the ice, because the wind just finds all the seams in your clothes and you run from your personal tent to the cook tent, and sometimes to the toilet tent! This video clip was shot during the blow and gives you an idea of the conditions.

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One Month in the Deep Field, Part 2 Tue, 23 Dec 2008 00:44:09 +0000 Jake Walter CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND– When you’re in the deep field, your only means of communication with the rest of the world is a satellite phone. There’s no internet and no email. With our field season complete, I’m back in Christchurch and back in touch, with lots to report about our month in the field. Here’s my second installment.

We spent the first week or so in the deep field visiting GPS stations that were left out on the ice over-winter and setting out passive seismometers. Whillans Ice Stream behaves in a unique way – it slips twice a day in episodes that are linked to the tidal cycle. The passive seismometers record this slip, because it is a rupture similar to an earthquake, but much slower.

Here I’ve dug a hole and then placed a passive seismometer in the hole. I am roped in due to crevasses in the area.

To get to all of our sites, we used Ski-doos with sledges attached to the rear with all our science and safety gear attached. During setup, at the beginning of the season, and takedown, at the end, Slawek and I would go on rides covering over 150 km and lasting 9-10 hours. It is hard not to hesitate getting on the Skidoos in the morning, when the temperature is at 20 degrees below zero Celsius and there is already a 20 knot wind blowing, knowing you will be going 30 mph sometimes directly into it!

Our Ski-doos with sledges attached to the rear with all our science and safety gear attached.

Because our bodies have to generate all this heat, it is important to stay well-fed and healthy out on the ice. One of the breakfast favorites was frozen eggs. In the video, you see a block of eggs sizzling on the pan. In order to break off a chunk from the main supply, a hacksaw and hammer/chisel are required.

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One Month in the Deep Field, Part 1 Sat, 20 Dec 2008 22:47:56 +0000 Jake Walter ABOARD AN LC-130 EN ROUTE TO CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND– It’s with a heavy heart that I climb aboard “Ivan the Terra” bus to get transported to Willy Field and off the Antarctic continent. As the bus pulls onto the sea ice and we continue onto the runway, I catch myself looking back and stealing glimpses of the smoking summit of Erebus and McMurdo Station nestled right next to it. We board an LC-130, and on the 9 hour flight I’m able to reminisce about the six and a half weeks I spent on the continent.

We arrived at the very end of October excited and enthusiastic – ready to go. The excitement really builds when you are on the flight over, until you step off the plane and you are assaulted by the frigid cold and the wind blows hard on your face. What’s more is that you dishearteningly realize you will spend at least a month living out of a tent in these conditions, working hard every day outside – more on that in a bit. It took us about two weeks to go through Happy Camper School, Crevasse Rescue Training, Snowmachine training, and to get all our gear in proper order.

We embarked from McMurdo in a Hercules LC-130 to Siple Dome. Because Siple Dome is far enough off-base, the pilots do not turn off the engines and they perform a cargo drop, as you can see in this clip.

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From Siple Dome, we flew on the Basler, which is a DC-3 aircraft that was originally built in the 1940’s. Luckily for us, it has had some significant upgrades since then, i.e. avionics, new engines, etc. Have a look at this video of the Basler leaving us at our camp.

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Life on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Wed, 26 Nov 2008 06:30:51 +0000 Jake Walter WHILLANS ICE STREAM, ANTARCTICA– In this audio dispatch, I describe our first week in our field camp on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Hear about our research on lakes under the glaciers and get a slice of life as a remote polar scientist.

The Under the Glaciers project field camp on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet during the 2007 season.
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Don’t Fall in That Crack Tue, 18 Nov 2008 20:44:22 +0000 Jake Walter MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Imagine yourself driving a snowmobile in bone-chilling cold, upon a windswept snowfield, in Antarctica, your body is weary and you look forward to collapsing into your sleeping bag. Suddenly, the snowmobile in front of you, to which you are roped, disappears from view! You immediately stop and jam into reverse, because you know your snowmobile can stop the fall. Now the rope is tensioned and the person is dangling from the rope, out of view, and they are likely injured or worse. Also, you know it might take days or a week for any rescue professionals, so it is up to you to extract your friend from the crevasse. What do you do?

That is the scenario we prepared for in our Snowcraft II course or Crevasse Rescue course. Crevasses occur in actively moving ice when the ice is stretched and because the ice in Antarctica is extremely thick, crevasses can be hundreds of feet deep. When our team is out in field, we plan our snowmobile travel to avoid crevasses, but it is always smart to be prepared for any accidents that may happen.

A crevasse near McMurdo Station.

We began the day by getting fitted for harnesses and practicing knot tying and general concepts in setting up a crevasse rescue. We learned that by using a system of pulleys and prussiks (which is a special kind of knot used to grip climbing rope), one person does not have to be very strong to lift someone out of a crevasse.

Mountaineer instructor Danny Uhlmann shows the team how to properly set a snow anchor, one of the first steps in initiating a crevasse rescue. The Under the Glaciers team consists of University of California Santa Cruz Professor Slawek Tulaczyk, University of California Santa Cruz graduate student Jake Walter, University of Chicago undergraduate student Saffia Hossainzadeh, and Northumbria University Professor John Woodward.

After lunch, we drove out to the “crevasse simulator, ” which is a pit that has been dug into the snow on the Ross Ice Shelf, near the site of our Snowcraft I course or more fondly known as Happy Camper School, which we completed earlier in the week. Here, we practiced some of the techniques, we learned indoors, including that you can anchor someone using snow! We got the chance to apply them outside and everyone got lots of practice running through scenarios with our instructor, Danny Uhlmann.

To highlight the importance of these trainings, our camp is so remote and far away from any established bases, it could take a search and rescue team multiple days to reach us in the event of an accident. So we have to be self-sufficient and it is our hope that we will never have to use any of the techniques that we learned in this course. When you come down to the ice, you realize that scientists from all fields and the people who support them here risk their lives daily in Antarctica, in order to pursue their studies of this place, the last continent.

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