Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Saffia Hossainzadeh Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Escorting Dynamite Through Siple Dome Tue, 25 Nov 2008 19:50:24 +0000 Saffia Hossainzadeh WHILLANS ICE STREAM / ICE STREAM B, ANTARCTICA– In these two audio dispatches, I describe our journey to our field site via a stop at Siple Dome station. In part one, hear about the difficulties involved in escorting 700 pounds of explosives through Antarctica. In part two, hear about our combat-style landing at Siple Dome’s remote air strip.

Part I

Part II

The main structure at Siple Dome.
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- 57 Degrees with Wind Chill Fri, 21 Nov 2008 21:41:10 +0000 Saffia Hossainzadeh MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Any person who is required to venture off base, or out of McMurdo, has to take a course called Snowcraft 1 or ‘Happy Camper School’. We learn the basics of camping in Antarctica with our survival kit – a bag filled with a tent, MSR stove, sleeping bag, ice ax, pee bottle, shovel, matches, and enough dehydrated food to last for about three days. Everyone who leaves McMurdo is issued one, and the course teaches you how to use everything in there as well as other techniques of what to do in emergency situations. We simulate white outs, how to build or dig a quinsy, trench, and ice wall, and also how to use the high frequency (HF) or very high frequency (VHF) radios.

Since I have only been camping a handful of times, I was naïve to think that living outside in Antarctica would be just as easy, but simply colder, than my previous experiences. Little did I understand what cold entails.

One of the unusual vehicles we traveled in.

Some other vehicles with characteristic wheels of Antarctica.

As we load our bags into a gritty cargo truck – with conveyor belt wheels as a military tank would have – a ladder shoots out the back so that we can climb into it, and we head down to ‘Happy Camper School’. We don’t go very far – just down and around the hillside where McMurdo is situated and past the distinguishable green Scott base (the New Zealand base). Then we continue onto the ice shelf and past sea ice. There aren’t any paved roads on this ice shelf, but the pathways are marked by bamboo poles with flags.

This is how ‘roads’ are demarcated on the ice shelf.

Also, I realize that in this general direction I can barely make out two airplanes in the horizon – this must be one of the airfields, and I believe it’s the one we landed on. So, the C-17 landed on an ice shelf, and we first step foot not on the continent but the ice shelf. Isn’t that amazing? We landed on an ice shelf – the plane lands and takes off on a floating piece of ice. It is anchored and connected to land at some point, but at that point, there is no land underneath. The ice is thick enough and strong enough to support huge airplanes and vehicles, and even the piercing steps of our weight.

When the ten of us and instructor get dropped off, we walked to the instructor’s hut about 400 meters away. We were walking on a flat stretch of snow with mountains in every direction which were the only features that had speckled areas of darkness – either bare land or on some of them shadows of peaks and troughs in the mountainside. Straight ahead, the closest mountain stood – Mt. Erebus with smoke fuming out of its peak as if it were coming out of a chimney.

Me with Mt. Erebus in the background. It is about 25 miles from where I was to the summit, as the crow flies.

Not ever having seen a volcano before I could immediately tell that the cloud-like formation had rapid movement and was escaping from the peak. How amazing it is that the mountain looks like any other – with the same amount of snow draped all over its side even though there’s live lava inside of it.

Crunching in the snow and making inch deep footprints with my big blue boots kept me warm, too warm in fact because my sunglasses began to fog up. This incident provoked my awareness to water’s first signs of unrest. Little did I know that I would be captured in this battle against water’s transformation, and there would be no end in sight.

At first all was going well. Inside the instructors hut we practiced turning on MSR stoves, which was simple enough. But then we had to start setting up everything outside – setting up tents, the kitchen, and the snow walls. To set up tents and to anchor it, you must dig. You dig what are called ‘dead man anchors’ and then you must tie the string tightly. This digging makes you warm and sweaty, and this causes your sunglasses to become foggy, once again. Now I could only see through a clear space about the size of a dime on each lens. Then, in order to grip the fine string to make taut knots, your gloves must be removed, but this leaves you with cold, hard hands after tying too many. So it was a constant struggle to do a lot, move fast, but not too much so that you overheat. Because then your sunglasses would fog up leaving you just seeing vague shapes of red and no texture of the ground.

Then to build a snow wall, we cut blocks of ice with a saw and shovel, and created half circles about four feet high around each tent facing the direction strongest wind. Our group of about ten people split up. Some of them were the ‘brick-makers’, some of them transported the ‘bricks’, and others were the masons, building the wall. The blocks were about 18 inches long, 8 inches wide and about 18 inches tall, but they were extremely heavy and hard to get a good grip on. I was mainly one of the transporters, so that required a lot of brawn that was being built at that moment. I had no idea that ice could be so heavy. The only way I could carry them was to position one side of it against my body and hug the sides. But especially if the corners were not cut straight and rigidly, they’d break or slide through my hands. I’d sweat a lot, which would make my glasses fog up, but by this time, my sun goggles had gotten warm enough to produce condensation on the inside. The water battle was raging, and the water was gaining on me in my weary state.

Then I made a fatal mistake – I took off my glasses and left them hanging around my neck. When I reached for them later they had a frozen layer of water on the inside: a contoured dotted layer of ice. I was defeated. Now I couldn’t see anything out of them (luckily I had another pair in my bag to use). But I smiled to myself as I held the glasses. This is a reminder to me that physical processes like water transformation of evaporation and condensation occur all around us everywhere. It’s too bad I have avoided seeing this until now.

In the tent at night it was cold, and I could feel the ice beneath my air pad and foam pad. I later learned that I wasn’t utilizing my sleeping gear correctly – the fleece is supposed to be lining between you and your sleeping bag, not just a layer between the ground and your sleeping bag. I woke up many times during the night (although this had been the case for the previous three nights since my arrival to McMurdo and 24 hour daylight). But at around 4 AM I awoke to a new sensation – the sound of whistling wind and a flapping tent and my toes freezing. When I returned people inquired about our experience and gave us their condolences for having had to sleep in -57 degrees with wind chill.

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The Real Antarctica Wed, 12 Nov 2008 00:19:46 +0000 Saffia Hossainzadeh MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– We have finally made it to McMurdo Station, our first Antarctic stop before our final destination: our remote field site on the Whillans Ice Stream. We’ve been preparing for this for months, but as I’m learning, our preparations are far from over.

Eight weeks before our departure date for this project we had to ensure that our instruments were in the hands of the US Antarctic Program logistical support crew in Port Hueneme, California. They would transport the 200 lb drill and the other bulky cargo to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

This is the storage bin where a lot of our gear was gathered when we arrived. There were about 8 ‘cargo bins’ lined up in this building.

A little over nine weeks later, we now have to oversee that that cargo leaves McMurdo so that it’s with us when we leave here for our final destination. Not only the instruments but also our supplies – our kitchenware, tools, sleeping kits, etc – all have to be coordinated with the line of operations that support moving us to our exact field site. We must pack all of our equipment and send a report dictating the volume and weight of each box, case, or other oddly shaped piece of cargo. This way ‘they’ can determine how to pack the plane(s). ‘They’ are the people who I initially assumed would complete all this work automatically, before our arrival.

This is the scale we’d place (quickly reverting to drag) all of our boxes on – not your typical bathroom scale eh?

My understanding of the McMurdo juncture of our trip, was to walk in, take a few classes out of necessity (to check off satisfying a few rules of precaution), and be off again, weather permitting of course, to our field site where I would finally taste the ‘real Antarctica’.

But instead, I learned that there were lots of logistical things that had to be set in place, for which we had to start the balls rolling during the first couple hours after our arrival, and before the ‘crowds’ of other NSF science groups came in to get the best, soonest, appointment time. The appointments for all the training courses — how to ride a snowmobile, the basics of survival in Antarctica, crevasse rescuing, etc – have to be made and cannot conflict with each other.

And, we have to check all of our gear for holes and functionality. Afterall, these sleeping bags, tents, stoves, etc., are what we’ll depend upon for our survival at our field site. It would be wasteful and inefficient to call in a plane just to replace a stove that we can’t seem to turn on.

Some of the boxes we’d use were huge – about a five foot cube. This is one of them. If they were over 100 lbs – they moved around on a crate.

We’ve accumulated about 50 pieces of cargo, and that’s even before accounting for food. Each of those boxes is important in some way, so they all must be on the Hercules LC130 flight with us to Siple Dome, and then from there to our field site on the Whillans Ice Stream. Not one can get left behind because these flights are sparse and expensive to carry out.

I also learned that this – McMurdo – is the ‘real Antarctica’. Just because there are buildings, cars, 900 other people, electricity, Fox News, and kiwi fruit at meal times doesn’t mean that the weather won’t change in 20 minutes from calm winds and sunshine to big blankets of stratus clouds and gusts that immediately freeze your hands. Nor does it mean you can wear a single layer beneath the parka (the “big red”) that every USAP participant is issued. No, because just that run across the street from your dorm to the cafeteria can numb your face and your hands are always reflexing into a pocket if not covered by gloves an inch thick.

Me at McMurdo.
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