A Fantastic Flight to the Subglacial Lake Whillans Field Camp!
I thought I’d get this posted earlier today, but our internet connections here in McMurdo have been painfully slow. It’s taking me hours to upload even a few photos. But, here it is…an extra post about our flight to Lake Whillans. Yesterday (now two days ago for me!) was such a great day! WISSARD had fantastic news, and I finally got the chance to fly out to the SLW field camp. The “Magnificent 7” of us who were waiting for four days (not counting the wait before that) to get out to the camp, finally got our wish. It started with an early morning call to tell us the flight was “on” and that we’d be reporting to the shuttle to Pegasus Airfield by 7:30 am.
We were so happy to get out there and get going!!
Cargo was loaded onto the Basler, which is a plane that is built on a retrofitted DC-3 airframe. It is a great smaller cargo plane that is used quite often here in Antarctica. The loadmasters and crew shuttled our bags and other equipment to the plane and loaded it for the trip out to the SLW field camp.
As you can see in the photos above, the cargo is strapped in and secured. We sat in the passenger seats in the front of the plane. You can see how extra seats (the blue things on the left side) are folded up when not needed. Usually these flights carry both cargo and passengers to field camps or the South Pole.
Those red bags are survival kits, which are carried on board every aircraft in Antarctica. Inside there are tents, sleeping bags, stoves, extra food, a small portable shovel, and other emergency gear.
While we waited for cargo to be loaded, Susan and I hurried over to a spot where someone said an emperor penguin was hanging around. I’ve not seen one this close before! I used my zoom lens to get a closer look. The penguin was resting with its head tucked down. The emperors are so much bigger than the Adelies I’ve seen this season…and this emperor wasn’t even considered to be a large one.
This was almost like a yawn…no noise came out.
It was FUN to start this day in so many positive ways, and it was just going to get better and better!
We boarded the Basler, got buckled into our seats, and off we went. Listen to the thrumming sound of the propeller right outside my window. I spent the three-hour flight reading and watching out the window. Nothing but white below, and not much change in the texture of the land/snowscape all the way to the Lake Whillans field camp.
Here’s our group…enjoying the flight!
During the flight there was an opportunity to stand and stretch, which was great because the seats are rather small on this aircraft. We could even walk to the back to move around. There was a bathroom bucket behind the red curtain.
Chad Carpenter captured these photos of our landing at the subglacial Lake Whillans field camp. All three photos were taken by Chad.
It was a super smooth landing! After many hugs and hellos and warm greetings from our fellow WISSARD’s, we headed to the rac tent, which is hub of operations here at the field camp. It’s where meals are prepared and eaten, meetings are held, people work on their computers, or just a warm place to hang out.
(Photo above: Susan Kelly)
(Photo above: Doug Fox)
Other than the rac tent and tent city, the set up of the field camp looked much like the WisSpot test site from back in the McMurdo area.
Did you notice how the snow is already drifting around the tents? Strong winds quickly blow snow around to pile up against buildings or other structures. (Photo: Doug Fox)
I also got the chance to take a very quick look around the field camp and visit with Ross and Reed in the Northern Illinois University (NIU) container. The POP (physical oceanographic package) was wrapped and ready for deployment down the borehole. This instrument gives the scientists a lot of information. Once it’s down the hole, scientists continually follow its progress by watching computer monitors in the command and control container. Several computer screens mounted side by side display information as the instrument is lowered slowly into the hole.
This one device can measure the salinity (saltiness) of the water, determine the level of oxygen in the water, record the temperature of the water, measure the velocity (speed) of currents, determine the size of particles in the water, measure the amount of organic matter in the water, and show the distance that the tool is above the bottom of the sea floor. ONE instrument does all that!
The POP has several parts, and those have to be assembled together outside of the 40-foot container, due to the total length of the instrument. Each part is hauled out by the crane and stood upright in a special stand. The next piece is added on by positioning it over the first section using the crane; components are tightly fastened together.
(Photo: Susan Kelly)
Later on Susan took this photo of the POP being moved by the crane…slowly, carefully over the borehole.
The POP was deployed after I left and unfortunately the large winch that controls the descent of our larger, longer, and heavier instruments was not working properly. The POP was removed from the borehole.
In science, there are times when things run smoothly, and times when they do not. Engineers, technicians, and scientists must work continually to refine their tools, instruments, and procedures. Working in a harsh environment such as Antarctica can be extremely frustrating at times. Machines and equipment do not function as they do in warmer conditions.
Everyone at the WISSARD site is alert to issues that might arise, and they work tirelessly on solving those issues when possible. Disappointment is often part of the process of science, but through the challenges, people learn to solve problems, design new techniques or equipment, and learn from the mistakes. Flexibility is so important here in Antarctica.
After the POP, the multi-corer was deployed. You might recall from earlier posts that this piece of equipment can take three sediment samples at one time, one in each of the three tubes it has attached to its frame. The multi-corer samples the top layers of sediments in the lake bottom. As scientists lowered this instrument down the hole, they ran into another issue. The hole had re-frozen, preventing the multi-corer from reaching the sediment on the lake bottom. The tool had to be brought back out of the borehole and drillers began a long process of reaming (re-melting) the hole. This set timing back about 24 hours in terms of deploying instruments.
Meanwhile I was on my way back to McMurdo on the Basler. I spent about an hour talking with Jorgen, our loadmaster for the flight, and he shared some very interesting facts with me. This plane can carry about 5,500 pounds on a three hour flight. If the flight time is reduced to one hour, it can haul about a 7,500 pound payload (cargo and passengers). The company that operates the Twin Otters and Baslers here on the ice is named Kenn Borek, Ltd. Based in Calgary, in the province of Alberta, Canada the company has many years of experience flying in both the Arctic and Antarctic, as well as many other locations around the world. Our pilot, Brett, did a great job today!
Jorgen told me that Kenn Borek planes were the first small planes on the continent this season. It’s an incredible journey to get the planes ferried from Calgary all the way to McMurdo! They go from Calgary to Texas, and then Costa Rica. From there they fly to Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, working their way south. At that point they rest for a day or two, (or more, depending on the weather).
From Chile the flight path takes them to Rothera Station, a British station along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Rothera is their starting point on the Antarctic continent and the next step is flying to the South Pole. Once they reach the South Pole, the final stop is at McMurdo Station. It takes about 10 days to complete this trip, weather permitting. I know several people who would love to make this journey… myself included.
As we came closer to Pegasus Airfield, we flew over several islands (I believe they might have been Black Island and White Island) and also had some magnificent views of mountains nearby.
Soon Pegasus Airfield came into view, and we began our approach for landing.
Back on the ice shelf, no time was wasted unloading the Basler and servicing the plane. Everyone takes meticulous care of the aircraft here.
I stopped for a photo with Jorgen. It was great to talk with him today and it made the flight go faster!
Thanks again to Brett, the co-pilot (I think Derek), and Jorgen for a great flight today.
Seeing Antarctica from the air is always such a treat. You get the sense of this overwhelming snow/landscape and how vast the continent really is. I always think about those early explorers of the Heroic Age…men like Robert Scott, Roald Amundsen, Douglas Mawson, and Ernest Shackleton and how they must have felt, traversing this icy cold environment. We covered only part of the distance to the South Pole today…in three hours. What took them weeks we did in a fraction of the time, in the safety and warmth of an airplane. Amazing how science, technology, and engineering continue to surround us each and every day.
It was a slow ride back to McMurdo in Ivan the Terra Bus, and I made it back to McMurdo Station just in time to eat dinner. What a great day! Seeing my WISSARD colleagues and getting a chance to be at the field camp was another learning experience. Although I thought I’d stay out there longer, it’s late in the season, and I wanted to be able to report on the science from McMurdo, where we have access to more resources (although today you’d think I was 600 miles away…so slow!) It’s going to be a huge coordinated effort to get everyone back here to make their flights “north” off the continent.
THANKS…BIG THANKS to Julie Raine, our logistics goddess…who makes so many things possible for WISSARD every single day. She works round-the-clock to gather supplies and equipment, coordinate flights, make sure everything’s on track, and so much more. Many, many people have worked long and hard to make the WISSARD Project a reality. As we move toward the final days of science, everyone needs to be proud of their contributions.
I’m going to try to post another blog tonight….if the internet cooperates. My hope is to post a science update before I head to sleep tonight. Take care and wherever you are in the world…have a great day/night.