30 January 2014

In an unusual turn of events for Antarctic fieldwork I wound up leaving Antarctica sooner than expected. Melissa and I were scheduled to fly north on Monday (3 February) but due to slushy conditions on the ice runway, due to the warm weather in McMurdo over the past month, the US Antarctic Program was trying to get as many people north as soon as possible. After we returned from our Tall Tower field camp we were asked if we would be ready to leave McMurdo before the end of the week. While we had several things to take care of, like returning our camping gear and packing and shipping our science equipment, we were happy to head north sooner than scheduled.

Last night we had bag drag after dinner. Bag drag is the Antarctic equivalent of checking in for a normal commercial flight. At bag drag all of your luggage but a small carry-on bag gets checked in and loaded onto a cargo pallet that is brought out to the ice runway the night before your flight. At bag drag we were also informed when we would travel from McMurdo to the ice runway the next day.

Our transport time from McMurdo was 9:45AM this morning. Normal vehicles don’t drive on the snow road to the runway because their small tires quickly eat up the road surface. Instead we were loaded into a very large truck with oversized tires.

The Kress "bus" used to transport us to the ice runway.

The ride from McMurdo to the runway took about 1.5 hours. Once at the runway we waited in the truck for another 1.5 hours until our military cargo plane – a ski-equipped LC-130 – was ready to be boarded.

Two LC-130 airplanes on the ice runway with the Transantarctic Mountains in the background.

Flying in a cargo plane is never comfortable – it is loud, the seats are uncomfortable, and it is typically crowded. Despite that everyone on board is happy to be heading north. We are all looking forward to eating fresh food, seeing a dark, starry night sky (the sun never set in the 3.5 weeks I was in Antarctica), and eventually getting home to our families and friends.

The LC-130 flight back to Christchurch.

I’ll be spending a few more weeks in New Zealand working with colleagues at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch and will get back to Colorado at the end of February.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my latest Antarctic trip over the past month.

Thanks for reading.




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Back to McMurdo

28 January 2014

We started packing up our Tall Tower field camp on Saturday (25 January) and spent all day Sunday snowmobiling back to McMurdo. On Saturday we packed almost all of the gear and took down the large Arctic Oven tent that had served as our kitchen and work area and loaded this onto our snowmobile sleds. We also dug out all of the snow anchors that held down each tent in camp. At the end of the day I was happy to crawl into my tent and get some sleep.

On Sunday morning we woke to cloudy skies. We had a quick breakfast while sitting on the loaded sleds and started back to McMurdo around 9AM.

Our last breakfast at camp. I ate 6 packets of oatmeal and was still hungry.

The snowmobile trip back to McMurdo went much quicker than the one out to the field camp almost two weeks earlier. We did a better job securing all of the cargo to the sleds so we needed to stop less frequently to re-secure the cargo. The overcast skies meant that it was hard to see any of the snowdrifts on the road so we were continually bumping over drifts that we didn’t see and that kept our speed down to 20 or 25 mph.

Melissa and Suz snowmobiling across the Ross Ice Shelf under cloud skies.

Just before we got back to McMurdo we were treated to the sight of a single emperor penguin sitting by the side of the road.

An emperor penguin just a few miles from McMurdo.

We arrived at the edge of the ice shelf, just a few miles from McMurdo, at 5:30PM. Lee, from the automatic weather station project, met us at the end of snow road with a pickup truck and took us back to McMurdo. After a quick dinner, before the galley closed, my top priority was taking a shower and shaving.

After almost two weeks without a shower or shaving I was starting to look pretty rough.

Since I didn’t have access to e-mail while at the field camp I was dreading the deluge of e-mail that would be waiting for me when I got back to McMurdo. Before going to bed I started my e-mail program and let my computer download all of the messages that had accumulated over nearly two weeks. I had over 1000 messages waiting for me and with the slow internet connection in Antarctica it took my computer all night to download all of the messages.

We spent Monday unpacking the sleds and cleaning and returning all of the camping gear we borrowed from McMurdo. On Tuesday I went through all of our scientific gear, retrieved the last bits of data from the planes and AWS memory cards, and then packed the gear for the long trip back to the US on a cargo ship. All of our science gear should make it back to Boulder sometime in April.

I took advantage of being back in McMurdo to go on some of my favorite hikes around town. The first two nights back were beautiful Antarctic summer evenings with light winds and relatively warm temperatures in the upper 20s F. While out hiking I heard the whoosh of air and water as whales were clearing their blowholes just offshore from where I was hiking. While watching the minke whales swimming near the shore I saw a group of Adelie penguins swimming in the water. These penguins made their way to the edge of the sea ice and then quickly flew out of the water and onto the ice.

Adelie penguins on sea ice in McMurdo Sound.

While we had been at our field camp a lot of the sea ice in McMurdo Sound had melted. The newly open water in the sound had drawn in the wildlife I saw on my hike and it also brought in tourist cruise ships.

Tourist cruise ship in McMurdo Sound.


On my hike this evening the weather was a bit more typical of Antarctica with a cold wind blowing off of the ice shelf. The more stormy weather made for some dramatic skies.

McMurdo from Ob Hill.

A stormy sky over McMurdo Sound and Mt. Discovery.

I’m scheduled to fly back to Christchurch in two days and will post one more blog entry once I get there.

Thanks for reading.




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25 January 2014

We finished the last of our UAV flights today so now is a good time for me to describe what it is that we’ve been doing for the last two weeks and show you some of the data we’ve collected.

The focus of our research this field season is the lowest part of the atmosphere known as the boundary layer, which in the Antarctic can be up to about 3000 feet deep. This portion of the atmosphere is unique in that it is directly influenced by the underlying surface. What this means is that heat, moisture, and momentum is transferred between the air and the ground. If the ground heats up or cools down the atmosphere above it will respond similarly. This coupling between the atmosphere and the surface is a critical process that ultimately controls all of the weather and climate we experience.

Unlike almost all of the rest the atmosphere the boundary layer is turbulent – what we experience as gustiness of the wind. It turns out that mathematically describing turbulence and its effect on the atmosphere is very difficult and as a result the weather and climate models that we use to forecast the weather typically do not represent this critical part of the atmosphere very well. The overarching goal of this project, and similar ones I’ve done in the past using UAVs, is to make detailed measurements of the boundary layer and how it changes over the course of one to several days so that we can better understand the processes that control the boundary layer. We can then use these observations to evaluate weather and climate model predictions and ultimately improve how they represent this critical part of the atmosphere.

Three years ago, in an effort to better understand the Antarctic boundary layer, the automatic weather station project I work on with the University of Wisconsin installed a 100 foot tall automatic weather station on the Ross Ice Shelf. This tall AWS provides us with continuous observations of the lowest part of the boundary layer and allows us to understand some of the processes I described above.

Tall Tower automatic weather station

Since it wouldn’t be possible for us to build a 3000 foot tall AWS on the Ross Ice Shelf we have turned to using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to study the full depth of the boundary layer. The UAV we used this year is called a SUMO – Small Unmanned Meteorological Observer. It uses the same airframe you could buy in a model airplane store but has been modified to include a small computer, autopilot, and instruments to measure air temperature, humidity, pressure, and wind.



The advantage of the SUMO UAV is that it is easy to operate, inexpensive (only a few thousand dollars), and can measure the boundary layer very accurately. It only requires two people to fly a SUMO. One person has a model airplane remote control for manual control of the plane and the other person operates the autopilot on a laptop computer that is in constant communication with the autopilot on the plane by a simple radio link.


While Melissa watches the SUMO flight on a laptop computer I’m ready to take manual control of the flight if needed using a model plane remote control (photo taken by Suz Detweiler)

The SUMO can do flights up to 30 minutes in duration and in this time it can spiral up to the top and back down to the bottom of the boundary layer providing two profiles of the atmosphere through the entire boundary layer. It is these profiles that are the basis for all of the research we will do.

Twelve temperature profiles measured by the SUMO UAV on 21 January 2014.

In the graph above I have plotted all of the profiles we collected during one day of flying at our field camp. These plots show how the temperature varies as you move up through the boundary layer. By looking at the different profiles (different colored lines) you can see how the temperature and the shape of the temperature profile changes dramatically over the course of just a single day.

You can find a video of the changing boundary layer profiles for this day here that makes it easier to see the evolution of the boundary layer over this single day.

From these changes we can determine how much heat is being put into or taken out of the boundary layer and infer other processes that are controlling the boundary layer. We can also compare these profiles against forecasts from the weather prediction model used by weather forecasters in the Antarctic to see if the model is able to reproduce the behavior that we see and identify any deficiencies in the model.

Over the next several months Melissa and I will combine this UAV data with weather measurements from the Tall Tower AWS and the two Snow Web AWS that Ben deployed for us to develop a complete picture of how and why the boundary layer evolved during our field campaign. We will publish our findings in scientific journals and will also place all of the data that we have collected in a scientific data archive so that other scientists (or the public) can access this data and conduct their own analysis on it.

To put our field campaign in perspective I’ll give you a few statistics. Of the 14 days we spent away from McMurdo two days were spent snowmobiling to and from the field camp. We spent two more days installing and removing the Snow Web AWS and setting up and taking down our camp. We also did some maintenance on the Tall Tower AWS during this time. This left us with nine days to do SUMO flights. We were able to fly the SUMOs on six of these days. Over these six days we flew a total of 41 flights – all of which collected useful scientific data. For comparison, in my two previous UAV field campaigns in the Antarctic we flew a total of 30 flights (about half of which collected useful scientific data and the remainder were flights to test the UAVs in the harsh Antarctic conditions) over two months. This trip was one of the most productive scientific trips of my career based on the amount of data we collected in a relatively short amount of time.

This data, added to similar data I’ve collected with SUMO UAVs in January and September 2012 and Aerosonde UAV data that we collected in September 2009 and 2012, will ultimately help us better understand the boundary layer and improve weather and climate prediction. For me the ultimate goal of any of the research I do is to expand the bounds of our knowledge about how the atmosphere works and from what I’ve seen in the data we’ve collected there are lots of new things we can learn from this data.

Thanks for reading.




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23 January 2014

Just a quick blog post with links to a couple of videos I’ve shot while at our Tall Tower field camp.

The first is a video of the flight down to Antarctica from boarding the plane in Christchurch to stepping out into the bright sunlight and snow of Antarctica. You can find this video here.

The next video is from the stormiest day we experienced while at  our field camp. On this day the wind was blowing at 20 to 25 mph with a temperature hovering near 20 degrees F. In the video you can see snow blowing across the surface. This blowing snow has created large drifts, several feet tall and tens of feet long, around all of our tents.

The final video shows us flying our SUMO (Small Unmanned Meteorological Observer) UAV. The plane is launched by hand and lands on its belly.

During the SUMO flights I control the plane during takeoff and landing with a model airplane remote control. Other than during takeoff and landing the plane flies a pre-programmed flight plan. Melissa has been handling the pre-programmed portion of the flight by watching the plane’s progress on a laptop computer. From this computer she can see the current weather conditions experienced by the plane, where it is relative to the pre-programmed flight plan, and can instruct the plane to alter its flight plan as needed.

Melissa watching the progress of a SUMO flight on a laptop computer.

In another blog post I’ll give you more details about our SUMO flights and the research we are doing with these planes.

Thanks for reading.




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22 January 2014

One of the things I really enjoy doing while in Antarctica is going for hikes around McMurdo. Not getting out for my regular evening hikes while at the Tall Tower field camp was something I was not looking forward to while at the camp.

Although we’ve been busy with our research and UAV flights and helping keep the camp running smoothly I have found time to get out for a few evening hikes around our field camp. We are camped on the Ross Ice Shelf – a France-sized floating part of the Antarctic ice sheet. It is about as flat here as anywhere else you could find on the planet so the hiking isn’t all that exciting, at least in terms of what I normally think of when I go for a hike. Normally I like hikes in the hills and mountains that provide stunning views of the landscape I am traveling through. For my Tall Tower hikes everything for miles in every direction looks exactly the same – flat and white. Despite the lack of visual variety I’ve found my evening hikes here to be enjoyably and definitely a new experience.

Walking away from camp all that you see is flat, white snow in front of you. If it clear or partly cloudy a single, flat line marks the horizon but without any features between you and the horizon you have no sense of distance. In some ways walking across the ice shelf is like walking on a treadmill – the view never changes.

If it is cloudy then even the visual reference of a horizon disappears. Under these conditions you find yourself walking through a world of featureless grey. With a thick overcast sky the small features that define the snow surface here – snowdrifts and sastrugi – disappear making the ground look completely flat and you find yourself stumbling over even the smallest drifts. Looking up from the ground at your feet you see no change as your gaze lifts to where the horizon should be and then to the sky above. In every direction all you see is a flat, grey void. You have absolutely no sense of distance. Your gaze could be fixed 10 feet or 10 miles in front of you but you’d never know the difference.

The walk I took this evening was under these conditions. Rather than trekking blindly across the ice shelf I chose to walk along the South Pole traverse snow road, which is marked by flags on bamboo poles every 1/8th of a mile.

Hiking away from the Tall Tower field camp in a featureless grey void.


As you can see in the photo above other than the single flag (which was only 30 feet from me when I took this photo) there is nothing else to see. Being in an environment like this is something that is completely alien to me. It makes me feel very small but at the same time I take comfort in that, in realizing that I am small and the world is a very big place with huge expanses barely touched by humans. In the end, it is that sense of my small place in the natural world that I look for when I go hiking and so hiking here at our Tall Tower field camp maybe isn’t so different from the experience I seek when I’m hiking or biking in the mountains or deserts I so often visit .

Thanks for reading.




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20 January 2014

We didn’t expect to have any visitors to our field camp during our two weeks here, but last Friday as I was walking from my sleep tent to the kitchen tent I saw a skua, a large seagull-like bird, flying overhead. At first it didn’t register as being strange but then I realized that we were 100 miles from the nearest open water or source of food. The bird flew around a few times checking out our camp and then landed by my tent.

Skua at Tall Tower field camp


Our other visitors also came from the sky. These were two Twin Otter pilots that flew into camp on Monday to pick up Ben and some extra gear we no longer needed. Ben had come to the Tall Tower field camp to help us setup two of his research group’s Snow Web automatic weather stations (AWS) but needed to return to Scott Base, which is just a couple of miles from McMurdo Station, to help retrieve the Snow Web AWS network that was deployed earlier this season around Ross Island.

Ben with one of the Tall Tower field camp Snow Web AWS

The Twin Otter is a ski equipped twin propeller plane that is a workhorse plane in the polar regions. This is the primary plane used to put in and take-out distant field camps and is the plane we use to service our network of AWS. In addition to picking up Ben the Twin Otter also took Ben’s snowmobile, a 12 foot snowmobile sled, Ben’s camping equipment, and two 55 gallon barrels of fuel we no longer needed.

Suz watching the Twin Otter taxi to a stop at the Tall Tower field camp.



We aren’t expecting anymore visitors before we leave on Monday, but we’ll see if we get any more surprise visitors.

Thanks for reading.



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Camp Life

17 January 2014

This is my first time camping at a small, remote field camp in the Antarctic. As I said in a previous post our camp consists of 6 tents and 4 people (myself, Melissa, Ben, and Suz). Melissa and I are flying unmanned aerial vehicles to collect data about the vertical structure of the atmosphere.


SUMO UAV and Tall Tower AWS

SUMO UAV and Tall Tower AWS


Ben was responsible for installing the two Snow Web AWS I discussed in my previous blog post. He will return to Scott Base as soon as a Twin Otter flight can get to us.

Melissa and Ben at one of our Snow Web AWS sites.

Suz is a mountaineer with the US Antarctic Program and she was responsible for helping us get across the shear zone safely and helping us run the camp. She has lots of field experience and I’m learning a lot from her about how to run a safe and efficient field camp.

We each have our own sleep tent and it is nice to have a bit of personal space, which is something that is always at a premium in Antarctica. We’ve built snow walls on the upwind side of each tent to provide some shelter in case we get strong winds blowing across the wide open ice shelf. We’ve also been very careful about securing our tents with lots of snow anchors and ropes. The last thing we want is to have a tent blow away.

Sleep tents with snow walls and drifting snow.


Inside the tents we have our clothes and other personal items. We also have two foam pads and an air-filled thermarest pad separating our heavy sleeping bag from the cold tent floor.

The sleeping area in my sleep tent

The temperature in our tents has ranged from near freezing to almost 50 F when it is sunny. There is also a large temperature gradient from the bottom to the top of the tent, with the tent floor always being close to freezing since it is sitting directly on the snow. Since we are living in a snowy environment it is impossible not to track snow into the tent, which of course would then melt from our body heat. To try and keep my sleeping area dry I’ve put my sleeping bag as far from the tent door as possible. I then take off my snowy boots while my feet are still sticking out of the tent door. The boots and my outer wind pants and parka get stored next to the tent door so that any snow stuck to these outer items of apparel won’t get my sleeping bag wet.

The storage area and door in my sleep tent

We spend most of our day in the large Arctic Oven kitchen / work tent. Half of the tent is setup as a kitchen with a table, propane stove, utensils, and boxes of food. The other half of the tent is setup as a work area. We are using the two large shipping crates used to ship our science cargo to Antarctica as work tables. We also have four folding camp chairs in the tent. Space is definitely at a premium in this tent but we are doing a good job of sharing the limited space. Outside of the Arctic Oven tent we have a small gas generator that provides power for our laptop computers and to charge the batteries used to power the UAVs.

Melissa in the Arctic Oven kitchen / work tent.

Melissa and Suz did a great job getting food from the McMurdo food room for our camp. So far we’ve had oatmeal and chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast. Lunch has mainly been snack foods – crackers, peanut butter, bagels, or trail mix. For dinner we’ve brought a mix of freeze dried backpacking meals, frozen food, and things like pasta. The food in camp has been better than what we eat in McMurdo. I suspect this is because we can choose what we eat each day and because we are only cooking for 4 people instead of almost 800 people.

The bathroom tent consists of a plastic bucket with a toilet seat on the top. All of our solid waste goes in the bucket and has to be brought back to McMurdo where it will be shipped off of the continent and incinerated. Our liquid waste (both human and from the kitchen) goes into a “pee hole” in the snow behind camp. We also keep pee bottles in our tent so that if we need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night we don’t need to get dressed and go outside to the bathroom tent or pee hole. We don’t have any easy way to take showers or clean ourselves while here. Washcloths and baby wipes are about as close to a shower as we can get here. I’ve found out that baby wipes do not hold up well when being used to wash a face with a week’s worth of stubble – I guess my face isn’t as smooth as a baby’s bottom anymore :) The bathroom facilities are definitely the least appealing aspect of camp life and I’ll spare you any photos of the “facilities” we do have here.

We stay in contact with McMurdo Station using either Iridium satellite phones or a large high frequency radio. We are required to check in with McMurdo every day. If they don’t hear from us they will launch the search and rescue team to make sure that we are alright so it is really important that we don’t forget to make our daily radio check. We can also use the Iridium phones and a modem to connect to the internet but the speed of that internet connection is very slow and we get transfer speeds of only a few hundred bits per second. It takes several minutes to download just a few simple text e-mail messages. Despite being so slow it is a nice way to stay in touch with our families back home and to let them know that is all is well with us and to make sure everyone at home is doing alright.

Melissa making a call on the Iridium satellite phone.

The weather has been good so far. We’ve had the full range from completely clear sunny skies to overcast conditions with fog and very little visibility. This site is generally fairly breezy and most days the wind blows about 10 to 15 mph, although this evening as I’m writing this it is almost calm out. The temperature has been mainly in the 20s F although when the wind dies down and it is sunny it is quite comfortable to be outside. We did receive a forecast yesterday to expect strong winds over 50 mph but those never materialized. As a fan of exciting weather I’m hoping we see at least one good storm while we are here.

I’ll end with a photo of “myself” and the flat expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf taken at midnight as the sun dipped to it’s lowest point of the day.

Looking out across the Ross Ice Shelf at midnight.

Thanks for reading.



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Snow Web AWS

16 January 2014

We woke to cloudy skies and fog for our first full day at our Tall Tower field camp. Our first order of business was to finish unpacking our sleds and getting our camp set up. For breakfast we had oatmeal and hot cocoa.

Tall Tower field camp under cloudy skies.

Ben, the Kiwi grad student with us, joined us on our trip to the Tall Tower field camp so that he could to setup two Snow Web automatic weather stations (AWS) for us. These AWS are intended for short-term deployments, unlike the AWS I’ve deployed in the past that get setup for many years at a time. Both types of AWS measure the same things – temperature, humidity, pressure, and wind.

After lunch Ben, Melissa, and I took the snowmobiles to setup the two Snow Web AWS 6 miles south and west of our camp. These weather stations will provide us with information about how the weather varies around our camp and will let us put our unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) observations into a broader weather context.

When we left to install the AWS it was still cloudy and the light was very flat. In fact, heading away from camp it was impossible to see any detail on the surface at all. It is very disorienting to be traveling across a landscape where there are no landmarks – it was flat in every direction – and where you can’t see any detail on the ground in front of you. Several times as we were riding towards the site for the Snow Web AWS it felt like we were riding off of the edge of the earth. Without landmarks it is very hard to even travel in a straight line and I had to rely on my GPS to make sure that we traveled due south and then due west of our main camp.

I was very impressed with how quick and easy the Snow Web AWS were to install. It was obvious that a lot of thought and care went into designing these AWS. It took us less than an hour to install the first AWS and just a bit more than a half hour to install the second.

Snow Web AWS

As we returned to our field camp the light improved a little bit as the clouds lifted and it was now possible to see the snow drifts in front of us. We could also see the Tall Tower AWS on the horizon and this gave us a landmark that we could steer towards rather than relying solely on our GPS to tell us which way to go. In such a barren environment something as simple as a single landmark on the horizon makes a big difference.

Thanks for reading.



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The White Ocean

15 January 2014

Yesterday was a looooong day. After getting a big breakfast and doing some final packing we left McMurdo at 8AM. It was a short drive from McMurdo to the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf where our snowmobiles and sleds were parked. We finished packing the sleds under sunny skies with light winds and a temperature in the mid-30s F. It was perfect weather for the long snowmobile ride to our Tall Tower field camp.

Me with three of our four snowmobiles loaded and ready for the trip to our Tall Tower field camp.


We started our snowmobile traverse at 9:30, following the snow road that goes to the main USAP runway. Before getting to the runway we turned east and began following the South Pole traverse route. This route runs between Ross Island, with the large volcanic peaks of Mt. Erebus and Terror, to the north and White Island and Minna Bluff to the south.

I was pleased to see that the snowmobiles were able to pull the heavy (over 1200 pounds each) sleds with no problem and we made good progress. The main concern for the day was crossing the crevassed shear zone. We arrived at the shear zone around 11:30. The shear zone was 4 miles wide and each crevasse was marked by a 4×4 piece of wood stuck in the ground. Each of these marked a large crevasse that had been backfilled with snow earlier in the season, as part of preparing the “road” for the South Pole traverse. We passed more than 20 of these large crevasses. Had they not been marked with the 4×4’s we wouldn’t have even known we were passing over a crevasse.

The only gas stations on our route were ones we provided with the spare jerry cans of fuel we carried.

From there we still had about 70 miles of riding to get to our field camp and our route turned almost due south at this point. We now had White Island and Minna Bluff to our west and they provided something to look at other than the flat white surface of the Ross Ice Shelf to our south and east. The snow road was marked by colored flags on bamboo poles every 1/8th of a mile. There were some snow drifts across the road that would cause our sleds to fishtail a bit if we hit them too quickly. We found that 25 miles per hour was about the fastest we could ride without losing control of our heavy loads and we often rode a bit slower than that.

Eventually we passed south of White Island and Minna Bluff. At that point the entire view in front of us was flat and white. From horizon to horizon the biggest topographic features we saw were the snow drifts and sastrugi (large snow drifts) that rose at most 1 to 2 feet above the surface. As I rode through this flat, alien landscape I thought that it looked like we were riding across a white ocean. The snow drifts were the waves on this frozen ocean and just like riding a small boat across the ocean these drifts continually bounced and battered us as we crossed the icy plain.

Snowmobiling across the Ross Ice Shelf - flat and white as far as the eye can see.


After several hours of riding through this flat landscape I was surprised to see several dark “dots” on the horizon. As we got closer we realized that these “dots” were the snow tractors and sleds of the South Pole traverse team. They had left the South Pole over two weeks earlier and were just a few days away from getting back to McMurdo. It was exciting to run into other people and we stopped to talk with them for a few minutes.

The traverse delivers 120,000+ gallons of fuel to the South Pole station each summer. The traverse is made up of large snow tractors and sleds which burn a lot of fuel. It takes almost 80,000 gallons of fuel for the traverse to go from McMurdo to the South Pole and back again, so every gallon of fuel burned at the South Pole is really the equivalent of almost 2 gallons of fuel (neglecting the amount of fuel required to get the fuel to Antarctica in the first place). While this ratio of fuel burned to fuel delivered may not seem very good it is much better than the alternative which is to fly all of the fuel to the South Pole on LC-130 flights, which can only deliver 1000 gallons of fuel per flight. This means that the traverse saves over 100 roundtrip flights to the South Pole each summer.

The South Pole traverse team on their way back to McMurdo.

Despite, or maybe because of, the absolutely flat terrain we were crossing I began to notice subtle features in the landscape – things like changes in the spacing and size of the snow drifts or the consistency of the snow surface which varied from icy and hard to areas of softer snow. I also noticed the changing quality of the light. Under clear skies the snow was bright white with just a hint of a bluish cast. As the sky became more overcast the snow took on a silver color that mirrored the grey clouds above. As the sun sank lower in the sky below the clouds the ice shelf took on a golden glow. It’s amazing how much you can see in an environment that appears to be devoid of any features at all.

The next major “landmark” we saw on our crossing of the Ross Ice Shelf was the 100 foot tall Tall Tower automatic weather station (AWS) where we’d be camping. We spotted the tower almost 8 miles before we got to camp. All told, we had covered almost 110 miles by snowmobile in just over 10 hours. It had been a very long day and we were all tired from the constant bouncing and jostling of the ride across the snow drifts, the incessant drone of the snowmobile engines, and from breathing the snowmobile exhaust all day.

After we arrived at our camp we could see storm clouds building on the horizon so we quickly began setting up our tents. Our camp consists of 6 tents – a large 10 x 20 foot tent called an Arctic Oven that serves as a kitchen and work tent, a pyramid shaped Scott tent that serves as our bathroom, and 4 small mountain tents for sleeping. As we began to unpack our sleds we realized that several of our jerry cans of fuel, a funnel, and a spare snowmobile seat had fallen off of the last sled. While Melissa and Suz started to setup the tents Ben and I got back on the snowmobiles to retrace our route and look for the lost gear. Luckily it had fallen off less than 5 miles from our camp so we didn’t have a long snowmobile ride to retrieve it. On our way back to camp the overcast skies made for very flat lighting that made it impossible to see any of the drifts or bumps on the road.

It took us several hours to setup camp and make a quick dinner of prepackaged dehydrated backpacker meals. It was close to 2AM when I finally crawled into my tent to go to sleep after a very looooong day.

Tall tower field camp - home for the next 2 weeks.

Thanks for reading.




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Snowmobiles and Crevasses

13 January 2014

Melissa and I have spent the last few days getting ready for spending the next two weeks at our Tall Tower field camp. We’ve finished picking up all of our camp gear (tents, sleeping bags, stoves, fuel, generator, solar panel, food), testing and packing all of our science gear, and of course completing the last of our required training. We will be bringing almost 5000 pounds of gear with us including 200 pounds of food and several barrels of gas for our snowmobiles and generator.

Three of our four loaded snowmobile sleds.


The last two training classes we had to take were probably the most fun – certainly the most hands on – of the classes we’ve taken. On Friday we took a snowmobile class to refresh our memory of how to operate the snowmobiles, how to fix them if they break down while we are in the field, and a 5 mile test ride on the Ross Ice Shelf.

John at snowmobile training


The test ride was a good shakedown for the 100+ miles we will be riding to get to our field camp. I realized on this ride that I need to cover all exposed skin when we are riding – the windchill from riding a snowmobile at 30 mph is pretty cold. I’ve grabbed a few more neck gaiters and face masks and those combined with the multiple layers of long underwear, fleece pants and jackets, and our giant red parka should keep me plenty warm.

On our ride back to McMurdo we saw a lone emperor penguin on the side of the snow road. The penguins are molting (replacing their feathers) this time of year and when they do this they tend to sit on the ice and wait until they have a new set of feathers before going back into the water. The same penguin was sitting in the same place on Tuesday when I came into McMurdo from the ice runway.

Emperor penguin


On Saturday we took the most important training class of all – crevasse rescue training. On the snowmobile trip to our field camp we will cross an area of the Ross Ice Shelf known as the shear zone. This zone is about 4 miles wide and separates ice that is moving a bit more than a half mile per year from ice that is moving much slower. The effect of this change in speed across the shear zone is that the ice in between gets pulled apart and cracks, known as crevasses, open in the ice in this area.

Obviously falling into a crevasse would be very bad. Fortunately, the route we are taking to get to our field camp is along the snow “road” used to haul gear to the South Pole every summer. The traverse that goes to the South Pole each year surveys the shear zone with ground penetrating radar to identify any crevasses along the route. This is necessary because sometimes the crevasses are covered with a thin layer of snow making them hard to see until you step onto the snow bridge and it collapses underneath you.

Counterintuitively, you are at the greatest risk of falling through a snow bridge while walking rather than while riding a heavily loaded snowmobile. The reason for this is that the weight per square inch exerted by your foot is much higher than the weight per square inch exerted by the snowmobile’s much larger track. The larger weight per square inch your foot exerts on the snow makes it more likely that you’ll break through a snow bridge when walking rather than when riding a snowmobile. Also, the longer length of a snowmobile means that the snowmobile can often span the gap at the top of the crevasse without falling in. As part of our safety precautions for crossing the shear zone we will not get off of our snowmobiles and if we need to get off we will use ice axes to probe the snow in front of us to ensure that it is solid and not a weak snow bridge that may break when we walk across it.

In addition to identifying the crevasses with ground penetrating radar the traverse team also fills in the larger crevasses making them safe to cross. The bottom line is that while this all sounds dangerous the risk of us falling into a crevasse while crossing the shear zone is very low.

Despite the low risk we still need to be prepared in case one of us does fall into a crevasse. This is where the crevasse rescue training class comes in. In this class a USAP mountaineer (Suz) taught Melissa, Ben (a graduate student at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch), and I how to use our snowmobiles as an anchor, rig a pulley system to the snowmobiles, and use this to extract someone from a crevasse.

Crevasse rescue training - John and Melissa attaching the pulley system to the snowmobiles.


Needless to say we all paid very close attention to everything Suz said. At the end of the class Suz went to the bottom of an artificially excavated crevasse and Melissa, Ben, and I had to extract her without falling in ourselves. I’m happy to report that we were able to do this without any trouble.

Crevasse rescue training - John and Suz testing the anchor.


Other than keeping busy with packing and training I have managed to get out for evening hikes on the trails around McMurdo. It is always nice to end the day with a quite walk on the hills around town. The trails give good views across McMurdo Sound, to the mountains in the area (Mt. Erebus, Mt. Discovery, and the Transantarctic Mountains), and gets you away from the noise of all of the heavy equipment operating 24 hours per day in McMurdo. The sea ice in McMurdo Sound is starting to melt and there are lots of seals near the open water. I also saw one Adelie penguin on the sea ice during one of my hikes. By the time we get back from our field camp I expect a lot more ice to have melted and with more open water there should be more wildlife, including whales.

McMurdo Sound and Mt. Discovery from Ob Hill loop trail


Wave clouds that formed over McMurdo as morning clouds and snow gave way to a sunny afternoon.

I’ll end with a photo that Dave took of my LC-130 coming in for a landing at the Pegasus ice runway last Tuesday. Dave and Lee were at Pegasus working on one of our weather stations when my plane landed, so he was able to take this picture.

LC-130 landing at Pegasus ice runway

Thanks for reading. I’ll post new updates once I’m back from our field camp at the end of January.




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