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A flight to a continent dressed in white

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s Note: Marine geophysicist Robin Bell is leading an expedition to Antarctica to explore a mysterious mountain range beneath the ice sheet. Following is the second of her updates on the effort as part of Scientific American.com‘s In-Depth Report on "The Future of the Poles."

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND—The flight from the land of green to the land of white may be within our grasp today.  Everything seems to be working.  The van showed up at the allocated time.  The check in process went quickly. Everyone was practiced at changing into the bulky winter gear, packing his or her boomerang bag and passing through security. Yesterday people slept and read their books, but now the air is filled with anticipation. The group sits with arms folded, glancing toward the door waiting for our school buses to arrive.  Soon they do.  Once again, we are driven to the runway and walk toward the plane. Yesterday the aircraft crews greeted us on the runway, today the door to the aircraft is open and we are just sent up the stairs with no formalities. The young sergeant in charge of the cargo bay (we are cargo) today is bouncing in his fur hat.  The unspoken message is “let’s just get out of here now.” We all settle in and cross our fingers. I am seated next to the large container again, and my view  is mostly of the thick chain holding the large metal package in place.  This time our luck holds.  We actually take off and head south.

The flight takes five hours.  It is about 33 degrees of latitude almost due south.  The best way to figure north -south distance is to remember that one-degree of latitude is 60 nautical miles, so our flight will be about two thousand miles.  This distance is about the distance from New York to Salt Lake City.   My friend, Detlef Damsake, and I hover over the map trying to figure out when we will be able to see land.  The German government has named a glacier after him and we will fly over it.  We will only be able to see the continent during the last hour.  I settle into work while most of the other passengers fall asleep. One contested cribbage game continues in the back on a box of snowmobiles. I chat with the flight crew asking questions about the C17 that will deliver the fuel to the northern camp next week.  I hope we can get videos of the packages sliding out the back of the aircraft.  I really hope to attach a Flip vide to one of the packages to get a sense of what it would be like to ride down to the camp with the airdrop package. 

Conversation turns to the C17, a seven-year-old aircraft that has seen the world and now almost all the continents. My favorite feature of the cavernous aircraft (other than it carrying me south) is the pyrotechnic life rafts  in the ceiling.  If the plane goes down in the ocean, the life rafts will burn holes in the aircraft body and the life rafts will be jettisoned into the sea.  A rope with knots in it will let us climb through the holes to reach the life rafts.   Looking out the cargo bay window, the southern oceans look rough. White caps lace the surface far below.  The life raft probably would be of little help in these conditions.  

Conversation dies. We wait for the continent. There is an increasing sense of anticipation.  Detlef, with his sunglasses on, is the first to see the continent out of the round cargo bay window.  Having patiently waited, we are allowed to go up for a panoramic view.  Glaciers scour the landscape.  Detlef points out small volcano he has surveyed with a magnetometer in his helicopter. The ice extends forever to the west toward the Gamburtsev Mountains, where the ice has smothered the mountain peaks. Here along the coast, the Transantarctica Mountains peek out through the ice and glaciers flow between the peaks.  When we get back to the cargo bay, there is a line at every window.  Most everyone  has a huge smile. There is something  magical about this continent in white. 

Sooner than we can believe, we begin our descent.  Warm boots and warm clothes emerge from the air  crew bags. The crew changes from jungle green and desert camouflage to polar black. One last time, I am strapped into my seat next to the large container and my favorite chain. Gently the C-17 lands on a meticulously groomed ice runway.  The chains rattle. We are here.  The door opens letting in almost blinding light and a frigid blast of air.  We step out.  Below our feet are hundreds of feet of ice, in front of us is a smoking volcano and behind us is a spectacular mountain range.  The polar version of a school bus has giant wheels to allow it to maneuver over the ice.  No penguins on this bus.  They swim in the open water 18 miles to the north.  We have reached the continent dressed in white.

Dispatches from the Bottom of the Earth: An Antarctic Expedition in Search of Lost Mountains Encased in Ice

CREDIT: Robin Bell





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  1. 1. doug l 6:54 am 11/22/2008

    The accompanying photo is does not appear to be of one of the famous LC-130 ski equipped "hercs" that the author claims to have riden down to McMurdo from Christchurch. The C-130 is propelled by rather distinctive turbo-props and not the jet engines as seen on the wings of the aircraft that accompanies this article. The photo appears to be of a C-5 disengorging a load of FNGs (Freezing New Guys). One hopes the rest of the article is more rigorous in its adherence to the factual details of the story, but having been to the ice a few times myself and witnessed a few of these journalistic junkets, I am doubtful.

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  2. 2. candide 8:36 am 11/22/2008

    Did Stephen Glass write this article?

    Is SciAm faking information?

    Link to this
  3. 3. SciCat 5:16 pm 11/22/2008

    Doug:
    The photo appears to be exactly what the author says: a C-17 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C-17_Globemaster_III). The article never once mentions a "herc" or an LC-130. I think you need new glasses.

    Link to this
  4. 4. tugpilot1 6:56 pm 11/22/2008

    You did not read the article very well.

    Link to this
  5. 5. mturrin 5:06 pm 11/24/2008

    The photo is of a C-17 as Robin notes. Hercs are being used in the project, but not here. Just to clarify, this is not a ‘journalistic junket’ but a research science expedition with a series of communications as the group prepares, and participates in research in the field.

    Link to this

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