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Audacious Plans, Nasty Weather

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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 ninth of her updates on the effort as part of ScientificAmerican.com‘s in-depth report on the "Future of the Poles."

 

McMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA–Sometimes I wonder why we were so audacious to plan a project that required decent spring weather in several places around the entire Antarctic continent.  Our weather delays are accumulating.  The first delay was when the British plane was pinned down by storms, first in Patagonia and then at Rothera on the Antarctic Peninsula. The bright red plane arrived in McMurdo to be fitted out 23 days late. 

On the far side of the continent, we have also been feeling the brunt of nasty weather. Our plan to put in at the northern camp involves British, German and Australian planes flying from the Prydz Bay region through an intermediate base up to the camp at 3000 meters.  This put in was supposed to start in the middle of November.  As of December 5, only one flight has made it to the intermediate station and none to the northern camp (AGAP-N). The normally enthusiastic Aussie, Eric Phillips, sounds despondent on the satellite phone.  The Chinese, who had been considering offering assistance to help set up the camp, lost a track vehicle after it broke through the the sea ice. Fortunately, the driver escaped through the roof hatch and was quickly rescued.  Things are not going well in Pydz Bay.  Eric has been praying to the weather gods but to no avail.

There is a weather screen in the science lab in McMurdo next to the display case of seal skulls, ventifacts and lava bombs. In Antarctica, this is the closest thing we have to the Weather Channel. It’s really tough to predict weather on this continent with so few observation stations. The weather screen loops through satellite images of the cloud cover across Antarctica  for 24 hours. Comma-shaped cyclonic systems race around the continent regularly slamming into the continent as blizzards. 

These systems are born when the cold air pours off the continent and meets the relatively warm ocean.  Sailors caught in these systems experience gale force winds and turbulent shear.  Great weather for setting ’round-the-world records, but not exactly conductive to flying airplanes.  In the polar summer, a high pressure system sets up over the center of the ice sheet pushing these southern ocean cyclones away from the continent.  This polar high is similar to the Bermuda high that forms during the summer over the Atlantic Ocean and stabilizes the weather pattern, making for favorable sailing and flying conditions. I feel like a sailor waiting in port for a change in weather. It is worrisome that there are Christmas decorations on the cases next to the weather screen.

We have been considering how to use the fuel we have in the Prydz Bay region to accelerate the camp building process.  This is a complicated question.  We need the fuel to fly the survey aircraft, but without a camp we cannot fly the survey.  The accelerated camp build would also mean a very different acclimatization for the Australians.  This new route will have to be cleared by their medical experts.  Given the lengthy arguments in our program about acclimatization, this seems like another potential stumbling block.

Last Saturday morning a remarkable email came from Eric.   The medical panel has approved the express put-in approach and there has been a break in the weather.  We have not  received any email from Eric in 24 hours, so we are hoping that the high has begun to form and the silence means the weather has cleared. 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Robin Bell.



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