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Kicking rocks

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

McMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA — Last Saturday, we had a flurry of activity. The core of our team was scheduled to head south to the Pole to begin acclimatizing to the altitude. We spent the day packing our boxes of equipment again. At the Berg Field Center, we sorted through our equipment to make sure that everyone  had a sleep kit – :  two insulating pads, a really warm down sleeping bag and a fleece liner stuffed into a large duffel bag.  The kits and tents in the back of the Twin Otter will serve as emergency shelter in case of an accident. I am all-too-aware that these kits can be one’s best friend as I have a pal who used his when his field vehicle slid down an icy slope into a volcano.


Next comes the personnel gear.  It goes into three piles: one of things that are not needed on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, one of stuff that’s essential at the AGAP camp, and a third small one that includes necessities for a four-day stay at the South Pole.  My running shorts will stay in McMurdo.   Most of my warm long johns, my wool socks and the Christmas presents my family sent will  go to AGAP.  The Pole pile has a couple of books and the really warm gear that is required to fly on the ski-equipped C-130’s.  I think I will also take my skis so I can ski at the South Pole. 


Spirits were really high.  After packing, I went back to our office to look over flight plans.  Just as I was beginning to review the priorities, Dave Nelson, the project manager for Raytheon, burst in with bad news.  There was inadequate power at the camp and until this was resolved no one was going to Pole.  This was 5:25 on a Saturday afternoon. McMurdo stops completely for 36 hours at 5:30 on a Saturday.  There was no recourse.  We were stuck. 


I had worried about the fuel for the camps, but I had not followed the plans for electrical power closely.  There does not seem to be enough power at the camp to plug in the airplane with the instruments or the stove in the galley, and keeping the planes plugged in is important to keep them functional.  The temperature is cold in East Antarctica.  The coldest recorded temperatures to date have been at the Russian Vostok station, which is at about the same elevation but several hundred miles to the north.  The coldest temperature is minus 128 degrees Fahrenheit.  In the summer, the temperatures may warm up to as much as minus 22  degrees F. Any wind will make it seem even worse. 


The camp cook is still preparing meals for 16 people on two  Coleman camping stoves.  The food is apparently good, but the tents are filling with carbon monoxide. The lack of power might freeze the airplane engines and cold soak the instruments.  A galley filled with carbon monoxide is not conducive to acclimatizing people or to science. The cold is getting us again.


This Saturday night in McMurdo was a major social event, the Women’s Soiree, with entertainment ranging from trumpets to fire dancing followed by a raucous party with dancing at the carpenters shop.  Somehow, none of these activities appealed to us.  We headed out for a hike around Ob Hill to kick some rocks.  I have been here a month.  Nick and Beth have been here longer.  The tension from our narrowing weather window nags at us.  The physical release of walking helps.  Soon we discover an Antarctic field of color – delicate lichen blooming between the volcanic pebbles.  The spring sun here is warm.  There are seals emerging from the cracks in the sea ice.  Soon we will reach the summer solstice and days will get shorter.  While we soak up the perpetual sun there is no denying that we have to move onto the ice sheet soon or there will be not enough time to survey.

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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