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 nineteenth of her updates on the effort as part of ScientificAmerican.com's in-depth report on the "Future of the Poles."
AGAP SOUTH CAMP, ANTARCTICA--The camp skiway is a three-mile long strip of ice sheet that has been polished by the Tucker snow cat and outlined by black flags. The landmark of the end of the runway is a single windsock. The wind tends to blow from the west, howling such that the sound of the generators is masked if you walk in that direction.
Two nights ago, the wind was blowing 17 knots and whipping the snow with it. We were not working, because the planes cannot fly in this weather. I made a slow cold walk to the end of the skyway, stopping many times to warm my face. As the sound and sight of the camp disappeared, I was struggling with whether it was time to declare that we were finished.
Before Christmas, we needed over 50 flights by our aircraft to finish the project; now, we could count the remaining missions on one hand. We had flown many of the planned missions, and, with the latest down time, the camp was bubbling with frustration. People were ready to go home. The weather forecasts were not hopeful, yet we only needed a day and a half of flying to complete all of our work.
As I stood silently at the end of the runway, I could hear nothing but the windblown ice crystals hitting my hood. There had been just a hint of blue sky on the horizon. It did not seem as if the time had arrived to stop the project. I decided to wait to see what the 8 a.m. weather forecast and the morning would bring.
Mornings here are defined not by when the sun rises, but by when breakfast is served. Although we are in the same longitude as Pakistan, we are living on New Zealand time to remain in sync with McMurdo Station. Finally we awoke to a morning weather forecast that looked as if a window had emerged for us to fly again. As the clouds moved to the east, the possibility of finishing and going home became a powerful motivator. We needed only to keep the aircraft in the air for a day and a half and we would finish. We were all relieved to get back to work, so we prepared to fly again.
Thirty-six hours later, we completed the final five flights! Since mid-December, we have flown the aircraft more than 50,000 kilometers – more than twice around the globe. The time had come to pack and catch up on sleep. That night at dinner, everyone looked exhausted. Several people simply put their heads down on the tables. We had thought of having a movie night, but people quickly disappeared into their tents and sleeping quarters. The Twin Otter had left for McMurdo with my colleague Michael Studinger. The rest of us will have to wait for a C-130 ride out.
I walk to the end of the skiway to absorb the silence. The weather is clear again and the wind is calm. I sit down on the windblown snowdrifts at the end so I can gaze at the passing clouds. I cannot see through the three kilometers of ice as I lie staring at the blue sky, but now I can visualize what the terrain looks like. When I close my eyes, I can now see mountain peaks, river valleys and hidden lakes surround me.
Tomorrow will be spent packing the data so we can produce images that will convey the sense of the Gamburtsev Mountains to others. Now it is time to catch up on sleep.
Credit: Robin Bell