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 eighteenth 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—For much of the past two months, our collection of tents in the middle of East Antarctica has been buzzing with activity and nervous energy.
At the peak of our work, four hot meals were served every day. The taxiway next to the fueling station was rutted with fresh tracks from Twin Otters cycling through. Since the northern camp is closing, the British team is here with its bright red Twin Otter,. But both aircraft are sitting idle. The weather has socked us in again. We have only five flights left—work we could finish in about two days.
The moist, coastal air has moved in and the sun is constantly ringed with a sundog. In northern New England, my grandmother taught me that a sundog, a small rainbowlike feature around the sun, meant rain. Here in Antarctica the sundogs are spectacular and completely encompass the sun. Unfortunately, the moisture in the air that makes the sundog can mean the weather is terrible for flying.
The last two C-130 missions, which were intended to bring us the last fuel we need to complete the flying and to begin to fly people out, have failed to land. One flight turned away 20 minutes from us when the fog suddenly obscured the visibility, while the other circled the camp, flew down the center of the runway at a height of 100 feet and then disappeared enroute back to hits home base. The camp staff and the scientists who are waiting to leave talk of little else but flight schedules. Without survey flights, the entire camp has moved into a state of suspended animation.
Even when our survey planes are flying, they sometimes come back before the end of the five- hour mission. The aircraft mechanic and I have an understanding: If the plane returns in 10 minutes, it usually means there is something wrong with the science equipment. If the plane returns in 40 minutes, the intermittent problem with water getting into the fuel in the aircraft has resurfaced.
We tried to fly a survey line this morning. As usual, I felt a tremendous sense of relief when the Twin Otter took off, believing that we would be collecting data again. We were about to finish off the second flight over the Recovery Lakes—I thought. The plane had been gone about 50 minutes and we had just begun to relax. After finishing my cup of tea, I stepped out of the galley tent to see a red and white aircraft taxiing toward the camp. Brian Scott, the pilot, leaned out and shook his head. The tip tank fuel problem had caught us again. By the time the pilots and the mechanic drain the over-wing fuel tank into a drum, fog obscures the horizon. Moisture was in the air and ice crystals were blowing. It was not so bitterly cold, but it was not safe to fly.
Last night, after the disappearance of the second C-130, much of the camp plunged into a night of whiskey and horseradish. Today the mood is much more subdued. Exhaustion prevails. The science tent has been stripped to a bare functionality. We have packed all the spares. We can archive data but we can no longer conduct extensive quality control.
Twenty boxes of science equipment are strapped to the flat aluminum pallet with web cargo nets. The entire unit will be towed out onto the taxiway behind the C-130, where it will be winched through the rear cargo door. When no airplanes are flying, the camp is at a standstill.
Since the British were at the camp 700 km to the north, we share stories of our field seasons. We laugh at the videos of their teakettle, which seems to have come straight out of Beauty and the Beast. When the water inside boiled, the teakettle lid jigged open and two small eyes appeared.
The images of the 500-ton Chinese traverse arriving at the northern camp are remarkable, as are the tales of exploding cans of bamboo shoots. Soon we are sharing images of travels to other places—Roman ruins in Turkey, sailing in Barcelona. While the ice crystals accumulate on the pallet of science gear waiting for the C-130 flights, we dream of our family and friends in warm places.
The remaining computers hum—awaiting the weather to clear. We wait for the ski-way to be busy again. We only have a few more days, but right now there is little to do but wait.
Photos of AGAP South Camp, Antarctica, by Robin Bell