State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Into Deep Field

The small workhorse of a survey plane, a twin otter, perched on the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Moving a team from a science base into a deep field camp comes with a mix of high energy and optimism. Yes, there is always a bit of concern that the necessary plans are in place for the operation to be successful, but time is always a factor pushing to move things along. The airborne work that will be completed by this team will lay the foundation for several of the large International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration field programs.

View from the cockpit of the small twin otter aircraft as it heads into the deep field location.

The field team will head out in a couple of waves, with the British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Jason Clarke (Aircraft Mechanical Engineer) and Fran Pothecary (Field Assistant), departing Rothera Station a few days ahead of the rest of the group. They loaded up a support aircraft with the bulk of the supplies and headed to the camp at Lower Thwaites Glacier. There they will find fuel, tents, and a snow ski-way setup by an American traverse that had headed out earlier in the season to support the camp.

Carl Robinson, head of BAS Airborne Survey Technology, reviewing details for the survey work.

It would be five more days, two test flights and several hours of reworking the two RADAR systems before Carl Robinson, head of BAS Airborne Survey Technology, and Dave Porter, research scientist from Lamont-Doherty and Ian Potten, BAS survey pilot, head out to join their colleagues in the field.

One of the stops for refueling on our way to our field location.

Moving around Antarctica in a small plane requires periodic landings. The first involved an overnight stay at Sky Blu runway. Sky Blu is a section of dense blue ice located at the southern end of the Antarctic Peninsula in Palmer Land that serves as a BAS runway and fueling stop. The hardness of the blue ice runway accommodates wheeled aircraft, making it a valuable midflight point. Next there was a stop for refueling and some quick updates at the BEAMISH camp (including connecting with fellow ITGC participant Keith Nichols from BAS). The BEAMISH project had just weeks earlier successfully drilled more than 2 kms through the fast moving Rutford Ice Stream, West Antarctica with a hot-water drill. BEAMish will string instruments down the borehole to collect information on water and ice temperature and on deformation in the surrounding ice.

Dave Porter from LDEO arriving in the field with the twin otter survey plane in the background.

Upon reaching their own field camp the ITGC survey team collected their first lines of data on their approach. Thanks to good weather, functional equipment, an excellent support crew, and team enthusiasm the full schedule of survey work began immediately the following morning and continued daily thereafter with only one weather cancellation when katabatic winds blinded the area with 30 knot winds blowing snow.

A view of the field camp at Lower Thwaites Glacier.

A daily 6 AM ‘sunrise’ equipment warm-up was needed to deal with temperatures that reached below -20C. After a team breakfast of muesli and Yorkshire tea, Ian would check on the weather forecast from back at Rothera Station, and if scientific instrumentation, aircraft, personnel, and weather were all ‘go for launch,’ take off would be around 10 AM local. All flights were approximately 5 hours long as this was the full flight endurance with survey equipment and passengers.

Jason and Fran in ‘clam’ tent enjoying a hot brew, with Tilley lamps for heat, and gloves and socks drying from the tent poles.

Following each flight, Carl and Dave would archive the raw data and perform QC/QA on the day’s flights in the communal ‘clam’ tent. All eating, working, and communication took place within this small, yellow-tinted haven, a refuge from the wind and elements outside. Days in the field were long, often ending close to midnight. This is not unusual for Antarctic field campaigns where weather is uncertain and equipment is pushed to operating limits under the extreme temperatures. The goal is to pulling as much data from the experience as humanly possible!

Next installment: A View From Above!

Dave Porter is part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration an ambitious US and UK collaboration focused on one of the most unstable glaciers in Antarctica. For more on the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration project.

For other installments to this series please check:

Laying the Groundwork for Some Major Antarctic Field Campaigns

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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