State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Field Work Ends … For Now

solar panels among barren rocks and hills
A roughly southward view of our study site in Beacon Valley. Photo: Jen Lamp

By Jennifer Lamp

This blog post was originally drafted on February 15, but couldn’t be posted until now because of internet connectivity problems and other challenges. Read the team’s previous blog posts here.

During my last few weeks in Antarctica, I’ve wavered between being nervous about leaving our equipment for the winter, and incredibly excited to fly back to New Zealand and see trees and grass again! There has been a last-minute flurry of activity at McMurdo Station as the summer season winds down, and the unpredictable Antarctic weather decided to throw some wrenches into my plans.

mcmurdo sound with no ice
The open water of McMurdo Sound. Photo: Jen Lamp

Near the end of January, the sea ice in McMurdo Sound broke up almost completely, which has impacted our helicopter-supported day trips in a couple of ways. Firstly, all of our flights are longer because the helicopters are not allowed to fly over open water and instead have to skirt the edge of the sound by flying over land or the ice shelf. Secondly, with the availability of extra moisture from the open water, we’re experiencing more fog and snow, which results in increased helicopter flight cancellations. Additionally, two of the helicopters are being packed up for return to the U.S. on the resupply vessel, so there are fewer helicopters flying now, making it more difficult to find a spot on the flight schedule. However, the Helo Ops staff are phenomenal, and have been working tirelessly to get us out to Beacon Valley regularly.

After a flight cancellation on Jan. 22nd, I made it back to Beacon Valley with Hailey, another member of the Berg Field Center crew, on Jan. 23rd. After looking at the data I downloaded during the previous two trips, I finally settled on the best settings for our acoustic emission (AE) system. I also replaced the batteries in a few of our dataloggers while Hailey measured the height of the rocks surrounding our study site. I mentioned in one of my previous posts that we ordered a replacement relay and relay driver for the AE solar power system, and I planned to replace the parts during one of the day trips back to Beacon Valley. However, because we still do not know what caused the parts to fail, and the AE system has been running successfully using the A/C inverter, I decided to leave it as-is instead. The inverter uses more power, and therefore the AE system will power down 1-2 weeks sooner in the sunless winter than it would otherwise. However, my fear of recording less data is much lower than my fear of recording no data if the parts were replaced and then failed again.

Our return helicopter made a stop at the Lake Fryxell camp to pick up an additional passenger on the way back to McMurdo, so we were treated to a scenic flight along the entire length of Taylor Valley. We saw Blood Falls, a bright red, iron-rich brine which seeps from the toe of Taylor Glacier, and I caught my first sight of an orca while flying over McMurdo Sound.

blood falls flow out from under glacier
Blood Falls at the toe of Taylor Glacier. The source of the falls is a pressurized, iron-rich subglacial brine; the iron in the brine oxidizes upon contact with air, resulting in the red color seen here. Photo: Jen Lamp

Between day trips to the field site, I was able to tour the Polar Star icebreaker while it was docked, as well as the 1902 Discovery Hut (leftover from Robert Falcon Scott’s British Discovery Expedition), and make a couple of trips to New Zealand’s Scott Base, ~3 km from McMurdo Station.

Because I’m leaving most of our shipping containers and leftover gear at McMurdo until next season (known as “wintering over”), I’ve spent the last week of January organizing and packing; most of our items will spend the winter outside in a large tri-wall container. Other field season closeout activities include submitting an environmental report with all of our disturbances in Beacon and Mullins Valleys (sampling locations, tent locations, etc.), making sure our samples are ready to be sent back to the U.S., cleaning our office, and checking in with personnel in various departments before leaving the continent. There’s been a lot of activity around the station as the resupply vessel arrived and offloading began, and most work centers are busier than normal. The vessel will remain in town for a week or so, and after offloading supplies for the station, will be filled with waste, samples, and other items that need to be transported off of Ross Island.

I planned my final trip to Beacon Valley for the week before leaving Antarctica; my off-ice flight was scheduled for Feb. 2nd. On this final trip, I needed to change the program running the Campbell Scientific datalogger (logging data from the thermocouples and surface moisture sensors) so that it would collect data through the entire winter. I also wanted to do one last check of the field site to make sure that all cables were adequately protected, the solar panels and tripods were secure, and all the equipment was still functional. However, Antarctica had other plans for me! Here is what happened when scheduling my last flight:

Jan. 29: Scheduled a night flight; we flew about ¾ of the way to Beacon Valley, then hit a wall of fog and had to turn back.

Jan. 30: Couldn’t fit on the helicopter flight schedule, but all flights were cancelled after the morning anyway.

Jan. 31: Scheduled a night flight, but all flights were cancelled due to weather.

Feb. 1: Same as above. I had to reschedule my off-ice flight for Feb. 4th.

Feb. 2: Scheduled a day flight, but it was cancelled due to weather. I had to move my off-ice flight back again to Feb. 6th.

Feb 3: Sunday — No fly day for helicopter and other aircraft.

Feb 4: Scheduled a day flight, but winds were too high, so we were moved to a night flight to try again. We heard from another pilot that fog was rolling in, but decided to try anyway. We finally made it! Mike Lucibella, the editor of the Antarctic Sun online newspaper, as well as a few other employees at McMurdo who hadn’t been able to leave Ross Island during the season, were able to join at the last minute.

After rescheduling my off-ice flight twice, I was finally ready to leave Antarctica on Wednesday (Feb. 6th). Our flight was delayed for 24 hours, but did fly out on Thursday afternoon. First we were transported out to a small building at Phoenix Airfield, about a 45-minute drive from McMurdo. While we waited for our plane to arrive, we bore witness to a common, yet uniquely Antarctic problem: a group of firemen chasing away a penguin that had waddled its way onto the runway.

penguin chased off runway
A rogue penguin being chased off the Phoenix Airfield runway by a group of firemen. Photo: Jen Lamp

I was lucky to be on one of the first C-17 flights scheduled after the warmest part of the season — flying to between McMurdo and Christchurch, N.Z. takes ~8 hours on the ski-equipped LC-130, but only ~5.5 hours on the wheeled C-17. Upon landing back in Christchurch, I was greeted by my first view of the night sky in 2.5 months, the smell of flowers, and some wonderfully humid air (for which I never thought I’d be so thankful!). I’ll be taking a weeklong vacation in New Zealand with my husband before heading back to the U.S. and transitioning back to “normal” life.

Our field season was incredibly successful: we collected 65 rock samples, set out all of the proposed sensors and equipment, and were able to do so in a week less than originally planned. We had an incredible support group both at McMurdo and in the U.S. that made all of our work possible. The crew at Helo Ops were amazing this year in getting us back and forth to Beacon Valley, especially with all of the delays later in the season. Our project implementer (and our main point of contact in McMurdo), Bija, and the rest of the Berg Field Center helped us in too many ways to list here. The Cargo group was instrumental in making sure all of our gear made it to Beacon Valley (and finding our epoxy!). Everyone else, from the staff at the Crary Science and Engineering Center to the dining attendants in the galley, deserve a huge thank you from our team. On the U.S. side, I owe a debt of gratitude to my spouse and parents, and my research group at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who helped immensely, particularly in the months leading up to my deployment. Both my husband and one of our helicopter pilots recommended we name our project, “G-055: Rock Music.” We’ll have to make stickers (and perhaps an album?) to hand out next season!

beacon valley
Upper Beacon Valley from the air. Can you spot our study site? It’s in the center, about 3/5 of the way down from the top of the photo. Photo: Jen Lamp

For now, we’ll wait for the rock samples to reach New York sometime in early spring, and hope that Antarctica treats our equipment well until we return next season. The acoustic emission monitoring system will eventually power down once the sun sets for the winter, but should turn back on in the austral spring once the solar panels are able to capture enough sunlight. We cannot remotely monitor the system, and it will be a nerve-wracking 10 months or so before we’re able to check it again. But we’re all optimistic, especially since the setup survived the 80-mph windstorm in December!

Only one member of the G-055 team will be deploying next season, likely sometime in early January 2020. I will be sure to provide an update on how the equipment fared, and (hopefully) some preliminary data.

Thank you to those of you who have been following our work!

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