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Investigating the polar regions from the inside out
“Nothing new at Byrd- cloud free and light winds, but expect things to change around 12 Z, when winds and blowing snow will pick up.”

After a few days of absolutely gorgeous weather, these were the words we heard this morning when calling into Charleston, South Carolina for our weather outlook.

Charleston, South Carolina? Yep. Who knew that a weather office so far away could have more useful information than we have here? Because our bandwidth is so limited, we rely on Paul and Michael at SPAWAR to give us the bigger picture of the weather each day at 0100 and 1100. From there, we map out chunks of good weather and bad weather.

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Once we get an idea of what might happen weather-wise, we send in flight priority requests to Fixed Wing Operations in McMurdo Station, which allows us to receive full weather forecasts for up to 5 locations. With about 40 sites to visit, it’s a constant strategy game we play with weather, fuel caches, site priorities, and number of hours in a day. 

Fortunately, weather has opened up in the last few days and we were able to visit a number of seismic transect sites close to Byrd, as well as GPS and seismic sites at Mt. Sidley, Whitmore Mountains, and WAIS Divide. We are waiting for clouds to clear off from the coast so we can reach some of our sites that lie grid west of Byrd. Unfortunately, with the summer temperatures warming up, fog from the surrounding ocean tends to leach onto the continent.

Getting to Mt. Sidley was no small task. Large thermal uplifts meant that the pilots couldn’t land where they have landed in past visits to the site. After circling 10 times, a somewhat nauseous and eager team was happy to deplane and get to work. They had a long 1.3 mile hike across a boulder-strewn ice field up the side of a volcano, following a flow band in the ice. The icy path allowed them to drag about 250 pounds of gear on sled to repair the station. The Antarctic wind had done its best, shattering 3 of the 4 solar panels. Imagine! Cobbles being thrown up 5 feet in the air and smashing into these panels! That’s an intense wind. Two wind turbines were destroyed. The MET pack had launched about 45 feet away by the wind. The cables had ripped out of the box. There must have been a mega storm out there over the winter! The team was able to collect several months of data and repair the site. 

At the Whitmore Mountains site, which lies further south towards the pole, the team encountered colder temperatures but clear skies. They found the GPS recording data, but one of the solar panels had been shattered and the two wind generators were broken. The lack of communications with the site had been due to a modem problem. Seth and Jamey made all necessary repairs and planned upgrades. The seismic team repaired the seismic station, replacing two broken solar panels. It is now recording data. 

To see an interactive map of our sites, check out http://polenet.org/livefeed.

A few LC-130 Hercules flights into Byrd have brought some much needed barrels of fuel, which are being cached at strategic fuel sites so our Twin Otter can reach further destinations. The Herc also brought us a welcome load of fresh carrots, celery, onions, eggs, and pears! Unfortunately, no chairs arrived, so Mark, one of our mountaineers, rigged up some stools out of spare particle board. When there’s no Home Depot or Target around, it’s amazing to watch how creative people get! String, duct tape, cardboard boxes, and leftover food containers can transform into all kinds of useful things!

We have been operating 24 hours a day, with two flight crews who have tremendous skill in flying in such extreme conditions. Landing at sites where no one has ever been before, without runways, on snow, with variable lighting, and constantly changing weather- the expertise of our pilots is invaluable. In about 6 days, one crew will move to Union Glacier Camp, and we will be operating single-shifts out of both Union and Byrd.

We are also saying goodbye to some of our friends here at camp, fondly named “The Piggies.” They are spending a couple weeks traversing across the snow to Pine Island Glacier (PIG) where they will be setting up a site for future field work next year. We have watched them assemble their sleds and supplies, and wish them all the best! Look out for crevasses and take care of each other out there!

-megan

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