Update from Antarctica: Held hostage by weather

This is the first post in Robin Bell’s description of scientific research in Antarctica in late 2008 and early 2009.

McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

For several weeks our AGAP project team has been battling the delays of Antarctic spring weather. Our carefully orchestrated logistics have been pulling apart piece by piece as we watch and wait. Our project requires several stop overs on our way to the AGAP camps; stop overs designed to allow us to complete instrument testing, and to acclimatize to the changes in pressure as we climb higher and higher onto Dome A.

We have become accustomed to checking the weather screen in the science lab on multiple occasions each day. The weather screen is the main indicator of what we will be up against each day. Spring weather in Antarctica can be an ongoing rhythm of comma shaped cyclonic systems racing around the continent in a clockwise fashion, and regularly slamming into the continent as blizzards. These systems are the result of the continent’s cold air as it runs off and intersects the relatively warm ocean. If only we could accelerate the season to the polar summer where high pressure systems set up over the center of the ice sheet and force the southern ocean cyclones offshore.

Weather has delayed flight after flight for our project, throwing our carefully planned, and endlessly debated, timeline out the window. The bright red British twin otter plane arrived 23 days late in McMurdo after being caught by weather first in Patagonia, South America and then in Rothera, on the Antarctic peninsula. The crew has worked round the clock to get the plane outfitted and ready to collect data. But the plane will be no use unless we can get the camp put in. The Aussies are currently holed up in Prydz Bay, unable to fly out to start on the camp called AGAP North, which will house the British plane and crew. Maybe soon.

The U.S. twin otter plane has been outfitted and testing has been underway on the new radar system. Our camp, AGAP S, is also behind schedule, but our next stop is South Pole and that is ready and waiting for us. We will continue to plan and re-plan our logistics and hope that we can still accommodate all the science we planned to accomplish.

Good news just in! The Aussies are heading out to AGAP N to start putting in the camp.

Robin Bell is a geophysicist and research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. She has coordinated seven major aero-geophysical expeditions to Antarctica studying subglacial lakes, ice sheets and the mechanisms of ice sheet movement and collapse, and currently the Gamburtsev Mountains, a large alp sized subglacial mountain range in East Antarctica.

December 10, 2008

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