Science in Antarctica is still about overcoming obstacles

From McMurdo Station, Antarctica, this is the fourth post in Robin Bell’s description of scientific research in Antarctica in late 2008 and early 2009.

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

McMurdo Station, Antarctica

Our planning has lasted for over two years…equipment was designed & built, engineers employed, planes were located, testing was completed, alliances were forged and meetings arranged in multiple countries. All this planning and organizing was key to making this project a reality, and yet science in Antarctica is still all about overcoming obstacles. The continent is vast and travel is still difficult, with the most normal means of moving people and supplies being air travel.  But planes are restricted by visibility and calm winds, and these are not predictable.

Having the right amount of fuel in the right location for the planes has been a logistical challenge.  Last year we had hoped that the Chinese overland traverse would be able to move some of the fuel the Germans had provided, from their position on the continent perimeter up to the AGAP camp. Unfortunately this became impossible.  Fortunately some of the fuel could be relocated using air-drops (see photo), but there was still fuel to be moved to the other camp.  The U.S. support team agreed to an overland traverse from McMurdo Station on the perimeter of the continent, up to the South Pole.  This traverse can not run a straight trajectory due to the terrain, and crevasses loomed in front of the vehicles causing the crews to set off explosives to smooth the way.  The going has been slow.

But fuel has not been our only challenge.  Weather and paperwork have also held us hostage. Now we face a new obstacle – there is a clean air sector between South Pole and our camp, that is as big as the state of New Jersey!   Just what is a clean air sector? Antarctica is protected by International Treaty. The first environmental treaty, this sets aside many areas for protection.  The aim of the clean air sector is to preserve the unique climatic record of the cleanest place on earth. Here far away from the influence of human activities the snow captures air samples. Any activity that might contribute contaminants to the air samples is restricted.  Established in 2007, and shaped like a pizza wedge, the South Pole Clean Sector starts at the pole and widens as you move away.2007 was well into our planning, which would explain why no one caught this.

Our flight plans called for flying through this area at a height of 500m above the ice. This will not be allowed due to concern for the aircraft engines emissions. The 2000m allowable height is out of range of both our radar and our laser. We can either appeal through diplomats to fly the area, or we can fly around the perimeter, adding many hours to our already long flying day.   We chose to move forward on both.

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.