Field Update: Nov. 4, 2010

After spending another night in the berthing modules, which sleep six people in each of the two modules, we awoke at Coulman High and prepared for a day of surveying the routes between the four primary sites where we will be installing four UNAVCO GPS stations – one at each of the four corners of a diamond encompassing the two primary mooring sites to the north and south, the short-term mooring site to the west, and the GPS only site located to the east. We began our day as before, starting up the vehicles and allowing them to warm up sufficiently before we started to drive, and taking care of all of the camp activities that are required for general housekeeping.

The weather is looking a bit unstable today, with a big pile of clouds hovering over Mount Terror to the west, perhaps indicating a big blow later in the day. The wind is streaming along the surface picking up snow as it flows along around our ankles to the northeast. The traverse team oriented the Case-IH Quadtracks with their blades facing into the wind at the southern end of the camp to break up the wind and reduce the level of drifting that we were experiencing around the containers in their N-S rows. This seems to me to be a great strategy and as I walk around the camp I see the impact of this arrangement on the snow accumulation both directly around the tractors and downwind where snow is beginning to accumulate in drifts on the lee side of both the vehicles and the containers.

We get the PB ready to go by reinstalling the GPR and GPS systems in the cab. Dar suggests that we flag from the PB rather than taking the skidoo today and I agree given the look of the weather and the distant clouds.

We set out to the east and gradually eat up the miles as we collect GPR data and flag at ½ mile intervals when we stop to download the data. The weather starts to change as we get to the southernmost mooring site and begin to survey the west side of our diamond shaped route.

One thing we’ve learned from our training is that the door of a PB can act like a big sail and the wind can whip one out of your hand without warning, potentially bending the hinges and requiring major repairs. Since the wind is picking up, Susan decides to add some straps to hold back the rear door of the PB when we open it to ensure that we don’t damage the hinges when we jump out to put in the flags. This turns out to be a great idea, as the door slams open time and again, but is held back by the webbing avoiding any damage. The winds start to lift the snow higher into the air and our visibility begins to decrease rapidly. In about 15 minutes I can barely see out through the front windshield on my side, and the other side is completely frozen over. We can still drive because the GPS is telling us our route, so we continue to survey to the third site as we watch the weather continue to deteriorate. When we reach the third site, we recognize that we are experiencing Condition 1 (whiteout) weather, but fortunately we only have about five miles to go to get back to the main camp. We radio in our location, but the weather is playing havoc with our reception so no one answers our call, which is not unexpected given these conditions. All we can do is continue to drive toward camp and finish the survey, keeping a close eye on the people exiting the PB every time we stop to flag the route. After about 20 minutes of driving we get a call from the camp on the radio and are able to tell them where we are and explain that we’re on our way back. We continue to drive, but start to steer a bit off track to the west as we approach the location of the camp to avoid potentially running into any of the tractors or containers that are out in the snow beyond our ability to see in these conditions. We go to the waypoint for the northernmost mooring and then turn south moving in a path toward where we know the camp is located. We are crawling along in the PB, only able to see to the end of the boom where the antenna sits in the inner tube tire. Snow is covering the windshield and I can only see through a few streaks as the windshield wipers go back and forth. Claude can’t see anything through the frozen window on his side, so we just keep moving slowly and carefully as we creep up on the camp. Suddenly, a tractor looms out of the haze just in front of the boom and we see a blue container to one side. We are back and didn’t run into anything!!

We spend about another twenty minutes trying to find a place between the containers that we can park the PB and safely get to a container and inside. The whiteout lasts for a few more hours and then subsides as quickly as it began, teaching us to respect the weather and watch for sudden changes.

By early evening we are out walking around the camp again and remarking on the conditions out here at Coulman High, where we will live for the next three months. Wind will be a factor, but there will also be clear days, which should provide views of Mount Terror and Cape Crozier on Ross Island. We reflect on our first full day at Coulman High and prepare for the road home.

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