Field Update: Nov. 24, 2010

One of the critical issues of being out on the ice shelf, away from the main logistical centers of McMurdo Station and Scott Base, is the need to be able to communicate from the camp about daily needs and to keep in contact. Ideally, we would do this using VHF (very high frequency) radios that transmit their signal by line of sight through “repeater” stations to get to the base. We have been using the Mount Terror repeater, which is solar powered and high up on the slope to give it a larger coverage, but this is primarily for voice communications. We are hoping to also be able to set up data communications, which would allow us to use email and ease the isolation for people who will be out at the ANDRILL camp for the entire season. In order to do this the Communications Shop in McMurdo has been working to set up an antenna on Conical Hill, which is located about 2/3 of the way down the flank of Mount Terror and potentially offers a better data path back to McMurdo Station from the Coulman High camp. The difficulty is that the antenna on Conical Hill and the antenna located at the ANDRILL camp both have to be pointing at each other to make the data connection. Aligning these two antennas is a tricky business, so helicopters have transported one group of people to Conical Hill and another group has come out to our camp to try to see if they can get the system working today. We’re all hopeful.

The basic requirements are that we have a series of penetrations (holes through the container where the system will be located) and an antenna that is high enough off the surface of the ice to be “seen” from far away.

The technicians then have to aim the antenna in the direction of Conical Hill and communicate with the other team to try to acquire the directional signal.

The antenna is mounted on a pole above the container and is anchored with secure wires to make sure it stays fixed in the wind, even during a big storm.

A helicopter is assigned to provide “close support” for the team as they undertake to get us hooked up, but the clock is ticking to get the job done. There are other missions that the helicopter is scheduled to fly today, so if we can’t get a connection soon, they’ll have to stop work and give it another try on a future date. As time slips away, our hopes fade and reality settles in again – no email for the time being, but we’ve learned about the difficulties of setting up these kinds of services this far from the hub. We may need a very tall antenna or a bank of Iridium SIMM cards to allow us to increase our bandwith for data traffic, as well as voice, in future years. The Communications team has made a valiant effort, but there’s no successful outcome to be had today. They’re running out of time and the helo is getting ready to depart, after already asking for two time extensions.

Another group has been visiting us today to conduct an environmental audit of our camp’s standard operating procedures. Ted and Kevin from RPSC Environmental Services have looked at our water, waste, and fueling practices and we have answered all of their questions about how and why we do a whole range of activities here at the ANDRILL camp, in keeping with the Concept of Operations (ConOP) document we filed prior to the traverse. They’ll fly back to McMurdo with the Communications team on the helo, knowing much more about our camp than they do prior to this visit.

While waiting for the helicopter to prepare to leave camp with its full compliment of passengers (PAX), Dar and J.R. take a look at the tower and winch for the shot hole drill and discuss what remains to be done to conduct an operational test of the system. This system needs to be ready for use in another week for drilling 50+ shot holes to 35-40 meters depth. There are still a few more things to check out before the system is ready.

The rest of drilling team is in the MECC, preparing for the deployment of the oceanographic mooring. We need to get the instruments into the water to allow for two full tidal cycles of data to be recorded before the end of the season. We want to get this mooring deployed as soon as possible and then move on to the second camp to deploy the second mooring further south. We’re ahead of schedule, but with Antarctic weather it’s easy to fall behind, so we stay diligent and take every opportunity to do what we can each day.

The time has come for the helicopter to depart. It’s been on the ground for several hours now, so the pilot checks that the rotor is free of ice by walking it around for a full rotation. Everything checks out and he calls for the PAX.

Ted, Kevin and the Communications team all gather their gear and prepare to head back to McMurdo. They’ve enjoyed their stay at the camp and wish us success as they prepare to go. Time for a last picture and then they board.

The cargo is loaded and everyone climbs aboard. Tamsin assists with the ski-doo and sled and then clears the area as the helicopter starts up.

Within minutes they are airborne again, leaving the ANDRILL Coulman High camp behind as they gain altitude and fly south back to McMurdo Station, skimming over the ANDRILL containers as they speed away.

We’ve had a lot of helicopter visits this year and have more to come, with a variety of aircraft from Bell 212’s to A-stars, to the new Kiwi helo, which each have different cargo and people carrying capacities. It’s always an event that’s looked forward to around the camp and a welcome change, as they bring important supplies, mail, and visitors or colleagues.

The helicopter pilots, technicians and support staff are an important and valued part of the U.S. Antarctic Program and we owe them a lot for what they contribute to our success and our safety. It’s a risky business to fly in the conditions we experience in Antarctica, but they do it every day, in all kinds of weather, to support the science we conduct. Today is a beautiful day to fly, but it’s not always this way. As they disappear over the horizon, we say thanks to all of them, and look forward to their next visit!!

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