Field Update: Nov. 29, 2010

The helicopter left McMurdo Station at 08:45 and arrived here at the ANDRILL Coulman High camp at 09:30 carrying Mike Williams (N.Z.), Wallis Wood (N.Z.), and Robin Bolsey (U.S), who will be joining the team. I had my bags packed, and once the small amount of cargo coming off the helicopter was unloaded, I climbed into the aircraft and got strapped in for the ride back to McMurdo. The new camp at Site #2 was continuing to evolve, with another Scott tent and an Arctic Oven tent set up in front of the main living areas. The new folks were welcomed as the helicopter pilot warmed up the engines and prepared to lift off for the return flight.

I prepared my camera to get a few shots of the camp as we departed, knowing that this is a tricky process – compensating for the ascending and turning helicopter and the strange angles as we rise up and bank around the camp – but I was determined to try. The rotors spun faster and the noise began to rise in pitch as we started to rise up into the air. I braced the camera against my parka and turned on the video while adjusting the focus. We spun around to the left of the camp, gaining speed and altitude quickly. I could see the line of containers that make up the hot water drill system and the line of vehicles parked in front of the workshop container. Then we were banking hard and the MECC came into view with its blue fabric siding. We’re climbing faster now and turning, so it’s hard to keep the camera focused and pointed downward in the right direction toward the camp.

We get to cruising altitude and I’ve zoomed the camera lens out all the way. I can still see the camp, but it’s shrinking quickly. I get a couple of last shots of the camp as it fades in the distance and then we’re rushing over the ice shelf heading for the southern end of Ross Island on our way to McMurdo Station. Out the right window and to the rear of the helicopter I can see the open water of the Ross Sea and the edge of the ice shelf, which drops 40 meters straight down from the top of the ice to the ocean surface.

The sight of the blue ocean after the white of the ice is striking, and once again the camera’s shutter snaps open and closed as I fill up the memory card with digital images. I can see the piece of ice that was pushed up near the edge of the ice shelf, which we saw from the Pisten Bully when Graham and I surveyed the gravity line last week, with black clouds threatening snow. It’s a lot different today, with very few clouds and plenty of sun.

The crack to the west, which we saw in the satellite images of the ice shelf edge, is clearly visible, and the ice seems to have dropped down a bit along the edge of this curving feature. We’ve been watching this area for changes, but the crack doesn’t seem to be propagating – it’s been stable for two years.

The open water ends and the sea ice seals off the ocean surface beyond Cape Crozier, which is just visible to the west, where it climbs up the slopes to Mount Terror, the sentinel we’ve watched from the ANDRILL camp.

Mount Terror looms to the right of the helicopter, with its snow covered, crevassed, slopes flowing down to the surface of the ice shelf.

As we fly south we cross the northern extension of the Shear Zone, the band of deforming ice that connects Minna Bluff to Cape Crozier. This is where waves of deforming ice grind past each other, leaving snow covered crevasses that hide the danger lurking below for any that travel across them.

During our traverse to Coulman High we crossed these same features further to the south, where they were mitigated using explosives and bulldozers to fill in the gaps and build a route that we could drive our vehicles across.

Further along we see Castle Rock on the Hut Point Peninsula, a promontory on the southern side of Ross Island that leads to Scott Base (with its green buildings facing the pressure ridges) and McMurdo Station, our destination on this flight, just around the other side of Observation (Ob) Hill.

The wind turbines are clearly visible on the ridge overlooking Scott Base, following the road that climbs up into the pass connecting it to McMurdo Station. The pressure ridges offshore indicate that the ice is slowly moving.

We continue around Ob Hill and see McMurdo Station tucked into the slope on the other side, with its dorms, laboratories and workshops that support the largest concentration of people in Antarctica. This is the U.S. logistical hub in Antarctica and provides support to South Pole Station, 850 miles away. Over 1,100 people live and work here during the summer months in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program. In winter, this drops to about 250 people.

The blue color of Building 155 marks the center of daily life in McMurdo Station. This is where the dining hall is located as well as many of the administrative offices. Just across from Building 155 is Crary Laboratory, a complex of tan colored modules in three levels extending from a central core, providing offices and laboratories for a wide range of science projects.

McMurdo slopes uphill, with work centers and storage yards filling the terraced areas that are interconnected by dirt roads. I’m back in the big city.

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