Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year from...

... Casey Station!

Some explanation: I started yesterday (Monday) thinking I had another night at ABN, but following some firn air pumping late on Sunday night, the ice was starting to say clear things to us... there was little open pore-space left. The bubbles were largely closed, and at our next level, a metre or so deeper, Jerome and David were not able to extract much air despite pumping with maximum available pressure.

Knowing that this was the case, we looked again at the logistical picture. A flight was due on Monday afternoon to exchange six camp members, and the weather was showing some risk of preventing another flight until Friday. But Friday is also the day of our Airbus flight from Wilkins (the ice runway that serves Casey) to Hobart. This was not a risk we cared for, given that our science role at ABN was effectively over, so we put on our skates, packed our bags and made the Casey return flight.

It was a time of mixed feelings, saying goodbye to our friends remaining behind. For the three traverse team members, who had started this back in early November, this was the end of a long chapter -  Noel (diesel mechanic) and I were leaving, and Sharon remains as field leader. Having established the camp, there was a sense of wanting to see it to conclusion too, but our roles are complete; and the process of extracting people and infrastructure will be an imperative over the remaining weeks to late January when the last tent is pulled down and the remaining few come home. The departure marked another achievement too - we brought out over 600kg of ice core.

It was quite remarkable returning to the coast after more than a month on the high plateau. We were greeted by scenes of meltwater, positive air temperatures and soft, warm, moist air filled our nostrils. The coast is the home of life on this continent and you can see and smell that too - so striking after the barren, sharp cold of the interior. For sure, we saw a few birds far inland, but they were interlopers like we were: able to make the journey naturally, but aliens nonetheless. Of course we could only sustain our efforts with the aid of the fossil remains of past living things - distilled to the fuel that propelled our tractors and planes, powered our generators and heater. This strikes me as something of a circular situation - the past provides energy, for us to extract ice ... to explore the past.

So this brings to a close my personal journey to ABN and back. I will make one or two more posts to this blog, to put up some pictures now that I am back in the land of the internet, and probably to cap things off at the end of the whole project with some kind of summary of events. Watch on twitter (@tasvo) if you want to be reminded. But the story now belongs to the group remaining at ABN - there is the major portion of the main core yet to drill, and another auxiliary (~100m) core for the sulphur studies of our French partners at LGGE. You can follow events through the AAD website.

And a final comment - I've been surprised and pleased to hear of the many folk who've followed this blog... thanks for your interest. The knowledge that you were doing so was a factor in keeping me at the computer after midnight several times (that's a good thing!).

And a final picture from the Basler window as I left yesterday...

Sunday, December 29, 2013

December 29 ABN News

I awoke this morning after a late night chasing the drilling problem in the firn tent, and thought how well I was acclimatizing to the cold. Actually though, it wasn’t me acclimatizing to the weather: just some amazingly warm weather. Our maximum today was -1.5C in the shade. Drilling tent doors were open to try and keep them cool enough to work and the processing tent was not used. Some outdoor shallow coring was done instead, and even this required some care and shading to keep the ice from melting in the sun.

We tried a few things with the firn drilling in order to get it to retrieve core, initially without success, but eventually a combination of things seemed to do the trick, and we were back in action. We had expected a long ‘lock in’ zone (as explained in an earlier post), but we are finding that the pores are closing very fast (with increasing depth) and it is proving difficult to get large air volumes. This is disappointing for the firn air science, as it won't provide as extensive a record as we had hoped. There is a bright side, however as understanding the unexpected properties of this site and the way the snow turns to firn and then ice will be useful in the broader interpretation of ice core results. Such unknowns are part of the territory of course with research.

Tomorrow six of the first half team change out from camp, and six second halfers arrive. Those of us in the firn air team will spend a bit of time hunting for the last dregs of air at depth, and pack up for a return to Casey the day after. It will be a strange feeling to end my personal ABN chapter after nearly two months. Still, I am jumping the gun â€" there will be more to report in the next couple of days, and that is without even considering what the weather might do to plans.

Saturday 28 December

Today started with one of those special Antarctic moments… I extruded myself through the tent tunnel to find almost clear skies and perfectly still conditions. There was a thin misty feel, a little like an early morning in winter and the sun was accompanied by a magnificent ring/rainbow.

The misty conditions quickly lifted and it has become a warm, bright sunny Saturday. Just after breakfast it was almost like a Saturday morning in suburbia, but the “lawnmower” sound was doctor Malcolm using the snow-blower to excavate a trench to take our ice core boxes: very timely given the warm conditions, as we need to get them out of the sun.

One of the Hobart scientists, Andrew, has got a laser spectrometer up and running and is measuring our first ice samples (for those interested, this device measures isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen in the water/ice, which can be interpreted as past temperatures). We are interested to see seasonal variations in the ice, especially in the shallow sections near the surface, as these will tell us more about the annual snowfall rate here.

The main core drilling continues, at 114 metres, and the team have been working hard to solve some technical problems with the drill. The firn air coring has now reached 102 metres and we are in the special zone called the ‘lock-in’ zone, where the ice is still porous enough to allow us to pump trapped air out, but the air itself is now isolated from the modern atmosphere. The point of this is that we can get very large samples of air that is decades old: much larger that can be obtained from bubbles in a relatively small ice core. Such large samples can be used to measure exotic gases like carbon-14 methane.

Others have been busy making use of the good weather to drill a shallow core. This is important because the setup of the big drills makes it difficult to get a nice undisturbed ice core from the surface, which gets trampled and cut away. The shallow core will be about 20-30m deep and the measurements on this core will overlap the other ice cores and allow the continuous record to be assembled.

The changeover of staff between the two half seasons is getting closer. We could be flying out as early as Tuesday, so we are working hard to complete the firn core and air extractions and leaving time to pack up. The actual pumping takes a couple of hours, filling flasks as well as making online measurements. We are looking at the depth remaining (which is sort of unknown, but we estimate to be another 10 metres or so) and figuring out how many extractions we can fit in the time left; the more the better!

Postscript: Midnight
How quickly things change â€" the firn air coring has hit a nasty snag. The drill stopped feeding near 103 m and after a lot of diagnosis we think the problem is the buildup of fine snowy dust in the bottom of the hole â€" accumulated from the drill runs abrading the hole, and probably from the insertion and removal of the long bladder that is used to seal the hole during air extraction. Whatever the exact cause, the drill is not successfully getting a bite on the ice and so our progress is halted. We have a few ideas to try tomorrow, and Trevor, one of the drilling experts in camp says he has seen this problem before and that a solution can generally be found. While this turn of events makes for some suspense/intrigue for readers, I must say I’d prefer a more boring blog at this point!

Friday, December 27, 2013

27 December Update

The ABN camp is really in full swing now. Everyone is busy at their tasks: two drilling teams, a processing team, and support folk. The processing team consists of a number of the most recent arrivals, and they have put up the last of the large tents and are filling it with core cutting and cleaning facilities.

Yesterday, in the evening, we enjoyed our Christmas celebration. A delicious meal and everyone swapping stories, including anecdotes from the countless accumulated field trips. These included fond memories of some of the pioneers in our field, notably our recently departed Danish colleague Sigfus Johnsen, whose memory we toasted.

The weather hasn't been so good the last couple of days, with a fair bit of wind and snow, as I think I mentioned. We are largely immune to the weather now, with all tents up and most work inside, but moving around camp with the cloudy skies and 'flat' light can be tricky. There are 30cm plus high drifts between the tents that weren't there a day ago, and these nearly invisible obstacles make for some clumsy stumbles. I'm nearly at the point of having to get a shovel to dig out the entrance to my tent - entry is now a hands-and-knees slide down through the canvas tunnel; exit is a case of throwing out whatever you are carrying and diving uphill onto the snowdrift.

The drilling continues well - the main core has reached 100m, and the day has a couple of hours left. The firn air coring is also going well - we are at 85m and Jerome and David have just completed another air extraction, with air that looks like it is about 13 years old, and still in the porous phase (the bubbles are not sealed and the air is still actively connected to the atmosphere).

I need to finish off now and go and drill a few more metres in preparation for the next air extraction.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

ABN December 25

Today brought some more developments at ABN. A Basler flight brought in our last three science crew and our changeover mechanic, who was scheduled in January, but will have the opportunity to get a handover of the setup from the current mechanic. The notable thing about this was that Bloo, the new mechanic, arrived in Santa costume, which combined with his impressive beard and jolly deameanour had a very authentic effect - at least if you ignore the fact that the costume was probably a couple of sizes too small and back-to-front!

Work continued with some success. The firn-air team and the main coring team have now each drilled to a little over 50 metres. The progress of the firn air coring was stymied for a while by ongoing trouble with tension in the spring "skates" that prevent it from spinning in the hole rather than drilling. For a while around the middle of the day we were stuck around 35m depth, where the skates had slipped in the hole, over-enlarging it and threatening any ability to progress. With some good advice and head scratching these difficulties seem to have been solved, and we hope to pick up the pace tomorrow.

The newcomers from yesterday have thrown themselves into their work - one team putting up the final large tent which will house core processing, and others organising the kitchen and living area to cope with the large population: now 19!

I've included a picture that shows the camp this evening - it is rather windy and snow is drifing through the area providing an atmospheric effect. It isn't as cold as it has been (only -23C) but the wind makes it rather uncomfortable.

As I said yesterday, our Christmas will be tomorrow, a shortened work day and a special dinner at the end. I think the best present for us all will be a day of good progress.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Eve Bulletin

Well, things at ABN have really got busy! We didn't get a flight in on Monday as hoped for, so it waited until today for the right conditions to bring more folk in.

Actually, on Monday, we had a working bee for the imminent influx, putting up several sleeping tents. We now have a substantial village of some 19 pyramids.

On the science front, the last two days have seen good progress. The firn air drilling has now reached 30m depth, and undertaken the first serious air extraction this evening. The main drilling is also underway, reaching 12.6m this evening (albeit starting in a 4m deep basement). So everyone is feeling very pleased and there a lot of smiles around.

Many of the smiles are on faces of the 6 new folk who flew in today ... Pleased to finally be at ABN after much waiting at Casey. Actually, the ABN skiway was like a real airport today as we no only had our Basler and twin otter flights bringing people in, but we also had a twin otter from Concordia that dropped 5 passengers to connect through to Casey on our returning aircraft!

The adverse flying weather over the last two weeks and slow arrival of the full team has put us behind a little, and there's a lot to be done in coming days, especially for those of us scheduled to change out around NewYear. We will celebrate Christmas, but it will be a (slightly shortened) work day so we can keep things happening. In order to allow today's arrivals to settle (especially chef Jenny) we are delaying our Christmas by a day. This will also allow our final few arrivals, scheduled here tomorrow, the chance to be part of the celebrations.

So, on this Christmas Eve, best wishes to all blog readers for a very happy Christmas. Ours will be white, bright and night less, as well as a little delayed.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Aurora Basin: December 22

After much preparation, today the project has moved fully into its science phase.

The camp was a hive of activity, with the firn air and main core drilling teams well underway while others put up more tents for incoming personnel, marked out the skiway, attended to mechanical needs and prepared meals.

The most dramatic event of the day was the installation of the main drilling tent over the 1.5m deep "basement" that had been excavated for it. As I mentioned yesterday, the tent was towed over the top of the hole, and the whole thing went very smoothly. The drillers in this tent can now boast of cathedral ceilings! They spent the rest of the day cleaning up the excavation from inside and towing out the remaining snow - some 42 cubic metres was removed in all over a couple of days!

The other big event was the commencement of the first coring - in the firn air tent, we completed the assembly of the drill and sawing out the 2.2 metre deep trench that it swings in with enough time to commence drilling. We did three drill runs each with cores a bit over a metre taking us to 5.85m depth. Jerome and David then installed the firn air pumping device (which consists of a cylindrical bladder a couple of metres long) to seal the hole and pump trapped air from below it. This is largely an initial test of the equipment and went well.

Tomorrow, weather being favourable, we expect more newcomers to fly in - probably six of them. This will provide extra hands for existing tasks, the ability to start setting up new facets of the project, and also bring greater support in the form of our camp chef.

Everyone seems to be settling into camp life in a cold, remote and high altitude location. We all have related stories to tell about the vagaries of getting in and out of our tents, changing and into sleeping bags with the minimum of hassle and exposure. Some of the tents seem to be better designed for these conditions than others. The usually favourite polar pyramid tents have undergone some redesign which includes very heavy fabric that doesn't allow easy entry/exit in these very cold conditions. Consequently those of us who have these tents all find ourselves stumbling and snagging as we go in and out.

Sleeping is actually pretty comfortable with multiple layers of foam and camping mattresses underneath and two nested sleeping bags. If you want water overnight, it is necessary to keep the water bottle in the sleeping bag to avoid freezing. Getting up in the middle of the night, especially with the pyramid entrance snagging, is not at all welcome, and even in the morning, getting up into temperatures around -25C to -30C takes a bit of planning and willpower.

In other respects, we have a nice comfortable living/kitchen area, and now even email. As I write, three of us night owls are clicking away, sitting around our revered kerosene heater, partly out of interest in email, and partly procrastinating over the cold-dash to bed.

Hopefully tomorrow brings more folk to ABN and plenty more metres of ice core.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Aurora Basin Camp Update: Post Traverse Departure

It has been an eventful few days at the ABN camp. First our numbers dwindled to just three as we saw the French traverse off, and then, yesterday we received six of the team in from Casey.

The departure of our French colleagues was a mixed experience: bidding farewarell to colleagues we had come to know at close quarters in the two plus weeks since the traverse began, but also knowing we were moving on to the next phase in the project.

There was some reluctance on behalf of the traverse to leave just three of us in such a remote location, but by Thursday we were very well established and they have other commitments and fuel limitations which made a departure timely. We watched them complete their pre-start routine, warming the tractors as they lumbered around a groomed track to warm up before hitching up and trying to move. In the days on site, they vans had stuck pretty well, and it took some fancy work to get it all moving, unbogging a couple of stuck tractors on the way. They crawled off onto the horizon, becoming small specks after many tens of minutes.

The weather on departure day wasn't suitable for a flight, so we spent most of our efforts getting the camp ready for more people - putting bedding in tents, figuring out how to cram all the accumulated gear into sensible places so that newcomers could fit and getting food/kitchen similarly ready.

Yesterday we finished preparations, including erecting a pretty serious looking windsock for the skiway. Then we got news that flying was to happen. We initially got a basler flight loaded with cargo, followed by three of the team on a twin otter. It was great to welcome in Mark, the project leader, along with the doctor, Malcolm, and Simon, one of the Danish drilling crew.

The weather was perfect - the best we have had, with temperatures above minus 20, virtually no wind and clear skies. It was also quite satisfying to see a perfect and smooth landing by both aircraft on the skiway which had been the focus of so much effort in the past week or so.

The conditions allowed for a second round of flights, so we had another basler (cargo) and three more crew: Trevor (Danish, driller), Jerome (French, firn air analyst/driller) and David (Australian, firn air). This brought us up to the basic complement required to do the main science tasks, and so gives us some insurance that regardless of weather from here, we will be able to secure the main goals.

With the extra cargo, we have been able to refine the camp infrastructure, importantly for all, getting the full communications and email running - hence the resumption of blogging.

Today we got another two flights with cargo only, and got stuck into the science preparations. We have one drill for the firn air work largely assembled and are getting things ready for some drilling maybe tomorrow. The drill requires a trench to be dug so that it can be swung from horizontal to vertical in operation. The main drill and tent also require a similar trench, but because the drill is taller, the team have decided that the best way to fit in the tent is to excavate the entire inside the tent to a couple of metres depth. They have begun this task with a snow blower, and will then tow the constructed tent over the top - the tents aren't designed for this, so tomorrow may have its challenges!

So all is humming along well. We really would like to see the rest of the team in camp as soon as practical, and we are hopeful that this will transpire in the coming couple of days.

Aurora Basin Camp Update: First post traverse

It has been an eventful few days at the ABN camp. First our numbers dwindled to just three as we saw the French traverse off, and then, yesterday we received six of the team in from Casey.

The departure of our French colleagues was a mixed experience: bidding farewarell to colleagues we had come to know at close quarters in the two plus weeks since the traverse began, but also knowing we were moving on to the next phase in the project.

There was some reluctance on behalf of the traverse to leave just three of us in such a remote location, but by Thursday we were very well established and they have other commitments and fuel limitations which made a departure timely. We watched them complete their pre-start routine, warming the tractors as they lumbered around a groomed track to warm up before hitching up and trying to move. In the days on site, they vans had stuck pretty well, and it took some fancy work to get it all moving, unbogging a couple of stuck tractors on the way. They crawled off onto the horizon, becoming small specks after many tens of minutes.

The weather on departure day wasn't suitable for a flight, so we spent most of our efforts getting the camp ready for more people - putting bedding in tents, figuring out how to cram all the accumulated gear into sensible places so that newcomers could fit and getting food/kitchen similarly ready.

Yesterday we finished preparations, including erecting a pretty serious looking windsock for the skiway. Then we got two Basler

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Aurora Basin North Update December 16

Well, a lot has been happening in recent days, but as yet, the stars
haven't aligned to bring flying weather at Casey and ABN and have an
operational skiway. Thankfully the last of these ingredients is now in
place, so next weather window will allow us to start to bring in the ABN
team. Exactly when this happens is still uncertain, with less than ideal
weather forecast for Casey in coming days, but we shall see.

At least the weather at ABN has taken a pleasing turn for the better. It
started with a glimmer of blue and brief sun late on Friday - heralded by a
pair of snow petrels: pretty impressive being 550km from the coast. The
petrels did a bit of swooping and wheeling around our tents - clearly
curious to see what it was that broke up the endless kilometres of white in
all directions. Then, as quickly as it opened up, the cloud and low
visibility resumed, shrouding the site overnight and for Saturday morning.
Finally on Saturday afternoon, there was a lasting change, with beautiful
still, sunny conditions. We finally got a clear look at the skiway for the
first time - pleased to see the fruits of the long days, but realising that
there was still work to be done to achieve the desired surface: now that it
could be seen properly.

We also got another airborne visit and scrutiny on Saturday - mechanical
rather than feathered. The Basler that will be servicing our camp, based
out of Casey, had a run to Concordia Station (Dome C) to pick up some
equipment, and decided to check us out on return. It was most impressive as
it buzzed down the length of the skiway before climbing out and turning for
Casey. Incidentally, the run to Concordia was needed to replace some
scientific equipment for ABN that was damaged on freighting into Casey. It
was fortunate that this replacement was available, as it is pivotal for
some of the firn air studies.

Knowing that every chance to advance camp setup must be taken, we have been
pushing along the unpacking of cargo and camp establishment as rapidly as
possible. A big achievement on Friday was the erection of the kitchen and
living tent - actually two 24 foot (a bit over 7m) tents butted together.
It was challenging in winds around 40km/h and drifting snow - the cover was
a 15m x 6m potential sail, but with good help from the French team and
some careful pinning of the upwind side, we avoided becoming impromptu
parasailers headed for Casey.

On Sunday, French scientists Manu and Olivier did the upflow transect I
mentioned in my last post - they achieved some 65km from the ABN drill
site. The radar information will provide a good basis for understanding the
variations we see in the core, and in particular how the flow from inland
affects the core record.

Since the time is nearing for the French team to depart, last night
(Sunday), we were treated to a special dinner. Quite possibly we ate at the
best restaurant in Antarctica. Two of the French mechanics, David and Alex,
showed their other talents - they turn out to be very accomplished chefs.
We had multiple courses, with wines to complement each. We started with
specially cooked slivers of duck, with foi gras. The meal also included
other delicacies, and a first for me - frogs legs. Dessert was crepes with
chocolate sauce and optionally, grand marnier. It was a very convivial
evening and a fitting celebration of the achievement in getting to this

It looks like the French will leave us on Wednesday - there's a chance of a
flight tomorrow, Tuesday, but probably not a good chance given the weather.
So tomorrow we cut the final ties of convenience/dependence on the traverse
facilities and become reliant on the camp infrastructure we have been
working on. Without fresh food inbound from Casey, we will be eating a
little more narrow diet - certainly more narrow than last night! But we
will be warm, and have an enormous amount of dry food to choose from.

One thing we will lose until our inbound Casey flight and team arrive is
email. Our full communications kit was held up in McMurdo when we came in,
and while it has subsequently arrived in Casey, it is not with us. We have
plenty of comms - two satellite phones and HF radio, but there will be no
email, or alas, blogs, until we see that plane. Stay tuned...

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Aurora Basin North Update December 12

Position: ABN Campsite
Temperature (evening) -15 °C

We were very grateful today that we got the one tent up yesterday, because
the whole day was far too windy for any serious outside work, and certainly
for putting up a tent. We did complete unpacking of one container before
things got too bad though.

We marked out a parking/turning area off the skiway and our grooming team
from IPEV continued work roughing out the skiway itself and the parking
area. Visibility for much of the day was very poor due to drifting snow.
Already just one day after putting up the generator tent it has drifts over
30cm deep forming around it.

Aside from the bit of unpacking, we did a good deal of sorting of gear,
organising, final tying down of the one tent we have up, and importantly
got the generators commissioned and fuelling stations organised. This is a
big step toward having an independent camp running and so we are pleased
with the day.

Looking forward, the forecast remains a bit dismal for the next day or few,
with similar weather to today expected to continue. Still, we hope for gaps
where we can push forward with the unpacking and hopefully get another tent
or two up. We need to get an independent camp and skiway completed as soon
as possible so we can get the team in and also free up the French team to
depart. It looks like this will take some days yet, but as we arrived a
little early, we are still broadly on schedule.

Actually, the French scientists Manu and Olivier are planning a day trip,
some 40km "upstream" from ABN (i.e. where the ice flow direction leads)
before they leave, and they are also waiting on improved weather. They will
do radar studies and some shallow coring. This work will help the
interpretation of the main ABN ice core by giving us a clearer picture of
the upstream changes in local snowfall rate that have affected the ice at
various depths below us here.

On elevation and sun dogs

This picture is a nice illustration of parhelia (sun dogs) around midnight
during the traverse to ABN.

For the attentive and technically minded reader:
You may have noticed an asterix (*) in my last post regarding elevation,
which I meant to get back to in that post. I've been flagging elevation as
2677m. This isn't definitive, as it is based on barometric pressure in
conjunction with GPS (using some clever jiggery pokery in the device
itself). The alternative is pure GPS, which doesn't give good elevation
from a basic GPS. Digital elevation data for the site (Bamber's DEM)give an
elevation of 2701m, which is probably the best value we have. Eventually we
will have good a good GPS fix from a geodetic GPS we will deploy.

Aurora Basin North Update December 11

Update: December 11 2013, 1230UT
Position reached: E 111° 22.091' S 71° 09.922'
(final traverse van position, 150m from ABN drill site)
Elevation: 2677 m (* see below)
Temperature (evening): -18 °C

Today was a busy day and gave us plenty of exercise to make up for the
sedentary long days in the tractors on traverse.

Unfortunately the weather continued to hamper things somewhat with very
poor visiblity at times and periods of wind. We did get the 2km long skiway
limits marked out. The wind had shifted from its somewhat easterly position
during the bad weather of the last day or two, and was more aligned with
the SE direction expected from the old automatic weather station records.

The weather did not mean we got to sit around lounging though - we made
good progress on unpacking containers (hence the exercise), working our way
throught the 30 tonnes or so of gear. We emptied one container and made a
good start on a second. Cranes on the tractors helped with some heavy
items, but many heavy items had to be manually handled and pushed around on
small sleds. We also put up the first of the large tents (14x24 feet in
the old measurements), which took some effort in the wind. This tent will
house the generators, but at the moment is a general staging-post for gear
that comes out of the container.

Our IPEV colleagues are giving us tremendous assistance with all the camp
and skiway preparations.

Tomorrow the work will continue - we will see what the weather does and
adapt. At the moment we have a very pleasant, still evening!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Aurora Basin North Update December 10

Update: December 10 2013, 1230UT
Position reached: E 111° 23.766' S 71° 10.051'
(no change: 1km from ABN drill site)
Elevation: 2677 m
Temperature (evening): -14 °C

The traverse living/generator vans remain 1km from the drill site at the
end of this, our first, day at ABN.

We enjoyed getting off to a somewhat later start today - a chance to
recover a little from the relentless traverse routine!

We had a good day, but with no thanks to the weather. It was snowy with low
cloud and poor visibility all day. We drove in to the site along a
carefully planned route to avoid disrupting the areas we want to remain
pristine for drilling, snow sampling and fresh water, and began to mark out
the site. For this, we used bamboo canes - a standard tool in Antarctic
fieldwork, as they are light, long and strong.

The first task was to assess the wind direction which determines the
alignment of the skiway and the best alignment of camp tents. These are
best distributed across (perpendicular to) the wind, as this alignment
helps to avoid snow drift tails from one tent inundating others downwind.

At the moment we are experiencing a significant weather system that is
producing easterly winds. This, however, is unusual for this site, and we
have records from a nearby old automatic weather station that suggest the
prevailing winds are typically south-easterly. We can just make out older
partly obscured drifts that confirm the more normal SE winds - and so we
bravely ignore the present indications in aligning the camp: and skiway in
days to come.

After marking things out this morning and running the kassi over the area
to level for tents and foot traffic, the weather closed in and visibility
decreased to virtually nil. We retreated for lunch to the vans 1km away,
driving on GPS, as our tracks from earlier were almost impossible to

In the afternoon, we went back in only slightly better conditions and were
able to bring in the five containers on sleds with our gear. We also put up
a medium/small tent for working storage/shelter, and did some preliminary
unpacking/exploring of the containers.

That's about it for the day - it is good to be making a start on the
camp, although working in the windy and snowy conditions is always
challenging, and slows progress. The warmer temperatures are a relief in
many ways, lessening the biting chill and risk of cold injury, but they do
make the conditions somewhat wet - the snow that gets caught in gaps and
crevices and attached to clothes very quickly turns to water.

The forecast for the next few days is much the same, but we are hoping for
at least some gaps with better visibility so work can begin on the skiway.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Traverse Day 15 Update

Day 15 Progress:

Day 15 - 9 December 2013, 1330UT
Position reached: E 111° 23.766' S 71° 10.051'
Elevation: 2677 m
Distance covered: 1353 km
Distance remaining: 1 km
Temperature (evening): -18 °C

Well, we have arrived at ABN minus 1km. Today we departed in low visibility
with some snow overnight continuing and low cloud/fog. This rapidly
deteriorated to whiteout at times, which slowed travel a little bit,
although a very flat, minimal sastrugi surface literally smoothed the way.

We arrived just 1 km short of the ABN site around 1830 which afforded us
the rare luxury of an early shutdown - once vehicles were fuelled and
everything sorted out, we settled down to a celebratory dinner about two
hours earlier than normal. We enjoyed a great Franco-Australian celebration
of the achievement of the past two weeks.

Tomorrow we will go to survey the campsite, ready to bring in the traverse
and begin unpacking/setting up camp.

The evening has cleared and settled to a nice mild (-18C) and relatively
clear night. The 11pm sun is shining through the window across my desk,
sporting a couple of picturesque sun-dogs on either side. A fitting end to
the traverse phase, and inspiring start for the next phase of setting up
the camp and getting down to the scientific work.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Traverse Day 14 Update

Day 14 Progress:

Day 14 - 8 December 2013, 1330UT
Position reached: E 113° 44.405' S 71° 12.614'
Elevation: 2652 m
Distance covered so far: 1269 km
Distance remaining: 85 km
Temperature (evening): -24 °C

We are hopefully at our last night on traverse, with only a modest day's
travel remaining. Progress was once again good - we have had
fairly consistent conditions since turning off at D85.

After a relaxed meal, we sat down and watched a short old film that Noel
had, of a 1960s traverse from Wilkes to Vostok, 900 miles inland. Wilkes is
now abandoned, but is an old US station that passed to Australia before
being closed once Casey was established across the bay.

It was remarkable what 4 men in a caravan of small sleds hauled by two D4
tractors achieved. We were struck by how our modern mode of transport is
essentially the same, yet different in speed, comfort and safety. The film
was particularly apt, because the ABN site we have selected is on the old
Vostok traverse route. So while we are assuredly the first people to pass
over much of the ice we have traversed in the past week or so, we are very
much pre-dated as visitors to GC40 (the formal location of the ABN site).

Tomorrow, all going well, we reach the site. We will park the traverse
caravan a kilometre or so short, and if time allows do an initial survey to
establish wind direction, drill site, basic camp and skiway layout. Once
these things are determined, we will be set the following day to bring in
the traverse and start the work of setup.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Traverse Day 13 Update

Day 13 Progress:

Day 13 - 7 December 2013, 1330UT
Position reached: E 116° 36.488' S 71° 09.289'
Elevation: 2664 m
Distance covered so far: 1166 km
Distance remaining: 188 km
Temperature (evening): -20 °C


Break out the Hawaiian shirts - we arrived to still, sunny conditions and
-20°C this evening. Refuelling and outdoor chores were very pleasant, and
in fact most of us were a little over-warm because the tractors got pretty
hot in the sun while travelling.

Not much news today - everything was normal, apart from a false start which
bogged one tractor at the start of the day, and which was rectified pretty
smartly with some rehitching and towing. It did underscore to me the skill
involved in synchronised starts to get a couple of hundred tons sliding in

We had better get to the destination soon, as I'm getting through my 25
episodes of ABC Conversations - I'm getting about 58 km per episode!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Traverse Day 1-12 Update

Day 12 Progress:

Day 12 - 6 December 2013, 1330UT
Position reached: E 119° 32.665' S 71° 08.654'
Elevation: 2678 m
Distance covered so far: 1059 km
Distance remaining: 295 km
Temperature (evening): -25 °C

The last two days we have covered very good distances of 108km and 105km
respectively, so we are really starting to think about arrival at ABN.

Not surprisingly, given the good progress, the surface has been great for

There was no report yesterday because we drilled a core during the evening,
before/after dinner and didn't retire until well after midnight.

Otherwise there is not a lot to report - the routine traverse life
continues, with a convivial group. The Australians are picking up a little
more French, and enjoying good cheese and occasional French wine.

Today's natural highlights were some more diamond dust snow, a new crescent
moon standing right up on its end as it follows the sun around the sky, and
some spectacular polarised highlights reflecting from the snow. Just as we
were driving right into the sun, glazed areas ahead were sparkling in two
shades - a bright phosphorescent white, and an iridescent pink - it looked
like some sort of gem-like deposits coating the sastrugi in patches. Small
things, perhaps, but one gets adjusted to seeing small changes after a
thousand kilometres at such a leisurely pace!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Is a picture worth a thousand (or 1300) kilometres?

Here is a map of progress so far. In an attempt to make it small enough to
fit the satellite email, it may be barely legible, so excuse the

Anyway, the take-home message is the red line showing progress so far.
Waypoint markers on the red line are end-of-day markers. Waypoint markers
between the red line and ABN are the intended route we will follow over
coming days.

Traverse Day 10 Update

Day 10 Progress:

Day 10 - 3 December 2013, 1330UT
Position reached: E 125° 23.287' S 70° 59.893'
Elevation: 2863 m
Distance covered so far: 846 km
Distance remaining: 506 km
Temperature (evening): -27 °C

A routine day, except that 95 km is better than we expected to cover. In
fact if it wasn't for some minor hiccoughs with getting the snow radar
running, we may have hit the 100km - a slightly sore point around camp in
a good humoured way.

We were going to drill a shallow core (10m or so) tonight as one of 2-3
short records to look at recent variability. As it happened, the surface
in the area we travelled through looked unsuitable for a good climate
record. It was marked by strong glazing from wind-drifted snow and
erosional features (scoured lumps and bumps) rather than nice depositional
drifts and sastrugi. Since exact location is less of an issue than getting
a good climate record, we will try at the next opportunity. Interestingly,
by the end of the day, the worst of the wind-glaze was past, and the
surface was improving, so maybe tomorrow.

Speaking of the area we traversed today, we were a little surprised that
the route passed through even higher elevation than yesterday, reaching
2889m at one point, and then decreasing slightly. The weather was cold
most of the day, -29°C with around 50km/hr winds at lunch time. Mercifully
it was milder by day's end when we were refuelling etc.

We are past half way in distance (as indeed we were yesterday), and with a
bit of continued good travel, arrival by mid next week is looking

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Traverse picture

Here is picture of the majority of the traverse on the move. It is a bit
difficult to get a shot of the whole caravan, as it isn't always configured
as one train, and besides, once moving, all occupants are generally on

Anyway, this picture is missing the Kassbohrer and the tractor Manu and I
are in, which is towing 3 fuel tanks (about 40 tonne). As we are making
snow radar measurements, we aren't connected to the rest of the caravan.

I think I mentioned earlier on that the traverse was hauling 90 tonne, but
I've since found out that is an incomplete subset of the whole. Including
vehicles (the 4 Challenger 65C tractors and the Kassbohrer) and fuel as we
were a few days back, the entire traverse is around 230 tonne.

Traverse Day 8-9 Update

Traverse Day 8-9 update

Day 9 Progress:
Day 9 - 2 December 2013, 2300UT
Position reached: E 127° 56.663 S 70° 49.591'
Elevation: 2836 m
Distance covered so far: 751 km
Distance remaining: 601 km
Temperature (evening): -27 °C

Yesterday was a long and busy day, and despite a good day for the raid we were saddened by the news of the helicopter accident on the Amery. Our thoughts are with all
those involved. Consequently today I'll give a combined 2 day update ...

This is another iPad under-way attempt, I must say battling at the limits of dexterity as we bounce along at 8-9 km/h. Blame the sastrugi and autocorrect for any

We covered 87km yesterday and 84km today, which is excellent progress now we are off-roading. Yesterday we parked the caravan around our usual time of 2030 under
ideal conditions: scarcely a breath of wind, and clear sunny skies making the -24°C air temperature seem mild. It was a case of doors flying open as vehicles came to
a stop and everyone scattering to make the most of the weather. Manu doing another radar transect, Olivier doing snow pit work, while I got our Kovacs shallow ice
corer out to do some testing in preparation for some genuine coring in the near future. This frenzy of pre-dinner science activity was aided by the rest of the group
who picked up our common end-of-day tasks. While on the topic of science, a clarification regarding Manu's snow radar during traverse. I think I said it covers the
upper several tens of metres; in fact it extends to about 150 m, somewhat deeper than I thought.

The clear still weather brought a cold night. I'm noticing a distinct difference between temperatures of -30° and below, and the more congenial -10° to -20°
temperatures we encounter in previous work near the coast and at Law Dome. Each day little tasks requiring dexterity, Iike tying up radiator covers on the tractors,
are compounded by clumsy gloved hands or very cold fingers. I expect we will really be challenged at the ABN camp when it comes time to put up the 7 or so large tents
and 20+ polar pyramid tents. I'm putting in an order for more windless weather!

The surface today was rougher than yesterday and Sharon pointed out the difficulty in operating the kassi when some sastrugi scrape off smoothly at a reasonable
speed, and others bring the vehicle to a shuddering stop.

Now that I've had confirmed the fact that I can blog pictures, I'll throw in the occasional bit of eye candy if future posts, although I dare not clog the satellite
link, so they'll be sparing and low quality.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Test traverse post - picture

I didn't have a chance to test if this would work before departure, but
here is an attempt to blog a picture via satellite email. It will either
work, or be a boring little post, so here goes. The picture is shrunk and
heavily compressed to fit through the low bandwidth link, so there is a
quality compromise.

The picture (credit Sharon Labudda) shows the front of the traverse last
tuesday, as we travelled in whiteout and blizzard conditions. You can't see
the whole traverse caravan because of the conditions, but you should be
able to make out the lead tractor, a couple of fuel tanks, the next tractor
and the living van... behind this are a couple more tractors, more fuel and
several containers...

If it fails to work, we may get it put up on the AAD website.

Traverse Day 7 Update

Day 7 Progress:
Day 7 - 1 December 2013, 1330UT
Position reached: E 132° 30.341' S 70° 33.051'
Elevation: 2724 m
Distance covered so far: 579.8km
Temperature (evening): -25° C

Today we turned west toward Aurora Basin, and left the formed track to
Concordia. It was with some trepidation that we headed off, not knowing for
sure how easy progress would be on an unconsolidated surface.

We left a little later today - we had some reconfiguring of the caravan to
do, and Manu was setting up a snow radar on our tractor. This trails over
the snow on a boom off to one side and takes regular (2 second) profiles of
radar returns from the upper part of the snow pack (tens of metres). This
will be the first look at how the snow layers change across this large
swathe of East Antarctica, and will help understand the geographic
variation in snowfall rates.

At first Manu and I followed in the 'radar' tractor, with the rest of the
traverse ahead of us - we were also pulling our weight, in the form of 3
12000 L fuel tanks. As it happened, the snow _was_ pretty soft, and the
fact that it was heavily worked over by the caravan ahead of us meant we
got bogged a couple of times. This took a little time to get towed out, and
we ended up reconfiguring the train of vehicles to put us up front, just
behind the kassi. No more getting stuck, and a pretty smooth trip -
although still a bit bumpy to read or blog!

All-in all a 62km day with the later start and minor hitches is a
satisfying start to this stage of the trip, and our target arrival around
December 11 looks within reach if nothing changes!

The off-track work is a bit heavier for the kassi crew, because they are
dealing with an untravelled surface to groom, and simultaneously
maintaining GPS course to the set of waypoints provided by Patrice from

We are currently travelling almost due west, along around 70.5S latitude,
and will gradually make our way south in coming days to the ultimate ABN
latitude of 71.2S. The route will be fairly level - we are now a little
higher than ABN (2701m) and will climb another couple of hundred metres or
thereabouts before crossing a ridge in a couple of days and descending.

Speaking of elevation, the cold polar atmosphere is somewhat thinner than
similar altitudes elsewhere, and so we are in the equivalent vicinity of
about 10000 feet, or a bit over 3000 m. For at least some of us we are
noticing a bit more huffing and puffing than usual when we exert ourselves,
but otherwise no ill effects.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Traverse Day 6 Update

Day 6 Progress:
Day 6 - 30 November 2013, 1300UT
Position reached: E 134° 08.301' S 70° 25.851'
Elevation: 2656 m
Distance covered so far: 517.45km (At D85 waypoint)
Temperature (evening): -30° C

A brief bulletin today. Good progress was made and we have reached a
significant landmark: the D85 waypoint, where we leave the "road" to
Concordia, Dome C.

We began the day in low cloud to the surface, but visibility was not too
bad. The cloud lifted in the morning, and the afternoon was delightful and
clear, with no significant wind.

On arrival at D85, we had more great sun dogs and diamond dust
precipitation - for those who haven't heard of this, it is also called
clear-sky precipitation and is visible as millions of tiny ice crystals
falling from a clear sky - a special sight to see.

Tomorrow we turn the corner for ABN, a bit over 800km away. Progress is
hard to gauge in advance and will depend on the surface roughness and

Postscript, erratum:
Just noticed yesterday's update had day 5 as 25 November?? It was, of
course 29 November.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Traverse Day 4-5 Update

Day 5 Progress:
Day 5 - 25 November 2013, 1300UT
Position reached: E 134° 16.588' S 69° 32.189'
Elevation: 2558 m
Distance covered so far: 417.03km (50.69 km past Virage Nord waypoint)
Temperature (evening): -30° C

Time escaped yesterday (Thursday 24th), so a combined 2 day update

Actually, I'm trying something different today, writing this on my iPad
while underway. The bumps in the road are a little better this afternoon
(Friday). The sastrugi (the hardened wind-sculpted surface bumps) are less
vicious, at around 40cm, than yesterday: where 1-1.5 m heights weren't
uncommon! As I noted in an earlier post, the Kassbohrer does the heavy work
filing holes and scraping off as much as possible from the sastrugi.

This lead work by the "kassi" is hard on driver and machine. I rode with
Anthony (our IPEV Traverse Leader) yesterday afternoon, to observe the
constant task of manipulating blade and speed; keeping a bade full of
rolling snow, occasionally backing up to have a second go at tough spots,
all the while trying to keep the speed up to avoid slowing the main
traverse caravan behind. Normally it is Sharon in the kassi with Anthony,
as she has the skill and experience to share the driving - I'm definitely
an observer in that vehicle!

I said the work was hard on the machine, and in fact yesterday the kassi
"broke" (Anthony's technical description at the time) about 90 minutes
before scheduled stop. A bent hydraulic piston was diagnosed, and the
skilled mechanics in the team were able to make it good, in uncomfortable
-25°C wind, using the well stocked mobile workshop. The whole IPEV
operation (Institute Paul Emile Victor - the logistical arm of the French
Antarctic Program) is impressive. The traverse is very comprehensively
organised and is a major operation - from the big stuff right through to
details like excellent pre-made (French) meals to keep the humans fuelled
and happy.

Despite the cold windy evening, the two French scientists on the traverse
Manu and Olivier made use of the earlier "park-up" to get an experiment
underway. Manu and Olivier are from LGGE in Grenoble, and are along to do
some studies, particularly on the return leg, after we are deployed at ABN.
This will include taking shallow firn cores and making radar
measurements....all with the aim of understanding snow accumulation on
Antarctica, and how it varies across the continent and over time (what we
glaciologists call surface mass balance). This work is needed for
determining the Antarctic contribution to sea level with climate change
impacts, now and into the future.

Yesterday included a notable transition point in our journey - it began
with the last sunrise we will see during the project. The combined effects
of approaching mid-summer and our southward march brought the midnight sun

After 5 days, we are setting into a routine, and we Australians are
becoming familiar with procedures. The driving day is long, seeing the
icescape crawling by at 7-11km/hr. There is a sameness but subtle variety
to the snow surface that is hypnotic in its own way, and today we had a
great set of parhelia (? where is google when you need it!) .... 'Sun dogs'
and intersecting rings of ice rainbows that arc around the sun, up from the
horizon, and around the zenith. Two days ago we had a visit from several
snow petrels which wheeled around the vehicles for a while, before going on
their way - wherever that was!

Conversation, music, audio books all help pass the time, and we can swap
drivers with a cramped seat swap, thereby avoiding a stop for the whole
caravan. I'm pleased that a thoughtful someone gave me some broadcast audio
of some good radio interviews that I ration to a couple a day (Richard
Fidler's Conversations off ABC radio for the interested).

After the sedentary driving day the heavy work comes at the end. Fuelling
and de-blizzing (chipping away accumulated ice and snow) tractors and
shovelling snow into the melter for our washing needs isn't necessarily the
desired antidote for inactivity when it's -25°C and blowing 60km/hr.

The experience is not unlike taking back-to-back long haul plane fights for
2 weeks plus, getting off each day into a gymnasium in a freezer, eating,
grabbing 6-7 hours sleep and repeating. Don't get me wrong, it is a
privilege and an adventure of a lifetime, but it is not for the faint-
hearted! And, of course, it is the key to being able to do the coring at

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Traverse Day 3 Update

Position: S 68deg 10.174'; E 136deg 4.539'
(just past Pt106 on map posted earlier)
Elevation: 2179m (approx)
Distance covered today: 109km
Distance covered total: 238.55km
Approx distance to ABN: 1111km

A good day's travel in reasonable conditions. Overcast with wind and
drifting snow, but visibility was adequate for following the "road", if
challenging on occasions.

A minor mechanical problem with one tractor's fuel line rectified in a
short stop.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Traverse: Days 1-2. Bad light didn't stop play

We are now well into the traverse/raid and making good progress.

Day 1, yesterday 25th, started around the middle of the day. It took most
of the morning to get our frozen food out of storage at Cape Prud'homme and
double haul the last vans up the steepest part of the slope, with some last
minute mechanical repairs thrown in.

The weather was overcast with very poor surface definition, but we made it
to the 60km mark, where we had pre-deployed some sleds on Saturday. We
hitched it all up and fueled, ready for the routine early (scheduled 0800)

By nightfall there was a foreboding dark sky and the odd snowflake, so it
was not really a surprise to wake up to a good amount of fresh snow and
blizzard conditions. This was an interesting way to begin our first full
routine day of traverse.

For those who haven't experienced it, "whiteout" is a real experience of
visual sensory deprivation. The light is so diffused by cloud and reflected
from the snow that there are no shadows or anything at all to give away the
ups and downs in the surface. If you are walking, stumbling is unavoidable,
if you are driving, each bump and hole comes completely unexpected:
necessitating good hand-holds, or risking bumping head on roof, etc.

We had intended to follow the track of the traverse that left last week for
Concordia Station (Dome C), but the visibility was so poor that we gave up
after a while. The lead tractor has a bank of 4 impressive lights (2.5kW
each) to help with visibility in these conditions, but even they weren't
cutting it. So we bumped and chugged along at 6-7km/h most of the day,
hitting the occasional outstanding bump and passing the warning message
back down the traverse using our VHF radios. No such warning for the two of
us in the first tractor!

We had a small breakdown today - an electrical problem, which required a
slick installation of a spare and we were on our way. The traverse has
mechanics and a well stocked workshop.

Later in the day, conditions eased and we found the track reliably, were
able to put the Kassbohrer grooming tractor out the front to groom the
path, and ramped up to 9 km/hr.

All-in-all we have covered around 130km in the two atypical days (one late
start up hill, and one in bad weather), so this is pretty good progress. We
have about 1170km to go, so a couple of weeks more for the journey is
likely - all going well.

Life on traverse is efficient and comfortable. The long days require a fair
degree of cooperation and thinking about clothing, stowing gear, what you
want in the tractor with you etc. The routine at the end of the day is very
methodical - jobs divided up so that refuelling, snow shovelling (for fresh
water), cooking and vehicle maintenance all get done in about an hour. By
the time this is all done, and a meal had, it is approaching 11pm, leaving
just a bit of time for emails, ablutions and then time to hit the hay.

Which, I need to do right now!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Traverse ready to roll from Cape Prud'homme - le depart du raid

Tomorrow, Monday 25th, we depart on traverse ("raid" in French) for Aurora
Basin. We are enthusiastic about getting started, but have greatly
appreciated the support and hospitality of our French colleagues during
our time here at Cape Prud'homme.

It has been a fairly busy week with the French team making and checking
off a long list of tasks. As I look now, there is nothing that remains
undone - even the loading of 120 loaves of bread, which happened today.

Yesterday was a key day - we took a number of sleds, with fuel tanks and
containers "up the hill" 60km along the traverse to pre-deploy them. This
was a good familiarisation for those of us new to things ... getting the
feel for driving the tractors and getting used to the pace of things.
Pre-deployment is required because the steep terrain (we gained 1250m in
the 60km) limits the towing capacity. Indeed, for the initial stretch up
from the coast, we had extra tractors "double hauling" (assisting the tow
with ropes). After 10km or so, they uncoupled and returned, leaving us to
complete the pre-deployment.

For my Australian colleagues, Sharon and Noel, driving these vehicles is
not a novelty, but as a scientist, getting my induction/training and
driving a large Caterpiller Challenger 65C is not something I had ever
expected to do and makes for a nice new experience. Nobody is just a
passenger on traverse!

The traverse itself will consist of four prime movers (the Challengers)
and a Kassborer "groomer" which runs ahead of the traverse knocking off
bumps and generally smoothing the way. We will be pulling an assembled
cargo on (I think) 12 sleds. The traverse cargo totals around 90 tonnes,
and includes the 30 or so tonnes for Aurora Basin, plus vans for living
and generator, fuel, mechanical spares/support. Should you wish to see
something of the sort, you might search for pictures of the French
logistic traverses that operate to Concordia Station at Dome C.

The other day on predeployment we were able to make a speed around 11-13
km/hr. Our days will start with warm-up of machines at 8am, departure at
8.30, and stopping for the night at 8.30pm, with an hour lunch break. In
the 11 hours driving, we hope to cover around 100km per day, but this is
"good" progress, and will probably not be achieved every day. Weather and
visibility can slow the traverse, or even call a halt if bad enough. The
snow surface is also a potential impediment, especially in the second
stage of the traverse when we turn west toward ABN. For the first run,
several hundred km up to D85, we follow the known traverse route to Dome C
(which in fact has had a traverse over it in recent days).

The end of each day, from 8.30pm will have an hour or so for fueling,
servicing vehicles and any science tasks we undertake, with dinner at
9.30pm, before wind-down and sleep.

So that is a run down on what will be happening. There may be some blog
comment along the way, I hope, subject to how much time and energy remain
at the end of the day!

As a small side-story and postscript, last evening we went across the
sea-ice from Cape Prud'homme to Dumont D'Urville and enjoyed a barbecue
and convivial evening with the station population. Today, we went back
across to DDU for lunch and were treated to a tour of station, powerhouse
and a visit to an emperor penguin colony. The emperors were a special
treat - one came over to us within just several metres and was well
photographed. This was good for us - but the year has not been good to the
emperors, since the fast ice is unusually thick and extensive, reaching
still to 50km. This is a very long march for the penguins and has
prevented many from being able to return to support the chicks, with high
mortality as a result. To be hoped such an event is just an anomaly.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Arrival at Cape Prud'homme, Dumont d'Urville

Yesterday, Monday 18th, we succeeded in getting our flight across to
Dumont d'Urville by Basler.

I'm not sure if I've mentioned the Basler aircraft, but it is a workhorse
here in Antarctica - they are fully reconditioned/rebuilt DC3 airframes
with ski landing gear. The one we flew on yesterday was built around 1942,
from memory (I've flown in it before during our ICECAP radar flights in

We got away around 0830 and had a 4 hour flight, arriving in perfect
conditions: blue sky and a bare zephyr of wind. The area here is most
picturesque: the skiway is up a steep ice slope from the coast and on a
day like yesterday it has a panoramic view down to the sea (ice) and
across to a group of islands upon which the DDU station is located. There
are scattered icebergs all across the bay and out to sea.

This siting, with the main station of DDU on an island creates some
logistical issues, requiring helicopter and water craft during the height
of summer to get gear ashore to the continent itself. For this reason
there is a small satellite station called Cape Prud'homme (CP)on the
shore-side, and that is where we are staying. At the moment, the sea from
CP out to DDU is well and truly iced over and there is a road. We hope to
drive over sometime before we depart on the traverse.

CP itself has a couple of sheds for storing heavy equipment over winter
and a congenial living/accommodation area made up of containerised
modules. The population at the moment is around 20-21 persons, and we are
actually living out in the van-on-sleds that will be our traverse home.
Our traverse will have 9 people: we three Australians, three mechanics a
doctor and a couple of scientists.

CP is abuzz right now as preparations are finalised for two traverses. The
first one is scheduled to leave today and will travel to Concordia
Station, at Dome C. It will also groom a road for us as far as about D85
(500km) where we turn off to the west. We will follow in 2-3 days (no
point following too closely as we will just catch it up on the prepared

Once the Concordia traverse leaves, that will leave around 12 of us on
station. Our living van will be towed up the hill in readiness for our
departure, so we will relocate temporarily into the main CP quarters. One
minor ongoing challenge of this exercise since leaving Hobart has been
managing our kit for ever changing transport and accomodation options so
that some essential piece of clothing or equpment isn't buried in a bag in
a container out of reach. We did a quick rationalise yesterday to see what
could be "archived" until we reach Aurora Basin, and the rest we are
cramming into our living van for traverse. I failed to compact my stuff
sufficiently before bedtime yesterday and slept in my bunk with an array
of unsorted clothes and gadgets - today's job includes some rationalising!

There is not a whole lot left for preparing our traverse - mostly sorting
a last few items into the containers and getting things up the hill to
where the vehicles and sleds are being marshalled.

So we face the "difficult" task now of spending a couple of days in good
French hospitality, being well ahead of our departure schedule, after some
favourable weather windows all down the line. If we get away later this
week, that will put us a few days ahead still, and so we are all pleased.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Tracking the traverse progress

With primitive satellite phone link, I'll not be able to do anything fancy while on traverse. It will be short text messages (130 characters), so posts will be tiny. I'll probably send lat/lon updates and/or waypoint names for anyone who wants to see.

It may be that AAD will generate something as we go, but if not, and for those who want to see progress,  I include here a couple of maps. The basemap was kindly provided by AAD, and the waypoints are ones that our French colleagues provided a while back. The route as it stands follows the established French traverse route to Dome C as far as waypoint "D85", or maybe "V0 RDC". There is still some doubt about exactly where we turn off and the precise route after we turn off but these waypoints and maps will give some context.

The first map is the large scale big-picture map, and the second one is a zoom in on the region from DDU to D85...

Not so fast...

In my last post I was conscious not to be overconfident, and noted the DDU weather was looking a little uncertain for flying. Well, we got ready for a 6am briefing yesterday and departure straight after, but the weather did indeed turn out to be unfavourable. So here I am blogging from Casey again.

We had hoped that at least the benefit of another slippage would be the arrival of the C130 from McMurdo with some of our cargo. The 6am briefing brought the news that indeed the C130 was in the air - but half an hour later it turned back due to mechanical issues, so we are thwarted on that front, it seems. As I said in the last post, the C130 cargo isn't a show stopper, so never mind!

At this stage, it looks like the weather will line up for a flight to DDU on Monday, so we are waiting to see. The word from our French colleagues at DDU is that they are nearing readiness for the traverse departure, so the timing is looking nearly ideal.

So what to do with an unexpected day or two longer here? We are digging a bit deeper into planning for the sequence of events to take place once the traverse arrives at ABN. Given the cold and the pressures to locate gear, make the most of the French snow-grooming assistance and make a safe and self-sustaining camp as rapidly as possible, the more thinking now the better. Details can be critical, like how to orient traverse vehicles post arrival relative skiway, quarantined areas (clean snow and drilling) so that we don't paint ourselves into a corner and can minimize hauling. Some of this depends upon what the surface looks like when we get there, but clearing flat areas will help the task of putting up tents.

A pause here also has a couple of other benefits. One being a chance to fiddle with new gear. We have a couple of GoPro cameras we want to use over the project, for example. The other significant benefit is a first opportunity to get out for some fresh air and exercise, and relax. And Casey turned on a brilliant day for this.

We took a walk to Shirley Is., which is a must-do Casey outing. Shirley is home to an Adelie Penguin rookery, and only a few km walk. At this time of year, the island is accessible across sea-ice. This is therefore and excuse for wildlife pictures. Adelies are most inquisitive and will often come over and check out visitors before dismissively walking by. The photo at the top of the post is part of a caravan of penguins that decided to follow us for a while, until our choice of direction didn't suit and they peeled off.

Adelie Penguin (Photo T. van Ommen)

At the moment, the females are laying eggs and about 10% or so are incubating eggs already. The first thing that greets visitors is the cacophony of squawks and calls and the unmistakable smell of penguin poo.

Most of the birds were milling around the rookeries, and just a few like the fellow above were out strolling around.

Adelie Penguins aren't the only wildlife, we saw some Weddell seals basking like slugs on the sea ice, but the really noteable others were the Skuas perched on almost every high point around the rookeries; or cruising menacingly a metre or so over the penguins looking our for an unguarded egg.

Skua (Photo T. van Ommen)

Skuas (Photo T. van Ommen)

Shirley Is Adelie Penguin rookery (Photo: T. van Ommen)
Interestingly, the skuas and penguins aren't too fussed by each other if they are just bird-to-bird. I saw one skua sitting next to a rock and a penguin less than a metre away eating some snow. Neither seemed to care at all for the other.

It was a very warm day, probably getting close to being above freezing, and a pleasant change of pace for the ABN traverse team:
ABN Traverse team

To finish up, a couple of pictures of Adelies getting out of the water...
Adelie penguins emerging from the water (Photo: T. van Ommen)

... "flightless" birds indeed!

Adelie Penguin emerging from the water (Photo: T. van Ommen)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Exiting Casey - Exciting Dumont d'Urville

The title of this post is a little optimistic - don't want to get too confident - but it looks very much like we will transfer to Dumont d'Urville tomorrow, just a week after arriving in Casey.

It has been a busy week getting final preparations lined up, sourcing miscellaneous cargo items from Station, doing field training etc. It has been slightly complicated by the fact that the C130 flight from McMurdo that will bring in some of our cargo is now not going to make it before we leave. This is manageable, as we have been able to source most of what we want from station. Some minor inconveniences - most noteable for this blog being the fact that our full communications kit (and hence email) won't be with us on traverse. So posting to the blog will be limited to text messages from a satellite phone - if that proves practical: we'll see.

The lack of C130 cargo doesn't ultimately affect us at Aurora Basin, because it can and will be flown in with expeditioners once we have the camp skiway operational in early December.

So some gratuitous images now, since I won't be able to do this again - at least on traverse and at Aurora Basin.

The flight into McMurdo last week was the usual scenic pass across the Trans Antarctic mountains in Victoria Land, out into McMurdo Sound and then onto the sea ice runway at McMurdo. Unfortunately it was pretty cloudy, and Mt. Erebus didn't show itself, but we still got a nice view a little before McMurdo.

Casey, as always provides beautiful scenes out the front of the station. Here is a moody view of Newcomb Bay. After a calm and warm day, the wind whipped up from nowhere!

So that's it from Casey, most likely. If we get some internet access at DDU, I may sneak in a post from there.

Postscript: Unfolding logistics in the last hour or two are casting some doubt over DDU weather, so we may be at Casey a little longer ... a final assessment will be made in the morning...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Casey update and test post

The trip to Antarctica last Friday (8th) went ahead like clockwork, just as planned and defying the typical Antarctic pattern. We went straight through McMurdo with just an hour or so on the ice, transferring from the AAD airbus to a USAP C130 and on to Casey. If I have time I'll post a couple of pictures and further detail.

Things are proceeding apace, and after 4 days at Casey, it looks like our onward flight to Dumont d'Urville (DDU) could happen on Friday, just a couple of days away.

We are expecting a few tonnes of further cargo in from McMurdo, hopefully before Friday, and have been busy doing last minute jobs: checking gear and assembling cargo for the onward flight.

Our next leg will be on a Basler (a rebuilt DC3) ski equipped plane. This aircraft has been working at Davis Station, west of here, and the weather looks promising for it to arrive here on Thursday. The whole chain of events requires a sequence of good weather windows at Davis-Casey-DDU which might normally require delays of a week or more. So, for us to get to DDU this Friday would represent a great head-start.

The real purpose of this post is a test of the technology; using email rather than a web interface, in readiness for the satellite phone link we will soon be using.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Getting Ready

For the three of us heading in to start the Aurora Basin project it is starting to feel pretty real now. We have been issued our kit - all manner of cold weather clothing from thermals to down outer layers, gloves and head coverings, to boots: and everything in between.

ABN Traverse team: me, Sharon (Field Leader) and Noel (AGSO/Mechanic)
We are scheduled to fly to the US McMurdo Station on Friday. This means a flight on the AAD Airbus A319 from Hobart - likely at the crack of dawn - connecting with a US C130 onwards to Casey.

A319 at Wilkins Aerodrome

C130 at Casey (Sheri Newman)

The challenge at this point is to figure out what you need/want in addition to the basic kit and fit it all into the 55kg allowance. For the deep field work at Aurora Basin, this requires additional thought about the implications of cold camp life. The temperatures will be around minus 25 and likely below minus 30 at times. The only warmed places will be our kitchen/living tent and generator tent: the latter serving also as a shower and wash "room". This means careful management of everything from changes of clothing to use of battery-powered devices which don't cope well if "deep soaked" in cold....sleeping bags tend to host a range of gadgets and water bottles etc as well as the intended warm body.

So the next couple of days means making this lot fit:

A bit of culling and some hard decisions remaining!

On a different note, the last couple of days have been devoted to pre-departure training. For some of the group this is their first trip to Antarctica, and some will be away a year. For those of us who have been before, it is a good chance to refresh our knowledge and to catch up on operational changes.

The medium range forecast is looking good for Friday, so a departure looks increasingly likely. The next post will likely be from Casey.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Plan

Map (c) 2013 Commonwealth of Australia.

Aurora Basin North (ABN) is a slightly catchier name for an old traverse waypoint called GC40. It is the site we have chosen for a new ice core record of climate extending back over 2000 years. There are relatively few such records in this sector of Antarctica, especially records with enough detail to observe at nearly year-by-year resolution. The only other comparable millennial length record is from Law Dome. The ice core record will contribute to the work of international projects, the IPICS2k Array and the PAGES Antarctica2k initiative.

ABN is located about 550km inland from Casey at 2700m elevation, so getting there and making it livable will be an adventure in itself! I'll talk a little more about the site and our plans for infrastructure in a future post.

The project is highly international, with researchers and drillers from Denmark, France, US, China as well as several Australian groups. The French Antarctic Programme is providing logistical support in the form of a traverse from the French station, Dumont d'Urville (DDU). We plan to leave DDU on the 1300km traverse in late November and arrive onsite at ABN around December 11. We will then prepare a skiway for light aircraft and the full team will join us by flying in from Casey.

The plan is to be onsite around 6 weeks. The traverse will leave sometime shortly after the skiway is prepared and the basic camp infrastructure is in place. We expect to change some personnel over in early January by aircraft, and the entire camp will be dismantled and returned by air in late January.

We will be drilling 3 ice cores to provide enough ice for a wide range of analyses. The main core will be up to 400m long and cover several thousand years. A second core, about 100m long will provide for extra analysis of the last 1000 years. The hole for this second core will also be used to extract large volumes of trapped air from the upper 60 metres or so of porous snow (firn). This trapped air will be put in clean flasks and returned from Antarctica for detailed analysis of changes in atmospheric composition in recent decades. A third core, also 100m deep will provide additional ice for French colleagues to undertake novel analysis of sulphur isotopes.

So that's it in a nutshell. I'm joining the traverse and will be leaving Hobart on around 8 November. I will be mostly responsible for drilling the core associated with the firn air pumping. This is scheduled to be completed by changeover and so I am expecting to be back from Antarctica in early January... we shall see!

[For some more background, see the AAD website]