Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Storms and Black Island

A million gallons or so of gasoline-like mogas.
The legendary midwinter storm of 2004 blew the lid off one of these tanks. One year a big storm blew away 300 brand-new mattresses from the ballpark outdoor storage area. Scientists are still finding them everywhere.
In these conditions in 2004 SAR team wound up out on a Black Island traverse. The air was so thick with snow that GPS wouldn't work. There was no visibility, and they ended up sending out someone on a rope to find each sucessive flag so they could keep on the trail. Going off trail around Black Island is bad- there are some big cracks and rough terrain. Especially the front route- the North side of the island. Black Island is so named because, unlike White Island immediately to the East, winds keep Black Island nearly free of snow. Wind speeds of 50-200mph are common there. The narrow channel between White and Black Island is known as "Herbie Alley" because it is directly south of McMurdo- the direction most bad storms come from. When Black Island disappears, you know you have 1/2hr-1 hr to get to shelter.
Last weekend I went on a Black Island traverse with half of the SAR team as a training/work detail. We took a Hagglunds and a Pisten Bully. Our kit consisted of the personal SAR gear of the 6 team members, survival kits (with tents, sleeping bags, shovels, stoves, food, first aid kits, and trashy novels), some SAR tools (roof-mounted radar, a thermal imaging camera, iridium phone, VHF and HF radios, etc), lots of reflective bamboo pole flags and ice drills, and my MP3 and three books.
On the first day we were blessed with really nice weather. Almost no wind and a balmy temp of -10F or so. We packed up and picked up our stray Kiwi from Scott Base, then checked out with Firehouse dispatch and crossed the transition and drove south over the Ross Ice Shelf.
The traverse route took us southwards over seasonal packed snow-covered ice roads towards LDB (Large Diameter Balloon weather and atmospheric project- it is a few miles from Scott Base, it's staffed full time in summer and has really good food. A few times a season they send up gigantic balloons to monitor conditions up high.).
From LDB we drove along the old Willy Field runway. From here the ground was more or less unmaintained, but still pretty flat. Willy Field, the 3rd runway, was taken out of use last year in an attempt to consolidate runways. Willy was named after a Navy man, Richard T Williams, who drowned when his D8 tractor broke through sea ice in 1956. Wikipedia says the field sits on top of 25' of compacted snow, 260' of ice, and 1800' of sea water! Apparently the new plan is a midsummer ice runway right next to town, and a permanent ice shelf runway further away the rest of the year. They run the Ice Runway- on annual sea ice- right up until the ice is so thin that seawater is coming up through cracks and making pools on the surface. At this point the surface deflection caused by larger parked planes such as C17s means they are sitting in water if the sea can find a crack to come up through... then they run the risk of getting frozen in... This summer there was a good crack that ran under the Station 2 and a saltwater pond next to the station for a week or two before we left. We named it Lake Doherty after one of our guys.
Pegasus seems to be well-positioned as far as weather patterns and ice quality goes, but it's 7-17miles from McMurdo depending on which roads are navigable at the time. Pegasus, by the way, is named after a C-121 Lockheed Constellation that crashed there in 1970, and still sits on the edge of the runway. Analysis of possible closer Ice Shelf runway locations is in progress.
The roads outside of "the rock" (Ross Island) are called ice roads, but you generally don't do much driving on actual ice. The transition onto Ross Island- were the ice meets the land and gets melty and crushed and messy- is one place you drive on ice. And further afield there are other transition areas and surface melt pools called lenses. But most parts of the ice roads go over very hard, very deep snow that is constantly drifting. When the structures at LBD and Pegagus are winterized, big snow berms are built and the building are placed up high on them so they won't have to be dug out in spring. LBD site has several black-flagged areas where the hollow spaces of old buried buildings lie just below the surface. The same thing happens at the South Pole. The new station is built on 'stilts'- which are already being buried faster than anticipated. The old geodesic dome South Pole station was dismantled this year, but not before a tractor fell into it while driving across the snow surface. There are places on the continent that experience dozens of feet of drifting each year, and entire stations that are now well underground. Antarctica is the world's biggest desert, and most of this drifting isn't fresh snowfall, it's just blown in from elsewhere.
1-2' high sastrugi were scattered at irregular 10-30' intervals at right angles to the road. They gave us a bumpy ride in the Hagglunds- worse in the PB- but were a blast on snowmobiles on our summer traverse. It was pretty weird to be jumping sastrugi on a snowmobile on an old ice runway in Antarctica.
Anyway, we headed south off the airfield and started drilling holes for flags. Four maintenance guys had headed out to BI a couple days in advance of us. We watched their tracks take a couple wrong turns where the flags ran out and their GPS had given them difficulties. We had flagged the route on the snowmobile trip in January, but there were quite a few sections with flags broken off or blown away already. When the fuel in the drills' priming bubbles froze solid, we learned it was best to keep them in the warm cab if we wanted them to start.
Eventually we approached the channel between the islands. In Herbie alley, the ice sheet crests a broad rise, then dumps downhill to the north. It can be a very rough area. On the snowmobile trip the SAR lead entertained us with stories of people getting dumped into 5' deep/+ lenses. We had all our spare gear in waterproof packing and were instructed to try and give the machine throttle and get out quickly if we started breaking through a lense. So I was very disappointed when we arrived in January to find that nature had greatly smoothed the area. It wasn't really a challenge at all. The Kiwis had been in December, when the cracks were big, and the road rugged enough that they had to crawl along and use an outside spotter to get the vehicles safely across the terrain. But when we arrived in Hagglunds and PB June 4th, it was just as mild a trip as in January!
The route I'd really like to take is the Black Island Front Route. It's shorter than the Back Route, but much rougher. It goes across the ice to the north of the island- onto which the prevailing southerlies blow a continual rain of BI volcanic dust. The dust causes diffential melting. From what I have heard BI Front Route is a labyrinth of deep deceptive melt pools and weird mushroom-shaped snow formations, some as high as the Hagglunds roof.
We got out of the channel and into the smooth ground behind the island. It's a pretty area, with Minna Bluff to the south and the steep glaciers and hills of Black Island to the north, just visible in the starlight. The sastrugi were a little closer together and they made the Hagglunds jump like the shocks were going bad. But, as our speed was up, the heat was really blasting, and I slept pretty comfortably for most of the rest of the journey.
We arrived at the Black Island facility, and suddenly the wind was up and the air was full of the whoosing noise of wind turbines. We jumped out into the cold and unloaded our gear into "the night train"- a little towaway trailer that serves as spillover housing at BI. It's so named because when the wind picks up it rocks and rumbles like a train going down the tracks. The crew that preceeded us had lit the preway stove for us, and before long it was pretty cozy in the top bunks. Lower down, an armchair next to the stove was full of snow that had drifted down. The snow managed not to melt all night.
Inside the main BI facility, we had one of the best dinners I've ever eaten. It was very warm and cozy with nice furniture (Very rare in McMurdo!), and we sat around til 9 or 10 with some home-brewed beer. It's really great to hang around the old hands and hear all the crazy stories about Antarctica. Towards the end of the night a friend and I went out to explore and check out the stars and auroras. It doesn't get all that dark here- the starlight was enough to walk by without a light. There was no light pollution and the auroras were pretty nice. At one point we had almost 360 degrees worth of aurora-lit sky.
The night-train stayed cozy til around 0300 when the wind picked up. I ended up bundled down in my winter sleeping bag with the preway on high, listening happily to the building's rumble. I wished I could spend the rest of the season out there.
In the morning we packed up and were blessed by easily-starting vehicles. The winds were 50knots and firehouse dispatch called and asked "I assume you're not going this morning?" which had me very excited until the SAR lead reiterated his decision that we'd be OK to go anyway.
The other traverse stayed on several more days. They were there to repair and maintain generators and communications equipment. Black Island is a several-million dollar communication facility that only exists because Mt Erebus and the rest of Ross Island is in the way of McMurdo's northern horizon. That's where the good satellite coverage is- low in the north- so a big dish at BI sends and receives all the comm.s for the entire station. BI consists of a few trailers hooked together and a couple satellite dishes in protective metal-fiberglass domes. The fiberglass panels of the domes flap deafeningly in the high winds. BI went down for a few days at the start of the season and we lost comm.s and internet, which was delightful.
Much to my dismay, the trip back was uneventful. We covered the 55 miles in 6 or 7 hours. For a few hours around noon a lovely rosy blush lit up the whole northern horizon, making me suspect that it will never get entirely dark here. I mean to write Someone a strongly worded letter about this, as it is counter to my expectations. Just after we got back on the main LDB road, I startled the other crew by pulling off to the side and doing a 180, because the best auroras of the season so far were dancing behind us. We watched them for half an hour- wide green zigzags stretching down til they disappeared behind the horizon. Their bottom edges were low enough to have just a hint of yellow and red.
Far too soon, it was time to head back into town and get everything back to response readiness. For days I had a strange feeling of having gone very far away, like after R&R in NZ...

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