Ice and Medicine at the end of the earth

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The South Pole Ice Core

I’ve posted plenty about life at the South Pole, but what about the science? We recently completed our first drilling season, reaching a depth of 736 m.

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We are drilling an ice core at South Pole because of the unique climate here. South Pole is cold, even by Antarctic standards. It is the coldest spot for a deep drilling project by the USA. Other cores have been drilled at colder sites, but what makes the South Pole unique is that has received much more snow than those other sites.

More snow means higher resolution. Basically, if it snows twice as much, we collect twice as much ice for a given time period allowing us to make more detailed measurements. We also benefit from the atmosphere being trapped in the bubbles in the ice faster.

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The cold temperatures are necessary to preserve trace gases. When I say trace gases, I don’t mean carbon dioxide (CO2), which is measured in parts per million, or methane (CH4) which is measured in parts per billion. I mean gases like carbonyl sulfide (COS – that’s CO2 with an S instead of the second O) which is measured in parts per trillion. COS gets lost in warm ice, so the cold is needed to preserve it.

At 736 m, the ice is about 10,000 years old. After drilling to 1500 m next season, we will be at about 40,000 years. Each layer of ice gets thinned by ice flow which is why more time is packed into each meter of the deeper ice.

Once we have gotten the ice back to the US, we will begin the scientific analysis

South Pole Station from the Air

Here are some aerial photos of South Pole Station. I wish I had gotten to take them, but I found them on our common drive.

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Above is an overview of the station. The main station is on the left with the berms stretching out above it. To the right are different science buildings. At the top right is our drill camp.

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This photo gives a sense of the remoteness of the Antarctic Plateau. In reality, we are only a couple of kilometers away from the station.

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Here is a close up of our drill site. At the top, the long red and white tent is our drill shelter. Moving down the picture, the brown building is Graceland, where we dry our drill suits to get the drilling fluid out. Next, the red and white square structure is the MEC, our warming area. The final building, a black rectangle, is The Duke, our outhouse. You can also see the red van we commute to the site in on the left of the MEC. The rest of the stuff is our equipment. There is a generator, barrels of drilling fluid, and lots of crates that we shipped the drill down in.

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This is a photo of three different science buildings. On the left is the IceCUBE building. IceCUBE is a neutrino observatory that consists of 86 sensor string put into the ice between 1500 and 2500 m depth. Holes were drilled using hot water and then the sensors lowered down. On the right are two buildings for astronomy: BICEP2 which is looking at the Big Bang using long wavelengths and the South Pole Telescope.

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This is the main station and the berms I mentioned above. The berms are where all the cargo that can freeze is stored. The cargo is put up on berms to minimize the amount of drifting snow that accumulates. The berms are in straight lines so that when they do get buried, you can easily find where to start shoveling.

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Almost all of that cargo arrived by plane, as did all of the materials for the buildings. This is a shot of the airstrip where the Hercules LC-130s land, as well as smaller aircraft. About the only thing at South Pole that does not arrive by air is fuel, which in the last few years is being put in large bladders and pulled in by tractors from McMurdo.

Skiing Around the World

I went for my first ski today. There is an outbuilding with ski equipment for anyone to use while at the station. I picked out some skate skis, boots, and poles and headed out. The weather report says it was -29C (-24F) but when I checked a thermometer on our ice core pallets, it read -33C (-28F) making this the coldest ski of my life – I normally sip a hot toddie on days this cold. But it’s the South Pole, it doesn’t get a whole lot warmer.

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As you can see, I was pretty bundled up. I had never used a face mask on my goggles before arriving at the South Pole. But the windchill is too much for my poor nose. It was a sunny beautiful day, but there was a breeze. The weather report currently gives the wind speed as 15 knots which gives a windchill of -44C (-48F). I think the wind has picked up in the couple of hours since I skied, but I can tell you I felt it going into the wind. You didn’t want any exposed flesh.

The skiing was actually pretty good. I even got a little glide where the snow was well-groomed. The constant sun must keep the snow temperature up a bit. There are no trails groomed for skiing here, so it’s a bit tricky crossing big ruts from heavy machinery. I skied on the skiway for airplanes, which was both slow and slick. I made the mistake of leaving the groomed roads and immediately got no glide with the rough snow crystals. Skiing to the Pole would have been a hell of a trial (but better than man-hauling).

On my way in, I stopped at the Ceremonial Pole.

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I had yet to visit the Ceremonial Pole, but it does provide a nice selfie opportunity. And to make sure I had skied around the world, I lopped around the true geographic Pole before putting my skis away.

It was a fun ski around the world.

Elizabeth Morton – Ice Core Driller

e_1 (2)All of my posts so far have been about the things – the pole, the station, the travel. So I thought I should do a post on a person and Elizabeth, or E, was an obvious choice.

I first met E at the WAIS Divide drill site during the 2010-2011 Antarctic summer. She was a driller for the WAIS Divide ice core while I was core handler for the project. At that time, I also found out she was a fellow Polar Bear, having graduated from Bowdoin a few years before me.

E’s path to becoming an ice core driller was not a linear one. The short version is that she worked in Antarctica for the first time in the BFC, the Berg Field Center, at McMurdo Station which outfits science groups doing fieldwork. She was lured by the appeal of Antarctica as well as the seasonal work leaving her time to enjoy New Zealand on her return trip.

e_2 (2)E’s talent for organizing people was quickly recognized, and it didn’t take long for her to become the camp supervisor at WAIS Divide. At the time, WAIS Divide was the largest field camp in Antarctica with a maximum population near 60 people. Keeping everything organized was no easy feat, especially with the notoriously bad weather disrupting supply flights, and even once shutting the camp down with no one allowed to move from the building they were in.

It must have been during that year that the appeal of ice coring took hold (and how couldn’t it?) and the next year she returned to WAIS Divide, switching from managing the camp to drilling the ice. She was part of the team that drilled the deepest US ice core ever and is leading to some fantastic science.

After that season, our paths parted until I flew up to Summit Station in Greenland for the test of the new ice-core drill we are using at South Pole. Arriving at Bear Camp, as our satellite camp was called, I was excited to see E there. I knew the drill would be in good hands.

e_3 (2)E has been fantastic to work with this season. She has established a fun, conscientious, safe, and very productive atmosphere that is leading to not only great ice core, but a great ice-core experience. As the season is winding down, her thoughts are turning to her house in New Zealand and spending time enjoying some sun in the outdoors.

An Amazing Feat

I witnessed an amazing feat today. Two people just ran a marathon today.

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On the snow. At elevation. In the cold. The conditions for the finish of the race:

  • Air temperature: -29C (-24F)
  • Wind Speed: 15 knots
  • Wind Chill: -44C (-47F)
  • Pressure elevation: 10,800 ft above sea level

I suffered while skate skiing for 45 minutes. They slogged for over 6 hours.

The course took them out past the South Pole Telescope, through the IceCube array, and to our drill site. And then back. The round trip distance was about 3.5 miles, so they did this seven times. And then added another partial loop to make it a full 26.2 miles.

They finished at the geographic South Pole to a small crowd of amazed fans.

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Ryan and Mel ran together most of the way and finished within minutes of each other.

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Life In South Pole Station

Landing at McMurdo is inspiring with the mountains rising up all around and the knowledge that you have finally arrived in Antarctica. Arriving at South Pole is alien. You have just been whisked from sea level to 9300 ft in two hours and dropped off on the Antarctic plateau at temperatures of -30C (-20F). In every direction stretches white snow.

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Fortunately, South Pole station is only a few (although very difficult in the altitude) steps away.

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The station is quite comfortable and is similar to dorms being built on college campuses – except that there is a 100F temperature difference between outside and inside. Everyone gets a single room, unless they request a double room with someone. I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable my room was.

The rooms are simple but have plenty of storage and even a desk so there is no excuse to not be productive. The windows are smaller than a typical building so that less heat is lost. But during the summer, the window shades are mostly kept down so that it feels like night when you are trying to sleep.

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The station holds 150 people, although in busy times (like now) people sometimes stay in temporary units located a short walk away. The galley, or dining hall, fits everyone pretty well.

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The food is pretty good – better than my high school, not as good as my college (go Bowdoin! #1 in college food). There’s lots of proteins and dessert and not many fresh vegetables. I was surprised to find a greenhouse in the station though.

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There is also a lot of recreation space, including a gym where I just did yoga for the first time (or attempted to do yoga may be more accurate).

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The yoga class was taught by Lindsay, one of the station staff. The recreation on the station is all self-created, so you have to come ready to make your own fun. I was a little surprised at the amount of space dedicated to recreation, but after being here a while, it makes sense. Getting outside for exercise is hard and you need to have an outlet to keep your sanity. And I’m saying this in the summer, you can image what the 8 months of winter, when no flights can come or go, feels like.

The South Pole Ceremony

After arriving in McMurdo, I immediately went and checked the flight information for the following day to see if there was a flight to South Pole scheduled. If I didn’t fly, I would have to wait at least an addition 2 days because of the New Year’s holiday.

I was excited to see that we were a backup flight, so there was a chance to reach the South Pole on New Year’s Day. But for us to fly, a flight to WAIS Divide, the ice-core site that I have spent much of the last 5 years working on, had to be canceled. Two friends had been waiting over 2 weeks for a flight to WAIS Divide and the camp could use a resupply. Could I really root for the WAIS Divide flight to get cancelled?

I heard that the weather was dicey at WAIS Divide, so it was likely we would fly to Pole. When I woke up in the morning, the WAIS Divide flight had been cancelled due to weather, but the South Pole flight had good weather in both locations. So three of us made our way back to the airfield about 16 hours after we had arrived. Things were looking good, but as with all flights in Antarctica, you keep your fingers crossed until you land at your destination.

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Landing at South Pole was awesome. Three friends met me at the plane and walked me over to the station. I felt like a pre-teen walking up to Hogwarts Castle for the first time. I had arrived at the geographic South Pole, in many ways, the end of the Earth. And even better, I had arrived in time for the South Pole Ceremony, by a mere two hours.

The South Pole sits on top of 2800 m (9000 ft) of ice which is flowing at 10 m per year (33 feet per year). So each year, the marker for the geographic South Pole has to be moved and this is done on New Years Day.

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The marker is designed and crafted by the winter-over crew each year. Much of the station assembled outside for the ceremony.

spc_3The station manager said a few short words, and then asked us to form a semicircle from the previous marker to the new one. We passed the American Flag around the semi-circle, planting it just downstream of the new marker

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The new marker was then unveiled

There is a great tradition of markers at South Pole and I was honored to be a part of it. For a glaciologist who measures ice-flow rates, it was particularly fun to be involved. In the station, there is a display case with all of the markers. It looks like the first one was crafted in 1984 and it became an annual tradition in 1987.

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