I am off to Antarctica again shortly to a site called Hercules Dome. Is it called Hercules Dome because of the effort to get there? Maybe. To get there from Seattle, I will fly to Christchurch New Zealand, before going to McMurdo Station and then South Pole. And then one last flight back north to Hercules Dome.
Hercules Dome is about 250 miles north of South Pole. It’s in the direction of the Antarctic Peninsula and South America and labeled HD in the map below (with a bunch of other ice core sites which might get mentioned over the course of these blog posts).
Is Hercules Dome named after airplanes used to move people and stuff all over the continent? The Air National Guards flies LC-130s, which specialized versions of the C-130 Hercules aircraft for polar field work. The Hercs can be fitted with skis and able to land both on groomed runways and on smooth portions of the open ice sheet. So maybe Hercules Dome is named because it’s a nice place for Hercs to land. To my knowledge, no Hercs have landed there, but it is flat and minimally affected by wind, so early pilots may have recognized it as a potential emergency landing strip.
We are headed to Hercules Dome to determine where best to drill an ice core. In future posts, I’ll explain how we look through the ice to the rock underneath; how we look at the ice itself; how we will model how the ice flow; and lots about what goes into doing Antarctic field work.
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.
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.
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
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’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 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.
Get ready for the next Antarctic Adventure! T.J. is heading back to the ice next week and we will be providing regular updates and photos. There have been a lot of changes since we last posted. We are now Dr. and Dr. Fudge. T.J. has completed his PhD and is now a post-doc at the University of Washington. Jessie completed her Sports Medicine Fellowship at the University of Washington and is working in a sports practice in Everett, WA. We have also added a member to the Fudge clan. Adrian was born on October 12, 2013. He seems to love snow, and is looking forward to some more “sled skiing” this winter.
T.J.’s last project was at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide. He published his findings in Nature. You can link to the article here. His new project will bring him to the South Pole where they are drilling another ice core. Since, I am a bit jealous that he is returning to Antarctica without me, I like to remind him that I was the first Fudge to stand at the South Pole. We look forward to having you follow along on T.J.’s South Pole adventure. Look for new posts starting early January.