6 Weeks on Larsen C
From one Pole to Another.
Getting ready for the craziest week of my life. In a few days I'll be leaving Svalbard, the place that I have called home for the past 4 years, to travel to the other side of the planet. But first, there's one last important matter I need to take care of, and not a simple one: my PhD defense. Four years of intense labor compressed in one day of presentations in front of an international Jury. Luckily, my family has made the trip to the Arctic, providing me with all the support I need.
"I hope you're not too stressed, today is a big day for you" I jokingly told my supervisor. The day went so fast, I blinked and it was over. I never though that a PhD defense could be that much fun. We finished the day with a huge dinner with friends and family before going back home under a sky of northern lights. The success was bittersweet, in a couple of days I will leave the place I love the most, leave my job, my friends and my glaciers, without knowing when I will be back.
The reason why I am leaving Svalbard so soon is because another adventure is awaiting. Something I have been dreaming of my whole life, the ultimate voyage a glaciologist can take. I am going to ANTARCTICA!
A few months ago I got asked to join a team of glaciologists from the Welsh universities of Aberystwyth and Swansea. They were planning their second and last field campaign of their project investigating the Larsen C ice shelf, 6 weeks working and camping on the Antarctic peninsula. I could not believe my luck, this was going to be the trip of a lifetime.
Svalbard - Tromso, Tromso - Oslo, Oslo-London, London-Santiago, Santiago-Puerto Montt, Puerto Montt-Punta Arenas. 3 days, 7 flights, and 17 500 kilometers later, we were one leap away from the White Continent. The last flight is a special one, we are taking a Dash 7 operated by the British Antarctic Survey. After a short night in Punta, we're told that the weather the next day looks good, Antarctica is calling!
The flight took about 5H, nothing like what the first explorers had to endure! We were the first batch of scientists and station personnel to reach Rothera after the winter. To say that the flight was spectacular would be an understatement. The ocean became sea ice, the sea ice became land, land became mountains. We were literally glued to the windows of the plane, trying to take it all in. I had to pinch myself so many times, this was not a dream, I was flying over the Antarctic Peninsula! "Fasten your seatbelts, we're about to land". This is it, our new home for a week, we've made it to Rothera.
ROTHERA, HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Rothera is the main station from the British Antarctic Survey, found above the Antarctic Polar Circle on Adelaide Island. In the winter it is home to 22 winterers, and up to 100 people in the summer. We'll need some time there to pack our equipment for the field, and train for our great adventure with our two guides, Al and Bradley.
It felt great to be able to have a full week before the fieldwork. Plenty of time to get acclimatized to the polar conditions of Rothera, that is about the same latitude as Larsen C. The days were super busy, but also full of wonderful encounters and plenty, plenty of food. You're never more than 2H away from a snack or a meal at Rothera, just what we needed to fatten up a bit before the field.
After spending a few years working in Svalbard I really enjoyed learning about the way fieldwork is organised in Antarctica. In many ways I would it very old school. Where in the Arctic we always tried to have the latest sledges, tools, in Antarctica everything seem to date from another era. And the reason is, that is something breaks in the field in Antarctica, you cannot call anyone to come and help you out, you need to be able to fix it yourself.
We packed our P-bags (personal bag for sleeping), tested the stoves, set up the radio antenna, and did plenty of crevasse rescue exercises. Our two field assistants are incredible mountaineers and all-round field master jedis, keen to make sure we will not burn out tents down when boiling water. We also have some time to "walk around the point", the main easy hike that can be done around the station. There's still plenty of sea ice around the base, friendly wildlife and huge icebergs waiting for the thaw to wiggle their way out.
THE TIME HAS COME
Finally, we are getting the green light to head to our field area, the Larsen C ice shelf. After so many months of planning, we are reaching peak excitement. Logistically, the drop off day is a challenge. We have to bring the whole team at once, with all the equipment required, so as soon as the operation begins it is rather tricky to stop it. Safety is key!
I am the third person of my team to be taken to the field, and to my surprise I have an entire twin otter plane to myself, flown by the talented Vicky. Little did I know at the time, that when you are a co-pilot with BAS (which I was suddenly promoted to), the pilot might ask you to fly the plane for a few minutes when they are required to do paperwork. So there I was, always across the trans-Antarctic mountains, flying my plane for the very first time! Let me tell you that I did not breathe for 40 minutes.
And there it was! Ice extending as far as the ice can see, flat, white, enormous, the Larsen C ice shelf in the flesh! On the blindingly white expanse we could see a tiny black dot. There was our first camp, looking so vulnerable on the ice.
As soon as we landed, it was a race against time as it always is in Antarctica. You have to be ready for a sudden change in weather. Time to set up the tents and get ready for our first night on the Larsen C ice shelf. Some important information, we made it to the Larsen C ice shelf on the 29th of October 2015, which was the very first time that a team of scientists made it so early on the ice. The winter was slowly coming to an end and we were geared up for some pretty cold conditions. The first few days on Larsen C were very busy. We had to find our marks, prepare all the research equipment, etc. Everything takes so much longer in extreme environments, even just getting out of bed, preparing breakfast, and putting on layers for the day ahead takes 2 or 3 hours at least!
Among the most important tasks were setting up our solar panels. We had a series of large, rigid solar panels rigged to metal poles and connected to really heavy 80 ah car batteries that we used to charge our toughbooks, sat phones and research equipment. And this is where I did my worse mistake of the trip! Just as I was wiring one of the big batteries with the cable collecting it to the solar panel, I started to smell smoke, and in a split second the whole cable was on fire. Someone has actually taped the + and the - together at the other hand of the cable the previous year... something I didn't expect! Problem was, we were inside the mess tent, and that everything was made of really flammable fabric.Luckily, strong Bradley took the battery with his bare hands and threw it through the wall of the tent, which burnt a massive hole through the tent wall and also, Brad's hands... This is when the massive first aid kit we had came handy for the first time, two days in a 6 week long expedition...
Our small group was split in 3 teams, on one side we have Prof. Bryn Hubbard the co-project leader and Dr. Dave Ashmore working on drilling the ice shelf, and installing sensors in the borehole. On the other side, Dr. Suzanne Bevan my tentmate, Dr. Adam Booth and myself working on the ground penetrating radar and seismics measurements among other things. And to babysit us, our two fantastic guides, Al Davies and Bradley Morrell.
I really enjoy working in small teams. Everyone has to work hard to contribute to the project, there's no room for egos or preferences. You have to be ready to dig out holes for the "toilets", melt snow for days, fix things that were broken by other people, sort out food or fuel. No two days are ever the same. This small team was amazing, everybody had so much experience, so much knowledge to share, I became a sponge for 6 weeks trying to absorb as much wisdom as I could.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Our camp was a moving camp. We had four different sites to investigate in 6 weeks, so we spent about a little over a week at every site. Al our main guide has absolutely nailed our camp set up. We use the exact same plan every time, which made it more comfortable for everyone: 3 sleeping tents, 1 large tunnel mess/equipment tent, 1 toilet tent, 3 skidoos, 6 sledges and a runway, flagged all the way. Tent life on Larsen C was great. It was indeed pretty cold at the beginning, averaging -25°c, but gradually spring took over the winter and made it all a bit easier.
Food wise, we were given several "man food boxes" full of british treasures to keep us fed and warm for 48 days. For breakfast, muesli or oats with tea or coffee, lunch was typically biscuits with peanut butter and jelly, and dinner a welcome package of freeze dried food. All of that sprinkled by snacks throughout the day, chocolate and cereal bars, candy, you name it, we had it. Every now and then we challenged ourselves to a family dinner in the mess tent, with real food (usually a lot of meat) that Al and Brad had kindly packed for us. These little feasts are so important for the team's moral.
SCIENCE ON LARSEN C
So what exactly were we planning on doing in terms of science? First, we need to understand what ice shelves are and why they matter. Ice shelves are basically made of glacier ice that formed on the continent of Antarctica, and that steadily flows towards the ocean. When the ice flows into large natural embayments it can float and form a solid "shelf" of ice that is fed by ice coming from the land, ans that every now and then will calve tabular icebergs.
Antarctica is bordered by 15 large ice shelves. Today they are described as the safety band or the guardian's of Antarctica's ice sheets stability. If these ice shelves were to disappear, ice coming from the land would accelerate and increase is contribution to sea level rise. Unfortunately these shelves appear to be extremely sensitive to an increase in water and air temperature. Along the Antarctic Peninsula we have observed ice shelves partially or totally collapsing such as Larsen A and Larsen B. Larsen C could be the next one on the list, and to be able to better assess its stability, we need to investigate its structure.
We had three main research techniques to study the strengths and weaknesses of the ice : first, a hot water drill that could help us drill down to 100 m, combined to a televiewer, sort of a fancy camera with LED lights that can image the borehole. Secondly, a ground penetrating radar, that sends radio waves through the ice. A great tool to get an idea of the structure of the ice, temperature and water content. Finally, we borrowed hundreds of seismometers to monitor artificial shockwaves travelling through the ice. A lot of toys to play with!
After battling with the last cold spell of the winter we finally got our science program started! Priority number one was melting enough snow to get 4000 L of water, imagine how much digging we had to do! Once the drilling team had enough water we could focus on covering hundreds of kilometers with the radar and focusing on a few spots for the seismics operations. The team was very careful with the equipment (as one should be), the year before they got the televiewer stuck in a borehole and the radar system didn't work properly. So unlucky, I'm so used to field campaigns moving to plan B, C or D. But in 2015 it seems that all our prayers and sacrifices had worked and we had some splendid days of data acquisition with little to no problems.
The days and weeks literally flew by. My favorite part of the expedition was without a doubt these long skidoo journeys with the radar, that offered us a different landscape, far far away from camp. It was the perfect opportunity to day dream. One day, as we were wrapping up some radar profiles, the temperature dropped dramatically. Al decided it was time to rush back to camp, and he was so right, a massive storm came crashing down and grounded us at camp for 5 straight days. I was glad to have made it back to camp in time!
Over 6 weeks you're bound to have some bad weather. I can recall 3 times during which we had to spend several days in our tent and let the storm rage outside. These were for me, the most testing times, but also a great opportunity to learn to keep busy with what we had. I read the biography of Gengis Khan three times, fixed my four pairs of gloves, and took dozens of walks in circle around camp. All in all, we had fantastic weather and the rising temperatures filled us with joy.