Fall Break

For the first time this semester Arizona State has had a Fall Break. Regina came out from that small island to the east of the Hudson, joining Harriet and me in a loop through northern Arizona. This month's blog is a gallery of that trip.

Gallery – Fall Break Loop

The Remote Heart of the Transantarctic Mountains

A glacier flows through the remote heart of the Transantarctic Mountains, a land so alien as to be of the imagination, an icy fastness engraved in a children's storybook. Granite spires puncture undulating fields of white, reaching into a crystalline atmosphere lit by a perpetually shining sun. The mountains form a barrier between two vast oceans of ice. At the lower shore rounded nubbins of gneiss rise out of the ice shelf; in the headreaches, nearly two miles above, tabular, bedrock blocks slip gently beneath the ice sheet, brim full behind the range, draining through the spillways of the outlet glaciers. In every recess of the heights ice creeps downward through broadening tributaries, and merges with the central outlet in a spectacle of frozen motion. Tremendous forces are at play, crustal uplift, erosion, glacial flow, yet all are gripped in a stillness so profound that every detail of landscape is poised, on the verge of itself. Silence reverberates. Then imperceptibly the scene begins to shift; a presence moves out of the south, quickens, funnels into the valleys and on down the outlet glacier. Above the summits, clouds gather in stationary, arching streaks, tracing the passage of air. In the lee of peaks and ridges eddies churn along the crests of ancient drifts. Every edge is whistling, when quite suddenly the surface of a snow field lifts up, dissociates, and races along with the wind. This is Nature at her polar extreme, simplified to three elements, ice, rock, and wind, all in motion, each with a different timeframe. Elsewhere mountains rise and winds blow, but nowhere on this planet is such a realm of ice as grips Antarctica. The ice sheets are immense plains of monotonous white; the intricate, glacier-laden mountains are the retreat of gods. To visit this land and glimpse its icy secrets is to wonder at the fringe and lose all sense of scale.

Storm clouds grip the Tapley Mountains.

Gallery – Random Shots 3.0

The week’s gallery features a set of random shots from the 1985-86 field season in the Nimrod Glacier area.

Gone Fishin’

Vacationing this month. I’ll be back to business in August.

The Unknown

What is it about the unknown? Why are we drawn to it? Why the fascination? Is it the rustling of the chimeras at the misty edge of perception? Perhaps it is the apprehension, that strange mixture of hope and fear that draws us onward, one eye cast back to keep the shadows at bay, the other trained forward searching out possibilities. Will the tiger be crouched in the shadows when I open the door? Or will sunlight flood a field of wonder, sights unseen by eyes of Man before? The distribution of our species attests to great migrations and voyages before recorded history, populating the distal reaches of the planet beyond memory of homeland and time. Quests run deep in our collective core, the myth of the Hero venturing into miraculous lands, vying with monsters, the plaything of Gods. Humans have always pushed toward the retreating horizon, or at least the Hero’s among us have.

Snowmobiling toward an unnamed peak on the west side of Scott Glacier, December, 1987.

In contrast to geographical boundaries which are ever diminishing, in science the boundaries to the unknown appear only to extend with each new discovery. Each deeper revelation opens new worlds. But as we come to contemplate a deep-field landscape of cold, dark matter and flat space/time, as we map the codes of life drawing ever closer to being one with the Creator, the mystery becomes no more explicable. Nature transcends in detail and in scale. What is the purpose, the cause, what is the nature of the Spirit? Why are we drawn to these questions at all? Perhaps we are drawn to the unknown for an understanding of ourselves. What does the seeker seek after all, but insight?

Ice-cored moraine swirls in the interior valley of the La Gorce Mountains, December, 1980.

[nggallery id=30] The week's gallery features a set of random shots from the 1986-87 field season in the Scott Glacier area.

Cadillac Jack and the Whiteout

Thanks to its extremely low humidity, the Antarctic atmosphere allows the sun to shine with brilliance and clarity, amplified by its reflectance from surfaces of snow and ice. On cloudless days, landscapes resonate with detail as shadows from the passing sun outline every swash of sastrugi and fragment of rock. (Having enough light was never a problem with low speed film.)

Sastrugi, windblown patterns in snow, adorn bulges in a glacier at the foot of Mt. Mackellar.

Put some haze in the scene, however, and the shadows fade through muted gradations to flat white. It is not good to be traversing under such conditions, when faint signs of crevasses vanish. When a cloud becomes dense enough, it will disperse sunlight uniformly and surface definition will disappear completely, producing the phenomenon known as a whiteout. The flat white of the sky and the flat white of the snow merge into a continuous, blank field, without depth or dimension. The horizon disappears. In this featureless world, one could unknowingly step off a cliff or walk into a wall of snow. If the whiteout is produced by a dense layer of stratus cloud, it is possible to see dark outcrops of mountains many tens of miles away, but become enveloped in cloud and even nearby objects fade completely.

Basecamp in total whiteout, December 1987.

Flat white, blue ice, sky, and rock.

In January of 1979, my party was working in the Churchill Mountains to the south of Byrd Glacier. We pitched camp on snow several hundred yards down from a ridgeline of rock that ran along the crest of the mountains, and gave us access to bedrock for our studies. One day our work was cut short by a cloud that materialized and descended very quickly. I still had some samples to collect and measurements to make, so I sent Scott Borg, one of the party members, scurrying back to the tents, with instructions that if the cloud came down on camp before we were back, to blow a whistle at regular intervals. Sure enough by the time that we reached the low point on the saddle where we needed to turn toward the camp, we were deep in the cloud and suspended in white. Scott was tweeting on the whistle and I was whistling back, so we safely marched the distance to camp suspended in a milky miasma.

Phil Colbert and Pat Lowry walk back to camp in a cloud, January 1979.

My most memorable whiteout happened during our take-out from the upper Scott Glacier area in January of 1981. The pilot scheduled to fly the plane was a Lieutenant Commander named John Paulus, who was completing his third three-year tour of duty flying and landing ski-fitted Hercules C-130’s all over Antarctica. Nicknamed “Cadillac Jack,” Paulus was the “old man” of the squadron and, among the ranks of VXE-6, was legendary for the places he had landed. For example, he had done the original put-in at our site 11 years earlier, transporting a New Zealand party that were to traverse the length of Scott Glacier with snowmobiles. The Kiwis had hoped to be put down near Mt. Howe, the southern-most outcrop of rock on the planet, but vast crevasse fields in the headreaches of Scott Glacier prevented landing farther south than the La Gorce Mountains. The day of our pick-up the weather was fine. The Herc flew into view. We packed the radio and the last standing tent. The big plane took a long, low pass over the landing site, then lifted into the air and flew away straight into the morning sun. I thought that Paulus must be messing with us, but when the plane kept on its heading to McMurdo, we unpacked the radio and called to see what was up. “Faulty hydraulics” were what was up. One of the skis wouldn’t lower properly. Okay, no problem, see you tomorrow. The following day was again fine, but when we radioed in we heard that we were not on the day’s sched because Paulus wanted our pull out, and he needed a day of rest according to rules. So again, no problem. See you tomorrow. Except that we were running low on food. Furthermore, that night while we slept, a storm came down straight off the plateau, and not just blowing snow, but lots of precip as well. By the time it played itself out 12 hours later, we were deeply drifted in, and a dense cloud had settled into a ceiling at about 7,000 feet. We could see the lower flanks of peaks some forty miles down Scott Glacier, but where snow met sky the whiteout was complete. “Visibility 50 miles, surface definition nil” was our hourly weather report to McMurdo. By the following day the cloud was thinning enough to begin to perceive a horizon, but it still hung in there as a stable ceiling. Paulus was flying a cargo run to the South Pole that day, but he intended to refuel enough to allow him a dog-leg to our pick-up site. We were in hourly contact with the Herc as it flew to the Pole and then launched in our direction. The ceiling was showing signs of thinning, but it held persistently as the plane neared. From above the clouds, the view would have been a flat sea of cottony white with mountains piercing through. Flying down into a stratus cloud without being able to see what is beneath simply isn’t done. However, flying in under such a cloud from an opening might be worth a shot if your balls are big enough. Miraculously, with the Herc about ten minutes out, a hole opened in the ceiling and I saw a patch of blue about 10 miles to the northeast. Paulus was keying the radio as he spotted the hole, circled back, and dropped into it on a header to camp. As he approached, our red parkas were the only points of reference in a sea of white that engulfed his view. The Herc slowly descended, the glacier gently rose, we were standing at the intersection. With a roar, the plane hit the ground precisely abreast of us, and not more than two wing-spans away.

The Herc approaches its flat white landing site.

Closing in.

The Herc hits the deck and starts to brake. We've made it!

The screaming machine turned, lumbered back to camp, and stopped. The giant cargo door dropped at the rear of the Herc and the first man off was Cadillac Jack. With neither hat nor gloves, he strode over to us, took off his sunglasses, and shook the hands of everyone in the party. As I looked into his eyes, I saw an iciness that mirrored the landscape he had mastered through all those years. This mission was truly a fitting, final hurrah. Paulus retired to Montana after that season, but a pleasing postscript to the story is that the following year the powers-that-be named the runway at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Jack F. Paulus Skiway, in honor of Cadillac Jack.

Gallery – Starshot Drifts

During the 1978-79 field season, I worked from a camp in the Starshot Glacier area that displayed a particularly beautiful set of drifts.

The Greening of McMurdo Station, Antarctica

During the 1955-56 Antarctic summer season in preparation for the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), the U. S. established McMurdo Air Facility on Ross Island in the vicinity of Hut Point, the site of the winter quarters of Scott’s “Discovery” Expedition (1901-04.) First built as a staging point for flights supporting the construction of South Pole Station, McMurdo Station became the main U. S. base on the continent a couple of years later when Little America shut down. The site is uniquely situated on a natural harbor in the lee of Hut Point, to which ice breakers can cut a path through seasonal ice for cargo and tanker ships to resupply the station. The seasonal ice provides a smooth surface for aircraft landings early in the season, but the location of the base a few miles north of the permanent ice of the Ross Ice Shelf also allows the U. S. Antarctic Program (USAP) to maintain a second airstrip that serves when the seasonal ice has broken up. Built on a series of terraces bulldozed from the surrounding volcanic hillsides by Navy Seabees, McMurdo Station began as a hodge-podge of temporary buildings designed to provide the basics for survival and the conduct of science. By 1970-71, my first Antarctic season, a number of more permanent structures had been added, including the Eklund Biological Center and two structures for housing science personnel, the Hotel California and the Mammoth Mountain Inn. Most of the enlisted men and support staff still slept in Jamesways, modular, canvas-covered, quonset-style structures that were surplus from the Korean War. Although the environment was not nonexistent in the consciousness of USAP, expediency was the order of the day when it came to waste management. Up behind the main part of town was a “boneyard” of broken-down, heavy equipment, front loaders, bulldozers, graders, trucks, and transport vehicles, both tracked and wheeled varieties. Beyond repair (or not?), these behemoths were annually towed out onto the seasonal ice and arranged in a cluster. By the end of the season, the ice was gone and so were the vehicles, gone to the bottom of McMurdo Sound. Throughout the 1970’s the McMurdo dump was right off the front of the station. All manner of station refuse ended up there, from solid waste including wood and metal, to garbage. During this period, the population of skuas burgeoned, fattened by the rich supply of nutrients that the dump provided. At the same time, the population of Adelie penguins in the rookery at Cape Royds diminished as more eggs and chicks fell prey to the increased number of marauding gulls. Skuas were not the only birds to pick the McMurdo dump in those days. Kiwis from New Zealand’s Scott Base would come over the hill in the wee hours and glean plywood, sheet metal, pipes, and the like for use at their station. About once a week the dump was incinerated, producing waves of thick smoke that would waft through town if the wind was coming from the west. Raw sewerage poured from an elevated pipe at the end of the dump directly into Winter Quarters Bay. The whole affair was pretty rude.

With Observation Hill rising inthe background, the McMurdo dump burns at the foot of the station. The sewer pipe follows the road down to the dump.

The McMurdo dump reduced to blackened metal following incineration.

Skuas congregate in the McMurdo dump where the pickins were easy.

Raw sewage pours from the end of the sewer pipe into Winter Quarters Bay.

In October of 1978 President Carter signed into law the Antarctic Conservation Act of 1978, which set guidelines for wildlife conservation, specially-protected areas, and pollution control. Pollution control measures were not instituted until 1984, when the U. S. Antarctic Program issued directive no. 84-1, setting forth guidelines for waste disposal which included incineration. During this period the McMurdo dump was moved from the waterfront to a volcanic crater up behind the station where it was out of sight. During the 1986-87 summer season, Greenpeace established a small base at Camp Evans, several hundred yards down the beach from Scott’s (1910-12) “Terra Nova” hut, which they occupied continuously until 1991. The primary aim was to gain a seat at the table during negotiations for continuation of the Antarctic Treaty after its 30-year term ended in 1991, and to advocate that all of Antarctica be turned into a “World Park.” However, during the first season, members of Greenpeace staged a series of protests at McMurdo Station, highlighting waste disposal practices and causing considerable tension on the base. During the same summer season, an accident claimed the lives of two men who had strayed from a flagged route to Castle Rock and fallen into a crevasse. In response, USAP established a Safety Review Panel to review safety measures associated with the Antarctic program. Aside from numerous safety measures that they called for in their 1988 report, the panel also recommended an environmental clean-up of McMurdo Station, and studies to determine better ways of treating, disposing of, and retrograding waste. The same year, the Office of Polar Programs issued an implementation plan and schedule for completing the recommended actions. During the 1989-90 summer season, station personnel began separating plastic, metal, and burnable wastes. I was in McMurdo that year and remember how novel and proper the practice seemed. The clean-up effort that season resulted in the removal by the supply ship of more than 900 tons of waste from McMurdo, including recyclable material, old rolling stock, scrap metal, radioactive and hazardous waste, and explosives. By 1991-92, open burning at the dump was discontinued, and a 160-foot long wastewater outfall pipe connected to a domestic sewage macerator was submerged to a depth of 60 feet in Winter Quarters Bay. The following season incineration in a temporary incinerator was halted permanently. Since that time all burnable waste has been retrograded back to the States. When I returned to McMurdo in 2000-01, a full scale recycling operation was set up in the crater where the dump had been. Recycling bins for specific types of refuse were scattered all over the base in living spaces and in work spaces. Everyone participated in distributing their trash into the appropriate bins. The green transformation of McMurdo was complete.

Recycling bins are lined up adjacent to the sicence cargo yard, 2010-11. From left to right the bins are for Cardboard, Wood, Glass, Clothing, Aluminum cans, Paper towels, Plastic, Food waste, Mixed paper, and Hazaradous waste.

A small assortment of recycling cans in one of the sleeping area. Photo by Danny Foley.

The recycling facility at McMurdo (indicated by the green arrow) sits in an old volcanic crater above storage yards at the upper end of McMurdo Station.

Windmills in The Gap between McMurdo Station and Scott Base are a recent addition to the power supply for the stations.

Gallery – Mount Discovery

Mount Discovery, the graceful volcano to the southwest of McMurdo Sound, is a landmark of many moods.