End of Season Blues

It’s heartbreak central for the Icefin team. After having a phenomenal season out on the sea ice, we had all of our gear packed and ready to go out to the HWD2 camp to deploy Icefin through the borehole. We would have been the first vehicle to ever explore this region of the ocean—hidden away under 370m of ice. We were absolutely thrilled to be going out to do what we designed this vehicle for: deep ice operations.

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I love Icefin

They say Antarctica is a harsh continent, and we got to experience that first hand, unfortunately. There had been weather delays all season for getting the camp set up. Then there were a few equipment delays. But we were ready to fly on December 11. And on the 12th. And so on, until December 19th. Each day, our flight was cancelled. Sometimes at 8am, other times at 4pm. The weather and flight gods just weren’t on our side. A 500-mile wide fog bank would roll in over the camp early in the morning, and as we found out, sometimes disappear over night. And so we never made it out. The ANZ team would email us every day with an updated schedule, and kept the hole open as long as they could. The absolute last day we could leave and go out to operate was December 19. We’d pushed back the flight window by a couple of hours to try to get it right. But when we woke up to blowing snow and wind in McMurdo on the 19th, it was pretty clear our season was over.

I am not sure really how to explain what this felt like for us—to have gotten everything tuned, to have killed ourselves to be ready for this once in a lifetime opportunity, and then to lose it over weather and circumstance. The last time any holes were drilled through the ice in the middle of the Ross Ice Shelf was 1977. This isn’t the kind of loss you can make up for next season, without having to deploy a similar scale effort with tens of people traversing out and operating a hot water drill for weeks out on the ice. It just doesn’t really compute.

The small silver lining is that our ANZ collaborators were able to spare a bit of water from the site so that we could process those samples for comparison with the samples taken here in McMurdo. It was incredibly generous of them! Hopefully, we’ll be able to work with the oceanography team as well to share our data from the MCM region for comparison to the conditions observed at HWD2. Stay tuned for that.

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Justin preps our last sample

RISE UP Preps to Return Home

We got our gear back from the airfield on the 20th, and began the slow process of packing. Because of the impending flight gap—no flights leaving MCM between Christmas and New Years—and because of all the weather delayed projects, we made the decision to send three of our team home on the last flight, planned for December 21. Matt, Chad, and Dan all were heading home to family and preparing for the new semester. Justin and Ben were fine to stay with me in town to finish everything up.

We’ve got a lot of gear—we shipped down a good chunk of our lab, and all of the vehicle needs. 28 crates of material weighed in at just over 3000 pounds. The deep field bags numbered about 22, and these had to all be unpacked and then re-packed since we don’t pack for the field the same way we pack for getting the lab to and from MCM. We’ve unpacked the bags at this point, and are working on getting everything back into the right place. We have to remove the batteries from the vehicle and then carefully repack the electronics to return home with us so that we can start work again in January.

Next week, we will pack our samples for shipment, return the remaining gear from the BFC, and finally get all of our cargo up to the folks at Science Cargo to go home. We plan to complete these tasks by Friday or Saturday, just in time for the New Year’s holiday break.

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Planning for the Future

Some of the most important work to be done now is to plan for the future. We had a long field debrief on December 20 in which we talked through everything that had just happened. We covered what we did right, what we need to improve, went over each of the vehicle systems (electrical, software, mechanical) as well as science and logistics. We’ve got pages of notes from that meeting, as well as having maintained Engineering Hindsight, Science Hindsight, and Logistics Hindsight lists on our team Slack so that we can be even better next year. In the next few days once the full HWD2 team arrives back at Scott Base, we’ll get together with the scientists and logistics folks there to discuss lessons learned from this year’s camp and make plans for next season. It’s always best to do this right after the operations so that these items are fresh in everyone’s minds. In particular, we’ll need to discuss fuel and logistics for next season out at the HWD1 camp.

So what’s the plan for next year? We can’t wait to get back to McMurdo, already! With a fully vetted vehicle, (and possibly two of them here next year) we’re excited to be in full science operations mode from early in the season. The workhorse will be our oceanography and navigation modules next year, of course. But we’ll also be testing up to three custom instruments. We’re building a cell counter that will actively count cells on the vehicle as we swim to look at population density in any area we swim (Nick Speller, lead, Stockton group). We’ve also built a water sampler that we will likely depth-qualify for next season. Finally, we’re excited to announce that Andy Mullen, who is just finishing his PhD at Scripps, will be joining the team as a postdoc in the spring, and will be building a digital holographic microscope for Icefin (in cooperation with Chris Lindensmith’s group at JPL/Caltech) that we hope to test a prototype for in 2018. Our plan will be to hit our goal of 3-4 science dives per week once field operations start in McMurdo. That will give us the chance to characterize our three primary science sites in depth, with at least two weeks of operations at each site. From an engineering perspective, autonomous control and mapping will be the major focuses outside of testing the new instruments. Then, weather and logistics permitting, we’ll join our ANZ colleagues out at the HWD1 camp, to map the grounding line of an Antarctic ice stream for the very first time!

Thanking the Support Team

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We cheered ourselves up by helping make holiday cookies! (Ben took the picture)

We have a lot of people to thank for our success this year. Huge thanks go out the McMurdo community for their hard work and support of the team. It’s been lovely to be back in our home away from home. Thanks to our ANZ Ross Ice Shelf Programme colleagues for their efforts and for letting us participate in the fieldwork and data analysis. We’re looking forward to a better year next year. Thanks to our implementer Liz Kaufmann for everything she’s done for us here. We’d like to recognize our sponsor, the NASA PSTAR program and especially the incomparable Dr. Mary Voytek for making our work possible. And of course, big hugs go out to our family and friends and everyone who worked with the team to get Icefin here.

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Late night view from Mactown

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