It’s a Harsh Continent

Icefin’s field season has ended prematurely due to a week of bad weather that prevented us from flying to the RIS in time to access the borehole. Such is the nature of working at the bottom of the world- even the best laid plans of veteran Antarctic researchers are often thwarted by seemingly insignificant roadblocks (in our case, fog).

Doing research in Antarctica involves a healthy dose of Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) with the added bonus of extreme cold and unpredictable weather. I am often impressed that we manage to accomplish anything at all. That being said, McMurdo Station is an impressive logistical hub with the resources and institutional experience to work successfully on the ice. (The vast majority of McMurdo’s personnel is support staff rather than scientists, and I’d like to thank them all for making our work possible).


McMurdo Station: Shake the planet, and all the interesting people fall to the bottom. Photo: Dan Dichek

It’s a strange feeling to be working on a cutting edge, NASA-funded robot while simultaneously communicating via pager and riding in vehicles that are several decades older than you are. The juxtaposition of old and new (combined with a great deal of weird) is part of what I love about life in McMurdo.


The Old: Deltas shuttle people along the ice roads, and have been doing so since the dawn of time. This Delta was new in 1977, which I realize is not quite the dawn of time (sorry, mom). Photo: Dan Dichek


The Weird: Each cargo line is designated by a different type of (equally awful) facial hair.  Photo: Dan Dichek

Deploying a 12-foot robot from an unsheltered platform on the sea ice is no small task. Erebus Glacier Tongue, one of our field sites, is about a 2 hour drive in a Pisten Bully (our unglamorous yet mostly reliable mini-tank). Once you arrive, you have to drill a hole through ~10 feet of sea ice, then melt the hole to increase its diameter. Then you get to set up camp! Chad, our lead software engineer, drives the robot from the relative safety of an Arctic Oven tent.


Chad, lead software engineer and king of the (ant)Arctic (oven).  Photo: Dan Dichek

Instead of stakes, the tent is secured by drilling holes in the ice (v-threads) that we use to secure the guy-lines. We were relatively fortunate with weather, but the possibility of extreme wind is always there. A strange habit I picked up in Antarctica is to always place a rock or heavy object on top of anything I bring outside- it may have earned me some funny looks back home, but chasing your notebook across the sea ice in 20 knot winds may convert you too.


We pack a whole lot of junk in the trunk (of the Pisten Bully) and have one seriously long battery-powered robot (for exploration beneath ice shelves). Photo: Dan Dichek

Then comes the small task of setting up a 16-foot ladder and assembling the robot! I will spare you the details, but suffice to say it takes quite a while to get everything set up and to get Icefin in the water. Our field days often start by 6 am and sometimes end after midnight. Our team is suspiciously efficient at breaking down camp- everyone is usually ready to go home at the end of a long day.


Matt, our lead engineer, can usually be found straddling the robot and/or obscuring the camera feeds. Photo: Dan Dichek


Dan, Chad, and Britney’s happiness is directly correlated to the number of screens displaying data at any given moment. Photo: Dan Dichek

Antarctic field research is full of challenges big and small, and everything takes longer than you think it will. But the reward is even greater: advancing scientific knowledge in one of the harshest and most breathtakingly beautiful places on the planet.


Sun dog around Mt. Erebus and some seriously cool ice. Photo: Ben Hurwitz


One response to “It’s a Harsh Continent

  1. Sitting here in relative resort accommodations compared to the Arctic Oven and Pisten Bullies just makes all of your efforts and accomplishjments that much more impressive – and they were all ready off-the-charts impressive! Thank you for the wonderful pictures and humorous comments – good to know that jocularity isn’t hampered by below-freezing weather! Also good to knowthat all the interesting people hang out at the bottom of the world – the rest of us would love to visit some time! Congratulations on a truly magnificent season – Team Icefin certainly did themselves proud – and Icefin herself should be thankful she is in such talented and creative hands. We look forward to next season, reading your blog and watching your continued success!


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