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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.