Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas at AGAP-North

In Antarctic particularly when carrying out survey work Christmas is just another work day like all the others as when the weather is fine it is better to crack on and get the work done. Saying that Christmas is remembered as best we can with the opening of a few presents brought from home and a little more special food for dinner.

VP-FBL our Survey Twin Otter at AGAP-N

Having been at a AGAP-North a week we have carried out 16 survey flights which covers some 30+ survey line. The survey is split in to a grid that contains survey lines and a smaller number of tie lines, once flown this systematic grid gives a good coverage over the survey area allowing the scientists to say what lies beneath the 2 to 4 km of ice that covers the surface of the Dome A area. Work is continuous with the hours spent survey flying, checking data, archiving data and repairing equipment that has failed (Antarctic is very harsh on electrical equipment so a fair amount of time is spent monitoring and test equipment to keep it in full working order). As seen in the above photograph the international participation in this survey is immense with the Australians providing the logistical support for our camp here at AGAP-North, the Americans delivering the fuel by the way of airdrops, the Chinese will retrograde the camp at the season close by way of their land train from Dome A, the Germans provided logistical, financial and project management and the British contingent from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) provided the survey expertise, a survey Twin Otter and a logistical Twin Otter.

As time progresses here at AGAP-North thing are becoming more established as the finer points of camp life can be concentrated on to make the cold temperatures (daily average of -25 degrees C without wind chill, but as we have a nice constant breeze of 12 knots we end up with an effective temperature of about -36 degrees C). Occasionally you have the luxury of a bucket bath, having not washed for weeks it is quite pleasant to feel clean and refreshed again. Work progresses in earnest so BAS at AGAP-North going clear as we are about to depart on another survey flight.

Monday, 22 December 2008

AGAP-North The last outpost of AAD and BAS

Having spent a rather comfortable time at South Pole acclimatising in Ack camp the AGAP-North camp was less luxurious with only one heated tent the kitchen / dinning tent. The flight across for the personnel and the cargo involved the use of the German Basler from AWI flown by Canadian pilots from Enterprise in Canada. FBL the BAS survey Twin Otter followed a day later with the seasons first survey over Dome A for the AGAP survey teams.
AGAP-North Camp

AGAP-North camp which was setup by the Austrialians with the support from one of BAS's GA's, FAZ BAS's utility Twin Otter and AWI's Basler. The camp consists of a cook/dinning tent, a small weatherhaven acting as a science tent, toilet tent and a collection of Scott and Dome tents acting as sleeping quaters. From the camp there is nothing to see but snow to the horizon and the pallets of airdropped fuel which was delivered prior to the building of the camp.
FBL our Survey Aircraft and FAZ our Logistics Aircraft

With the full BAS survey team at AGAP-North survey flying can start in earnest, with the aim to use up all 4 airdrops worth of fuel before we depart back North. The daily survey flying routine is a long one, it starts just before breakfast when the survey rack heaters are turned on to warm up the equipment to an operable temperature. Once the racks are up to temperature a gravity still reading is done and the rest of the survey equipment is powered up and tested. The first crew (pilot and the operator) either flying 2 shorter flights or a longer flight and once they have returned to camp the aircraft is refueled either for the second short flight or for the second crew to go on a longer survey flight. Once all the flights have been completed for the day the data is checked and archived this can be a somewhat long and tedious task but does guarantee that any little problems in equipment can be spotted and rectified before the next days survey flying.

As we are surveying over the Dome A/AGAP region the scenery is some what barren though occasionally we do get to se some more interesting ice and snow features.
Antarctic Landscape Near Dome A

Life at camp is OK with our camp staff cooking up some good food and the tents for sleeping in though cold initially but soon become more comfortable once you have snuggled deep inside the specially made sleeping bags that were made for this season.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

AGAP-North Bound

Having completed the acclimatisation at Ack camp we had our first survey flight to AGAP-South from South Pole. Ack camp involved us doing light work and been feed great food by our chef Dan and sometimes by our medic Mel. Day 3 of acclimatisation we installed mag and GPS base stations to make checking the data easier and reducing our reliance on other sources of data down the road.
South Pole Station

On the touristy front we had our pictures taken by the South Pole both the symbolic one and the geographical one. We saw the old South Pole base which is a Dome and looks quite futuristic rising out of the snow. The new one is a modern two story building on stilts quite different in terms of scale to everyone else’s bases here been twice the size of most countries main bases. Weather here is mostly around -30°C with either zero wind or up to 12 knots of wind.

The first survey flight into AGAP South was a bit of a long haul taking some 9-10 hours involving refuelling at AGAP South before the return, so took both our pilots to avoid pilot fatigue. Getting back after 10pm meant along night of radar processing and checking this is mostly automated but does involve the odd key push from time to time. First views of the Gamburtsev mountains beneath the ice were seen in the data. The next few days entails some more survey flying before we move to AGAP North which the Australians are currently setting up with the aid of one of our GA’s they are hard at work as they have 4 C17 airdrops to round up and a run way to groom.

AWI Basler turned up this morning to transfer cargo and personnel to AGAP-North.
AWI Basler with BAS Survey Twin Otter FBL

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Survey Starts

FBL taking off for maiden test flight

As it nears the end of a very busy week that saw FBL the BAS survey Otter arrive late Sunday the survey team completed bag drag in preparation for the flight to South Pole and acclimatisation. We spent 2 days converting the inside of the Twin Otter into an airborne geophysical survey aircraft. Day one of the install saw us install the equipment racks and populated with most of the equipment. Day 2 the remainder of the equipment was installed.

Wednesday the test flight saw the aircraft head over the Ross Iceshelf to the carving front. Though the weather was cloudy our pilots did a fine job of flying the survey. For the first flight the equipment worked with only a few minor issues to solve. Thursday the flying took us over open water so saw us wearing emersion suits just in case, we returned after 3 hours and more confidence that we were ready to transfer to the deep field. Friday was spent tidying up the installation and doing final cargo consignments to Pole. Saturday was a test flight to train a few more operators in how to use the equipment.

Today Sunday was bag drag for the advance survey party to go to South Pole to acclimatise before heading further into the interior and AGAP-North.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Celebrations’ at McMurdo

FBL arrives at McMurdo

There are strange things done in the midnight sun; by the men who graft for BAS.
It was with glee that they did see; Foxtrot Bravo Lima inward bound in time for tea.

NSFs patients were rewarded as the British Antarctic Survey Twin Otter arrived in McMurdo. Just as the aircraft touched down a two day national holiday was declared to celebrate this important occasion or it could of just have been it was thanks giving! Prior to the arrival of the VP-FBL the BAS team in McMurdo have been preparing the equipment for a fast install and a concise test flying period before departing to Pole for acclimatisation. The various training courses that are required before field deployment were completed; drugs prescribed and fat reserves were built up for the -35°C and below temperatures.

McMurdo is not unfamiliar to British polar explorers with both Scott and Shackleton based out of McMurdo Sounds for Antarctic adventures, so it was interest that the AGAP team visited their historic huts. Inside the huts it was like the explorers had just left expecting to return, provisions were neatly stacked upon shelves and in boxes ready for the following season. Some of the items were familiar though the brands and colours were somewhat different, but the good stuff has stood the test of time. Interestingly many of the boxes had sponsors names on them; there was even a Shell one!

With FBL onsite the work is progressing in earnest in order to complete the survey.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Ground level surveying

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Preparation continued in earnest with the surveying of the runways at Williams Field. As with everything McMurdian, bureaucracy reigned for 2 days as we searched out those who could give permission and those who would be able to actually install the system onto their vehicle and carry out the survey. Finally after an endless quest we tracked down Marty well at least a Marty unfortunately the wrong one the correct one was in an all day meeting. The Quest continued into the second day and Marty was located and Jason the Challenger driver of the vehicle that is used to groom the runway was contacted. Early in the morning a survey GPS was attached onto the groomer and the first surveying (ground) of the AGAP season was undertaken. For over a day the GPS collected data as the Williams Field runways were accurately surveyed, this data will be used to compare against and calibrate the aircraft sensors.
Runway Survey
Mean while back in Rothera the British Antarctic Survey Otters arrive and were worked on around the clock to allow them to be ready to continue onwards to McMurdo for the survey Otter and AGAP for the utility Otter. We will come back to the progress of these red Twin Otters in the next few days.
Rothera Station - A faint outline of a Twin Otter can be just be made out
As Thanksgiving approached on the McMurdo base the BAS survey team did a shift in the kitchens in the preparation for coming banquette. Turkeys were stuffed, potatoes were sorted according to size so they would bake correctly, yogurt made and the other festive trims not entirely familiar to the British helpers were prepared. Anticipation is growing here at McMurdo as people wait for the Thanksgiving meal and some well earned rest, but on the BAS side we are anticipating working in order to get ready for test flying and departure to the Pole and the acclimatisation camp. To support the departure of the survey team to the acclimatisation camp, logistics and the shipping of the survey spares and base stations is been organized over the next few days.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Caves, huts and castles

With the anticipated arrival of the Twin Otter next week the team have started to unpack the boxes and test various field equipment and science equipment that will be installed onto the aircraft. The aircraft cabin heater system that we had developed in house at BAS performed well during initial testing on the sea ice at William Field, though some initial repair work had to be carried out to remedy the damage sustained in transportation. Also we set up a weather fax that will allow our pilots to make calls on the survey lines that can be flown that day to avoid areas of bad weather thus maximising our ability to go survey flying.
Installation of weather fax
Our gravity specialist has spent the last week carrying out test on the gravimeter and checking its correct operations before it is installed into the aircraft.
Gravimeter been setup and tested
Likewise our radar expert has been creating the configuration files required to get the best out the system when we will be flying over the Dome A region. As well as testing the equipment the underlying logistics for the program has also continued including flight planning, onward shipping of spares and the NSF logistics that enables this project to progress.

Sunday a rest day at the base in McMurdo allowed us time to do one of the trails that have been created around McMurdo. The one we chose to do was the Castle Rock loop trail which sets off from McMurdo and heads up towards Arrival Heights before heading off across the glacier towards Castle Rock. The walking was not too strenuous but been able to see miles out in front through such clear air makes things appear closer than they are so you get the impression that it is taking longer than it should to walk the distance. So after about an hour and half trudging across the glacier we reached the base of Castle Rock, unfortunately the rock is closed for climbing so we were unable to climb to the top to admire the view. The views from the ridge were quite spectacular looking down onto the frozen Ross sea, though it was a bit overcast so Mount Erebus was obscured from view, I guess we will hopefully make it back round the loop on a clear day and see Erebus as it is meant to be the best location to view it from. We continued down the glacier towards the ice shelf with the clouds chasing us, from there it was a long hike along the ice road toward the base. All in all it was a good walk taking about 3 hours 40 minutes.
Castle Rock
The previous weekend we visited the historical hut at Cape Evans, this was interesting to see all the historical food, tools and items the likes of Scott and Shackleton used on their Antarctic Expeditions. There was box after box of Fry’s coco they drank some but some was used to cut up icebergs to allow the ships to escape the sea ice. The coco been dark heated up and melted through the ice eventual cutting the iceberg it to bits. Along with the coco was seal meat and penguins eggs they collected to eat, these day because of the Antarctic treaty we no longer eat the local populous but the food prepared in the kitchens by the chefs. Hanging on the wall of the hut was Oates bicycle in need of much repair, cannot imagine riding on a bike there in the early 1900s today though with all the machinery there are some hard compacted ice roads which you see the odd cyclist on. The hut used sea weed as insulation so after the short walk up to the cross commemorating the people lost on the early expeditions it was quite warm and welcoming inside.
Hut at Cape Evans
Provisions in hut
On the way back we stopped at the ice caves formed in the ice tongue from Erebus. After negotiating the ice bridge that passed the melt water pool we slide down the ice slide into the cave. Once inside the cave the light was diffused to a blue light and the temperature was icy cold. As there was a mix of sea water ice and fresh water ice, ice crystals grew on the walls forming amazing structures and patterns.
Ice cave blue light
Team spirits are high and with anticipated arrival of FBL the survey aircraft from Rothera where it has just flown into; there is excitement in the air and an eagerness to get the science equipment installed and the show on the road. The team even had time to partake in the traditional skirt party held at Scott Base.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Survey preparation

With the cargo arriving early in our first full week we started to prepare the various systems for survey. The gravimeter was setup in the lab and various test carried out to confirm the correct operation and performance of the meter. Similarly GPS base stations were installed in the lab to check their functionality as they will be used as the ground based station for the differential GPS processing. PASIN the ice penetrating radar that BAS uses for survey was unpacked and built, so the configuration files could be tried out and configured to suite the ice conditions of the survey. As well as the testing of the equipment batteries are charged and tested for use on the remote base station that will be deployed.

Base and field training continued with driver training so we can drive the trucks around the base, these in American terms are small trucks but if on our Rothera base would be classed as quite a sizable vehicle. Environmental training was also carried out and covered on how to keep the Antarctic environment clean, it included what to do with the rubbish, what to do in the case of oil/fuel spills etc.

Four of our collaborators from LDEO arrived early in the week, this include my boss one of BAS’s members of staff on secondment for the period of the survey/project. Over the next week more of their team will arrive, were as the BAS team is small the USA LDEO team is large in comparison, to give a scale of the size/style of the two approaches the camps when fully staffed with scientists and supports staff; the USA AGAP-South will have some 50+ people at the camp and the UK-Australian AGAP-North will peak at 10 people. Where as the Americans will live in a large tented town style camp the Brits and the Ausies will live in the more traditional and romantic Scott tents. But been on the McMurdo base is comfortable with good food; plenty of expertise and resources, and plenty of activities so the two approaches though different succeed. Also an added bonus there are so many top scientist arround sometimes you get chance to give a hand, one night last week we got to go on the sea ice and help test the under water GPS for an automonous sumbarine that scientists are using this season.
Helping testing underwater GPS

With so many historical Antarctic sites near McMurdo it is nice in the evening to go for a walk up Observation Hill or along to Discovery Hut. Monday we were able to have a guided tour around the hut which was good as numbers are very strictly limited so as to protect the site for the future, but we had found a guide the bases dentist so she gave us our very own personal tour of the hut. With all the old seal meat and artefacts lying around the air smelt a bit smokey and old. Along with the frozen chunks and carcasses of seal meat there were boxes from Scott’s 1910 Antarctic Expedition, tins of Fry’s cocoa, special cabin biscuits, Colmans whole wheat meal, Hunters famed oatmeal etc. An interesting trip all told.

Discovery Hut McMurdo

Yesterday we set up the magnetic base stations near where we will be flying from to measure the temporal magnetic field which will be used in the magnetic processing.
Setting up of mag base station at Williams Field

The following week should see the arrival of both Borek Twin Otter for the LDEO team and FBL the BAS Twin Otter. Once they arrive equipment will be installed and a few test flights performed before heading in to the interior of Antarctica.

Monday, 10 November 2008

McMurdo Antarctica – the first few days

After the short ride from Pegasus airfield to the McMurdo base we were ushered inside building 155 the main communal building on the base. Here we were given introductory talks on safety and base familiarisation, after that there was a more specific presentation for the science projects. Then we had just enough time to grab our bed linen, rescue our bags and find our rooms.
The following day (Thursday) was spent getting familiarised with the base with base tours, lab familiarisation and settling in to our lab space to begin some work.
McMurdo - (Click to get a better view)
Friday and Saturday was spent doing snow school (aka happy camper), this was great fun as the vast majority of the time was spent out in the snow towards Williams field just beyond Scott Base the New Zealand base. During the day we learnt to build various types of shelters in the snow including a quincy which basically means burying all the bags and packing snow over them before extracting them and then tunnelling in to the void left by the bags. We also made snow trenches which many of us slept in overnight, though -11°C outside it sort of warmed up inside the snow trench once inside a sleeping bag. As well as the building of snow shelters and wind breaks from snow blocks we cooked our own dinner for the night a delightful choice of dried meals.

The following day on the Saturday we broke camp and prepared cargo lines ready for collection. The rest of the morning was spent doing various scenarios including white out searches and emergency situations. We then returned to base to watch a few educational films. In the evening after dinner we had chance to watch some of the films from the Banff mountain film festival which was quite a good watch.

The coming week will involve getting our cargo in order for install and onward shipping to South Pole.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Travelling South For The Winter

After some final packing, organizing and training including advanced first aid training at the British Antarctic Survey(BAS) Girton Conference and media training from some of the BBCs radio producers/presenters and writers it was time to head south.
Video Media Training - Hadrians Wall Northumberia UK
BAS Cambridge saw everyone meet just before 4pm (GMT) on the Saturday 1st November to travel down to Heathrow to catch the plane to Christchurch one of the Eastern gateways to Antarctica. We arrived in plenty time as the weather turned to rain. 9:30pm we boarded the first flight for the leg to Singapore which took about 12 hours, from there was a short stop over while the aircraft refueled for the leg to Sydney Australia and another 10 hours of sitting.
Sydney Airport while on route
Finally a short flight of 2 ½ hours from Sydney to reach Christchurch in New Zealand. A total journey time of 35 hours with stops plus a 13 hour time difference (4pm Saturday 1st Nov – 4pm Monday 3rd Nov), so one well confused body clock. Not so confused as not to have dinner at Dux Lux a very nice bar restaurant we found last time we traveled via Christchurch below is one of the many artworks we discovered around Christchurch (with our Principle scientist posing he is Italian so I guess it figures!)
Art installation near Dux Lux Christchurch New Zealand
Tuesday was spent getting over the jet lag and visiting the NSF offices at the airport to get inoculated against the southern hemisphere flue. Also we were kitted out with clothing for the flight down to Antarctica.
One of the gang of 4 kitting out in USAP - ECW (Extreme Cold Weather
Wednesday morning at 5.20am we caught a shuttle bus from our hotel up to the Raytheon/NSF offices near the airport. We changed into our Antarctic clothing and boarded the USAP C17 for the 5 and a bit hour flight to McMurdo. The weather was fine so the plane got in at its first attempt.
C17 Arriving at Pegasus Airfield McMurdo Station Antarctica

Friday, 10 October 2008

Genova Work Shop

Today geophysical survey takes us to the remote and logistically challenging Antarctic interior thus international collaborations are pivotal in order to deliver world class science.

The other week saw me attend a work shop in Genova on Geological and Geophysical investigations from the Transantarctic Mountains to Dome C;

this was a follow up meeting resulting from the ISODYN WISE season of 2005/06 (AKA "The Italian Job"). This was the largest ever airborne survey conducted by BAS and was only possible by the collaboration of PNRA with BAS, where PNRA provided the logistics and BAS the survey platform. The DOME A seasons success is anticipated to be heavily relient on the collaborations of many countries - these include Austraila, China, Germany, Japan, UK and USA, so all in all a major under taking! This is the future of all large airborne surveys in Antarctica with not one country been able to fund, meet the time frame, provide the logistics or expertise.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008


In June 2008 VP-FBL flew from Calgary in Canada from Rocky Mountain our aircraft maintainer to Duxford in the UK. A month prior to her departure I had a chance to go to Calgary. There I tested some of the updated equipment and got advise on some potential modes and initiate some other small updated such a replacing the survey ground power connectors and have a UPS rack made.

Around a month before the survey equipment was tested in the lab and then packed for the short journey to Duxford. As in 2005 the weather was sunny mostly over the test flight schedule unfortunately it turned very wet at the conclusion of the trials just as FBL was due to star at the Fairford Air Tattoo.
Time is always pressing during flight trials and chances to get the camera out are scarce but non the less been at Duxford gives ample photo opportunities.
Flight trials over meant some serious packing of the 2.5 tonnes of equipment required to conduct a major survey was packed. A fair amount of the weight is made up of the packing cases required to keep the rain and snow out on it long journey south. The survey equipment includes a weather fax (this allows our pilots to forecast the Antarctic weather. As well as the primary survey equipment there is a duplicate set of spares which allows for rabid repairs and turn around as time available is very limited so needs to be maximised. Ground power is supplied from solar panels and a number of small Honda generators (and this season a Diesel generator capable of using JetA, this means we can use up the dregs in the drums not used by the aircraft thus saving wasted fuel important -"as fuel in such a remote location is worth more than a 30 year old single malt!").
Preparation is everything as it is hard to pop to the shops, so the months prior to packing I spend my time thinking what spares, what equipment and improvements I need to make the season go that little more smoothly - "thing are 100 times easier when done back in Cambridge than on the ice at -35°C ".
So having packed, raised the shipping paper work and consigned the cargo to stores I was able to depart for a holiday in Uganda helping lead a group of Northumberland Scouts in the renovation of the Lookwide building I helped build in 1991 at the National campsite at Kaazi just outside Kampala on the shores of Lake Victoria.
Now is the waiting, as I am due to fly south on the 1st November.