Antarctica: The Dave Edition #2

By Dave Risk

Today is my first full day on “The Ice”.

We flew south yesterday from New Zealand in a US military Hercules to an ice landing strip on the Ross Ice Shelf.  The flight and landing were far more pleasant than I had imagined. The interior of a Hercules is, as one would imagine, a bit spartan. It looks like the inside of a crawlspace of a large building, with all sorts of ducting and wires everywhere. Or, the backside of a theatre set. But, it is obviously very functional, with everything out in the open for repair. It was loud, but surprisingly comfortable. There is certainly more space to stand up and move around than in a commercial aircraft.

For the next few days I’ll call Scott Base home. It is on Ross island, which is locked within the Ross Ice Shelf. It can support about 100 people.The US is also very active in this area, and operates a large base called McMurdo. McMurdo is just 3 km away, just over the hill, and is like a small city. Apparently there are about 900 staff and researchers there right now. The US presence is very useful to the Kiwis, because of all the additional air support etc.

Yesterday after our arrival we unpacked, and did some basic field station training. Today and tomorrow morning, we’re taking the outdoor component of the course, where we learn how to use their camping great. Of course there is a great focus on safety, and familiarity with equipment, which is great for those new to winter camping in remote areas.

Our team numbers 8 people, and we’ll be working in the McMurdo Dry Valleys as mentioned in my previous blog post. These are quite sterile deserts that are reworked by frost and wind. Our team is generally focused on soils, including the biological aspects, and the movement of soil particles by the air. There are two AUV teams who will be flying instruments to observe these processes from above, and I am part of the ground-based team. Our StFX instruments measure microbes breathing at low levels – or at least that’s the idea but there are a few challenges.

Speaking of challenges, our group does have some logistics challenges which has created some nail-biting situations. One of the UAV teams doesn’t have a key piece of instrumentation, which is on its way from the US to NZ as I write. It will be down hopefully on a Hercules flight shortly. My bags and sampling gear went missing for 6 days, but as of yesterday is now safely in NZ awaiting tomorrow’s Hercules flight. Lastly, weather is always a big factor. Today’s heli trips to the field were cancelled due to low-visibility, which is basically normal low-lying cloud/fog that we’re familiar with in wet snow maritime settings. The first of our team couldn’t go out today, and so we’re shifted back already. If the visibility remains poor, they also won’t send the cargo planes. So, we wait. All movements must obviously be calculated with military precision, with careful attention to fly weights etc.

And in the meantime, we have fun camping on the Ross Ice Shelf tonight, getting ready for our trip inland as it becomes possible in the next few days.


Len Gillham (AUT), the guest pilot, unpacking his UAV which will remotely sense soil processes.


Len Gillham reading in the Hercules.


Jayne Belnap (USGS) in the Hercules.  Jayne is with the USGS and will do some experiments related to sediment movement.


The bus from the ice runway.


Charlie Lee (UWaikato), our team leader, coordinating the “K020” crew.

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