Two months on the Larsen C ice shelf

 

About 14 months ago, I got the incredible chance to take part in the MIDAS project, focusing on the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. After four years in Svalbard and my PhD diploma in the pocket, it was time to follow the path of the terns and migrate south.

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A field campaign in Antarctica is not to be organised lightly. Luckily, I was joining a greatly experienced team, among which scientists who had already been down to Antarctica several times. Before heading to the southernmost continent, the British Antarctic Survey, an organisation that was in charge of all the logistics of our project, led an Antarctic Survival Course in Cambridge.

Spending 6 days in Girton college was already quite an exotic experience for a cold Svalbardian like me. We learnt more about BAS’ role and structure, as well as the ins and outs of polar photography, and the essential first aid. Team building and good communication was also a key part of the course.

Finally, by October 2015 I met with the rest of the team in London Heathrow. We were five glaciologists, two from Aberystwyth, one from Swansea. They were not hard to find, we were the only ones wearing huge boots and holding our massive down jackets at the airport.

The journey to Antarctica is a long one, obviously. After a flight to Madrid, we reached Santiago in Chile, and finally Punta Arenas. A few other members of BAS were travelling alongside, some electrician, bulldozer drivers, cook, etc. It felt so surreal that travelling to Antarctica seemed so normal to them. In Punta, we were briefed about the final flight to the white continent. The dash 7 was ready, and the weather for the next day looked good.

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Today, most people travel to Antarctica by ship. To be, this feels more natural, more gradual, than taking a 5h flight from South America to the Peninsula. In the air, you barely blink and boom you are already on another planet. The first sight of the Peninsula hit me like a slap in my face. He pilot told us to look on the port side to see our destination, the British station of Rothera. A dot lost in a tower of glaciers, sea ice and mountains. The adventure begins.

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We were the first scientific team going to Rothera that year after the overwintering. We felt extremely welcome. Our schedule was busy, a week of organising and testing the equipment that we would take with us, and some training for the newbies like me. Time flew by, and finally we got the green light to fly to the Larsen C ice shelf. This is the largest ice shelf remaining on the Antarctic Peninsula, and it only takes about one hour to reach it using a twin otter. In total, we needed eight flights to take all of our equipment and us to the ice.

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Luckily, we had to badass and extremely experienced and skilled GA’s (for General Assistants) to look after our logistics, safety, and camp organisation. This is a luxury for scientists like us. We can totally focus our attention on the science, while we are in absolute trust of the decisions of our GA’s.

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Like on the ice shelf was busy! Of course, you want to make the absolute most of every minute of good weather Antarctica gives you. We were dropped on the shelf on the 29th of October, the earliest anyone had been there before. It was early, the winter was ending, and hence the conditions were cold. This caused some trouble for us who were working with liquid water. However, a field campaign is not a race it is a marathon. Moreover, we always waited for the weather to be in our favour do use certain field techniques and prevent any loss of equipment which would be disastrous so far from anything.

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On the shelf, we collected an array of geophysical techniques. I was mostly helping with the radar data collection, along with Dr. Adam Booth and Dr. Suzanne Bevan. Ground Penetrating Radar measurements allow us to investigate the structure of the shelf, have an idea of the ice temperature and water content, and of the density of the ice/firn. Most days we would relay each other driving a skidoo to which the equipment was attached. The name of the game is to drive very slowly over long distances.

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We established four different camps on the shelf. We spent about 2 weeks at the first one. We needed time to get into a routine, but most importantly, we needed time to calibrate our instruments, and make sure everything was ready to rock and roll. The cold delayed our drilling operations but patience was key.

Our camp was very well organised thanks to our amazing GA’s. We had one 3-person tent, and two two-person tents for sleeping. One large mess tent was erected to store equipment and occasionally cook for the group (but it was always too cold inside), and finally we had the toilet tent that we broke 3 times. We slept in what BAS calls Scott tent, an almost identical replica of what our great hero was using on his trip. These tents weight a ton and are extremely resistant to wind. I was sharing my tent with fellow scientist Suzanne, and our sleeping quarters were super nicely arranged. Suzanne had already been to Antarctica with BAS the previous year, so she guided me through the BAS’ ways to do everything. And indeed it is very specific and precise.

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Every day we would wake up around 630 and try to be ready by eight or nine. It takes a little while to boil water for our breakfast, to have a little “wash” with thawed wet wipes and get ready to face the day. Food was surprisingly ok. Most of what we ate had to be rehydrated with boiling water. In the morning we would usually have muesli, coffee, and boil at least 3 litres of water to survive the day. For lunch, the French person that I discovered in horror that all we had was biscuit, peanut butter and jam, but actually it tasted amazing was was quite filling. We also had plenty of snacks, chocolate bars, to compensate for all these calories burnt by the cold. Dinner would always be a calorie heavy pack of dehydrated food. Thai chicken curry was my favourite. After a few days of eating pretty much the same thing every day you learn how to pimp your food. I ended up adding either raisins or mash to everything, with pickles and lots of spices carefully brought with our scientific equipment. Halfway into our field campaign we got a resupply flight, which meant freshies! Fresh food is a luxury in the field and we sent to BAS a long list of goodies such as: more booze, more raisins, bread, pickles, cheese and fresh vegetables. It was better than Christmas!

When not helping with the radar we would join the other group in charge of the drilling operations or the seismics array. The day would end whenever what we set out to do was complete, or when the weather was turning bad. It could be early or very late. One day as I was returning to camp with our GA Al, after having collected a few dozens of km of radar data, we literally had 3 min to unpack our equipment before being hit by a full blast blizzard that lasted for 3 days. Lucky we had made it back just in time.

As the weeks were progressing, we were becoming more and more efficient, in our work and camp relocations. The data was pouring in, and the weather was becoming easier and easier on us. The clock was ticking, and we decided to make one last migration to camp D to try to get as much data as possible. I only got to spend two nights at this scenic camp as Rothera had decided to evacuate us because a strong storm was coming, but most importantly, the 6 weeks budgeted for the field campaign was coming to an end. The team did a splendid job of collecting data until the very last minute on the shelf.

In all fairness, none of us were excited at the thought of going back to civilisation. After 6 weeks without a shower, you can just keep going for another few weeks. The equipment was still in perfect order, the data was becoming more and more interesting, but we had to go back. I was the first one of the team flying back to Rothera. How surreal. The snow and the ice around the station had melted quite a bit, and the station was buzzing! Its population went from 20 to 200 in only two months. After three or four showers, I felt ready to make my way to the canteen, and finally after 6 weeks of dehydrated food, eat the most scrumptious food of Rothera. My teammates came back the next day, I was already missing them!

Although we had planned for two weeks in Rothera, we got the chance to leave after only 4 days. Our tired bodies kept going hard to finish packing and saving the data right in time for the plane to take us to Punta Areas. And there marked the end of two amazing months studying the Larsen C ice shelf.

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