HEIMPLANET recently collaborated with New Zealand scientists to support their climate change research in Antarctica. But how do you protect delicate scientific instruments in the world’s harshest environment? With the world’s strongest tent – the Mavericks!
With howling winds and temperatures dropping below -30°C, our Earth’s southern end is far away from laboratory conditions. “Especially when you want to measure how the ice interacts with the ocean, you quickly reach the limits of what is possible” – says Christian Wild, an ice scientist at the University of Canterbury. He just returned from an expedition to the Priestley Glacier, a major glacier that drains the Antarctic Ice Sheet through the Transantarctic Mountain Range into the ocean.
To gain a full understanding of the processes near the grounding line, where the glacier gets in direct contact with the ocean, it’s important to estimate Antarctica’s contribution to contemporary sea-level rise. The ‘kiwi explorers’ installed a highly-delicate radar instrument on top of an exposed ridge to capture how ocean tides influence the flow of the glacier. “The problem with this radar is that the instrument can’t look through metal poles like the ones in common polar tents.” But some form of protection from the Antarctic elements is absolutely necessary to avoid any wiggling of the instrument in the wind.
The Mavericks unique design was the perfect solution. With the help of the HEIMPLANET-team the tent was modified for its ‘ice-cold’ mission. All metal parts were exchanged with custom-build plastic parts to avoid any potential interference with the radar. Clips were replaced with cord, the tent’s anchoring was strengthened as possible and guide ropes became anchor lines. The scientists also had to cut a hole in the floor to make room for the radar’s tripod – all in the name of science. “There is no overkill in Antarctica, there is only adequate preparation.”
Up on the ridge, Christian’s team discovered that the radar’s antennas were to long to allow sufficient clearance to the tent.
“We had to elevate the tent on a stone wall to provide enough space if the wind would pick up.”
But to build their stone wall, the scientists had to get rid of the summit rocks first – an exhaustive task, especially when you only have one package.
After two days of picking rocks and piling them up with their bare hands, the scientists were ready to start the measurement campaign. “At least we had plenty of sunlight each day. Below the Antarctic circle (66.6° S) the sun can remain above the horizon for 24 hours during the austral summer months. The radar was then scanning the surface of the Priestley Glacier every 3 minutes continuously over a whole spring-neap tidal cycle.”
“Our record is outstanding as we can now investigate if the glacier is accelerating at different stages of the tide, or if it flows steadily into the ocean.” This short-term acceleration of glacier flow is commonly missed in the interpretation of satellite images, which monitor this area only every couple of days. During the measurement campaign, the radar didn’t require much attention – but the scientists still had to maintain the instrument on a daily basis. “We spent at least an hour every day in the tent, typing with woolen gloves and waiting desperately for the data download to finish.”
How cold was it? “Sometimes I could only breath through my nose to warm up the cold air before it reaches my lunge – it made my nostrils freeze.”
So how do you stay warm? “We wear several layers of down jackets and merino thermals. No cotton, as it rapidly cools your body if it gets wet
Any other tips or tricks? “We actually came up with a dance choreography to warm up numb limbs.”
After two weeks on the ridge, the data set was complete and the scientists were pulled out of the field. “Our Korean collaborators came with 4 helicopters flying in formation over the ice – impressive!”
What happened afterwards? “We flew back to their base called Jang Bogo, with all our field gear, science equipment, rubbish, and human waste. We only leave footprints in the snow and take pictures.” Back at base, the Korean station leader put the scientists’ endeavor on a level with Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole over 100 years ago – an honor. “We were welcomed back with an all-you-can-eat grilled pork belly, Samgyeopsal, a delicacy in Korean cuisine.” Especially the base chef beefed them up over the next couple of days until the kiwi explorers returned to New Zealand with the Royal Air Force. “The view of the Transantarctic Mountains were breathtaking – a vast, hostile environment but also pristine and worth to protect from human interference.”
How does it feel to be there? “It is like being on a different planet. The Extreme-Cold-Weather-Gear is your space suit and the base your command center. We considered ourselves ice-tronauts.” This was the first successful deployment of a radar system in Antarctica. The Mavericks did a great job to shelter the instrument from Antarctica’s howling winds.
Any suggestions for improvements? “Yes, we need it even bigger to avoid building a wall next time. Although this was fun, we couldn’t hold a cup of tea in the morning with our stiff fingers.”
If you enjoyed this article, please visit Christian’s webpage polarchristian.com to learn more about their expedition.