Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The $12,000,000 Martini

Air National Guard LC-130s Do It All

The story behind today’s blog begins in Denver, about a year ago. While we were attending a conference, AVC Language Arts instructor Nicelle Davis and I went to see the USGS core sample repository. As part of geological research and in search for oil deposits, field teams use a modified oil drill to bring back a sort of biopsy of deep layers of rock. These cores, about as big around as a fat hot dog, are sliced in half and measured, then laid out in boxes with the depth levels marked. It’s like a library of the earth’s crust, neatly organized in a box. Anybody who wants to see a piece of Central Utah, say, down about half a mile under the dirt, can come to Denver and inspect the physical specimens.

Ice cores work the same way. Instead of information about coal seams, they trap climate histories in their isotope signatures and (sometimes) pollen counts, flawlessly preserving climate information as far back as a million years. According to Wikipedia, this includes data about “temperature, ocean volume, precipitation, chemistry and gas composition of the lower atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, solar variability, sea-surface productivity, desert extent, and forest fires.” Not bad for something that looks like the ice in your Coke.

The same core sample facility shown above is the final archive for ice, too. First though, crews need to get the ice cores out of the field camps, back to McMurdo, and on to Denver.

To follow that process, I joined an Air National Guard mission. They fly ski-equipped cargo planes called the Hercules or LC-130 out of Pegasus Field, the main icefield runway half an hour past McMurdo.

Their home base is in New York, but during the austral summer these men and women of the Air National Guard bring their planes south. They fly New York to Travis Base in California. From there they cross the Pacific in two stages (Hawaii then Pago-Pago), landing in Christchurch, New Zealand. Slower than the C-17 that I came in on, these turboprop planes make the crossing to Antarctica in about eight hours. Once here, they provide support to a variety of field camps, able to haul immense loads while landing in very rugged conditions.

This Lockheed-designed plane was originally an Antelope Valley gal. The first prototype’s maiden flight was from Burbank out over Canyon Country and on to Edwards AFB. The plane I rode in had been built in 1976, and may yet be flying many years from now. The basic C-130 is a workhorse used by air forces around the world. Besides the ski version, other variations are used for search and rescue, firefighting, as gunship platforms, and as aerial refueling tankers. It is in service with 60 nations.

Mission D024 left on time, at 3 p.m. The crew chief had a treat for me: for the first hour of flight, I could ride in the cockpit. Doesn’t everybody secretly want to be one of three things: a cowboy, a fireman, or a pilot? Today I got to be up in the cockpit with the cool people—and with the cool view.

Usually the passengers ride in webbing seats along the sides of the fuselage, back with the cargo. Earplugs dampen the noise and there’s no little tv-tray meal, but you can walk around or try to find a pile of boxes and go to sleep.

Our destination was a field camp on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, called in local acronym-land “WAIS Divide” (pronounced as if it were a man’s last name, “Way’s”).

We landed three and a half hours later.

It was flat and cold and big and wild and unearthly. I struggled in my notebook to find the right words. It was like nothing I could compare it to. I wanted to say “Nebraska in winter times infinity”—just huge, huge, huge—but the winter landscapes any of us have seen have had, somewhere in them, grain silos or fence lines or contrails overhead from passing jets or the far-off dark fingers of leafless winter cottonwood trees.

That it just goes on forever with nothing besides the sastrugi lines of wind-sculpted snow is a new thing. Tiny ice crystals caught the snow, blowing past, filling my visual field with tiny brilliant flashes of light, not like diamonds exactly, but more like the electrons inside of diamonds: very intense and very brief.

The British Romantic poets (Blake and Keats and Coleridge and company) went into nature to see the Sublime—to access an exalted, spiritual feeling, triggered by grand views and wild weather. As many occasions as I have been to Yosemite, being at WAIS Divide was one of the few times when I felt that I was fully and deeply immersed in the Sublime on all sides. It was amazingly beautiful, in its own austere, endless way. The closer you look, the more variations of white there are.

About 40 people live here, supporting the ice core drill team. This shot below is the main mess tent. It will seem especially amusing for many of the AVC faculty. Our German instructor (on sabbatical this year) has also been the president of the faculty union, Heidi Preschler. She is well known on campus...and apparently in Antarctica, too. Happy Birthday, Heidi! (Even if your birthday not this time of year, you will have one enventually. Happy Birthday, whenever it comes.)

Camps like this run off of the same fuel as the plane engines fly on. For the South Pole, an overland traverse brings some supplies once a year, but most things, fuel included, have to be flown in. Other camps are strictly supplied by air. Here in this shot, the Herc that I came in on had reserve fuel it does not expect to need on the return flight, so it is being pumped into the WAIS Divide storage tank, to run their generators and gas up their snowmobiles.

All too soon it was time to load the cargo and head back.

While on the ground, the engines had been kept running, which meant that the props had been kept spinning—four very large, very powerful circular saws. As we had landed, the crew chief had made me promise not to walk into a prop and turn my head into red sawdust. As he pointed out, he had just washed this airplane and wanted it to stay clean a long while. Others apparently had a similar concern (for perhaps other reasons) and the drillers coming back on this flight were, like me, carefully herded through all-clear zones.

On the flight back I read a biography of Roald Amundsen, first man to reach the South Pole, and interviewed the crew. When we landed at Pegasus Field it was late at night but the sun was still up. A van came out to the meet us on the flight line to take us to a waiting shuttle. Pegasus is named not directly for the flying horse of mythology but for a type of aircraft that crashed here. Is that name bad luck or a cocky defiance that brings good luck?

Ice cores are expensive to get, and just as expensive to keep frozen in transit. One of the crew members on this flight told me that a full pallet-load of ice cores represents about 12 million dollars of infrastructure and research. I was reminded of the fad some years in Japan of using glacier ice in cocktails, ice that was mined in Alaska and flown to Japan in order to make a ten dollar cocktail be a hundred dollar cocktail. How much would somebody pay for a piece of million-year old ice? In McMurdo to maintain their purity, the ice cores kept in a locked freezer.

It turns out, a lot of very cool things are being stored at McMurdo. Another fascinating project here is the recovery of meteorites from snow-free glacial ice. While there may in theory be lots of meteorites everywhere, here they are a lot easier to find, and they’re still intact and pure—they’ve not been contaminated by people messing with them. Field parties doing non-meteor work are given instructions on how to document their finds and how to deliver them to the recovery teams. There’s even a web-based publication called The Antarctic Meteorite Newsletter, published twice yearly. (Boy, did I go into the wrong profession. How cool is a journal like that?)

Problem is, people are curious as cats. I quote now from the instruction pages prepared by the meteorite team for other Antarctic scientists.

"By virtue of having been kept in a natural deep-freeze, Antarctic meteorites preserve significant chemical information lost in finds from other regions. Ideally meteorites should be kept frozen at all times.

It’s probably a good idea to keep the meteorites in a secure place, and not overtly labeled. People are naturally curious about meteorites and sometimes the desire to handle them can overwhelm their sense of responsibility.

This is particularly a problem once you’re in McMurdo; a box in a cargo yard labeled METEORITES can be hard for many to resist."

Reading that made me start wanting to poke around all these boxes stored beside the Crary Science Lab, where I work. Some of these must contain some pretty mysterious things indeed. What’s in that one, right there?

No, I will be good. It’s probably just a barrel of urine from the Marble Point camp described in an earlier post.

Meanwhile, there’s work to do. Other kinds of planes do research support flights in Antarctica besides the LC-130. Here, mechanics overhaul a Twin Otter, specially suited to remote landings on unprepared strips.

I want to find out about it all, plus I still hope to get manifested for the ultimate round-the-world destination of all: the South Pole itself.

I wonder where my next flight will take me?

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