Crevasses – or: Mind the Gap!

Our training is starting to get more serious. In addition to packing smaller boxes in big boxes or even unboxing boxes for the cargo stream, we also spend our preparatory time here at McMurdo in field training courses for all kinds of hazards we may face. One of the more enjoyable trainings so far has been the Crevasse Training, which prepared us for one of the most critical dangers traveling on ice shelfs. Even though it is very unlikely that we’d encounter crevasses in the areas of the Ross Ice Shelf we’ll be visiting (there haven’t been any within the last 2 years), it’s essential that we’re prepared for any situation.
Crevasses are ridges in the ice that occur due to bending forces. They can be anywhere from a few feet to several tens of meters deep. Since the Ross Ice Shelf is about 400 meters thick, very long and deep crevasses can easily occur. Winds can blow them full with snow or produce overhangs, making them difficult to spot when traveling on the shelf.
The occurrence of crevasses is poorly understood and, in fact, one aim of this project is to gain a better understanding of their occurrence in floating planer ice shelfs. The shelf floats on the ocean and has to adjust to changes of the sea surface height following the principle of Archimedes. Further, the thicker the ice the more inertia you need to induce measurable motion. Since the Ross Ice Shelf is grounded to the Antarctic continent in the South, the buoyancy force from sea surface height variations (due to storms, tides, and other processes) induces stress leading to bending in the ice. Just like bending a piece of wood, if you keep bending for long enough and with sufficient force, cracks will begin to form. In an ice shelf, the permanent small bending forces from ocean tides and waves may be enough to produce ridges that propagate and extend in time.
The first (and indoor) part of the crevasse training included climbing up a short section of rope (with Prusik hitches) that was being constantly lowered, as Sisyphus would have had experienced it. We also learned how to use mechanical advantage to establish 3:1 and 6:1 (two people) pulleys to drag grad students along the floor. Tying knots and organizing rope inside a heated building is one thing, but doing it outside on day two of our training in full extreme cold weather (ECW) gear was another story. We headed outside to the McMurdo Ice Shelf just beyond Scott Base on Tuesday to practice anchor building and crevasse rescues in a ~25ft “simulated” crevasse created by our USAP mountaineer guides. Although the day of practice outside was good fun, we hope we’ll never be required to use the crevasse rescue skills we’ve learned. Stay tuned for our next post! 

Scotts Hut

Being in Antarctica is an exclusive experience and we can barely imagine how the first discoverers felt in their early expeditions. Many of these early voyages to Antarctica, around the turn of the 20th century, found a safe harbor in the McMurdo Sound, landing on Ross Island where McMurdo station stands today. One of the few remnants of early Antarctic exploration near McMurdo is “Scott’s Hut,” which we fortunate to visit during its brief opening to the McMurdo community for several hours last Sunday. A few minutes by foot along the coast beyond McMurdo station, this wooden hut stands well preserved from the days when it was used by the British Captain Robert Scott and his men. Many artifacts inside the hut remain intact, ranging from a box of dog biscuits to a dried out seal body! During its periodic public openings, Scott’s Hut is popular among the McMurdo population, who trek out in “Big Red” to have a look inside this historical place.
Upon entering the hut, we were informed that anything that might be moved, scratched or even viewed from the wrong angle would be recorded and reported to the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust  with the potential for further consequences. With this in mind, have a look at our pictures of Scott’s Hut which we visited in today’s physical Antarctic climate – much like Scott’s – and today’s bureaucratic climate, put in place to conserve this important historical site.

Safety training and life in McMurdo town

Sorry for the delayed posts!…we arrived Thursday last week and have been busy with meetings, training, packing our gear for camp, learning the ins-and-outs of McMurdo town life, and wait, there’s more training! Indoor field safety training and now outdoor training. I have begun to realize that 80% of research in Antartica is preparing and surviving the environment while 20% is direct research…this may not be entirely true but it’s a reality in this harsh environment. This week starts the more intense outdoor training, crevasse training, deep field camp survival, and snowmobile training.  Here’s some pictures from the training sessions and a couple of fun pics too.

Tour around McMurdo town
Field Safety training
Indoor crevasse training…Learning how to tie knots to climb ropes, called prusiks
Outdoor crevasse training in the man made crevasse…hard work to get up that wall and fun too!

We’re here!

We’ve safely landed at Pegasus field and are getting settled (and trained) here at McMurdo before heading out to our field camp in a few days. (Note: we’re a few days behind with this post, but stay tuned for more pictures and updates on our last few days of Antarctic activities.)


A stellar first glimpse of sea ice from the luxurious and unexpected B757 flight from Christchurch.

Treated like royalty

Our royal transport to Antarctica
Our royal transport to Antarctica

I’m learning the USAP is well polished machine but this takes it to new levels…royalty!  When I heard we might take a commercial style jet instead of the standard cargo planes C17, I was somewhat disappointed for not getting the real experience. Now that I’m on the plane with a window seat, I’m ecstatic!! Now all we have to do is wait and see if we get to take off. There’s always the possibility flights are delayed or even returned before landing, called boomeranging, but hopefully we will get lucky.

Preparations for Antarctica – Field Team 2016

Today was our first full day in Christchurch, New Zealand and most of it was spent preparing for our field work in Antarctica.  We arrived at the United States Antarctic Research Program station to learn the details of our upcoming trip and get outfitted for the coldest place on earth!

Clothing options at the Clothing Distribution Center
Clothing options at the Clothing Distribution Center
Fully outfitted in polar field gear, Mel Carter is ready to go!
Fully outfitted in polar field gear, Mel Carter is ready to go!
Ready to get there, Laura Stevens is looking for alternate transportation methods.
Ready to get there, Laura Stevens is looking for alternate transportation methods.

If all goes well, we will depart tomorrow morning for Antarctica. Keep posted!