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November 21, 2003

Siple Dome

Siple Dome! I survived my first field project down here.

[View from the Hurc window on the way out.]

The project: Help install 21 GPS and 7 seismic instruments on and around ice streams draining the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Explanantion: A glacier is a slowly moving stream of ice. An ice sheet is a very, very large glacier, or a sheet of ice more descriptively, which covers a broad area and spreads out rather than just flowing down a valley. An ice stream is a channel of ice within an ice sheet which flows much faster than surrounding ice--for example, it might move 800 m per year as opposed to 6 m per year. I should really have a map to show you this phenomenon--it's pretty neat, and quite impressive. The streams are kilometers across, much larger than your average liquid stream. The idea behind the project is to measure motions of the ice stream. Specifically, the ice streams move in spurts, not always at a constant rate. Sometimes the base sticks and flow is slow, and sometimes patches of the base slips. This is called stick-slip behavior, and it's not well understood with ice streams. The seismographs are used to locate the area of slip to better understand what causes this.

[Instrument set-up on snow and ice.]

How we did it: Siple Dome, baby! The summary: We flew out to Siple Dome, a 'dome' (hill) of near-stagnant ice surrounded by ice streams, on Tuesday, November 11. We had hoped to get out sooner, but flights had been delayed. You may think a dome of ice surrounded ice streams would be quite a sight to see, and it is in it's own way, but the features occur on such large scales that you're really offered no geographical context. Here's the view from my tent:

[Or maybe that's the view at one of the sites. Or one of the other sites. Or another.]

Flat and white.

Like on Erebus, we slept in individual tents and came together to eat and hang out in a more established, heated structure--a Jamesway, created (if I understand right) for U.S. troops in the Korean War.

[Flattering first-thing-in-the-morning tent shot of me.]

[Installing next to the Twin Otter.]

We used Siple Dome only as a base, and flew by Twin Otter to the rest of our sites. For the sites which only had GPS, the plane stayed with us while we stuck posts into the snow and plugged in cables. For the sites which had GPS and seismic instruments, the plane dropped us off and came back a few (2.5-3.5) hours later to pick us up. The most impressive sensation I experienced while out there was being left by the Otter the first time, out it goes in a trail of blowing snow and in a very short time the plane disappears, swallowed into too-far-away-to-be-seenness, and there we are--four of us, a pile of gear, and nothing else but snow and sky in all directions. It's enough to make you terrified, or ecstatic. I was the latter.

The installations at the seismic sites were such that three of us were done well before the fourth, and those of us waiting would have nothing to do but try to stay warm. Tactics included: Going for walks (following skidoo tracks out to one of the sites), basking in the sun (with full extreme cold weather issue on, of course), drinking cold water or hot chocolate, eating soup or chocolate bars, playing games like the hand-slapping game (not worth explaining--I thought I had a picture, but I don't), running around randomly, rolling in the snow (summersaults or log rolls), and making snow angels. The latter three were mostly just me. To pass time, we also played a game to learn the radio alphabet (alpha bravo charlie delta echo etc.) in which we gave each other words to spell with the radio equivalents (e.g. beth as beta echo tango hotel). And, there was the little dance that accompanied the sighting of the returning Otter. That may have been just me doing that one, as well.

[Don lounges. Note my back-print in front of him.]

[Ian and Sarah chill out.]

[Twin Otter glam shot.]

Back in the Jamesway, we took turns cooking dinner and washing dishes, and drank a lot of tea.

There were ten of us total at camp:
Leslie, the camp manager

[Leslie in the Jamesway. Photo compliments of Sarah.]
Al, heavy equipment operator, who would groom the runway every day

Don (Penn State), Bob (NASA), Sarah (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute),
Ian (JPL), and myself

[Order: me, Ian, Sarah, Don, Bob]
Brian (Twin Otter captain), Dave (co-pilot), and Shawn (mechanic)

[Hotties pilots. Check out the fly flight suits. I don't think they thought they were nearly as snazzy as I did, though. The flights suits, that is.]

[Shawn being a goof-ball. It's his way of instilling confidence in his passengers while monkeying with the nose of the plane.]

The Twin Otter guys drank the most tea of all. We're men, we fly planes, we're hard core, we drink tea. It was cute. Not that there's anything wrong with men drinking tea.

The weather was excellent. We were lucky enough to have clear skies and sunshine the whole time, and temperatures around -12 C. De-luxe. Like the tropics, after working on Erebus last year. Most of the days were calm as well. The wind cruised right along at a few of the sites, but nothing some Windstopper fleece couldn't stand up against.

Frisbee! Sarah and Shawn (not pictured) and I threw around for a good while. Perfect for it--warm (relatively), calm, sunny, nice surface to run on as far as snow and ice go.

And, Sarah and Ian dug a backlit ice pit, meaning they dug a box pit in the ground and then dug out the snow on the other side of one of the walls so that sun would come through. Climb in, cover the top with cardboard, and enjoy the layers.

[Sarah gets comfy in the Otter on the way home.]

The coolest thing that happened was that I got a care package from some friends back in McMurdo containing these wings which remind me how nice it is to go and return. It pays to have friends in the metal shop.

Posted by beth at November 21, 2003 9:55 PM


another fun and informative blog! love to hear the kid in you still lives. wish i could be there to roll in the snow with you. see what picture for the hand-slapping game? absolutely love the wings picture!

Posted by: wilma - mother of beth at November 23, 2003 11:51 AM

Very cool again. Can you actually stay comfortable in the tents? Seems like it would be awefully cold. In the beautiful picture of you it doesn't look that cold though.

Love the wings. They especially look neat against the snow.

I want to hear more about these cute pilots you keep mentioning.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!!!

Posted by: Linda Collins at November 26, 2003 8:53 AM

Hey Beth,
Just was talking with your parents two hours ago in a parisian restaurant...hadn't seen them for ten years...(already!) We had a great time, and it brought back so many memories!
They told me you were back in Antartica. You really would do anything not to miss the beginning of the ski season, right? The slopes seem to be a bit flat , though. But it obviously makes quite a neat field to play ultimate frisbee!! There's no risk to have the disk fly into the neighbour's garden...
You know, if it's just for the snow, Stevens Pass is much closer. Of course, I can understand that canoeing down rivers of ice (or lava, maybe), chased by herds of flesh-eating penguins must be a lot more fun. Lucky you.

Posted by: Arnaud at December 1, 2003 11:10 AM

Beth, it was a difficult decision, but I finally chose the backlit ice pit to be my computer display background for this week. Maybe the wings next week. It's been great fun to read your entries. you wrote, "but the features occur on such large scales that you're really offered no geographical context," which is just the inverse here, in my office. The features in my office give no impression of being inside the tallest office tower in the state. Ok, that was weak, I'm reaching for an analogy. time to slump over the desk.

Posted by: billmill at December 4, 2003 2:34 AM