Visiting the Drilling Arch

WAIS Divide Camp at 79.47S latitude, 112.06W longitude
Wednesday, December 16th
Hi Everybody,
Today the wind picked up and I am now experiencing conditions unlike I have
ever felt before. The wind is at about 20knots, so the temperature feels
much colder. I must cover all of myself in order to stay outside for more
than a few minutes. Gloves I have been wearing until now do not suffice and
I am digging for more layers in my bags. I am really in love with my Big
Red (the Big Red is our high loft extreme weather jacket). Today I spent a
bit of time in and around “The Arch”
The reason that this camp exists is to retrieve 3400 meters of ice from the
enormous ice sheet of West Antarctica. Numerous scientists and institutions
in the U.S. will receive samples of the ice and test it for a variety of
isotopes, gases, dusts, elements and biological materials. This ice needs
to be kept as intact and cold as possible. The drill needs to be aligned
within millimeters and be able to cut through ice that is well under
freezing.
I thought I had an idea of the complexity of this before coming here, but
watching the procedure in the Drill Arch gave me a much better impression of
the level of engineering and technology behind this feat. The arch is
divided into two parts, the drilling area and the core processing area. They
are kept separate for safety and to keep the ice cold. Once the ice is
pulled up (the drill is now at 1544 meters and counting), it is pushed
through a hole in the wall into the processing area that is maintained at
-25degrees C. During all parts of the procedure, the ice is cradled in
trays to minimize the risk of fracture. The transfer is like a birth.
Because I am here early in the drill season, each piece of ice that comes up
is like a baby, everyone looking, as if to count fingers and toes. In
reality, they look to see the condition of the ice and to see how the drill
is cutting – to know if anything needs to be tweaked.
The drill was redesigned this year to be able to cut longer lengths each
trip down. Since it takes approximately 40 minutes to travel to current
cutting depth, I understand why they want to optimize the amount retrieved
at each pass.
In the morning I sketched in the arch, mostly to observe the process. The
first sketch was awkward, due to my bundling up and the unfamiliarity of it
all. In the afternoon, I worked in the ramp leading to the back entrance of
the arch with a bit more success, though the wind chased me inside too
quickly. The drifting is beautiful and the sky is bright with blue patches.
Tomorrow, I hope to go out to the backlit snow pit. Send warm thoughts
south!