The Journey to WAIS

This post is coming to you through a low bandwidth GOES satellite, in plain
text email, set up by my very clever niece Christine (thanks!!)
Monday, December 14th – I flew in a LC-130 or “Herc” to the WAIS Divide Camp
at 79.47S latitude, 112.06W longitude – high on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet
Plateau. It was an evening flight and I was able to sit in the cockpit much
of the way. For 3 and 1/2 hours, we cruised above a flat white mass.
Looking down, at first it all seemed even and monotonous. But the light
caught both clouds and surface textures to create patterns and textures,
occasionally bouncing back bright reflections. It was similar to flying
across an ocean, with even wave patterns. Once, I thought I saw an ice
stream in the sheet. An ice sheet is an area of the ice sheet that moves
more quickly than the surrounding mass, looking a bit like a river cutting
across a plain.
I was warmly welcomed by the camp, many of whom came out to meet my plane.
There was a bit of time to get leftovers from the chef (who, by the way, is
rumored to be the best chef in Antarctica) and a quick tour of the camp by
ice core handler Peter Neff, a graduate student at the University of
Washington. Then off to bed, the first night in a structure called a Polar
Haven, which is affectionately known as “the oven”.
Today I mostly settled in, though I did help Yvonne, our medical staff,
whose duties include weather relay to McMurdo. She set off a weather
balloon to determine cloud ceiling. It is elegant, simple science. A
balloon is filled with a specific weight of (30gm) Helium, released into the
sky and timed until it disappears. On a snow runway, the plane can’t land
safely if visibility is less than 1000 feet, so this information is critical
to prevent a turn around, which wastes fuel and everyone’s time.
The camp is laid out like a small village, with the Drill Arch and
generators out on the edge of town. I will describe the drilling complex in
more detail in my next post. The community space is a series of structures,
some old military James ways, others newer versions of rac-tents (fabric and
steel structures). There are separate heated tents for science, operations,
medical, a spacious galley and a combo recreation tent and shower module.
There is even a laundry machine. Most of these folks are here for 2 months,
doing very cold, laborious work, so laundry is a necessity.
On the edge of town is a small tent suburb, laid out in a grid with a map in
case of condition one (white out) weather. Though I was given a mountain
tent at McMurdo, two of the science team left today, so I moved into one of
the more spacious, warm tents with an insulated floor – cushy. I am looking
forward to snuggling into my own space after sharing sleeping quarters in
It is a bit cold in the evening hours, when the sun is at its lowest point,
but happily, the sun is high in the morning and the tents become warm and
toasty. I will take a hot water bottle to bed with me (not as nice as my
husband, but it will have to suffice) to pre-heat the sleeping bag. Tomorrow
will be an active day. More then!