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A plane at night.
Photo Credit: Bill Henriksen/Antarctic Photo Library
A U.S. Air Force C-17 during a night-vision goggle mission in 2008 to Antarctica. Flights to McMurdo Station will resume this month in preparation for the upcoming 2014-15 field season.

Getting busy

Flights headed to McMurdo Station this month to ready USAP for 2014-15 field season

Time to get busy.

The first flights to McMurdo Station External U.S. government site since March are scheduled to arrive this month at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s External U.S. government site largest science facility, preparing the way for the 2014-15 austral summer field season, which officially begins Sept. 29.

More than 200 support personnel are scheduled to arrive at the station between Aug. 20 and 22 during the annual operation known as winfly, for winter fly-in. The vanguard of mechanics, heavy equipment operators, cooks and others will help the 142 winter-overs prepare McMurdo to support scores of research projects through February 2015.

Both the U.S. Air Force External U.S. government site and the Australian Antarctic Division External Non-U.S. government site will carry people between Christchurch, New Zealand, and McMurdo Station. Airmen from Joint Base Lewis-McChord External U.S. government site operate the C-17 Globemaster III External Non-U.S. government site, while the Australians use an Airbus A319 External Non-U.S. government site. Both planes will land and take off from Pegasus Airfield External U.S. government site, a permanent, hard-ice runway located about 14 miles from McMurdo, on the glacial ice of the McMurdo Ice Shelf.

Plane sits on a sheet of ice.
Photo Credit: Eli Duke/Antarctic Photo Library
An Airbus A319 will make to two flights to McMurdo Station in August before returning to Australia.

A total of five flights are scheduled for winfly, including a night-vision goggle mission by the U.S. Air Force that will deliver cargo only. Air Force pilots first tested the capability in January 2008 and have flown at least one such mission each year. [See previous article — Night vision: Air Force successfully tests new capability to fly any time of year to McMurdo.]

McMurdo experiences 24-hour darkness during about four months of the Antarctic winter. The sun last set on April 24. The first sunrise will be Aug. 19 (local time) at 12:22 p.m. By Oct. 24, the sun will circle the horizon 24 hours a day during the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer.

It’s become more than a bit cliché, but the 2014-15 field season promises to be a busy one.

The winter crew at McMurdo already set the tempo during the dark and cold months working on a variety of projects, including the construction of a new ice pier. Essentially a floating block of ice – strengthened by rebar and topped with a layer of dirt – the pier is used primarily later in the summer to receive the annual cargo and fuel vessels. The last ice pier broke apart in a storm earlier this year. [See previous article — Harsh continent: Storms and waves batter McMurdo Station due to absence of sea ice.]

Personnel will also be busy returning Williams Airfield to operation. This snow-covered skiway, located nine miles from McMurdo on the Ross Ice Shelf External U.S. government site, was the major airfield used in support of intra-continental flights until 2009-10 when most flight operations shifted to Pegasus Airfield.

Aerial view of melted ice.
Photo Courtesy: Gary Cardullo
Melt damage at Pegasus Airfield.

However, melt issues at Pegasus Airfield for the last couple of years have caused severe disruptions to the flight schedule. Pegasus sports two kinds of runways – one made of compacted ice for wheeled aircraft and one of compacted snow for planes with skis for landing gear. [See previous article — No fly zone: Melt issues at airfield delay wheeled aircraft, shift airlift burden to LC-130s.]

It has been the ice runway for wheeled aircraft that has essentially turned to slush, meaning the C-17 and Airbus A319, among other aircraft, could not land at Pegasus in January and February during the last two years. That forced the New York Air National Guard (NYANG) External U.S. government site, which operates the ski-equipped LC-130 External U.S. government site, to shoulder the load of flying between Christchurch and McMurdo, while also continuing its flights within the continent.

This season, Pegasus will serve as the primary airfield until late November before flight operations move to Williams Field. A third, temporary airfield usually built on the sea ice just outside of McMurdo Station will not be constructed this year.

All of those flights will brings hundreds of people to the seventh continent to support the world’s largest polar research program.

Scientists come to Antarctica to study everything from the wildlife – think penguins and seals – to climate change to the evolution of the universe using powerful telescopes at the NSF’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station External U.S. government site.

Person sits at console of computers and electronics.
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Donenfeld/Antarctic Photo Library
The communications center at South Pole Station.

The South Pole Station, located geographically 90 degrees south latitude, endures a much longer winter isolation than McMurdo, with six months of total darkness between March and September. The 41 winter-overs waved goodbye to the last flight of the 2013-14 summer on Feb. 14. The NYANG is scheduled to head south once again on Oct. 27.

Several large research projects are on tap this upcoming season, in addition to dozens of new and ongoing studies.

A large team with the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) External Non-U.S. government site program will return to the Ice this season to continue its investigation into the water world that exists underneath the ice. In 2012-13, scientists successfully bored into a lake under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet where they found evidence of microbial life. [See previous article — Life under the ice: WISSARD team discovers evidence that bacteria live in Lake Whillans.]

At the South Pole Station, a new ice-core drilling project will begin. Scientists plan to extract about 1,500 meters of ice over the next two years. Antarctic ice traps bubbles of ancient gases, dust and other atmospheric constituents that researchers can use to reconstruct past climatic conditions. Such studies can also shed light on how the climate may change in the future. [See previous article — SPICE-ing it up: New project plans to retrieve South Pole ice core beginning in 2014-15.]

People examine a cylinder of mud.
Photo Credit: Reed Scherer/Antarctic Photo Library
Scientists handle a sediment core from subglacial Lake Whillans.

Also at the South Pole Station, the team that made big news in March using the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) telescope will return to install a third-generation instrument. BICEP astrophysicists announced that they had found evidence in support of the theory called Inflation External U.S. government site, a rapid expansion of the universe believed to have occurred fractions of a second after the Big Bang External U.S. government site. [See previous article — Clear signal: Telescope at South Pole detects 'smoking gun' signature of cosmic inflation.]

However, the claim has since been called into question, with other scientists arguing that the signal detected by BICEP may have been caused by cosmic dust.

Other research this season includes studies on how Weddell seals navigate under ice, a search for life under an ice shelf and an investigation into what causes one particular glacier to “bleed.”

Follow these and other stories on The Antarctic Sun website.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs