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Practically home

Bentley returns to Antarctica 50 years after helping lead one of the first overland traverses

Somewhere not too far from the U.S. Antarctic Program’s largest field camp on the West Antarctic ice sheet sits Charles Bentley’s record collection of chamber music, entombed in the ice with the rest of Byrd Station.

One of the first research outposts established by the United States during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in the late 1950s, Byrd Station still holds fond memories for Bentley, who spent two Antarctic winters there beginning in 1957.

On his way north after 25 months straight on the continent, Bentley lent the records to an incoming seismologist, who promised to return them.

“He never brought them back,” he says wistfully. “My records are still out there. I always had the idea that I could go back and get them.”

That opportunity never presented itself, despite 15 trips to the Ice over six different decades, a total of 18 field seasons. Now, at age 78, Bentley is back in Antarctica, the principal investigator with Ice Core Drilling Services (ICDS) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, ICDS supports researchers wherever a hole needs drilling in the ice, whether it’s in the Arctic, the Antarctic or a remote glacier in the Himalayas.

In this particular case, Bentley is headed to the WAIS Divide field camp, where ICDS will take a deep core, some 3,500 meters long, over the next three field seasons. He has yet to see the drill in action. WAIS Divide is a middle-of-nowhere kind of place, about 1,600 kilometers from McMurdo Station, the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program.

For Bentley, whose career as a glaciologist and geophysicist began not far from the current deep-core operation, that lonely and cold spot has another name. “I’m practically back home after 50 years.”

Well, almost. At this particular moment, Bentley, neatly dressed in professorial slacks and a button shirt neatly tucked in, is still at McMurdo Station. An unusually intense summer snowstorm in January is sending snow horizontally across the town. He worries that weather — either here or at the field camp — might cut his trip short or ruin it altogether.

Bob Morse is one of the people responsible for recruiting Bentley out of retirement to head ICDS. Formerly a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and principal investigator of the South Pole neutrino project called AMANDA, Morse convinced his friend of 20 years that the university needed his expertise to win the ice-drilling contract.

“I sort of leaned on him to be the PI, and I think the rest is history,” Morse said on a cell phone from Honolulu, where he is now an adjunct professor with the University of Hawaii and a collaborator on AMANDA’s successor project, IceCube.

“Not many people get it right the first time — maybe Mozart — but Charlie Bentley always seems to be very close to the right answer the first time for the most part,” Morse said. “He’s a hard guy to please, because he’s very exacting. But at the same time, it’s very rewarding to work for him. He’s that wonderful combination of excellence and great inspiration.”

The fresh PhD

Bentley has a bit of time to kill, and indulges a curious reporter, who prods him about the danger and excitement that surrounded those pioneering days of the IGY, when dozens of nations committed to a coordinated campaign of peaceful research at the poles, around the world and into outer space.

The media hoopla that surrounds such endeavors today didn’t exist in the 1950s. Bentley’s own recounting of how he signed onto an adventure of a lifetime sounds so matter of fact, as if the decision was obvious.

Geophysicist Frank Press, who would later become president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, popped over one day from a nearby office looking to recruit Columbia University students to take part in the IGY.

“He just came across the hall and asked if anyone here wanted to go to the Antarctic,” Bentley recalls. “I thought that sounded like a pretty good idea, so I signed up.”

To prepare for the task ahead, Bentley journeyed to Greenland, where with the aid of textbooks, taught himself polar survival skills and collected geophysical data, which he used for his doctoral thesis. The ink not yet dry on his diploma, the 26-year-old flew to Panama to catch up with the U.S. Navy ship carrying scientists to the Ross Sea in 1956.

“I was about as fresh a Ph.D. as you could be,” he says.

But just about everyone was a rookie, with most of the scientists and Navy personnel supporting the IGY 20-something-year-old men. Bentley says it was rare to meet anyone older than 40 in Antarctica. (Female scientists wouldn’t join the fray on the continent for more than a decade.)

Dramatic discovery

In January 1957, and despite their inexperience, Bentley and a handful of scientists left Little America, a U.S. base located on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, for Byrd Station on tracked vehicles called Tucker Sno-Cats®. Along the way, they conducted experiments to gauge the depth of the ice sheet.

To their astonishment, they discovered it was as far below sea level as above, meaning they were traveling over a former marine area and not subglacial mountains as everyone had assumed until then. Bentley still calls the discovery the most dramatic of his career.

Today the finding is particularly poignant in a global warming scenario. A marine-based ice sheet like the one over West Antarctica is more vulnerable to melting and collapse. Its complete dissolution could raise sea level, according to the most quoted climate models, by six meters, about 20 feet.

“It’s a terrible threat,” Bentley says.

Wintering at Byrd

But those startling projections were still decades away. The scientists in 1957 were excited about the data they collected. It would keep them busy for much of the approaching winter after they reached Byrd Station.

“We had a lot of data to work on at Byrd Station, and that was a major source of entertainment, mainly because of the interesting stuff we were finding out,” Bentley says. That’s a good thing, as other entertainment was scarce.

“Well, hardship meant that our pool table didn’t get out there, our ping-pong table didn’t get out there, we were low on brandy and hard liquor, [and] the beer froze. But that’s not hardship. We had plenty to eat, we had good food, we had a warm place to live, we didn’t have to work very hard,” he recalled in an oral history interview with Dian Olson Belanger in her seminal book on the era, Deep Freeze: The United States, the International Geophysical year, and the Origins of Antarctica’s Age of Science (University Press of Colorado, 2006).

The young researchers also spent time that winter preparing for their upcoming traverse across the white unknown of West Antarctica. The trail from Little America to Byrd had been marked with flags and 55-gallon drums. No clear road lay ahead for their 1957-58 traverse.

“We realized we were going to be on our own, so maybe we should learn how to navigate,” Bentley explains. “So we spent a good part of the winter teaching ourselves celestial navigation.”

Into the unknown

Learning celestial navigation wasn’t easy, even for a group of Ph.D.s, particularly in the cold of winter. In the summer, they practiced using the sun as a navigational guide. Finally, in November 1957, they rumbled away from Byrd Station to the interior of Marie Byrd Land.

“We never had much sense of danger. We never were in much danger,” Bentley insists. He believed at the time that they would encounter few, if any, crevasses. If they did encounter one, they would simply turn in another direction. The strategy worked.

“[We] only found one crevasse when we started to drive up on the side of the mountain, which is something we weren’t supposed to be doing anyway,” he says ruefully. It only worked, he admits, because the team drove east rather than west — zigged instead of zagged — where ice streams riddled with crevasses awaited them.

“We lucked out, and went in the crevasse-free direction,” he adds.

As the expedition’s seismologist, Bentley took charge of measuring the underlying snow and ice. The process involved unrolling hundreds of meters of cable outfitted with geophones (a sort of motion detector) and setting off explosives that sent sound waves down to the base of the ice sheet below. In this way, they were able to measure the ice thickness and the depths of reflecting layers within the ice.

Surprises also awaited the team above the snow — a group of mountains had appeared on the horizon. Bentley says the team believed they saw just a few small peaks, and each morning expected to reach the outcrop of hills.

“This went on for a couple of weeks,” Bentley says. “We saw this great spread of mountains that was totally uncharted. As far as we could tell, we were the first people to see these mountains. … It was spectacular.”

Mount Bentley, at 4,274 meters, in what is now called the Ellsworth Mountains, bears his name.

Old and new science

Unsure if he would ever return to the continent — the IGY was to end in 1959 — Bentley volunteered to stay a second winter at Byrd and led another traverse during the 1958-59 austral summer. But it turned out the United States was in Antarctica to stay, and so was Bentley. He worked on several more such traverses around the South Pole until the NSF canceled the program in the 1960s. He made his most recent visit to the continent in the mid-1990s.

Bentley credits Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, for reviving the overland traverse in the modern era. A principal investigator for the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE), Mayewski completed the final leg of a trip to the South Pole on Christmas Eve 2007. The traverse collected data that will help the multi-national program reconstruct the continent’s climate over the last 200 to 1,000 years.

Mayewski met Bentley during the Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 (GISP2) in the early 1990s. At the time, GISP2 recovered the longest ice core in the world, at just over 3,000 meters.

The younger scientist, who has trekked across much of the continent by foot, ski and tracked vehicle since 1968, credits Bentley and the exploits of his contemporaries for helping inspire his own career.

“When I was a kid, I read about Charlie’s work in National Geographic, and was certainly inspired,” Mayewski says. “I was always very interested in remote places, and Antarctica always fascinated me, and [the IGY era] certainly had something to do with my interest in Antarctica and other remote places.”

Today kids are reading about the work polar scientists like Mayewski are doing for the International Polar Year (IPY), a multi-national science campaign much like the IGY, but focusing on the Arctic and Antarctic in the context of climate change.

Bentley sees parallels and differences between the two eras. Most striking, he says, is that 50 years ago the researchers were busy with discovery and description. Now, scientists study processes and dynamics, such as measuring how fast a glacier is moving.

“We had no way of measuring it,” he explains. “You’re standing on an ice sheet, [but] you have no idea. It’s not moving fast enough so that you get the wind in your face.”

Back to school?

The veteran polar scientist is eager to feel the Antarctic wind once again on his face. But before he heads into the field, he must take an overnight outdoor course required of anyone working in the field. Not even Charles Bentley can play hooky from Happy Camper School.

“So, after 50 years, I have to learn how to survive in Antarctica,” he says, with a shrug. “I’m just going to have a good time.”

Editor’s Note: Not to worry. Bentley made it to WAIS Divide despite the weather delays, and even spent a couple of extra, unexpected days there. He hopes to be back after he turns 80 to witness the final season of the WAIS deep-core project.

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