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Byrd Station Traverse Team
Photo Courtesy: Charles Bentley
Charles Bentley, far left, and the rest of the Byrd Station traverse team pose in front of a Tucker Sno-Cat in February 1958 after a season of discoveries around West Antarctica. Bentley served as the expedition's seismologist during the 25 months he spent on the Ice during the International Geophysical Year. 

Practically home

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

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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.

Charles Bentley arrives at WAIS Divide camp.
Photo Credit: David Holland
Charles Bentley at WAIS Divide camp January 2008.

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.”

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