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Livingston Island party takes shelter in cave.
Photo Credit: Clare Flemming
The Livingston Island team takes shelter near a cave after a powerful storm wrecked their field camp. The party included, from left, Marcelo Reguero, Ross MacPhee, Lou Jacobs, Robin Beck and Chris Denker. Not pictured: Clare Flemming and Marcelo Tejedor. 

A big blow

Storm wrecks field camp, forces early exit from Livingston Island

Chris Denker had faced down 50-knot winds before. But the storm that shredded the field camp he managed on Livingston Island and forced a team of researchers to abandon their project was far more intense.

“I was knocked down several times, and a few times had to drop to a knee and brace myself in order not to get knocked down again,” he reported by e-mail after he and six scientists conducting research on the island were evacuated by the ARSV Laurence M. Gould External U.S. government site on Feb. 18 during a non-life-threatening mission. “I’ve been in recorded winds of 50 knots and never had as much difficulty moving about, so my guess is that these winds were much greater than 50.

“It did not arrive with any warning, and hit with full force right from the get go,” added Denker, field camp supervisor with Raytheon Polar Services Co. (RPSC) External Non-U.S. government site, which supports the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site for the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site.

The Gould had dropped off Denker and the scientists, led by principal investigator Ross MacPhee External Non-U.S. government site, at the island’s Byers Peninsula near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula only two days earlier without incident, according to John Evans, RPSC coordinator for Special Science Projects.

“The put-in was much easier than anybody expected,” Evans said. This was to be the second field season for MacPhee’s team, which is studying the history of ancient mammals in Antarctica. Last year, during the earlier part of the 2007-08 season, heavy snow stymied the team. Much of the snow was gone when MacPhee’s team arrived on the island this round. [See related story: Bridge to the past.]

But then the storm hit about an hour before midnight on Feb. 16. Within hours, the powerful winds had wrecked several of the camp’s tents, including the communal Weatherhaven, a portable building that serves as the kitchen.

Denker reached the Gould by satellite phone at 6 a.m. on Feb. 17 to call for assistance. By then the team had retreated to a nearby cave to seek shelter and to cook meals.

When Denker radioed, the Gould was about 130 nautical miles away, en route to Palmer Station after having just completed a second camp put-in at James Ross Island on the other side of the Antarctic Peninsula. At that time, the Gould was monitoring a sharply falling barometer and strong but not extreme winds, according to Evans.

The ship immediately turned back and arrived at the island late that day, when the worst of the storm was over. A window abruptly appeared in the storm very early on Feb.18, and Zodiac operations began. “Weather conditions were ideal to evacuate the Livingston Island field camp this morning,” reported Al Hickey, RPSC Marine Projects coordinator on the Gould, which recorded winds up to 45 knots during the time period. “All personnel and gear were aboard with the ship underway again after [four] hours of an all-hands effort.”

Evans said all the tents were well anchored, “but there was so much wind action that various metal parts failed [on the Weatherhaven] — starting with the door clamps, then the various connectors and spacers, then the framing members and even some of the lag bolts holding the frame to the floor.

“It blew apart. It didn’t blow away,” he added.

Denker’s detailed report on the destruction noted the camp’s Scott tents, used in Antarctic expeditions for the last century, took a beating and received damage but more or less survived. Three North Face VE-25s fared much worse. “These [tents] suffered, but at least their death was quick,” he wrote.

As far as the fate of a piece of plywood used as a door mat on the Weatherhaven: “It was loaded with rocks and several full totes (there was weight on it!) Anyhow, four small one-foot by one-foot torn-up fragments of this sheet of plywood were found a half mile away, and 500 feet up a hill,” Denker wrote. “That’s crazy.”

Evans said this was the first time weather had knocked a field camp out of commission. “It’s not the first time we’ve camped in this area … It’s not like we were using car camping gear,” he said.

The Gould headed to the USAP’s Palmer Station External U.S. government site, where six people disembarked. One member of MacPhee’s team opted to join the science cruise led by David DeMaster and Craig Smith, who are researching climate change along the continental shelf. [See related story: Failing food pantry.] A passing tourist cruise ship agreed to transport three of the scientists to South America, while the remaining members of the expedition chose to remain at the station until the Gould headed back north in mid-March.

Denker reported it was a difficult decision to call for an early pick-up, but decided to make the call based on the condition of the shelters, the probability of additional storms over the next three weeks, and the proximity of the Gould. “Nothing bothers me more than to lose a camp, but I truly feel that we needed to get out of there,” he wrote.

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