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Person stands in front of airplane.
Photo Credit: NASA
Robert Bindschadler, an emeritus glaciologist with NASA, was the first person in 25 years to walk on the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf in January 2008. He and a team of researchers are finally returning four years later to complete their mission: a study of the ocean 500 meters below.

Antarctica's ground zero

Expedition heads to Pine Island Glacier region to study thinning ice shelf

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Bob Bindschadler External U.S. government site doesn’t want to spend the holidays — or, really, any day of the year — on the small, crevasse-riddled ice shelf in West Antarctica that catches all of the ice from the fast-flowing Pine Island Glacier.

But it’s on that floating bed of ice — well, more accurately, 500 meters below where it meets the water — where Bindschadler and his colleagues believe they’ll learn important lessons about how the ocean and ice grapple. It’s where warm water, drawn up onto the continental shelf from deep ocean depths by atmospheric winds, is eating away at the shelf — thinning the ice — and allowing the glacier upstream to move ever faster.

For the glaciologist from NASA External U.S. government site, this is ground zero for research into how Antarctica will contribute to future sea-level rise.

“The urgency of getting the science done is … unique to the other places I’ve been. Never in my life would I choose to go and work here. But the secrets to ice sheet stability, I am certain, lie underneath this ice shelf,” said Bindschadler, emeritus scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center External U.S. government site.

A veteran of some 15 polar expeditions, Bindschadler will lead more than a dozen investigators to the ice shelf over December and January. The plan is to use a hotwater drill to bore through 500 meters of ice. They’ll then deploy instruments through the hole to measure what the researchers refer to as the “ocean-ice interaction.”

Runway on ice.
Photo Credit: KBA
The skiway for aircraft at PIG field camp.

The Pine Island Glacier (PIG) Ice Shelf External U.S. government site program — funded and supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site, NASA and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) External Non-U.S. government site — is one of those projects where “easier said than done” truly applies.

The weather along coastal West Antarctica is simply atrocious, punctuated by gale-force winds and whiteout conditions, with occasional days of stunning blue skies. The ice shelf itself is pockmarked with crevasses, like an old face that had been ravaged by acne.

In fact, the surface of the ice shelf is so nasty that when Bindschadler and colleague David Holland External Non-U.S. government site with New York University External Non-U.S. government site landed there during the 2007-08 Antarctic field season on a Twin Otter, a plane that uses skis for landing gear, the pilots decided they couldn’t safely do it again. [See related story: Pine Island Glacier — Scientists prepare for difficult trip to Antarctica's most dynamic region.]

Long road back

It’s taken four years and a herculean logistics effort to set the stage for this year’s attempt to land on the ice shelf using helicopters, which will be based at a main camp located about 80 kilometers away on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. But to install that camp, a second camp farther inland called Byrd Surface Camp — a site with a long history in the U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site — first had to be built. [See previous story: Byrd Camp resurfaces — NSF to resurrect deep-field site to support major West Antarctica science.]

But the scientists and camp staff in McMurdo Station External U.S. government site awaiting transport to the PIG main camp are already living the lesson that they know so well — weather trumps all in Antarctica. As of Dec. 18, about three weeks after the first LC-130 aircraft was to make the 11-hour roundtrip journey, not one of the 14 planes scheduled to support the camp had been able to land at the site.

“We don’t know what to expect until we get out there,” said Charles Kirkland, who will be in charge of the camp personnel who will support the research team working on the ice shelf.

Kirkland is no stranger to the frustrations and hardships of working in Antarctica’s hinterland. He’s spent all of his six of his seasons with the USAP in the deep field, first as a camp medic and later as camp manager for projects in both West and East Antarctica, including three months at an elevation of nearly 4,000 meters where scientists mapped an Alps-sized mountain range under the ice.

“I do the deep field. I like the deep field,” said Kirkland, a man of obvious kinetic energy, whose 11-person team must be able to handle not just bad weather, but mechanical breakdowns and weeks of isolation with only each other to depend upon.

“We’re looking for utility players in the deep field. Nobody has one job,” Kirkland explained.

Day after day, he and his staff of mechanics, meteorologists, cooks and others take the news in stride — another weather cancelation. A team of carpenters will also fly out on the first few flights to help put the camp together.

“I figure my weather windows are going to be far and few between, so I want to get buildings up as fast as possible,” Kirkland said. “The weather if fifty-fifty there. We’ll have four days of [foul weather] and five days of knockdown gorgeous weather, and we’re going to [work extremely hard] on those days.” 1 2 3   Next