Elephant Island, Antarctica

Climate Research in Antarctica, an Insider's Perspective

Spruce Shoenemann|January 20, 2010|Blog Post

As our 2010 Antarctica, South Georgia, and Falkland Islands’ trip comes to a close, we thought it was the perfect time to learn more about the important climate work being conducted in this remote area of the world. Below is a post written by Spruce Schoenemann, a Glaciology graduate student in the University of Washington’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences.

It’s a pleasure to be sharing some of my Antarctic experiences with you! I’m sure some of you probably wonder why or how one ends up working in Antarctica anyway? Here is the why. The intricacy of climate science is what fascinates me, particularly the multiple interactions and feedback processes which interrelate between the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the cryosphere. I am drawn to those icy, snowy, remote, and dramatic places on this earth, and I feel a responsibility to protect the intrinsic value of these unique environments. How? After learning about a job posting by the UNH Science Coordination Office, I applied to work as a Science Tech on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide Ice Core Project during the 2008/2009 austral summer. The ice core project was in its second season of drilling, and our goal for the season was to drill 1,000 meters of ice. The WAIS Divide Ice Core would be 3,500 meters long once the drill reached the base of the ice sheet scheduled for 2011. The WAIS Ice Core is unique in the high resolution of annual layers preserved in the ~125,000 years of ice.

I arrived at WAIS Divide Camp on December 4, 2008 by LC-130 via Christchurch, New Zealand and McMurdo Station, Antarctica. The mid-size field camp of 40-50 people would be my home for the next two months. My domicile would be a tough nylon dual layered tent that turned out to be surprisingly warm on sunny days. The camp was split into four main sections, the first being tent city, then the drilling compound, camp operations, and cargo. Each of these was separated by 300-400 meters so as not to interfere with one another, since those sleeping in tent city wouldn’t want to hear the bustle of main base, nor the sound of drilling operations.

In the vast expanse of flat white ice, the profile of the drilling arch stood out as the main topographic feature of WAIS. The two part steel arch facility contained the drill, winch, drill tower, gantry, and control booth, while the other side contained the core processing line, data logger, ice core carts, and basement for cold storage. The official responsibilities of my position as an ice core handler were to process the ice cores after they were removed from the drill; remove the drilling fluid from the core; net the core; measure the length, quality, and electrical properties of the core; log the core; and pack the core for winter storage. Now imagine doing all of this at -13 degrees F temperatures. Why so cold? During the day, outside temperatures fluctuated from -18 to 17 degrees F but the core-processing arch had to remain at a constant cold temperature so that gases trapped in the ice core would not be compromised.

In order to drill as much ice as possible, we split up into three shifts and operated 24 hours a day. As second shift, I awoke around 2pm, ate “breakfast,” and then prepared for my shift by putting on extra warm coveralls, down vest, gloves, “bunny” boots, and Big Red (down parka). My work began at 3pm, to relieve the previous shift, and then I would work until 11pm with a short break for “lunch” (dinner for everyone else). The most exciting part of my work would come each time the 3 meters of ice core were pushed out of the core barrel into the ice trays. Our hope would be to receive ice cores in perfect condition, which is extremely difficult when working with brittle ice that expands and pops when brought up to the surface. Lying there before my eyes would be ice from thousands of years ago, spanning the great periods of history like the reign of the Egyptians. Rarely, thin ash layers would be found, representing massive volcanic eruptions.

My experience at WAIS Divide was truly exceptional. I felt like I was working on something whose significance was far greater than me, yet I was contributing to its existence. Ice cores themselves are extraordinary in that they are able to trap so many constituents of the atmosphere in an orderly fashion; it is this ability that provides a multitude of data that climate scientists can utilize to expose global changes both past and present.

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