A 10,000-foot-thick ice cap can be deadly. Lurking unseen under snow, monstrous cracks gape large enough to swallow vehicles as if they were peanuts. Last week, in Antarctica, select scientists and one ice core driller from Whitefish embarked on a journey across a vast sea of ice, riddled with crevasses 30 feet wide and more than 160 feet deep. They hang their lives on the Sniffer, a boom-mounted, crevasse-detecting radar extending like a 39-foot fishing pole ahead of the lead vehicle.
Crevasses are only one of the challenges facing the Norwegian-U.S. Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica. For science’s sake, the team will confront frigid temperatures, howling winds, frontier terrain over sub-glacial lakes, prototype equipment and crammed living quarters. No food re-supply; only one cache of fuel. “The only support that we have is what we bring with us,” says Louise Albershardt, a 48-year-old from Whitefish who is the sole ice core driller for this International Polar Year expedition.
The two-month traverse will cross 3,000 kilometers of the remote East Antarctic plateau. In a train of four snow-tread equipped red vehicles, the expedition will travel from Norwegian Troll Station to the U.S. South Pole Station.
Packing pallets with gear began in late October in Cape Town, South Africa, followed by an eight-hour flight on a C-130 to Troll – catapulting them from lush greenery and T-shirt warmth into a world of frigid white with 24-hour sunlight. “The white in its many tones is indescribably beautiful,” muses Albershardt, who’s part of a 16-member crew. “Every time I see this continent, it floors me with its changing beauty.”
For three weeks at Troll, the crew loaded supplies aboard sledges, tested equipment, sewed modifications on gear, and trained – practicing crevasse rescues by climbing the side of Troll Station. They battled five days of hurricane winds peaking at 114 mph – enough to keel over several of the station’s 20- and 40-foot containers, including their sleeping module. When packing resumed, they added 148 rolls of toilet paper, 9,500 gallons of fuel, and “lots of sardines,” Albershardt says. (With the Norwegian Polar Institute managing expedition logistics, the menu follows their tastes.) Oddities stowed aboard, too – a “Beware of Dog” sign for the mobile mechanic shop and a bobbing hula girl on a vehicle dashboard.
Last week, as the red caravan climbed through a crevasse minefield onto the ice cap, the real work began. Scientists recognize Antarctica as a key player in climate change with the earth’s atmospheric history written into its ice. However, little is known about the massive East Antarctic ice sheet. Led by Mary Albert, a snow and firn scientist from Dartmouth College, the expedition will collect ice and snow samples to study climate up to a million years ago. Shooting radar images, they’ll map the bedrock three kilometers below the ice and determine how the ice sheet impacts sea level.
Albershardt’s ice cores provide the snapshot of climate history. Using a drill that weighs nearly 400 pounds, she extracts three-inch-wide cylindrical tubes up to 230 feet long in a process that takes about 30 hours. Once removed from the ice sheet, that core length should detail 1,000 years of atmospheric activity.
For the past 21 years, Albershardt has supported science research in Antarctica and Greenland with her work in logistics and ice core drilling, most recently through University of Wisconsin in Madison Ice Coring and Drilling Services. When Albert phoned over a year ago to propose drilling on this expedition, she couldn’t refuse. “It’s dream come true,” says Albershardt. “It’s way cool to be working with such internationally renown researchers doing such comprehensive climate reconstruction.”
The Norwegian Polar Institute supplied expedition leader Jan Gunnar and six others, multi-skilled as scientists, navigators, paramedics, mechanics, and camp managers. The rest of the team consists of three scientists from three different U.S. universities and, until December, several media representatives from both countries for filming. Once they depart, only two women and nine men continue to the South Pole.
But the task of being the only oljeind (that’s “driller” in Norwegian) is daunting. “It will keep me on my toes!” she says. “It’s my responsibility to provide a good core every time science says, ‘Drill here.’” Some prototype components may pose challenges; so can frigid temperatures. “My job kind of requires me to be outside 10 hours a day,” she says, noting that temperatures should hang between 31 and 40 below zero with winds at 15 to 20 knots.
Albershardt is getting quick immersion in Norwegian language and culture. The crew shares three meals per day – a 7:30 a.m. breakfast of crackers, cheese, and fish spread, a noon meal and a 4 p.m. dinner. “But the Norwegians don’t snack between meals,” she grouses. Dinners feature fish or meat stew, and once so far, a traditional lutefisk (codfish soaked in soda lye). Work knocks off at 8 p.m., followed by a light snack – sardines – and bed.
Despite the lively cultural exchange, the heated sleeping and living quarters are tight. In the proverbial sardine can, the crew crams in the 10-by-22 foot sleeping module – divided into three rooms stacked three high with bunks. Only 15 inches separates Albershardt’s nose from the next bunk. For breathing space, the ex-college Nordic ski racer packed her cross-country skis. “My only solo time may be when I get to ski behind the train,” she says.
The expedition will be the seventh group ever to reach the Pole of Inaccessability – the point in Antarctica furthest from any ocean. Despite its remoteness, modern technology connects them with the world. “The communications spare nothing,” says Albershardt, listing off radios, satellite phones, and their own server via Thromso, Norway, for a once-a-day link during a satellite window.
East Antarctica is the world’s biggest ice sheet – a tablet etched with the earth’s story. This expedition into Antarctica’s farthest frontier seeks to unearth its secrets.
For the next two months, you can follow the expedition diary at http://traverse.npolar.no.
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