A “clunk, clunk” signaled the end of the 2007-08 Norwegian-U.S. Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica. The expedition sits 350 kilometers from its South Pole destination on a remote barren white expanse of hard wind-sculpted ice ridges called sastrugi.
Two of the four red snow vehicles used to pull science equipment, fuel, supplies, and living quarters 3,000 kilometers across East Antarctica suffered complete mechanical failure on Jan. 14. “If we had $50 million, we couldn’t get parts,” said Lou Albershardt, a member of the expedition from Whitefish. “We’ve done everything we can with them.” That would include running through nine differentials and two gear boxes.
When you’re this remote with the Antarctic winter breathing down your neck, you go to Plan B. After assessing prevailing winds and drifting, the expedition lined up the vehicles in hopes that they won’t be buried during the brutal winter. Next fall, after repairing the rigs, the expedition will pick up from here for a return trip across eastern Antarctica via a different route.
Meanwhile, the team is packing up to be extracted from the polar ice cap by ski-equipped Basler transports on Jan. 19. From Albershardt’s viewpoint at 14,000 feet, cobalt blue skies bode well. In 20 years of working in Antarctica, she has never seen 60 days straight of blue skies. Yet no storms nor none of Antarctica’s renown katabatic winds followed the expedition across the eastern plateau. “The weather is all below us,” she explained. “But we could be stuck three days or two weeks if weather prohibits flying from the coast. And the sastrugi here are not ski-plane friendly.”
Despite the vehicle breakdowns, the expedition’s scientific work was a success. “We did 60 percent more than planned,” said Albershardt, who is the expedition’s ice core driller. Mechanical breakdowns gave them time to add on extra science projects. “A lot of people will be very happy if we can get the ice cores out of here,” she laughed.
In total, the expedition is carrying 2,300 feet of never-before-seen eastern Antarctic ice core samples—windows into a millenium of earth’s climate. So how does one celebrate that? With a shot of scotch poured over 1,000-year-old ice.
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