Posts from Antarctica: Staying Safe in the Field Part 3: Communications

We’re crossing our fingers that weather holds well enough at WAIS Divide to get a plane out there this evening, but our advance team is currently delayed until tomorrow (December 3rd). The earliest the rest of us will get out is still pencilled in for Thursday, December 5th, but we’re playing it by ear.

Once we do get out of McMurdo, to get to our field sites we fly to the permanent camp at WAIS Divide, possibly from WAIS Divide to a fueling stopover/gear cache at Lower Thwaites Glacier, and then to “Cavity Camp” on the floating portion of Thwaites Glacier. Cavity Camp is very remote, and our site at Dotson will be even a bit more remote. We are bringing everything with us that we need and then some, but to get all the gear there, and in case of an emergency, it’s extremely important that we have good communications among the team members and between the team and operations staff at WAIS Divide and at McMurdo.

Our team leader is Erin Pettit from Oregon State University. She is extremely experienced in field research, and, fortunately for us, is also fantastic at creating a functional and positive team environment. Everyone on the team has assigned responsibilities. Some of those responsibilities are scientific. For example, Atsu is in charge of managing the seismic surveys, Erin runs the ground-penetrating radar, and Martin and Dale are in charge of the drilling. My primary role is to assist Atsu with the seismic measurements, as his setup takes two people to run, and I also have responsibilities for strategizing data collection for a few features of interest and integrating our plans with the big-picture context of Thwaites Glacier and the Amundsen Sea. In addition to science duties, everyone will pitch in to help around the camp. Some people will be on cooking and cleaning duties, for example, while another will keep an eye on the tie-downs and guy lines used to hold gear and tents in place in case a storm whips up. Giving everyone clear responsibilities means that no important task slips through the cracks.

Our camp under Mount Erebus during our overnight shakedown

To work out these team responsibilities and facilitate trust and open communication, as well as to test out all our gear, we had an overnight camp “shakedown” as part of our training. We went out on the McMurdo Ice Shelf to an absolutely stunning location under Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on Earth, which gently steamed under a crystal clear blue sky. Cece and Blair gave us some tips on setting up tents with strong snow anchors, cutting snow blocks, and building wind walls. Bruce and Christian decided to dig themselves a large trench with slots in the sides to sleep in, just for the fun of it (they did, in fact, sleep in their trench, but they failed to dig big enough slots to allow them to turn over, so they were stuck in one position all night). It was actually a really relaxing and enjoyable overnight. If we get that kind of weather in the deep field, it will be lovely trip; but it didn’t give us much experience testing our gear in harsh conditions, which we’re likely to face!

Bruce (left) and Christian (right) starting to dig their trench. They cut slots in the sides of the trench and slept in the slots on our shakedown.

While we were on our shakedown, we also tested out some of our communications equipment. Much of our communication with McMurdo will be via satellite transmissions. We have four satellite phones with us, as well as a satellite internet uplink that will let us send text emails back to McMurdo (and hopefully some blog posts back to the Wooster Geologists blog!). Eight of us on the team also own inReach devices, which are GPS units that also link to the Iridium satellite network, allowing us to text family from home and also to send text messages to each other in the field. For emergencies, we also have a high-frequency (HF) radio with a huge antenna that we can set up – we practiced using that on the shakedown, as well.

Team members setting up the HF radio

We will check in with McMurdo at a specific time every day. If we don’t check in by our specified time, McMurdo immediately initiates search-and-rescue operations, so we’re all responsible for remembering to make that check-in on-time. Since we will have multiple teams working away from camp to take radar and seismic measurements, we will also have set check-in times every few hours with each other. The daily check-ins with McMurdo will also include sharing weather observations and forecasts, which will be very important in planning our activities each day. Although every team that leaves camp carries survival bags, getting caught out in a storm is not something we intend to do!


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1 Response to Posts from Antarctica: Staying Safe in the Field Part 3: Communications

  1. Mark Wilson says:

    These posts are fantastic, Karen! Keep them coming when you get opportunities. Your photos are excellent and evocative. What a spectacular place to be an Earth Scientist!

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