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Spring 2004

Vol. 04, No. 2


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Cooler than cool

It was summer in that part of the world, so temperatures hovered near 20 degrees below zero and winds gusted to 50 miles per hour. The rich blue of the sky blended with a similar blue of the glacial ice; the starkness of the 24-hour sunlight made the horizon difficult to discern.

For more than three weeks in November and December, a team conducted field research in a place called the Oliver Bluffs, a desolate scene of icy rocks and snow about 300 miles from the South Pole.

Allan Ashworth, professor and chair of geosciences at North Dakota State University, is back in his Stevens Hall laboratory, warm and safe as he tells his story of the bitter, numbing cold of Antarctica.

"It really is a magical place," he says. "With the mountains, the ice -- you can't help but feel awed."

Operation Deepfreeze gives a ride.

Ashworth, who had conducted research in Antarctica once before, was team leader for this expedition. Group members included Jane Francis, a fossil wood specialist from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom; David Cantrill, a senior curator of paleo-botany at the Swedish Natural History Museum, Stockholm; stratigrapher Steve Roof of Hampshire College in Massachusetts; and mountaineer Forrest McCarthy, Jackson Hole, Wyo. Explosives specialist Marty Reed, also from Wyoming, joined the team for five days while the research was being conducted.

The team met in Christchurch, New Zealand. Internationally known as the "Garden City," Christchurch has extensive parks and public flower gardens. Noted for its bright colors, the community of more than 300,000 residents is a contrast as the jumping-off point for Operation Deepfreeze, a joint effort by the U.S. Air Force and New Zealand Air Force to supply the interior of the frozen continent of Antarctica. This provided transportation for the first leg of the trip to the research site.

At the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, the researchers were equipped with extreme cold weather gear from long underwear to down parkas. "The rules are that you have to fly in survival gear, just in case something bad would happen on the way down. At least you might have a chance if you are in survival gear," Ashworth says.

After some basic survival training, the team boarded a U.S. Air Force C-141 aircraft and set out on the five-hour flight to the Antarctic coastal supply town of McMurdo Station.

The 168-foot long cargo plane has four powerful Pratt and Whitney engines and a cruising speed of 500 miles per hour. It has few frills. "We were jammed in like sardines, in webbing seats. It was miserably cold," Ashworth says. "It is so loud that the crew shouts messages to you."

On this flight over forbidding seas, there is a spot called the point of no return. This is where the pilots must communicate with "Mac Ops" to see if there is a blizzard at McMurdo. They must determine if the weather conditions will allow a landing on the eight-foot thick sea ice runway. If not, they need to save enough fuel to return to Christchurch.

As it neared that point, the massive plane began a slow turn. After more than two hours in the air, the C-141 returned to Christchurch because of a mechanical problem. "We flew for five hours and ended up in the spot we started," Ashworth says, recalling his disappointment. "But, sometimes that's the way things are."

Two hours to transfer materials to another C-141 and they were back in the air again. "The flight down was a bit traumatic," Ashworth remembers of the daylong effort to reach McMurdo.

"But this time, when we got past the point of no return, I said, 'Great. We're going in.' "

An Antarctic welcome

McMurdo Station is a town primarily operated by the National Science Foundation. Located at 77 degrees 51 minutes south, 166 degrees 40 minutes east, it is the largest Antarctic station. Established in 1955, it serves as a supply base for expeditions into the continent's interior. The community has about 85 buildings, each dedicated to specific tasks. There are dormitories, machine shops, a building for tents, another is stockpiled with food, still another is filled with camping supplies and radios.

McMurdo's Web site boasts it's "the solid ground farthest south that is accessible by ship." But even in this cold, lonely location, the world is a small place.

"One evening in McMurdo, we are having a meal, and I hear a voice calling, 'Hey, Dr. Ashworth, how are you doing?' " It was NDSU alumnus Brandon Burmeister, a 2001 architecture graduate who had decided to spend a season working in one of the station's machine shops. "Strange, isn't it? Here I am, almost at the end of the earth, and I run into a former student. That was fun."

McMurdo is the place to prepare for what's coming. Because Antarctica can be such a dangerous place, expeditions are required to go through a survival school. A shakedown camping trip is necessary to make sure everything is in working order, from the tents to the communication equipment to the scientists themselves.

On their way out of McMurdo for their test run, the team passed a hut built by Capt. Robert Scott in 1911, when he attempted to lead the first expedition to the South Pole. The perfectly preserved frozen structure is reminder of the peril scientists face. "They failed to be the first," Ashworth says as he looks at a photograph he took of the historic site. "When Scott got to the pole, he found a Norwegian flag. Roald Amundsen had beaten him. On the way back, the five members of the Scott party who made it to the pole all died. It is a tragic tale of polar exploration.

"When you go out in the field and you know the history of Antarctica, somewhere in your mind you are thinking about it, what the early explorers went through," says Ashworth. "This is serious business."

The team made survival school camp on Backdoor Bay at Cape Royds, in a place where Mt. Erebus, an active volcano, dominates the skyline. Magnificent glaciers flow off its slopes, frozen into the sea ice. Nearby is Ernest Shakelton's tiny cabin, left over from his 1907 expedition that nearly reached the pole. Here, too, frozen artifacts like old laboratory apparatus, skis and food canisters, keep history alive.

"They were involved in science as well as exploration. They were geologists, biologists and climatologists," Ashworth says. "The conditions under which they operated were much more difficult than anything we faced. Their clothing was nowhere near the quality we had. These guys were really tough."

With a backdrop of the Royal Society Range and the frozen Ross Sea, the team pitched tents. Next, they decided to explore the water's edge and climbed down onto the sea ice. "I was in another world, looking all around at the mountains and the sea ice. It is absolutely quiet, an incredibly tranquil place.

"Suddenly, penguins start popping up. Bingo, we were surrounded," Ashworth laughs. Dozens and dozens of Adelie and Emperor penguins had decided to welcome them.

A major Adelie penguin rookery was a short distance away, where humans are not allowed to disturb the birds' habitat. Humans are not allowed to cross the boundary. "The penguins, however, don't obey it. They come right out and check you out," Ashworth says. "They cut right across the line, hugely curious. They come wandering up to you to see what's going on."

And as abruptly as the creatures appeared, they were gone.

"It was like they all thought, 'Well, there's not much to that lot,' and they all just wondered off," Ashworth says. "That day was a 'top five days of your life' event. It was a gigantic treat, a bonus, because where we were going, there is no life."

Destination: Oliver Bluffs

The Oliver Bluffs are steep cliffs, 250 to 300 feet in height, located on the upper Beardmore Glacier within sight of the Polar Plateau. Composed of ancient glacial deposits, it is not a pleasant place. Even in summer, temperatures are 20 to 30 degrees below zero, and there are perpetual gusty winds that can surpass 50 miles per hour.

That was the ultimate destination. It would still be a difficult task to get there.

It started with several tons of food, camping gear and scientific equipment packed on pallets. The crew took a Hercules cargo plane from McMurdo to Bowden Neve on the Lennox Glacier about 100 miles from the Oliver Bluffs.

Unbeknownst to Ashworth, the military flight crew had been ordered to do what is called a "quick drop" of the team's gear, just for practice. "The noise is so loud I can hardly hear that a crew member is yelling at me to get up out of my seat and stand to the side," Ashworth says. "Underneath my webbing seat is a lever. He pulls it, and the whole back end of the Hercules seems to fall off.

"I thought, 'My God, what's going on?' "

As the plane skidded on the glacier landing strip, the crew member had released the pallets down tracks inside of the Hercules. "They were actually flying out the back of the plane as it is still cruising down the runway."

"They released the pallets too early, so they were miles down the glacier from where they should have been. The guys from the Bowden Neve camp went out with a tractor to retrieve our gear, and they weren't too happy. It was an interesting drop."

From there, a Twin Otter plane provided transportation for the dangerous last leg of the trip to the Oliver Bluffs. The gusty winds make flying nearly impossible, and after nearly breaking a ski on landing, the crew announced that they did not want to land there again. That news lingered in Ashworth's mind for the next three-and-a-half weeks.

Exploring, researching and surviving

Ashworth's team made camp on the edge of the glacier on what was once a small glacial lake -- a bed of ice covered with about 2 inches of till. It is a miserable place, and the gusting winds made it difficult to stake down tents. "It wasn't the best place to camp. Nobody on our team would ever camp there again," Ashworth says. The small collection of yellow two-person polar tents and a kitchen tent would be home for nearly a month.

Living in the Antarctic interior is a matter of adapting to incredibly harsh conditions. For instance, the 24-hour sun means that even in the bitter cold there is a need to lather up with sunscreen to protect oneself from ultra-violet rays. "The trouble is, you can't get the stuff out of the tube. Everything is frozen." The solution: put the tube, along with your toothpaste, in your sleeping bag. Each morning, the creams are thawed out enough to use.

Keeping clean can be a bit of a hassle, too. Remembering his previous experience on the continent, Ashworth had brought along some packages of baby wipes. "The packages were like bricks; they froze solid. You could have built an igloo out of them." The solution: use a clothespin to hang a package in the kitchen tent. Cooking provides just enough heat to thaw the wipes. "You can't really wash. But because of the cold, there's not much perspiration and there are no bacteria, so it doesn't get too smelly," Ashworth says.

Sleeping in a frigid tent is no treat. Each team member had a cot, covered with a half-inch foam pad. Then a thin air mattress, wool sleeping bag liner and a down sleeping bag. Everyone slept fully clothed. Because of the condensation of breath inside the tents, layers would freeze together. The solution: there was none. This is, after all, Antarctica.

In this harshest of environments, Ashworth's research team had important work to do. Each day, they would climb the steep bluffs, searching for fossils and surveying the area. Their task was to work out a detailed glacial history, to look for signs in the rocks of the glacier advancing and retreating through the millennia. They used a combination of dynamite, rock hammers and chisels to liberate the fossil samples.

Some fossils had been found by previous expeditions. Ashworth's team went to find new fossil sites and provide details of the stratigraphy.

"We located an incredible bed of fossil leaves, with spectacular preservation," he says. It provides a clear picture of the ancient environment. The leaves were from shrubs named Notho fagus or "southern beech." Its modern descendents now grow in the southern tip of South America and the mountain forests of Tazmania and New Zealand.

The plants at the Oliver Bluffs had probably survived around the edges of Antarctica for millions of years since the breakup of Gondwana. Gondwana was a super-continent that consisted of all the existing continental masses of the southern hemisphere. It began to break up about 80 million years ago.

"We think the plants were growing in a tundra-like environment. Eventually, as the great ice sheets of today developed, the climatic conditions in Antarctica became far too severe for plants. All organisms larger than those inhabiting pore spaces in soils became extinct on the continent."

The fossils are estimated to be 3 million to 17 million years old. Their remains in the rocks provide a picture of a very different place than the Antarctica of today. "It was warm enough that when the glacier retreated, tundra plants, insects and mollusks migrated inland from the Ross Ice Sea."

The team also found fossils of cushion plants. "One of them is an amazing fossil," Ashworth says. "Whenever the moss was buried by glacial outwash, it would push up a growing shoot and then grow a new plant. This process would go on and on and on. It's incredible how resilient the plant was."

And there was something else.

"Previous expeditions this far south did not find any evidence for life. But we found evidence that at some time, perhaps a thousand or several thousand years ago, our campsite had been a lake," Ashworth says. "We found evidence of blue-green algae. That's exciting."

In all, they collected two tons of rocks containing fossils, which should arrive at the NDSU campus in April for further inspection and study.

The field research was complete.

Going home

The Twin Otter crew had been serious; by radio, they refused to land near the camp. Ashworth's group needed to make other arrangements. "I guess I wasn't overly concerned," Ashworth says. "The National Science Foundation couldn't just leave us out there, would they?"

When the day came to depart, two helicopters braved the winds to sling-hook the team's gear and samples. With daring flying, the team and all its camping gear and rock boxes were moved to a location about 10 miles from the bluffs, where the wind still howled at 50 miles per hour. At least it was a constant 50 miles per hour.

The Twin Otter crew completed the camp pullout from the Beardmore Glacier. "They weren't too pleased, but we made it. You've got to remember, this was a very nasty place for flying.

The pilots of the planes and helicopters had to deal with incredible turbulence near those bluffs. We had nothing but admiration for their efforts."

As he left the Oliver Bluffs behind, Ashworth says he wondered if his team had finished everything it had set out to do. He answered himself with a satisfied, "Yes.

"We had an enormously successful field season that was beyond anyone's wildest dreams," he says with pride. "I feel incredibly privileged to be able to work in such a remote location and have the opportunity to try to piece together the history of such a complex, special place."

-- Steve Bergeson

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.