In November 2002, UTIG researchers Fred Taylor, Cliff Frohlich, and graduate student Kris Gudipati, embarked on a NSF-funded project to study microplate motions in Antarctica using global positioning system (GPS) instruments. Neither Frohlich nor Gudipati had been to Antarctica previously. During the five-week field program aboard the research vessel Laurence M. Gould, Frohlich sent a series of letters and photographs to his friends and family describing what it was like to participate in this project. Published here, the letters and their belong to UTIG Senior Research Scientist Emeritus Cliff Frohlich.
From Cliff Frohlich, 08 December, 2002
Dear family & friends –
It is customary on NSF Antarctic cruises to give each cruise an informal nickname; this cruise is called Island Hopper, since basically it involves jumping from island to island in the South Shetland chain. I haven’t quite figured out why cruises need names. However, one reason is to justify making up gimmee caps emblazoned with the cruise name-I am now the deserving owner of an Island Hopper hat, commissioned by John Evans. And so, island hopping, we have been. Since I wrote last we picked up the GPS sites at O’Higgins base and on Livingston Island. Then, yesterday we arrived at King George Island.
King George Island is crudely C-shaped, with the interior of the C forming a large deep bay. No fewer than eight nations have set up stations in this bay. At Frei Base, the Chilean military station, there are both permanent and temporary GPS sites that we needed to visit. However, for our GPS work our primary contact is with INACH, the Chilean equivalent of the NSF’s Office of Polar Research, which also has a group stationed at Frei Base.
Nobody from either the military or INACH met us when we arrived on the beach, however. Apparently our efforts to alert people that we were coming hadn’t made it through the command chain. It was also a Saturday morning and Frei had just gotten an unseasonable amount of snow. Finally the INACH people mobilized, dug themselves out, and ended up being very helpful to us. Our main GPS site was about a mile from the beach atop a steep hill; because of the snow it would have been very rough to carry all our gear up there. INACH personnel helped us with a snowmobile that towed a sled. Even so, because our gear was heavy the snowmobile got stuck in deep snow. We also had to visit a permanent site near the airstrip run by the military; INACH took us to this site as well, after putting chains on their four-wheel-drive Toyota.
All in all, it was a physically and bureaucratically demanding day. Because no one knew we were coming, there was a lot of standing around in the snow; then, drinking of coffee for an hour in someone’s living quarters while they tried to locate the right people to help us. There was also much trudging through deep snow carrying heavy stuff-to unstick the stuck snowmobile, and to carry gear up the too- steep hill to the GPS site. Then, huddling in the windy fog at the top of the hill while we installed the site. Then, drinking still more coffee in a hut near the airstrip and listening to the major talk about how he was going to miss his daughter’s quinserea which will take place shortly, while meanwhile his attache searched to find the right person to help us with the second GPS site near the hanger.
In short, it was just exactly what you would expect an Antarctic experience to be like-cold, windy, a lot of sinking into deep snow, interspersed with drinking of hot coffee. The people, once located, were all supportive, albeit a bit nonplused to see us, arriving from the sea on a snowy, foggy, Saturday morning. On an adventure, you can’t expect everything to work according to plan.
You probably shouldn’t expect to believe everything you hear about one, either. In my last letter, I told you an allegedly true story about the first biplane to fly to the South Pole. Some research has revealed that in the best journalistic tradition, I got most of the facts wrong. A biplane did fly one-way to the pole, arriving last January, and there was a controversy about getting passengers back home. But, the plane wasn’t an altered Cessna, it was an Antonov 3, which is specially designed for cold weather flying. The plane didn’t use a different fuel; rather, it used a fuel available at the pole. But, when it landed the pilot turned off the engine (usually plane engines are left on) and when it was started up again he refused to fly because he felt the engine wasn’t working right. The group that arrived on the plane weren’t simply international adventurers, they included Artur Chilinganov (good Antarctic name), the deputy chair of the Russian Parliament, along with six Russian VIPs plus seven paying tourists from Sweden, Switzerland, the US, and the Ukraine.
The controversy ensued because there was considerable confusion about whether this was a private or government venture. Whereas the Russian Embassy in Washington confirmed that it was a private venture, Gennady Shabannikov, the Russian Ambassador to New Zealand, told Reuters the trip was ‘a partnership between the Russian government and the private sector.’ NSF did bill the Russians $80,000 for the flight that removed them from the pole, but Chilingarov refused to pay and denied being told he would be charged as he understood it was a regular US Antarctic Program flight; moreover, he stated that instead of digging into money matters, US officials should be celebrating the expedition’s achievement. The seven tourists were flown out by Adventure Network International, a private charter service, which charged them their standard Antarctic fee of $25,000 apiece.
Anyhow, you can see that from now on you will have to be careful about believing what I tell you in these letters. Possibly the best strategy would be for me to utilize a ‘corrections’ section at the bottom of each letter, sort of like they do in the New York Times. You know, something like a little box with statements like:
‘In letters sent between 24 Nov. and 5 Dec. Dr. C. Frohlich stated his scientific expedition was at the South Pole occupying GPS sites. This is incorrect. The letters should have stated that the seance expedition was at the North Pole wearing BVDs.’
Anyhow, in the future I will try to do better.