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, 05 December, 2002
Dear family & friends –
When I awoke the morning after I last sent y’all mail, the wind was at six knots. So, we anchored off O’Higgins base, put our gear in a zodiak, and went ashore to meet the Chileans and occupy our GPS sites. When we arrived at the dock a contingent of Chileans was there to greet us. O’Higgins is primarily an army base, and thus there were officers with spaghetti on their caps wearing red and blue winter jackets, enlisted men in khaki fatigues, and others of indeterminate rank who just stood around at relaxed attention with their hands clasped behind their backs, keeping an eye on us. While Fred and Leonardo, our Argentine observer, pow-wowed with the Comandante, the rest of us unloaded the zodiak, changed from our Helly-Hansons to field clothing, and tripped over each other’s feet in that classic Keystone Cop style that makes scientists so lovable.
Our plan had been to occupy two different sites near O’Higgins-one which Fred and his cohorts had installed back in 1998, and another on a nearby hill that had been put in by some Germans. Although having only one site would make more sense, Fred’s cohorts somehow hadn’t been informed about the German site and thus there are two.
However, almost immediately a serious problem arose. When Fred found the first site, he discovered that a penguin had built her nest squarely on the survey mark. Let me be clear about this, the nest was truly on the mark-not two feet or six inches away. If you want to know exactly where it is we can tell you to within a few mm. The miscreant penguin had piled up little stones to make her nest, leaving around her the bolts that Fred had installed as anchors for chains to hold up our GPS mast. Now, our options here were limited:
- We could evict the penguin and destroy her nest, quite a clear violation of the Antarctic Treaty which explicitly states that our scientific efforts are not supposed to ‘disturb’ wildlife; or
- We could slink away and focus all our efforts on the second GPS site.
I am sure most of you will be pleased to hear that we chose Option Two. I, for one, am somewhat relieved about this. Although our project is driven by science and is costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars each day, there is just no way when all was said and done that I would feel good about memories of drop-kicking Ma Penguin down the hill and lobbing her egg after her. We did the right thing, and because of Fred’s great foresight in installing a second GPS site, we have lost almost nothing scientifically.
There were problems at the second GPS site as well. When the antenna, batteries, and GPS receiver were all hooked up and turned on, all seemed OK at first. Except… the system failed to detect any satellites. This meant either that Iraq had declared war and managed to knock out the entire GPS satellite system or else that one of our components was faulty. After a trip back to the zodiak to retrieve spares, we swapped out components and discovered that the antenna cable was faulty; with the new cable the system immediately tracked eight satellites. With these repairs it seems to work fine, and we will pick it up tomorrow evening.
As you read this, some of you may get the impression that things are a little out of control around here. All I can say is, that for field work in general, and especially in Antarctica, things are going great. We have lost only one day to weather, meaning we are two days ahead of schedule, and so far it appears we have data at all our sites.
You want to hear about out of control? Let me tell you a true story. Apparently a year or two ago a small group of international adventurers decided they wanted to be the first to fly a biplane to South Pole. So they modified a Cessna monoplane by adding a second wing, found a Russian pilot who agreed to fly it, somehow got it to Antarctica, and did it. They flew to the pole, landing at South Pole Station, which is run by NSF and where about 40-odd people are stationed. But then problems began. It seems that their plane ran on aviation gasoline, and the only fuel at the pole was jet fuel. Moreover, their pilot lost his nerve and refused to fly further, so that they would have been stuck even if they somehow managed to cajole NSF into flying in more fuel.
At the time the biplane arrived at the pole, Jamie, one of the marine techs now on the Gould, was at South Pole working, shoveling snow and cutting ice tunnels with a chain saw. She says that the plane itself was beautiful, but arrived at the pole with no survival gear for its passengers, loaded instead with champagne and pate to celebrate their victory. The adventurers were given a spot in the South Pole gym for sleeping, but managed to drink up a fair quantity of polar hard liquor before they left. Apparently NSF was not amused by their pluck and billed them for something like $100,000 apiece for their board, room and flight out. I may have the details wrong on this, as I am getting it all third hand from a lady who wields a chain saw and cuts ice like butter so I don’t want to make her mad by asking too many questions. But you get the idea. In comparison our operation runs like a smoothly oiled machine. Although we are woefully short on pate.
Things have been quite peaceful, here on the Gould. Yesterday we invited a dozen or so Chilean soldiers out to the ship for a tour and dinner. The Chileans were relaxed and quite friendly. Apparently they generally sign on for a one-year tour at this station, which includes three or four months in the winter when they are iced in so no ships can reach the station. Some of the enlisted men, 18- or 19-year old kids from Chile, seemed to take the greatest pleasure from eating cheesecake and drinking coke from our machine. Everybody had cameras, and took pictures of everybody else. For today, we sit at anchor in sight of the Chilean station. Tomorrow evening, we will remove our GPS station, and continue muddling along.