Even when uncontrollable circumstances keep an expedition from reaching its intended landmark, it does not mean the participants come away empty-handed.
Such was the case for those involved in the Totten Expedition, a collaborative scientific research voyage into East Antarctica for about six weeks in February and March. Sean Gulick, an associate professor at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) explained that the icebreaker vessel on which they were sailing was unable to get through ice that blocked the way to the Totten Glacier.
“Icebreakers, despite their name, can’t break all kinds of ice,” Gulick explained. “We ran into ice that was not breakable. One of things we learned that’s interesting, as we explored the systems en route to Totten, we realized they are all one big system. We didn’t get to the main trunk which was where Totten comes out of, but we saw a lot of the feeders and saw a part that was probably the second most important, if you will, pathway.”
The researchers’ ship, the RV Nathaniel B. Palmer, tried three times to get to the Totten Glacier, Gulick added. On one of those attempts, it took almost three hours for the ship to turn back once it became obvious that passage could not be gained.
But as fellow UTIG researcher Steffen Saustrup noted, the area the expedition was able to reach yielded very valuable data itself.
“Gradually that secondary area became more and more interesting to us and actually became of real value. It was almost an accidental data set. The regrettable thing is the time lost attempting to get to Totten. The value of an hour’s worth of data is great,” Saustrup said.
Gulick said there were actually three areas of discovery in a part of the Antarctic that “effectively had never been explored by ship.”
“Fundamentally, we were able to map the sea floor, and in a place where we didn’t even know how deep the water was, and observe some sort of dynamic processes of glaciers that occurred during the last great retreat of the Antarctic ice sheet,” he said.
What the researchers found is that the ice sheets and glaciers in East Antarctica are thinning more rapidly than previously thought.
“A lot of people were aware the glaciers and ice sheets are retreating back because you can see that with satellite imagery and things like that,” Saustrup said. “What I didn’t know coming into this is they are thinning even faster than they are retreating back in places so the total volume loss of ice is greater than I realized, because I’m not a glaciologist.
“The question now becomes why they are thinning as well as retreating, and thinning faster than predicted by models just based on air temperature, sunlight and things like that,” Saustrup said.
UTIG researcher Rodrigo Fernandez-Vasquez added about the significance of the expedition’s findings, “But now we know there are several bases below sea level and this (Totten) is one of those. That was the main hook for this research. This is one of the places in East Antarctica that …is more unstable than we think.”
David Gwyther, a University of Tasmania PhD student currently completing a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Texas at Austin, elaborated on the changes taking place.
“This is the region in East Antarctica that is showing the greatest change…the link is you look around Antarctica, it’s the glaciers that have very deep grounding lines so that the glacier starts to float. If we look at areas of thinning, they are also the areas that have these deep grounding lines and there is probably warm water coming in. The theory is the ocean is changing and driving this increased thinning,” Gwyther said.
He also said the research work on the expedition provided a nice confirmation of three years of modeling work about the area.
“The head oceanographer wanted to do a map of temperature and salinity. We did that and put some of the measurements taken at same depth, and the model predictions were spot on with what we were measuring.”
Life at Sea – and Ice
Gulick, Saustrup, Fernandez-Vasquez and Gwyther were joined on the expedition by fellow UTIG researchers Don Blankenship, Jamin Greenbaum and Bruce Frederick, along with a host of researchers from other universities and in fields of study other than geophysics.
It was the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the expedition that became one of the highlights of the journey for the UTIG crew.
“It really appealed to me a lot. In fact I would argue the interdisciplinary aspect of this project was probably the most attractive thing to me beyond the contemporary glacier change story that was the original motivation for Don, my advisor, and I to join this project,” Greenbaum said.
Having other researchers in other fields of study aboard the ship helped open paths of discovery about his own topic of research, Greenbaum added.
“To answer that question, you need to look at the sea floor, you need to figure out why the glacier has changed in the past, and how that might be used as a prediction or guide to the future. You have to measure the properties of the ocean, the shape of the sea floor; you have to do all these things to be able to predict the future. That really requires an interdisciplinary project,” he explained.
“This was a little different than most of us had experienced,” Gulick said. “You had to share shift time, but we all, by the end, came to appreciate each other’s science, each other’s intellects, each other’s interests and ideas, such that we sometimes, near the end, even argued for each other’s science.”
Fernandez-Vasquez added that a spirit of cooperation and collaboration is vital for the success of everyone on board.
“People know from the very beginning that you will be in the boat for six weeks with the same people, probably more than 12 hours a day, so you know you have to collaborate with them, working as a team. So it is not like on the beach, where, if you don’t like someone, you don’t hang out with that person. You have to hang out with everyone because you are working very closely with all your shift mates,” he said.
Gulick added, “Like any microcosm, people end up developing friendships and end up developing patterns that are social as well. You wind up forming movie-watching groups or people who play games together. There are things you do and make part of your routine that keeps it fun and keeps it real.”
One of the biggest adjustments to life aboard a research ship, Gulick noted, is with conceptions of time.
“There is a certain time of each 24-hour period we are on, then your whole life on ship revolves around your watch,” he said. “You are on midnight to noon or noon to midnight, and this kind of personal clock is created on the ship so that everybody has a time that they work, sleep and eat.
“Ship life is very regimented in the sense that you have to come on to your shift at the time that you say and the guy you are relieving doesn’t want you to be late,” Gulick continued. “Your social world is turned by it, too. If you want to watch a movie, you know when that is going to happen. I think the most different aspect is there is no such thing as a weekend – you work during those days, too.”
“The daytime/nighttime thing gets blurred, too, because people are always up and working,” Saustrup added.
The researchers ate well for the most part. Gulick praised the ship’s chef, particularly for a strategy of rotating placement of fruits and vegetables in the cooler to deter spoilage. The ship also featured a gym, a sauna and a movie room, and there was a cornhole game tournament involving everyone aboard.
“It’s not quite as Spartan as some people might think,” Gwyther commented.
Frederick noted a number of differences on this voyage compared to his first expedition some 24 years ago.
“In 1990, the Internet with active email aboard a research vessel was essentially nonexistent; the Polar Duke had a satellite phone for emergencies only and a VHF radio,” he recalled.
“Aside from that I don’t recall any communication with the continental U.S. while I was aboard with the exception of a 24-to-36-hour stop at Palmer station. The RV Palmer now has virtually unlimited email and satellite phone access to the mainland and limited Internet access. These luxuries were not missed in 1990 as even a cell phone on the mainland was a luxury not often afforded at the time, and they weighed about four pounds,” Frederick added. “I must admit that I did miss the Coca-Cola and wine pairings with meals that were a staple aboard the RV Polar Duke.”
Article written by Terry L. Britt, former digital media coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin Institute for Geophysics.