The first one I met was Chris.

I was standing at gate 13 in the international terminal at LAX. An attractive young woman walking past had just been flagged down by a guy in shorts, sandles, and a t-shirt that said something about the University of Ohio.

I saw Chris vectoring in from the side like a shark, eyeing the woman, striking up a conversation with me if only to orbit closer.

He said, "You must be going to the ice."

I smiled and told him he was right.

He looked down at my briefcase on the floor and kicked at the bright pink USAP luggage tags. "Can't miss um."

We exchanged pleasantries about where we were headed, he to some hellish nowhere called East Antarctica, me to the dry valleys.

Ice people have a way of finding each other in crowds. It's hardly intentional. Most of them, given the chance, would head off on their own to climb mountains or investigate the deals in the back corner of an outdoor goods store.

Maybe its something you could figure out in queing theory or tensor mathematics. Everyone trying to get to the furthest corner of the finite spherical earth, eventually destiny and math requires them to end up at the same place.

We caught up at a restaurant called the Dux de Luxe in Christchurch. Chris was with his team. Through that evening and the next day we stuck together in a small group exploring springtime New Zealand like college kids on break. We were all on the same Herc flight to the ice, and we naturally met in the Antarctic bars and the galley once we got to Antarctica. Over the six weeks of our deployment, we got to know each other fairly well.

It wasn't till I was sitting in Gallager's bar that I really began to understand their project and everything they'd told me.

Ted, the mission leader, was explaining the dunes to my boss, who had just arrived on the ice. Ted spread his arms wide, and with eyes glassy from a couple of bottles of Australian wine talked about the dunes as if he was Indiana Jones describing the Ark of the Covenant. He works for the "National Snow and Ice Center" in Boulder, and also for University of Colorado.

"Teams would go out on traverse," he said, pulling out his notebook to draw illustrations, "they'd string out over a mile or so. And even though the landscape appeared completely flat, they'd lose sight of each other every now and then as if one or the other had gone into a hole."

He drew a picture on the small notebook page to make his point. "Herc pilots could see them from the air. They'd tell the mission leaders, 'You are moving among structures too large to be seen from the ground.'"

Ted writes movie screenplays. Immediately I imagined the scene, the pilot in the herc several thousand feet up. He keys his radio and tells the expedition on the ground about the patterns in the ice.

The camera pans backward and we see the plane flying above what seems to be an infinite plane of white under a hemisphere of deep blue.

As we look below the plane, we see massive carvings in the ice. The drawings on the plains of Nazca.

While that may be a romantic image, it's not too far from the truth. The Antarctic megadunes are tremendous ripples in the eastern ice cap created by nearly continuous winds. They're between six and twelve feet in height, and from top to bottom, they can be hundreds of feet across so that in climbing one, it would be nearly impossible to detect the slope.

And they're several hundred miles long.

"When you see them on a satellite picture, it looks like God's thumbprint," says Mark, the glaciologist from University of New Hampshire.

"Like when he created the world he picked it up to look it over with his thumb at the bottom," adds Mary who's studied snow physics for the past thirty years.

The dunes located far from any interesting topological features. Almost no research is conducted in that area. The nearest base is the Russian camp at Vostok several hundred miles away.

The effective altitude is nearly 12,000 feet. Save for the sastrugi, and the dunes themselves which are imperceptable to the naked eye, the ice cap is featureless. The air temp is -40F on the warmest days. The wind is nearly continuous. Thirty knots at -40F yields a wind chill that can exceed -80F.

This is not a pleasant destination. Survival is a daily issue.

To be allowed to go to this place, the NSF requires one to take training in deep field practices. Crevasse rescue. Snow school. Emergency medical procedures. High altitude training.

One takes drugs to assist with the transport of oxygen to and from the blood until one is acclimatized.

And one must bring a safety officer who answers to no one on the team, who can overrule any decision made by the expedition leader, who's only objective is to get everyone home healthy. This was Rob.

Ted said, "I picked Rob because when he crashed his biplane, before he took off his seatbelt, he had the presence of mind to secure all the avionics and make sure his emergency locator beacon was turned off."

"Because I was alive," Rob added.

Chris whispered to me that Rob had climbed the Eiger in the winter and had summitted Everest. The team had a deep respect for each other's abilities, but were wary of unintentional ego inflation.

Chris himself had invented a satellite called "Ice Adz" for Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center that would be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in January, 2003, and would be used in next year's expedition. (He promised me a mission patch next time I saw him.)

The team's goals were to deploy a number of weather stations along some of the dunes. They would dig snowpits to determine the composition and consistency of the ice below the surface within the dunes. And they'd leave probes at varying depths to measure the ablation and accretion of ice on the dunes.

This was the first of three seasons for the team.

I chronicled the story of their adventurous first field season while I was on the ice. The human drama can seem to the layman more interesting than the geophysical science, though the team always had that "all in a day's work" attitude so common among people doing extrordinary things. Five people trekked into an inhospitable region where no human had made a semi-permanent camp before. They experienced equipment failure, logistics failures, and weather problems to rival the trials of Robert Falcon Scott. Their twelve-day field season was cut down to a little more than two.

They still believe the dunes are patterns caused by the winds. The dunes actually move TOWARD the wind as ice accretes on the leading edge of a dune, and sublimates from the trailing edge. The seed for the pattern was probably a pattern in the land under the ice as it existed millions of years ago.

For now, the origin of the dunes remains a mystery, the answer to which we'll be content to learn over the next three years of the megadunes program.




Resources/Sources:
    http://nsidc.org/antarctica/megadunes/research_team.html
    Numerous conversations on several continents with the Antarctic megadunes research expedition team members.
    iceowl December 11, 2002

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