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Searching for clues in Antarctic ice

The 1,400-mile 'luxury trip' was the first major scientific

March 29, 2009|Charles J. Hanley | Hanley writes for the Associated Press.

TROLL RESEARCH STATION, ANTARCTICA — Visiting a Norwegian outpost in Antarctica, an AP writer met with a team of scientists just ending a 1,400-mile journey from the South Pole. Here is their story.

On the 27th day of their trek -- a dozen "black specks" of humanity crawling across Antarctica's vast white silence -- Lou Albershardt heard a sound she'd never heard in two decades on the ice.

The cable powering her drill, a $100,000 piece of equipment cutting through ice 302 feet below, snapped without warning and vanished down the dark, frigid borehole.

"I felt my whole body drop," she said. "I couldn't believe it."

Her U.S.-Norwegian scientific team was 500 miles from the South Pole, their starting point, and 900 miles short of Troll Research Station, their destination. They sat atop the 2-mile-high East Antarctica plateau, amid "diamond dust" clouds of ice crystals, with the temperature dropping below zero, the wind biting, and their most vital research tool, their deep-coring drill, lost -- locked in an instant icy grip far beneath their feet.

The expedition faced a wrenching failure. Albershardt knew that no one ever retrieved a drill from so deep a hole. "No way."

It was Jan. 18 and the Norwegian-American Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica was already one of the longest research treks ever undertaken in one of the least-explored parts of the southernmost continent.

An ambitious effort to probe the planet's oldest, thickest ice sheet for clues to past climate, it was the first major scientific expedition across the Queen Maud Land region in half a century. Its goal was to help science better understand how Antarctica and future climate might interact in an age of global warming, how much ice might melt into the sea, how high the oceans might rise.

The first leg was a two-month journey to the South Pole in the Southern Hemisphere summer of 2007-08 from this Norwegian outpost in East Antarctica, 150 miles inland from the Antarctic Ocean.

The 12-member crew, half veterans of the first leg, left the U.S. South Pole station Dec. 23 for the return trip, following a more westerly route north, creeping along, in their cherry-red snow tractors, at the speed of a lawn mower.

The new Swedish-built tracked vehicles may have been slow, but the transport was "fabulous," expedition leader Tom Neumann said.

A century after explorers first reached the South Pole on skis and dog sleds, these 21st-century scientists were crossing the forbidding ice while linking to the Internet via satellite, eating three daily meals in one big, boxy, heated module, and sleeping in stacked bunks in another, all pulled along atop outsized skis.

"The whole concept was that we spend as little time as necessary on surviving and as much time as possible to do science," said Neumann, 35, a NASA geophysicist.

He had the team to do it -- five PhDs in glaciology and related fields, including Ted Scambos, 53, a leading U.S. ice expert and member of nine previous Antarctic expeditions.

Their dedication, spending four months away from home, was self-evident. Dartmouth College's Zoe Courville, 31, with an Eskimo-like knowledge of ice, had been married for less than a month when she packed up and headed south in October.

"I tend to get excited about snow, and people don't understand," she said, laughing. Luckily, her bridegroom did.

Just as crucial to the team's progress were its Norwegian nonscientists, from Ole Tveiten, the tall physician watching over them all, to Svein Henriksen, a compact, intense former Volvo truck repairman who followed a simple credo as expedition mechanic: "I never give up."

On Jan. 18 it was Henriksen who saved the day -- and the drill.

"Before I knew it, Svein was already working on a hook," Albershardt told a reporter after the team reached this station Feb. 21.

In his workshop, a small red module on skis, Henriksen, 40, fashioned a contraption from plate steel and bolts that team leader Neumann likened to "an upside-down tulip." Spitting on it for luck, the mechanic lowered it into Albershardt's 4-inch-wide borehole, down 203 feet where it found the tangled cable.

Swinging and yanking this hook, the team snared the cable, began hoisting it up, but then lost it down the hole again. Over 36 hours, they repeatedly hooked, then lost the cable, until they raised it to 11-foot depth. It would go no higher.

They then dug deep into the snow, grabbed the cable and reattached it to Albershardt's winch. But the real prize remained stuck far below. To melt the borehole walls imprisoning the drill, they needed ethanol, and they had none.

Then 4 1/2 days after the drill stuck, a Twin Otter airplane from the South Pole station landed on the ice to deliver 11 gallons of ethanol.

Henriksen improvised a plastic bottle with a spout that would open when it was lowered to the right depth and its cord was jerked, spilling the solvent around the drill. In the morning, they were lifting the undamaged drill from the hole.

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