Sea Ice Training!!

So, I know the last two posts didn’t have much in the way of photographic evidence of life in Antarctica but the next two will MORE than make up for it! You see, yesterday was Thursday, which means I’m off the next day and Amy, our Food Services Admin superstar, came up to my workstation and asked if I wanted to do Sea Ice Training on my day off. Sea Ice Training is run by the Field Safety Training Program (FSTP) and teaches you how to assess cracks in the sea ice for safety since we take a lot of vehicles out there and also have to monitor all the sea ice trails for hiking and skiing. I believe my answer to Amy was a resounding “Hell yes!”


And for good reason, too: it was SO freaking cool!! I actually just found out that I was so excited and bouncy during training that Jake, one of the firefighters that rode in the back of the Hägglund with me, thought I was considerably younger than I am. Of course, my hair was also in pigtails again (which I have discovered is the best way to wear my hair when in ECW gear).


Anyway, so training was going to start at 0900 – we were to meet in full ECW gear in the library at Crary. Well, I *might* have stayed up a little bit late on Thursday night so while I woke up at five on Friday, I definitely went back to sleep without resetting my alarm. I woke with a start at 0845, jumped out of bed, overturned all my drawers and did the “oh shit oh shit oh shit” dance as I attempted to put on my long underwear after having put on my bunny boots while brushing my teeth and braiding my hair. Fortunately, Crary isn’t even a five minute walk from my dorm so I rolled in at 9am on the dot….and then sat and waited for stragglers for fifteen minutes. The morning was beautiful though so I was hopeful…until Ben, our instructor, told us that there was a weather front moving in so while he’d try and take us out to the Erebus Glacier Tongue, if the weather got bad, we mightn’t make it that far. I really really really hoped the weather stayed fair because I REALLY wanted to go up to the EGT!

The classroom lecture was really interesting – going over the differences between sea ice and the ice shelf, how to spot cracks in the ice, and explaining how measurements are taken and how the calculations for safe passage are made. Basically, there are different periods of ice, which is defined by a certain temperature range – Period 1 is the coldest, Period 4 is the warmest. For each period, there is a minimum ice thickness given for each of the four primary vehicles that drive on sea ice (all of which have tracks or skis, not tires): the PistenBully, the Hägglund, a snowmobile, and the Mattracks.




There is also a maximum effective crack width given for each vehicle, regardless of ice period. Only one of these guidelines must be met for safe transportation, so if you’re driving a Hägglund over Period 1 ice and you come across a crack with a minimum thickness of 12 inches but the crack is only 12 inches across, you’ll be fine. Of course, because what you see of the crack above the ice is not at all what’s going on beneath the ice (remember Titanic? You only see 10% of the ice above the surface of the water), you want to drill multiple holes to take multiple measurements extending out a bit on either side of the crack.

So then we set off for the actual hands-on stuff. As we made our way to our Hägglund – called Moonraker – we noticed that the weather front had indeed blown in. Visibility was pretty poor and the wind was REALLY blowing. I climbed in the back of the vehicle with Mike and Jake, the firefighters, and a grantee named Daniel who was part of an environmental monitoring team that looks at the damage we’re doing to the environment in this area. You’ll be happy to know that we’ve been doing so well in limiting our environmental impact that while his team has been coming for 12 years now, they’re actually thinking of going somewhere else next year.

Ben, going over the equipment we’d be using on the Ice.

Loading up the Hägglund

We made a quick stop to pick up our bag lunches and settled down for the ride, discussing who would get eaten first in the event that we get stranded out on the ice. Sometimes being a cook is a real boon since everyone usually wants to hang on to the person who knows how to butcher meat. So maybe Lance’s advice from Happy Camper was wrong; sometimes cannibalism IS the answer.

Mike, tearing into some jerky.

So we first stopped at an active crack whose width was being monitored. Ben asked myself and Sarah, the housing admin, to take the tape measure and measure the width of the crack so he could write it down in the notebook that was stashed in a metal lock box next to the flags marking the crack. The wind had REALLY picked up and while I knew the airport was just a mile away, I couldn’t see it. It made using a measuring tape significantly more difficult than I would have liked.

Measuring and recording activity – I’m the one on the far side of the crack, sort of facing the camera.

Then we climbed back in to the vehicle and headed out a little ways more. Much much earlier than we’d hoped, we came to another stop. Ben came to the back door to let us out and explained that the weather was just too bad to go much further because he couldn’t see anything in front of him but there was an “ankle biter” crack we could drill and measure using the Hägglund as a windblock. So we took a shovel and fully exposed the crack first.

Unloading at the “ankle-biter”, which you can see running vertically to the left of the Hägglund. You can hazily make out the Kiwi windmills against the cloud cover, so we’re really not all that far from Town, maybe 3 or 4 miles.

Then we drilled 7 holes (there were 7 of us) in the ice, in a straight line perpendicular to the crack. It took two of the 1 meter long drill flights to get through to the water underneath the ice, so we all knew the ice was almost two meters thick. Then we measured it by dropping in a measuring tape with a collapsible metal bar at the end. By opening the bar to it’s full extension, it will hopefully catch on the bottom of the hole you’ve just drilled. You pull it taught, read out the measurement, then give it a yank and the bar collapses in half and you can pull it back up through drill hole.

Me, just starting to get through to the water below the ice.

Sarah, working on the last hole.

Measuring the depths.

As we were doing this, I began to notice that the wind had died down considerably…until I stepped out in front of the Hägglund. Although my legs weren’t moving, I began to slide horizontally across the ice (shrieking just a little bit in surprise), until I hit a divot in the ice and fell over (thank God ECW gear keeps you well padded). Yeah, Ben decided we wouldn’t be going much further in this weather so while we were relatively shielded from the wind, he’d have us practice drilling V-thread ice anchors (also called Abalakov ice anchors).

diagram of a v-thread anchor

Essentially, using special hand drills, you drill two holes, about 6 to 8 inches apart, into the ice at 45 degree angles to each other so that the bottoms meet. In super fresh, clean ice, this is easy because you can see through the surface. Otherwise, it takes a bit of guesswork and luck. Then without removing the hand drill from the second hole, you drop a piece of rope into the first hole. As you unscrew the hand drill from the second hole, it will wrap the rope around the threads and you will put it through, effectively threading the rope through the two holes. With the proper rope and the proper depth, you could pull a PistenBully out of the water with that anchor; they are VERY strong.

Screwing the ice!

Ben, finishing off a v-anchor by using the threads of the “hand drill” to pull the string through the second hole.


Annnnd done!

We took advantage of a slight break in the weather to take some pictures…

Pretending to penguins since we didn’t actually see any…

That’s the Royal Society Mountain Range behind me. Oh, and did I mention I’m standing on the Ross Sea?

And then we came back to Town and did some classroom exercises determining what could cross which fictional cracks as drawn on the board by Ben. Although the training didn’t wind up going out as far onto the ice as I’d hoped, it worked out because I had laundry to do and didn’t want to be gone ALL day. This way I was still able to have some down time back in Town as well, which was quite nice.

I wrapped up the day by heading to the Coffee House, where I ran into Zach and Kevin from the galley. This was fortuitous for me because on our way back into town that afternoon, I had quizzed the men in the back of the vehicle with me on what the RRS in front of the Discovery’s name meant. Mike didn’t know the answer but he bet me a bar of chocolate that Kevin, who had been in the Coast Guard, would know because “the Coasties paint things on boats a lot, right?” Mike, it should be noted, had been in the Marines. Hmmm… Anyway, we shook on the bet so now was my chance to see who would win. As it turns out Kevin didn’t know so I was now one bar of chocolate richer. As I was doing my celebratory dance, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Andre and Scott) came in to play darts and asked what the dance was for. I explained and then told them what the RRS designation actually meant, prompting Scott to remark that I was like a human version of those “Fact of the Day” calendars. I have been called worse things, I suppose…

All in all, it was a great day off and it was perfect preparation for what I’d be doing the next night: a pressure ridge tour!! Stay tuned to be inundated with even more pictures!


3 responses to “Sea Ice Training!!

  1. As i read and recall your words and stories that have actually told me in person, i wonder if this was typed before or after you told me? Either way it’s a nice reminder of how precious a newbie you are, to life experiences on the ice. I am jealous of that too since i will never be offered that kind of adventure because I’m ANG personnel. I’ll comment later on your disdain of our dart playing and your choice of monikers for my friend and I.

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