Sledge Victor Over and Out

Katie Joy | 21 Jan 2020

The last few days have been somewhat manic to say the least. A final search on the 17th Jan didn’t yield any more meteorites, though we finished off the southern ice field and could put the doos (skidoos) to bed.

End of season thumbs up selfie from the two remaining Sledge Victor field party members (Katie in the stormtrooper mask at left, Taff in his duck beak mask at right). [Credit: Katie Joy]

A weather window then opened up across the Ronne Ice Shelf meaning that a plane was quickly dispatched from Rothera to come out to our field site at Outer Recovery to collect fieldguide Taff and I. We had a busy day of packing up camp, building and finalising the depots to be left over the Antarctic winter, sorting out all the kit to be brought back to Rothera.

Evening sun at our field site just before we broke camp. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds forming in the area, indicative shearing winds. [Credit: Katie Joy]

The weather was quite changeable in the day, with at one point snow blowing across the ice surface under 25 knot winds (not ideal for landing a plane when you need to see the skiway contrast). However, the Otter landed at about 10 pm on the 18th Jan with pilot Ian and co-pilot Callam, uplifting us back west, where we had a late night camping out in a mountain tent on Berkner Island. The air was still, but cold with our hair freezing up turning us grey, and the surface was snowy and looking like a million sugar lumps. The next morning on the 19th we departed for Rothera via Fossil Bluff, landing around 7 pm.

Flying back over the Peninsula – mountain ranges emerge out of the ice. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Melt ponds forming as the sea ice melts near Fossil Bluff. [Credit: Katie Joy]

Everything was rapidly unloaded from the aircraft and shifted to various parts of the base to be organised — the meteorites to the freezer, the rubbish to the rubbish centre, our science cargo to its storage area be sorted, all the field gear to the Fuchs building (sorry guys for making it a mess). Utterly overwhelming to see so many people after the relative quietness and tranquillity of the field. Finding our rooms, quick shower, making it to the dining hall (just) for the end of service (lamb roast – amazing). I was scheduled on the Dash 7 flight north to Chile for 9 am the next morning on the 20th…  so had to run around to organise all of my personal kit separating it from the BAS borrowed field kit and making sure things were washed (sorry to my roommate Sarah who’s bedroom was suddenly inundated with stinking clothes and four bags of stuff tipped out on the floor – I hope the smell of kerosene and field grime is not lingering) and the science cargo to be shipped back north later this month, to be ready to leave. Ahhhhh… finally got a beer at the end of a long day. Then the next morning saying goodbye to people, heading north on the Dash, dinner in Punta, an early night and collection at 4 am today for the next flights back to the UK via Santiago and Sau Paulo.

Flying over the Andes on route out of Santiago airport. [Credit: Katie Joy]

So yes, its been a bit mad for the last few days and I am missing life of being at Outer Recovery whizzing around the ice spotting meteorites. Antarctica grabs you (well it has certainly has got to me) and doesn’t let you go — hopefully I will get a chance to come back someday to continue the search for more space rocks on the ice.

It has been amazing that in just two field seasons with such small teams we have collected over 100 surface stones for future scientific study by the cosmochemistry community and I am very proud of what we have achieved and look forward very much to finding out what types of meteorites we have collected. Over to the laboratory and curation team now for the next phase of the science story, and hopefully we can continue to source more funding and the support of BAS to get back out to the ice in the next few years to continue our scientific success.

Saying goodbye to our fieldsite. [Credit: Katie Joy]

More blogs posts to come when we have results in from the last season’s meteorite haul, and to update everyone on our science research paper outcomes.

Some thanks and shout outs from me at this stage:

  • The rest of the Sledge Victor Manchester fieldteam — Geoff, Wouter, and Romain who fought a determined fight with the metal detector panels, and found some great meteorites during surface search days. To the story of 118-218-119-119alpha.
  • Andy Smedley, our Man back in Manchester, who has been receiving our emails from the field to post the blog. [BTW – we named the 3rd blue detector panel sledge Sledge Smedley (mentioned in this previous blog) in his honour at not having him with us in Antarctica]. Whilst Sledge Smedley only had a few days out and about, he lived his life to the full bouncing around and at least still has an intact bottom.
  • The Twin Otter flight teams (Mark, Ian, Dutch, and Dave) and co-pilots from Rothera and Halley who have come out to visit us this season and help get us and plane fuel across the enormity of the continent. The Rothera field operations managers who work 3-d chess to try and get everyone in the right place on the right day working around the ever changeable weather. The Rothera science coordinator Maz who has been so brilliant in helping out with requests for boxes, getting our cargo together for shipment, and just being completely fab. Everyone at Rothera and Halley who works hard to just get stuff done.
  • And a special thanks to our wonderful team of field guides Julie, Taff and Rob who have kept us safe, organised camp, provided great chats and moral, and have helped us to find the meteorites we have collected. Thanks guys for putting up with us all for the different parts of the project you have worked on this year and last, its been a privilege to spend time with you.

A productive few days out and about

Katie Joy | 16 Jan 2020

Although most of the team are now heading north back to the UK, Taff and I are still working hard at our field site and it’s been a productive and busy few days out in the field as we wrap up the season with some surface meteorite searching on two of the ice fields that we visited last year. Revisiting sites is interesting as some of our old tracks are still preserved as imprints in the snow patches like fossilised tracks, indicating past exploration. Both areas are much clearer of fresh snow now than last year (though they still have some thicker patches of older snow), and as there has been less wind it has been pleasant getting out and about and systematically covering the ground to try and find as many samples as possible.

Meteorite sample encased within ice. Just the top portion was poking out and we had to dig the rest of the sample out. [Credit: Katie Joy]

We managed to collect seven samples on the 14th (including a nice big one spotted from about 100 m away), two samples yesterday (rewards for a lot of driving around getting frustrated that we weren’t finding much), and four more today on the 16th (including a nearly completely ice submerged sample), bringing the total number of meteorite stones collected to 82 from this area in total from this year. Several meteorites found over the last few days have been stunning — really nice flight shaped stones preserving evidence of the orientation they travelled through Earth’s atmosphere. A couple others have very fresh fusion crusts suggesting they might be recent falls, and some have hints of pale coloured interiors which look different from the normal chondrite type (primitive asteroid) of samples that we most commonly collect.

We are not sure how many more days we will have in the field as we now await a break in the weather for a plane to travel over from Rothera to collect us — but tea supplies and moral levels are high, and we will keep getting out searching until before our skidoo petrol runs down. Then we will drink some more tea and reflect on a great end to the season.

Cracking ice – as the ice field extends and the ice speeds up it cracks and twists into small faults a few cms wide. We don’t typically find meteorites in areas like this, but sometimes have to drive past and it is like a structural geology lecture in action. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Taff pointing the way to the stunning meteorite (a whole stone) we found today with a rollover lip. [Credit: Katie Joy]

PS Thanks to our Sledge Victor teammates Romain, Geoff and Wouter, and quizmaster K for the amazing sausage roll song rendition over skeds. We didn’t think you would deliver, but you didn’t fail us. Quite magnificent. Who knew there were so many verses to get through. We hope that your travel back to the UK goes well, and see you back Manchester way. 119 is a lot cleaner without you. 🙂

Rothera, under and over

Geoff Evatt | 15 Jan 2020

Good morning from a rainy (yep) Rothera. Romain, Wouter and I have been here since Friday, occupying our time as best we can before we head home. To keep myself busy I’ve been out helping on the boats, which has involved holding on to the leashes of the BAS divers (doing wildlife survey work on the sea bed in the general vicinity of Rothera), should they need ever to be hauled back to the surface. Clearly this need is very unlikely, which affords the opportunity to do some wildlife spotting and take pictures of the glorious scenes. The highlight of which were a pair of feeding Minke whales circling around us, and at one point came within 10 m of the boat. Alas my lack of photographic skills (and general excitement) got the better of me, but at least the picture below captures the jist of things.

Fishing
Fishing for divers [Credit: G. Evatt]

In addition, I undertook the herculean task of waking up before 730am, to help launch a weather balloon. Balloons are launched all around Antarctica at the same time, with the aim of collecting comparable atmospheric data from similar elevations. I am pleased to announce that I currently sit in second place of highest elevations reached (28,939 ft), behind only the Radio 4 team…

Balloon
Weather balloon launch [Credit: G. Evatt]

And other than these we have been packing our bags and running around the airstrip (in so doing I have had the additional joy of seeing two humpback whales and a pair of chinstrap penguins) to burn off the vast quantities of food we’ve consumed.

It will be very strange to leave Antarctica after all this time, and after all the fantastic support we have received from the British Antarctic Survey. It is hard to understate just how complex the project’s logistics have been, and BAS have led the way brilliantly in ensuring we achieved as many of our aims as humanly possible. So thank you everyone for your help and support, it is very much appreciated and has been a privilege experiencing it first-hand. Next stop… the Falkland Islands!

Minke
Minke whale [Credit: G. Evatt]
Crabeaters
Crabeater seals [Credit: G. Evatt]
Adele
Adélie penguins [Credit: G. Evatt]
Shag
Antarctic shag [Credit: G. Evatt]

(Still) Chasing Meteorites

Katie Joy | 13 Jan 2020

The remaining team of Taff and Katie are still in the field at Outer Recovery and after two tent days (one because the winds were blowing at 30 knots all day, and yesterday due to bad contrast as it was cloudy) we made it out and about for some more meteorite searching. The high winds of a couple of days ago has blown away all the pretty hoar frost which was covering the area, but also more importantly has shifted the snow off our local ice field meaning that we could get back there to search the final southerly section which had previously been hidden from us under a couple of centimetres of covering.

We headed out in strong cold winds, today was the first day I have had to put on the big yellow down jacket over all the other layers I have been wearing. Pretty much as soon as we started out we were off the mark with a large 15 cm stone, and despite the cold, the day continued to prove fruitful with seven more meteorites collected and bagged*. These included a very nice hand sized complete fusion crusted stone which are pretty uncommon and a tiny pea sized perfect small rounded stone. By the time we headed back to camp the winds had dropped off, making for a pleasant returning home commute.

Katie_Meteorite
A lovely fusion crusted stone sitting on a small crack on the blue ice field. [Credit: Katie Joy].

We are not sure yet of our field retrieval date – but it feels really good to get a few more meteorites collected before we have to return to Rothera.


* Well a small one nearly wasn’t bagged when a gust of wind whipped the meteorite encased in its plastic collection bag away across the ice field — I jumped on the skidoo and whizzed off chasing after it, and upon catching up jumped off the skidoo on a snow patch to make a dive… Well, I missed and fell on my butt (you try running on ice when dressed like the Michelin man), and the bag and stone flew on past me at what I can only assume must be the quickest pace it has experienced since landing on Earth. Back on the skidoo I shot off again, overtook the flying bag again and this time aligned both me and the skidoo to make the interception. Bagged meteorite retrieved and safely stored despite its best attempts to get away. I was feeling pretty cold before this chase episode, but the rapid retrieval and adrenaline shot seemed to have done the trick to warm me up.

And then there were two…

Katie Joy | 10 Jan 2020

It’s been a busy couple of days in the field as we wrap up at the end of the season. As Romain mentioned in his post, two days ago (8th Jan) we started to pack up camp ready for a move back to the skiway input site (about 2 km up the road). We were just settling into a quiet evening when we got a phone call to say that three of the team would be picked up by plane the next day. All hands to stations and we packed up camp that night and relocated so that we could be in place the next day. It was a late one by the time we went to bed, but it was good to know that the main work was out the way. In the morning we got word that the plane (trusty old Victor Bravo Charlie) had left Halley and was winging its way south to us.

The guys in the field before being collected. [Credit: Katie Joy]

Wouter, Geoff, and Romain then headed out with pilot Dave and co-pilot Tom Hulme (who helped out last year as well with our team’s collection from the field — thanks Tom!) towards Rothera, but were diverted on route and ended up last night with our friends at Halley Research Station where they could enjoy a nice warm shower and cooked dinner.

Meanwhile Taff and I have remained in the field ready for the next collection. Taff has been preparing a depot site where we can store the equipment that can’t be uplifted this year. There is a lot of work stacking up of boxes and kit, note taking, rearranging and making sure that everything will not blow away in the Antarctic winter when wind speeds can get up over 60 knots.

This afternoon we took a drive out to visit the southernmost ice field in the area where Julie and I visited last year, finding two meteorites in the process. It was a stunning drive to and from our camp site through flat white terrain, passing by the camp that Wouter, Geoff and Rob had been put into about a month ago. We drove past the remnants of their igloos: they have been dilapidated somewhat in the strong winds and now look like a beautiful ruins. Onwards to the ice field which we discovered was a lot less snow covered than last year, although some parts still had recent snow clinging to the surface. The winds there were much stronger than at camp with a lot of ice blowing along the surface, snaking its way to the west at ~30 knots. Blowy. We searched two of the main parts in a mix of systematic and recon style of search — alas no meteorites were found, but it was an absolute joy to drive around looking.

Remnants of the igloo at the guys original campsite. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Taff driving close to the ice rise at the southern ice field. [Credit: Katie Joy]

The journey back to camp was just as stunning — close to the ice field the wind was blowing hard whipping up and blowing snow, but then as we bridged a hill, it dropped off completely leaving a surface of hoar frost with ice crystals that glinted in the sunlight like a million diamonds. We weaved our way through this glittering landscape, kicking up snow crystals, making it look like the air itself was sparkling.

We await news of our uplift — but for now are enjoying being in this amazing landscape.

Half the team is back at Rothera

— Romain Tartese | 10 Jan 2020

Hi there, quick update to let you know that Wouter, Geoff and myself have made it back to Rothera yesterday evening. On Wednesday evening we were told that the plane was coming to uplift the first 3 people the next day, so it was all a bit of a mad rush to move camp from the blue ice a few kilometres up to the skiway where the plane is able to land. Fortunately we had already started packing some of the kit away — all in all we finished setting up camp at the skiway at around 3am Thursday!

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Packing up camp on the edge of the blue icefield [Credit: R. Tartese]

Pilot Dave and co-pilot Tom arrived around mid-day to pick us up, and soon we were on our way to Rothera. Flying north we had great views over the Shackleton Range — there are loads of blue ice areas there (see photo below), who knows how many meteorites are sitting there at the surface waiting to be picked up…

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Flying north over the Shackleton Range [Credit: R. Tartese]

Antarctica being Antarctica, soon after having passed the Shackleton Range we diverted to Halley rather than Rothera as the weather had degraded over the ice shelf. It was nice to spend a last night in Halley (huge thanks to all the folks there for all their help throughout this project!), and we did make the most of hot shower, which was more than welcome after 4-5 weeks in the field!

We finally managed to get back to Rothera yesterday evening after a nice day flying over the Ronne Ice Shelf and up the Peninsula. Katie and Taff are still in the field, and should be picked up in the coming days. In the meantime, there is a fair bit of laundry to do, sorting out the science kit and getting things ready for being shipped North, and getting some rest!

The end of the sledge (but not the end of the story)…

Geoff Evatt | 08 Jan 2020

Hello from Outer Recovery, where with mixed emotions we bid farewell to our subsurface meteorite detector systems…. yep, today I had the honour of towing the single panel sledge system to the 0.75km2 area searched mark. Shortly after it errored out, a little way from where the 3 panel system finished two days earlier. We’re actually rather proud of the system, after all it did work amazingly well whilst it was working. It was the repairs between operational bouts which was the pain and has taken up our time, effort and energies.  However the undulating ice surface (see pics) took its toll: the accelerometers in the system constantly registering over 10g’s of acceleration!  In all previous testing locations (including last year’s testing on Antarctic blue ice at Sky-Blu) the system experienced always less than 6g’s, and even those were relatively rare occurrences. This constant battering from the ice meant that anything which could fail did, and once repaired as best we could, a weakness in components remained for further exploitation. Yet, the modular system of the detector had the advantage that we could continue in a fashion, and did so for 18 odd days.

Wouter in the expanse of Antarctica. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Fittingly, as I drove the sledge back to camp, I noticed a black dot on the ice. Yep, number 65 for the area this year. A lovely single stone, which even the sledge had a good view of. And best of all, this takes us to 101 samples for the Lost Meteorites project! It thus looks like we have almost certainly collected over 100 meteorites for return to the UK, all ready to be examined for their scientific worth and hopefully put on public display.

A small meteorite next to the now ex-sledge detector system. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

So, did we find the layer of lost meteorites? No, the layer of lost meteorites hasn’t been found by the metal detection system, but we do seem to have found a curious fraction of iron-rich meteorites nonetheless. The immediate consequence being that further laboratory and statistical analysis is required to figure out what this implies. I say this because it raises some interesting questions both about the particular environment of the ice field the team has been searching and how this might effect the processes by which meteorites become exposed upon the ice surface. So not the in-situ grand finale we were hoping for, but equally it is not the end of this particular story…

Geoff and meteorite number 101. [Credit: Katie Joy]

In the meantime there will still be plenty of updates from the field, as we’re planning on collecting some ice samples tomorrow (much easier than collecting meteorite samples) for analysis back in the UK. After that we pack up and move camp back to the runway area, and should fuel allow, we’ll head to another neighbouring blue ice area to see what meteorites reside there. And then we await the planes (around 16th, in theory), and the statistics……