NOLS instructor Louis Sass will be traveling
to Antarctica this winter to work as a mountain
guide for Dr. John Stone of the University
of Washington. Stone and his research team
will be performing studies on the recession
of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS).
will guide a research team consisting of
three scientists. Stone is the principal
investigator and he will be assisted by Greg
Balco. Finally, Dr. David Sugden will join
the crew as an expert in glacial geomorphology--the
study of land forms caused by glacial activity.
Traveling to the ice sheet will be a process
in itself. The expedition will work in the
Ford Ranges area in West Antarctica, situated
approximately 650 miles away from the nearest
post, the U.S. station at McMurdo. "To
get there we will fly down to Christchurch,
New Zealand. From there we will fly on military
transport to McMurdo Station, on Ross Island," said
McMurdo Station is the main support station
for the U.S. Antarctic Program. The team
will spend time in McMurdo, preparing and
securing the proper equipment for their expedition. "After
we have finished preparing to go into the
field we will fly to our field site on a
large, ski equipped military transport plane,
a Hercules LC-130," Louis continued.
The team plans to spend about six weeks
on the ice. Travel by snow machine will be
necessary in the various areas within the
Ford Ranges. Louis will guide the crew up
a number of peaks where rock and ice samples
will be gathered for study.
"First and foremost I am responsible
for the safety of the group," noted
Louis. "The field area is very remote
and in a rugged mountain range. We will spend
most of our field season traveling on large
glaciers . . . falling into a crevasse is
a very real hazard. Much of the research
involves climbing up and down mountains,
many of which are moderately technical. Cold
clear weather is normal but storms can bring
very high winds for days at a time. Outside
rescue is possible, but the logistical difficulties
associated with it ensure that it would take
days or even weeks depending on the situation.
It is my job to teach everyone in our party
to recognize and minimize these hazards,
and in the field to oversee this process.
Additionally, I will do some of what is more
classically associated with guiding, leading
rope teams of climbers up mountains."
Louis will work with the team in McMurdo
before heading into the field. In McMurdo,
the team will work on skills needed to travel,
work and survive in the remote Antarctic
environment. These skills include proficiency
in winter camping, snow and ice climbing,
self arrest, and crevasse rescue.
Louis will also help with the logistics
of the expedition. Louis admitted that "the
logistics of an Antarctic expedition are
very complicated." Fortunately, the
team will be working with the U.S. Antarctic
Program. This program has a large infrastructure
in place to assist science groups. But Louis
observes the tremendous amount of work and
responsibility his team will need to carry
out; "even with this assistance, as
a team we will be busy checking all of our
equipment to ensure that it is the correct
equipment and that it is in working order.
After that is done we have to package all
of it up onto large pallets for transportation
to and from the field."
The goal of the research team is to reconstruct
past glacial levels of the West Antarctic
Ice Sheet. Stone will use a technique called
radiogenic isotope geochronology. His research
will entail taking glacial and rock fragment
samples from mountains that protrude from
the ice sheet. These samples can then be
analyzed for amounts of certain isotopes
that are created by exposure at the Earth's
surface. Stone's data will yield the exposure
and date at which the ice sheet deposited
a given fragment. Analyzing many samples
from various altitudes will allow a reconstruction
of the regional ice levels through time.
The team hopes that its research will be
of great benefit to the scientific community.
The data should shed new light on issues
such as climate change and global warming.