Using this full suite of geophysical techniques, we will try within the next three months to build the first comprehensive cross-section of the largest ice sheet on our planet. In the world of modern imaging, we are accustomed to seeing x-rays of our teeth, MRIs of our brains and even the fuzzy images of fetuses in utero. These technologies have advanced far enough that now we are not surprised to see medical imaging systems installed inside Winnebagos parked alongside our local malls. Medical technologies have to image through tissue and bones. Imaging through two miles of ice is similar but requires different strategies. The Gamburtsev Mountain expedition is our best chance to image and to understand the ice sheet and the mountain range.
The Scale of the Problem
When mapmakers project our spherical world onto flat pieces of paper, the polar regions inevitably suffer. Usually the poles slide off the edges of the paper. Sometimes, Greenland is so warped that it appears as large as South America. Frequently, Antarctica is missing or sliced into triangular slivers or portrayed as a thin white border. Even Google Earth produces distorted shapes in the polar regions. Sparsely inhabited and situated at the mathematically challenging 90 degree south latitude, Antarctica is unfamiliar terrain. It is difficult to explain the scale of the problem of the Gamburtsev Mountains that sit in the continent that slips off the page.
The most familiar part of Antarctica, which usually remains on global maps, is the Antarctic Peninsula. This long, narrow string of mountains resembles a long arm reaching northward toward South America. Home to many penguin colonies and scientific bases, the peninsula is the prime tourist destination.
Less familiar is West Antarctica, the portion of the continent that rests in the Western Hemisphere. Geologically, West Antarctica is a piece of thinned continental crust—like the Red Sea or the Gulf of Mexico. If this part of the continent were not covered with an ice sheet, it would be an open seaway rimmed with islands. A fragment of thick, cold continental crust, similar to eastern Canada, East Antarctica is bigger than the lower 48 states.
Scientific bases rim the margin, but only a few are in the interior, far from the logistical lifeline. South Pole, Vostok and Dome Concordia are the well-established stations in this part of the planet. The Chinese are working to build a station atop the Gamburtsev Mountains at Dome A, but nothing is in place yet. In the middle of East Antarctica, far from the permanent scientific bases and logistical hubs, the Gamburtsevs are completely hidden by the ice sheet. While these mountains rival the North American Rockies and Cascades, satellite imagery of East Antarctica is nothing but monotonous white space.
To study these hidden mountains, we will work from two camps. The southern camp is almost 800 miles (1,285 kilometers) from McMurdo, the main U.S. station, more than the distance between New York City and Chicago—only there are no highways, rest areas or gas stations along the way, just miles and miles of ice. Our northern camp is 470 miles (755 kilometers) inland and is closer to the Australian and Chinese bases on the northern edge of the ice sheet. Where we're working, there will be no penguins and no tourists, just ice, scientists, engineers, pilots, medics, cooks and mountaineers.
For several years, we have been puzzling over the logistics. How can a multinational team (of more than 25 scientists and engineers with three aircraft) cram an expedition into the very short time that the weather is warm enough for us to work? "Warm enough" means the temperature is warmer than –58 degrees F (–50 degrees C). After five years of planning, we have a strategy. Two teams will build the camps, one on the north side and the other on the south side of the mountain range. The heavy equipment and fuel for the southern camp will be delivered by a surface traverse that will pass first through the South Pole. A surface traverse looks like five vehicles that have escaped from a construction site that are towing sleds filled with gear and fuel. The northern camp will be supplied by aircraft ferrying material from the coastal stations. Four air drops from U.S. Air Force jets will deliver fuel to the northern camp. The three science teams will prepare the aircraft in McMurdo through the month of November. After the systems are tested, the teams will move to the South Pole to acclimatize to the high altitude before beginning the move to the southern camp.