A Place of Absolute Stillness

 

Visitors to our world’s southernmost land learn quickly that it’s not about the temperature, it’s about the wind. The Sun is up all the time during the 3-month-long summer there and, late in the season, the temperature climbs above freezing in many coastal areas. Away from the coast, 10 degrees Celsius (50°F) makes for a balmy summer day. On a sunny day with no wind, an adult can work in short sleeves; a 10-knot breeze would feel quite chilly; a 30-knot breeze would make you feel you were freezing to death—all at the same temperature.

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  Antarctic field camp
 

“You watch the wind carefully,” Bindschadler cautions. “The wind is the dominant factor in how you dress in Antarctica. People act like penguins there—they stand side-by-side with their backs to the wind.”

He estimates he has spent one and a half years of his life in West Antarctica and in all that time he has never seen the Sun set. Interestingly, most of Bindschadler’s descriptions of his study sites in West Antarctica focus on what isn’t there. Farther than 80 degrees south latitude, hundreds of kilometers west of the Transantarctic Mountains, deep in the heart of Marie Byrd Land in an area known as the Rockefeller Plateau, there are no mountains to be seen. There are no trees, no buildings. The ice sheet is flat and white with snow everywhere, completely devoid of contrasting scenery as far as the eye can see. There is no wildlife, except for the odd lone seabird passing high overhead on its way someplace else. (Bindschadler has seen a total of two.) When the wind isn’t howling, and your teeth aren’t chattering, there is no sound and no movement at all.

“It has been the most quiet I’ve ever heard,” Bindschadler says. He adds pensively, “I’ve had the feeling of being most close to God there. It can be a place of absolute stillness.”

 

In 1984, Bindschadler and his colleagues set up base on the Whillans Ice Stream in West Antarctica. The team slept in Scott tents (right) and traveled on snowmobiles, while setting flags to indicate avenues of safe passage. (Photo courtesy Robert Bindschadler)

  Placement of GPS devices

But flagged poles planted in the ice tell scientists their sense of stillness is an illusion. The ice sheet is moving. Parts of it are moving rapidly—more than 2 meters per day. Glaciologists refer to areas that experience such rapid movement as “ice streams.” The goal of their first expedition in 1980 was to solve the mystery of why ice streams form. They are still trying to solve the mystery today. “It can take decades to solve this type of problem,” he states. “There have been some surprises along the way.”

 

Bindschadler (kneeling, right) and his colleague Ian Joughin prepare to plant a flag pole. First, they plant a solar panel to power their equipment and then use GPS technology to establish their precise location. (Photo courtesy Robert Bindschadler)

  Antarctic ice streams
  Bindschadler Ice Stream
 

They found one stream that spends most of its time stationary, and during periods of falling tide it lurches forward suddenly, moving forward half a meter in 20 minutes before stopping suddenly. “One of our findings that was hardest to believe is that movements of some ice streams are linked to rising and falling tides,” Bindschadler explains. “We discovered that as tides go up and down a meter or so, some ice streams change speed by anywhere from plus or minus 50 percent. That finding shook our understanding of ice stream dynamics right to the core.”

Of course, not all ice stream movements are caused by tidal cycles. There remain many unanswered questions about when and why they start and stop. It became apparent to Bindschadler and his colleagues that while theodolites offer a good way to track individual glaciers and ice streams over short time spans, there was no way that ground-based survey techniques would allow them to monitor a region as immense and inhospitable as Antarctica. To survey the whole continent for a sustained period of time, they would need a much more robust technology.

 

Major ice streams in West Antarctica used to be named Ice Stream A, B, C, D, E, and F. The streams have been renamed after Antarctic researchers. (Top image courtesy National Snow and Ice Data Center, inset map in top image courtesy CIA World Fact Book) The bottom image is an aerial photo showing the crevassed margin of Bindschadler Ice Stream, West Antarctica, circa 2000. (Photo courtesy N. Nereson)

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