Fieldwork in Antarctica

Felipe Napoleoni is a second-year PhD student in physical geography. Here he tells us about his experiences doing fieldwork in West Antarctica. He is using the data collected from these trips for his current PhD research.

Antarctica is the driest, coldest and most isolated continent in the world, about 60 times the size of the UK and with more than 3.5 km of ice thickness in some parts. Some may think it is not the best place to spend time at or, even worse, working there. Some may say it is not a good place for doing fieldwork, but the truth is that Antarctica is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I have ever been. My research focuses on subglacial lakes in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and how these subglacial lakes are connected to the present-day simulated subglacial hydrological network. How I am doing this, well …basically using radar data from new surveys, which fortunately I have had the chance to survey in the field, and compile from past radar campaigns.

I have spent two fieldwork seasons in the white continent collecting data for studying the subglacial water close to the highest point in Antarctica, Vinson Massif (4892 m s.n.m.), in Ellsworth land (West Antarctica). But how does one get there? Well, I flew from the southern tip of South America, Punta Arenas, directly to Union Glacier (­-79.8°S, -83.3°W) on board of a Ukrainian plane (Ilyushin IL-76) with a Russian crew for about 5 hours just to get landed in a blue ice runaway (figure 1).

Figure 1: Union Glacier blue runway and inside of Ilyushin IL-76. Pictures: Felipe Napoleoni

The Union Glacier is about 1,859 miles away from the southern tip of Chile and a touristic company operates there for the summer season. This touristic company also supports logistics for scientific and sporting expeditions. It is a very cool place to sit down and chill a bit (figure 2).

Figure 2: Union Glacier base camp. Picture: Felipe Napoleoni

From Union Glacier, I took a charter (Basler BT-67) flight for about 2 hrs to get to the inner Antarctica, where my study area is located. It was quite cool but it took a great effort to get the skidoos on board with all the necessary equipment (figure 3).

Figure 3: Basler aeroplane unloading on the Antarctic plateau. Picture: Felipe Napoleoni

On another occasion, I was travelling there for almost two days on a mobile research station equipped with: geophysical instruments, litters and loads of food! Super exciting, too (figure 4).

Figure 4: CECs 1 mobile research station. Picture: Sebastian Cisternas.

In this later occasion, I was able to see very closely super old rocks (Cambrian times, 540-480 million years old), composed predominately by volcaniclastic material, which once was part of Africa when Gondwana was still one super continent (figure 5).

Figure 5: Crossing crevasse areas through the Union Glacier geological formation. Picture: Felipe Napoleoni

During my first time to Antarctica, I was part of Centro de Estudios Cientificos (CECs), a private research institute based on Valdivia, Chile, doing radar and GPS surveys in order to investigate more about physical characteristics of recently discovered Subglacial Lake CECs (SLC) and to characterize the ice flowing and bed conditions in surrounding areas (figure 6).

Figure 6: dGPS survey and radar survey. Pictures: Rodrigo Zamora (left) and Felipe Napoleoni (right)

During my second time in the field, I was part of an international collaboration campaign between Chile (CECS) and the UK (British Antarctic Survey) to study bathymetry and extension of SLC by means of active seismic surveys (using explosives and geophones) (figure 7). Both field work campaigns were successful and allowed me to get part of the data I am using now to complete my PhD.

Figure 7: Part of the seismic survey over Subglacial Lake CECs. Pictures: Upper panel by Rodrigo Zamora, lower panel Felipe Napoleoni.

In overall, having the chance of visiting this highly remote place on Earth and being able to work on it for a further contribution on the “health status” of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has been a privilege – both, personally and scientifically. So many things to remember gratefully! I truly hope to keep contributing with my sand grain to the knowledge of this spectacular and overwhelming pristine place on Earth (specially from the field!).

Figure 8: Waiting for our flight back to Union Glacier. Picture: Felipe Napoleoni

More information about this fieldwork can be found at the Centro de Estudios Cientifico expedition blog here.