Field Log: Weathering an Antarctic Snowstorm

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(Left to Right) UTIG researchers Dillon Buhl, Lucas Beem, Natalie Wolfenbarger and Anja Rustihauser on Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica, February 2020. Credit: Anja Rutishauser
Sunny weather and blue skies on the first day of camp. Credit: Anja Rutishauser.

In January 2020, UTIG polar researchers Dillon Buhl, Anja Rutishauser and Natalie Wolfenbarger joined colleagues in West Antarctica to conduct vital surveys of one of the most unstable glaciers on Earth. The team is part of LIONESS, an international collaboration between The University of Texas at Austin, Montana State University and the Korea Polar Research Institute which aims to resolve unanswered questions about the sprawling Thwaites Glacier system.

In the third post of her four-part field journal, Rutishauser continues her tale of drama and adventure at the far reaches of the Earth.

To read her story from the beginning, visit: ig.utexas.edu/tag/lioness-blog

Although the rescue mission had set us back weeks, our team was optimistic, and we looked forward to a tight but manageable two weeks to finish our scientific surveys. However, as other parts of Antarctica scorched under record-breaking temperatures, conditions at our camp went from bad to worse. Thick clouds brought snow, which quickly turned to blizzards.

Field Experiences Antarctica
Snow covered tents. Credit: Anja Rutishauser.

That very first day, I piled up chunks of snow on the sides of my tent in case things turned stormy. Little did I know keeping the tent in place was the least of my worries! At night, the wind howled and snow battered my tent. I admit it was nerve-racking, and I found myself wondering in what condition my tent would be the next morning and how long it would take to dig my way out!

Earplugs, sleeping mask and a warm sleeping bag can do wonders in the field, and after a while, the wind and snow became almost soothing. The snow and bad weather continued for eight days. As one day merged into another, we found our patience severely tested, fighting boredom as much as we fought the snow.

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Beem and Rustihauser flight planning in the mess tent. Credit: Anja Rutishauser.

To stay busy, each day we planned the next day’s survey flight in the hope that morning would bring better conditions. The rest of the day was spent in the camp’s mess tent reading, knitting socks and even watching the occasional movie.

In fact, once we got used to it, life at our camp was great! Being surrounded by nothing but snow and ice is an indescribable but very special feeling.

One of the advantages of being grounded is having plenty of time to cook! Some delicious meals we prepared included lamb chops, all kinds of pasta, Bolognese, pizza (yes, you can cook a pizza in a frying pan), steak and burgers.

Anja Rutishauser

Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Texas Institute for Geophysics