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Sky diving accident at South Pole claims three lives

U.S. Antarctic Program news

Highlights from the first part of the field season

Three U.S. stations, four major field camps, and two research vessels support U.S. science activities in Antarctica during the 1997-1998 field season. Weather took its toll at the opening of the season, but careful rescheduling by station and project managers brought the year's programs back on track.

Palmer Station, the smallest U.S. station, is equipped with laboratories that complement those available to marine biologists and oceanographers aboard the research ships Nathaniel B. Palmer and Laurence M. Gould and that enable joint shipboard-station research on the marine ecosystem. Instrumentation at the station provides critical satellite imaging support for cruises in the Antarctic Peninsula region and in the Weddell Sea. Palmer's location next to the Antarctic Peninsula is significant due to the maritime climate and proximity to large concentrations of birds, mammals, sea life, and terrestrial plants. Photo by Joyce Jatko, Office of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation, November 1997.

Palmer Station. When the Nathaniel B. Palmer brought the first of the summer crew to Palmer Station on Anvers Island at the end of September, it had to plow through solid ice all the way into the bay. In mid-November, the M/V World Discoverer, filling in for the delayed Laurence M. Gould, brought cargo and more of the summer crew, raising station population to 45. Two other tour ships and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charter vessel will bring the balance of the personnel and limited additional cargo. Because of the delayed delivery of the Gould, Palmer Station will not send out any cargo until February 1998.

Science research teams' stays at Palmer Station range from 4 weeks to 4 months. While at Palmer, researchers use the on-site laboratories as well as venturing into the land and water areas around the station. This season, as for the past decade, several research teams at Palmer Station are monitoring the springtime depletion of ozone and studying how the concomitant increase in ultraviolet-B radiation affects organisms in the area. For the past several years, scientists have become attentive to the effect that tourism and human presence may have on local birdlife, and this year, Palmer is once again host to a team examining that issue.

McMurdo Station is the site of the Crary Science and Engineering Center, a state-of-the-art research facility that supports a wide range of research projects. Shown here in a 1997-1998 austral summer photo by Ed Anderson of Antarctic Support Associates, McMurdo Station is built on one of Antarctica's few pieces of ice-free solid ground, making permanent structures possible. The station is critical as a staging facility for logistics support to field camps in the continent's interior and to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

McMurdo Station. The largest of the three U.S. stations, McMurdo on Hut Point Peninsula, Ross Island, reached its full summertime population of 1,200 by early November. The station opened on 30 September when the first cargo flight arrived, and the first passengers arrived by air the following day. Storms pummeled the station in mid-November, disrupting flight schedules and field camp openings. The move from the sea-ice runway to Williams Field was completed on 6 December, a week earlier than planned because of deteriorating sea ice.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer arrived on 16 December, breaking through the ice edge as far as possible. Personnel and cargo were transported from the Palmer to the station by helicopter.

Because of its location on an ice sheet 3 kilometers thick at Earth's axis of rotation, its cold, dry atmosphere, and its remoteness from centers of human population, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station has unique and important advantages for conducting world-leading science in earth seismology, astronomy, astrophysics, and atmospheric chemistry. Seen here in February 1997, South Pole Station is accessible by air for only 3-1/2 months during the austral summer.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The summer crew began arriving by LC-130 Hercules airplane on 8 November--12 days late because of low temperatures at South Pole and bad weather across the continent--to relieve a winter crew that had been isolated since February. Science and support personnel began arriving at the station on 12 November for the summer research season, which had been planned for 16 weeks but shortened to 14 by the delayed opening. To make up for time lost, the National Science Foundation (NSF) decided to raise the preseason-planning population cap of 183 and bring in extra science and support personnel to help throughout the season.

The busy summer schedule includes the following:

  • Antarctic Support Associates, support contractor for NSF, will complete the VIPER telescope project for the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA). VIPER is a larger and more powerful replacement for CARA's PYTHON telescope.
  • The Polar Ice Coring Office (PICO) will drill three more holes for the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA). The holes planned for this season will be wider and deeper than the previous AMANDA holes.
  • In January, NSF will host a dedication ceremony for the new Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), which replaces the old Clean Air Facility. The ARO will house the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's climate monitoring laboratory, a lidar experiment, and experiments that will monitor aerosols and ultraviolet light.
  • Work will begin on remodeling and upgrading the station. Compressed snow has been blasted away from the existing garage arch. The arch will be removed, and working in round-the-clock shifts, ASA's construction crew will build a new garage arch before the end of the season.
  • The summer camp will be moved in hopes of keeping it from being buried by drifts during the winter. ASA will also construct three new Jamesway huts, providing accommodations for 27 additional people.

Field camps. Early in the field season, researchers worked at the first drill hole site of the Cape Roberts Project, successfully retrieving one core, but bad weather forced them to close the camp early on 25 October 1997. The Cape Roberts Project is an international effort to learn about the climate history of Antarctica by studying sediment cores from the ocean floor.

In late October, Siple Dome camp staff and a construction crew were put into the field to open that camp. Four Jamesway huts that had been left up over the winter had held up well. By mid-November, the science teams, including a group from the Polar Ice Coring Office, began setting up the large drill and a small drilling project away from the main camp.

In early November, the Taylor Valley camp in the McMurdo Dry Valleys and the Lake Hoare camp were opened. The team sent to open the Taylor Valley site were marooned for almost a week by bad weather.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer leaves Winter Quarters Bay and McMurdo Station on its way to sea to conduct science investigations in the Ross Sea region. Photo by David Beverstock, U.S. Antarctic Program.

Research ships. On its way to Palmer Station, the Nathaniel B. Palmer stopped at King George Island to set up the Copacabana camp, an observation hut staffed by three scientists who will study three different species of penguins for the next 5 months. After arriving at Palmer on 30 September, the Palmer returned to Lyttelton, New Zealand, to prepare, along with the Roger Revelle, for the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS). Once the equipment was set up and tested for the 16-university study, 34 scientists set sail on the Revelle for the first cruise. The Revelle will concentrate its JGOFS efforts on the Polar Front Zone, and the Palmer will work farther to the south.

During the JGOFS cruise, the Palmer had the opportunity to make use of data from the newly operational SeaWiFS. (See the story in the December 1997 online issue of Antarctic Journal.) Slight changes in the ocean's color indicated a phytoplankton bloom, so the Palmer adjusted its cruise track to enable the JGOFS team onboard to study the phenomenon.

The Laurence M. Gould, the new NSF research ship, spent 36 hours in the Gulf of Mexico for science trials on 5 and 6 December. All science equipment aboard ship was tested, and the science suite functioned well. Following the completion of trials and resolution of administrative details, the Gould will go from Louisiana to Punta Arenas, Chile, to replace the Abel-J, a chartered ship that has been transporting scientists, staff, and cargo between Punta Arenas and Palmer Station.

Sky diving accident at South Pole claims three lives

Three members of a private expedition were killed on 6 December when their parachutes failed to open during what was billed as the first private skydiving attempt made in Antarctica. The three men who died were part of a group of six skydivers brought to the continent by Adventure Network International, a private company that has been flying tourists to Antarctica since 1988. The three men killed were said to have logged hundreds of jumps each and were described by an Adventure Network International spokesman as very experienced jumpers. The cause of the accident remains unknown.

Two Americans, Steve Mulholland, 36, of Seattle and Ray Miller, Jr., 43, of Tiffin, Ohio, were among the dead. The third man killed was Hans Rusack, 49, an Austrian. An American and two Norwegians survived the accident. All six men jumped from a Twin Otter plane flying about 2.5 kilometers (8,500 feet) above the ice surface. A physician and an emergency team from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station found and retrieved the bodies after a short search.

Mulholland, who had worked as a carpenter at South Pole Station, was a former employee of Antarctic Support Associates (ASA), support contractor for the National Science Foundation. "Steve is one of those people that will be remembered here in our shop for many years because of who he was. He was definitely one of a kind," said Jay Burnside, Science Construction Coordinator for ASA.

Antarctica is managed under the Antarctic Treaty, which allows peaceful activities, and private companies are free to organize expeditions there. According to U.S. government policy, the National Science Foundation, which manages U.S. activities in Antarctica, does not support private expeditions to Antarctica nor does it prevent such activities. Nevertheless, in times of crisis, such as the recent skydiving tragedy or the fatal 1993 accident in which a member of a Norwegian expedition fell into a crevasse (see Antarctic Journal, 29(2), 11-12), groups and individuals turn to government research activities for help, simply because no other organization is available. Rescues endanger program personnel and cut into valuable research time and resources, including flight hours. "From the point of view of the antarctic program, [private expeditions] have the potential to hugely impact what we do," comments Steve Dunbar, a search-and-rescue expert. Dunbar pointed out that station resources are typically being used to maximum capacity to accomplish the year's science program and that research is bound to suffer when those resources must be diverted to go to the aid of a private expedition in trouble.