May 8 – May 15
Goodbye DroneVille 2.0
This week I said goodbye to DroneVille 2.0. The DataHawk flights I did last week truly were my last flights for MOSAiC. This week, I thought I might potentially fly another time or two, but the weather was not favorable for that. At the beginning of the week, the winds were consistently above 10 m/s, which is our maximum wind speed for flying, and were forecasted to be that way until after May 13th. I had originally planned to take down the tent on the 12th at the latest, to give it time to dry on the ship and be packed away by the 14th (the deadline for packing all containers) but try to do as many additional flights as possible until then. However, on the 8th, I already saw that the winds were forecasted to be too high to fly through my self-imposed deadline, with the lowest winds of all days on the 9th, so I made the decision to pull the tent down on that day, taking advantage of the relatively low winds for ease of tent removal.
So on May 9th, DroneVille 2.0 was dissolved. But first, I set everything back up one last time, as if I were going to fly, to take pictures of the set-up to include in my documentation for the next pair of scientists coming in for my team on leg 4. It was somehow nice to set it all up so that I could take down and pack away the tables and chairs and launcher and everything for the last time, giving it a little bit more of a momentous feeling. Maybe that’s a bit silly, but the ceremonial sense of it helped me say goodbye a little bit easier.
Then, the tent came down.
It wasn’t the easiest task, taking down this tent which acts like a giant kite, trying to fly away in the 11 m/s winds, but with the help of one other person, we were able to take it down very efficiently. It all happened a bit too quickly actually, leaving no time to reminisce on all the good times with DroneVille 2.0 as it was coming down. But then it was done, and we packed it away into the bag it came from.
So that was it. DroneVille 2.0 was gone. I said a brief goodbye, thanking DroneVille 2.0 (and the original DV too) for all the ups and the downs and the growth it provided me in the past months. But of course it was not really this little town that made me grow. Yes, it was the main setting of my growth, but really it came from the endless support of the people around me, and my perseverance to continuously push my boundaries to try things that scared me every day.
As I walked away from DroneVille 2.0 for the last time, I looked back at the place it once stood, seeing nothing but snow now. Though DroneVille 2.0 is gone from the ice, it will always be in my heart and in my memories. I will never forget that place.
After the tent was down, I spent the next few days packing up all of our stuff back into the crates they came from, and returning all of our cargo back into the containers. This meant I had to take apart my favorite plane 115 and say goodbye to it. 115 was the only plane I flew that did not eventually break in some way, and I was happy to have at least one plane that survived a lot of flights, and lives on to potentially be flown again in the next leg.
For quite some time now, I have been trying to get a ride in the helicopter, so I could learn more about the science these flights are used for, and see what the floe looks like from above. I thought seeing the ice from this perspective could help me to better put my own project into the context of the bigger picture of the Arctic. But throughout the expedition, whenever the weather has been favorable to do helicopter flights, it was also favorable to do DataHawk flights, and as long as the helicopter was not flying directly overhead, we could fly at the same time. So usually when the helicopter was flying, I was working, so I was not able to find a chance to join a flight.
But with the fall of DroneVille 2.0 at the end of the week, there was now nothing preventing me from joining a helicopter flight, if they had the space to take me. So I asked if I could be on the next aerial laser scanning flight, whenever that happened. For these flights, they fly back and forth over the floe, and some instrumentation on the helicopter maps what the ice floe below looks like. I thought it would be interesting to see how these floe maps, that we use to plan our every-day activities on the ice, are created.
Though I was approved to come on the next one of these flights, it was not looking very promising for it to happen, as the forecast for our last week on the floe was pretty bleak in terms of favorable weather for helicopter flights. I had pretty much given up hope on my chances to get in the helicopter. But on the afternoon of the 10th, to my extreme delight, a brief weather window had opened up, allowing just enough visibility to do this aerial laser scanning flight. As soon as I heard news that the flight was going ahead, I rushed to the bridge to confirm the timing of it, so I could come to the heli hangar before it was scheduled to take off. I was so excited! When it was time, I picked out a helmet that fit, and hopped into the helicopter.
The flight itself was incredible. As soon as we took off and headed away from the ship, I completely forgot the ship was even there behind us. It was just us in the helicopter and the endless miles of ice in front. Out here in the vast emptiness, alone. But soon, we turned around, and flew back toward the ship, and I was brought back to reality. We were still here with the Polarstern, a safe haven amongst the desolate landscape.
Seeing the ship and the ice camp from above was really cool. Everything looked so small! The people looked like little ants down there, scurrying around the floe. When I am down there on the ice, the ship seems so big and all the installations on the ice are my whole world, but from above, it is clear to see how tiny it all really is compared to the endless empty space around us. It put it into perspective a bit just how secluded and alone we are out here, which was a bit freaky to recognize, but mostly struck me with awe and wonder for the incredibility of this expedition, and how crazy it has been to be living out here for the past few months.
Throughout the flight, the clouds cleared up a bit, allowing for the sun to shine down to the surface, creating a beautiful golden hue on the ice, and lighting up the sky enough to see for a great distance. The ice all around us is so broken up, with small to large cracks everywhere, all the way out to the horizon, showing the MOSAiC floe as just one broken up piece in the larger mosaic of broken ice in all directions.
The whole flight was incredible, but one of the coolest sections was right at the end, flying back to the ship to land. We flew a little bit closer to the surface, getting to see the ridges and leads a little bit closer up, but still from above, which provided a really unique perspective of the landscape, different from how we see these things standing on the surface. Then, we landed back on the ship’s heli deck. I was so ecstatic to have finally had my helicopter flight. This was the last thing I really wanted to do before leaving the floe. After this, I could leave happily. This ended up being the last helicopter flight of the entire leg 3.
Aside from spending our time on science or packing instrumentation these days, some of us join a few nights per week for a game of waterball in the Polarstern pool! The water is pretty chilly, but after a few minutes of roughhousing, going after the ball, you warm up pretty well.
The game can get pretty intense at times, especially when one person has ahold of the ball and everyone else piles on to try to tear it out of their hands, and it ends up in a stalemate, with the cluster of people just swirling around the pool for five minutes, until somebody eventually overpowers the others and rips the ball free of everyone else’s arms. But the intensity is what makes it so much fun, as it is a good way to let off some steam from some of the stress of everyday life, and also get in a good workout before bed.
Goodbye Met City
A lot of time this week was also spent recovering things from Met City. Though my project does not have any equipment or instrumentation there, I wanted to lend a hand, as a fellow atmosphere team member. The main effort with this was bringing all of the instrumentation back that had been planned to be returned to the ship during the transit period and redeployed once the leg 4 scientists return. Since Met City has been quite difficult to reach for a while, especially by skidoo, which would be necessary to lug a bunch of heavy instrumentation back to the logistics area, the best option was to shuttle things back to the ship using the helicopter.
But luckily, we had that weather window one day, so we were able to carry out this operation. It took six helicopter trips back and forth between Met City and the logistics area, including two sling loads, for everything to be returned from Met City. I was stationed in the logistics area to help unload things from the helicopter there, and ready them to be craned onto the ship. At Met City, the 10-meter tower was also lowered, and the instrumentation removed, which was how it was intended to stay until the leg 4 people came back to raise it again. Once this operation was completed, we thought we were done with just about everything that needed to happen with Met City before the transit. We were wrong.
Because the helicopter was landing in Met City during the cargo transfer, the downwash kicked up a bunch of snow from the surface and revealed a small crack running right between the Met Hut and the 10-meter tower. This crack, if opened, would tear Met City in half, and threaten the small bit of instrumentation being left there. With the high frequency of ice movement in this specific area, we figured it was likely this crack would open up before leg 4 people would return. The atmosphere team then made a last-minute decision to recover everything remaining from Met City. This meant the 10-meter tower would have to be disassembled and returned to the ship. If possible, the Met Hut would come back as well, though that would be a last priority. All of a sudden, we had a lot more work to do.
So the next day, a few of us went out to Met City to disassemble the tower, and haul that, and any remaining boxes of instrumentation, back to the ship. Taking the tower apart was not so difficult, it simply screws apart into three sections. The real challenge was digging out the base, and screwing it apart into its separate pieces. We hadn’t really been intending to dig out the base entirely, as it was pretty deep into the snow, and a new base could be rebuilt if necessary. But once we got started digging and unscrewing the pieces, we were on a roll and didn’t want to stop until the job was complete. Eventually, we were able to get it all out, so the original pieces could be used wherever they choose to put the tower on the next leg.
As weather conditions on this day were no longer favorable for a helicopter operation to return the last bits of heavy equipment and the tower to the ship, we had to use a skidoo. Luckily, after a bit of scouting, some of the logistics team members were able to find a skidoo route to Met City. It was quite a detour, and the ride took about 10 minutes, but the way was found, and enabled us to return the rest of the things from Met City safely back to the ship.
After that day of hard work at Met City, I got a fun skidoo ride back to the ship, being trailed on a Nansen sled. The ride was bumpy but thrilling, the snow spraying up onto me as we rode into the sunset (or sun being low on the horizon, of course there are no full sunsets anymore), on the way back to the ship.
The End of the MOSAiC Floe
It was a really good thing that we took down the 10-meter tower that day because in the evening of the very next day, a pretty wicked storm began to roll in, with peak wind speeds around 25 m/s (50 knots), which is a record for the MOSAiC expedition so far, and the exact tiny crack that had been noticed a few days before, as well as some others running through Met City, split wide open, tearing Met City into three or four pieces. Right where the tower had been was suddenly open water. We on the atmosphere team all felt very grateful that events had played out in such a way that allowed us to notice the crack and react to it just in time to rescue the rest of the things from Met City before it was truly torn apart. It was a bit miraculous how it all played out.
We had not, however, gotten a chance yet to remove the Met Hut at this point, so it remained floating out there on its own, on an ever-disintegrating floe. You can see it near the top left of the above picture if you look really closely.
Met City was not the only thing wrecked by this storm. In fact, pretty much the entire rest of the flow was broken up. Where there had once been consistent, reliable ice for the all of leg 3 (aside from the one small crack through the logistics area a few weeks ago), stretching from the ship to beyond DroneVille 2.0, there were suddenly several cracks, separating all of the remaining cities from the ship and from each other. Only Balloon Town and Ocean city remained on the same piece of ice, Remote Sensing City and ROV City were split up on their own.
Before the storm hit, we had recovered more or less everything from the ice that we intended to take with us when we sail to Svalbard. But after this storm, it was clear that nothing out there was safe anymore. We even watched as the ROV tent was actively swallowed up by a ridge to the point it could not be seen anymore from the bridge.
Then the decision was made: we would recover the rest of the things left on the ice, mainly the now empty tents and huts from the cities, leaving only instrumentation that is never intended to be recovered. The floe is no longer reliable enough to leave these things until the leg 4 crew returns. We had kind of seen this coming for a while, with the floe breaking up little by little, but with this one last catastrophic event, we could no longer risk leaving anything behind and expect it to still be there when the next group returns.
In order to better access the cities that needed to be rescued, the ship spent an afternoon maneuvering around to a different part of the floe, so we did not have to cross so many leads to get to Balloon Town and Ocean City. The next day, we all split up into different task forces to tackle the recovery of the different cities. As part of the atmosphere team, I was helping out with Balloon Town, which meant clearing out and taking down the large tent that once stored Miss Piggy. As you can see, a large crack had opened up quite close to Balloon Town, so it was good we were getting out there to take it down.
It was another day of hard work, digging a lot of things out of some deep snow, unscrewing a lot of ply wood from the ice, and hauling heavy things around, but in the end we were able to completely take down the tent, and bring everything back to the ship to be craned on board. Meanwhile, other teams were working to rescue the other remaining tents and huts for the other cities. When the task was nearly done, we toasted to our hard work, and the recovery of Balloon Town. Well at least I think that is what we toasted to… it was in German, so I actually have no idea what they said.
As I walked back to the ship that evening, I realized this would probably be my last time on the sea ice during the MOSAiC campaign. The next day, there would only be some final quick operations to bring a few miscellaneous items back on board, but this is not something I would be a part of. Knowing this was probably my last time on the ice, I spent a long time staring out at the floe, letting group after group go before me to be craned back onto the ship in the mummy chair, waiting until I was ready to leave it behind for the last time.
After a little while, when I had had enough time to say goodbye to the ice, to the snow, to the ridges, to the leads, to the sun’s reflection on the varying surfaces, and to the joy it all brought me, I could feel deep down that I was ready to go. So I stepped into the mummy chair, never to return to the floe.
Though it has been a hectic end to leg 3, last minute packing up everything on the floe after the big break up, somehow leaving the floe in this state makes it a bit easier to say goodbye. We are not leaving a thriving environment for science, rather, we are leaving behind a place that has little left to offer, in the grand scheme of MOSAiC projects. It is as if the ice is telling us it is ok for us to leave now. The ice has given us all it could, up to the very end, and now we can go home, feeling satisfied with what we did, rather than regretful to not have more time.
Now comes the time to leave this floe behind and sail to Svalbard. It is not certain what day we will actually head out. Perhaps it is tomorrow, perhaps we are delayed another day, but the journey back home is the next chapter in this story. Meanwhile, the group of leg 4 scientists will be on their way, sailing from Bremerhaven. We will meet on May 23 in Isfjord, Svalbard, where we will conduct a handover for 4 or 5 days, in the end swapping ships, and sailing back to Bremerhaven, arriving in the first few days of June. The leg 4 scientists will then return to the floe and pick up where we left off.
It is a bit odd to think about another group of people taking our place, many seeing this place for the first time. I remember my amazement of every little thing in the beginning (though it never really went away) and I am so excited for these others to experience that wonder too. It is time to pass the baton, let some others have their adventure, and go home.
As this is my last post before beginning the journey home, I want to give a huge shout out to Jonathan Hamilton for posting these blog entries for me from back home throughout this expedition. This is the last one he will post for me, as he is a part of the leg 4 team taking over my project, about to embark on this MOSAiC journey, and in a few days will himself be boarding one of the ships sailing out to meet us in Svalbard.
Jonathan, I want to say a sincere thank you for all your endless support throughout these past months, especially through the times when it was unclear whether or not MOSAiC would be continuing beyond leg 3, due to the COVID-19 impacts. But now that arrangements have been made for MOSAiC to go on despite the logistical challenges, I could not be more excited for you and the expedition of a lifetime that you are about to have. Though I am sad to go, I’m a little less sad knowing that my departure means the start of your adventure.
That being said, I likely will not be able to post any additional blog entries until I am in Germany at the beginning of June, so I’ll be back to tell the end of the story then.