Journey to the Doomsday Glacier

Finally, on February 12th, our flight day arrived. Our craft was a compact six-seater. On the ship’s helipad, Bishop gave us a safety briefing. “If the helicopter loses altitude, emergency flotation devices will inflate here and there,” he said, pointing at the skids. He indicated a large red canvas cube in the back: “This is our

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Finally, on February 12th, our flight day arrived. Our craft was a compact six-seater. On the ship’s helipad, Bishop gave us a safety briefing. “If the helicopter loses altitude, emergency flotation devices will inflate here and there,” he said, pointing at the skids. He indicated a large red canvas cube in the back: “This is our emergency raft. Only throw it out if I tell you to, or if the helicopter begins to submerge—do not inflate it inside!” He gestured to a panel of indistinguishable toggle switches near his seat: “This is the emergency beacon. If I am incapacitated, the first thing you should do is flip this switch.” I squinted, unsure which was the right one.

In the Army, I’d rappelled from helicopters and leaped from them in parachutes; in Afghanistan, I’d run rotary-wing operations for my task force. But this was my first time in such a small helicopter. I recalled that, in 2src13, someone had suffered major injuries when a helicopter crashed and burst into flames on the deck of the Araon, on the very spot where we now stood.

“O.K., load up,” Bishop said.

Greenbaum transferred equipment—a rack of radio receivers, a dozen sensors encased in metal shells—while Bishop buckled in and toggled some switches. Soon the stentorian thump of the blades overwhelmed all other sounds. Pressing into the wash of the rotors, I walked around to the pilot’s side to turn on a downward-facing camera that would take a photograph of the ice every six seconds. I climbed in, buckled up, and pulled on a noise-cancelling headset. Bishop mumbled some unintelligible helicopter-speak, then took us up as though gravity were merely a suggestion. It would be an hour’s flight to the glacier.

Aviation in Antarctica is dangerous in part because there is often little visual difference between ice, water, sky, and mountain. Clouds cast dreamlike reflections on the ice and sea, and pilots can quickly lose their bearings. The sun loomed above us as we flew, and wispy clouds threw pale blue shadows on the ice below, which looked in some places like kneaded dough and in others like dragon scales. Swirls of fine crystals in the cerulean sea looked like cream poured into blue coffee; slush surrounding icebergs was in fact human-height chunks of ice, piled up. We were flying by dead reckoning. “Magnetic compasses are unreliable here,” Bishop said, over our headsets. “We’re too close to the South Pole.”

We listened to the Dixie Chicks as we flew over the cracks and mesa-like formations of the Crosson Ice Shelf. We pushed against the forty-knot wind, the helicopter’s movement a slow, prolonged shudder. At last, we reached the edge of Thwaites.

“Be on the lookout for any water or thin ice,” Greenbaum said.

Near a stout, jagged white hill, we spotted an opening that might have been the size of an Olympic swimming pool—it was hard to tell from a hundred and fifty feet in the air.

We positioned ourselves over the hole, and Greenbaum opened the door and dropped a sensor. I activated a software program to begin real-time monitoring of the probe. Greenbaum fiddled with his receivers. Nothing happened. The first drop was a bust.

“Let’s try another one,” he said, uneasily.

We circled around again. “You guys ready?” Bishop asked.

We each gave a thumbs-up. Greenbaum unlatched the door and shoved it open a second time. Freezing wind whipped into the helicopter. He loosened his seat harness and leaned out. In his hands he held the probe—a ten-pound gray torpedo, about three feet long and five inches across. Ignoring the turbulence, he looked down at the target. Could he hit it?

“This is not fuck-around wind,” Bishop said. His voice was pilot-placid, but the helicopter bumped and jolted. “This might not happen.”

Greenbaum leaned even deeper into the rotor wash, drew the torpedo back, and hurled it outward. As it fell, its drogue parachute deployed—crucial for keeping it upright. I activated the software again. Then the probe plunged through the opening and into the sea.

Greenbaum slid the door shut and, as Bishop brought the helicopter into a tight orbit, grabbed his laptop to check for a positive signal. For a few moments, we heard only the chop of the helicopter blades. Then a rack of radio receivers let loose the whistles, screeches, and crashes of a modem handshake. On Greenbaum’s laptop, numbers suddenly sped across the screen. The sensor was plummeting through the water, returning data on salinity, temperature, and depth.

“Jesus, this water is hot!” Greenbaum said.

He began reading off the rising numbers, in Celsius. Three hundred and sixty metres down, the water was almost a degree warmer than at the surface. At nine hundred and ninety metres, the probe hit the seafloor, which turned out to be much deeper than previously estimated; the water there was close to three degrees warmer than at the surface.

“This is what is melting Thwaites!” Greenbaum said. There was triumph in his voice. We had captured data from beneath the Doomsday Glacier.

“We’re done for fuel,” Bishop broke in. “I know you wanted to do more torpedoes, but we have to head back.” Greenbaum smiled, elated, as Bishop pointed the helicopter toward home.

The weather turned bad again. Two days later, on February 14th, Greenbaum, Bishop, and I stood on the bridge with Yun Sukyoung, one of the chief scientists of the expedition, and Dominic O’Rourke, its lanky, easygoing senior pilot. Through the windows, we could see ice and snow whisking across an iceberg. The drill project had been successfully completed, and its hardware and personnel had returned to the ship. Only a week remained until our departure. If Greenbaum wanted to place more than one probe, he needed to fly immediately.

The group pored over space-based reconnaissance maps, wind diagrams, and other reports. O’Rourke held a forecast he’d just received, written in notably purple prose.

“ ‘Quivering winds,’ ” he said, riffing on the report.

“Wrong,” Bishop announced. He stood at the window, surveying a distant peninsula with binoculars.

“ ‘Shivering seas,’ ” O’Rourke added.

“Wrong,” Bishop said again. The weather in Antarctica was changeable. In his view, it was changing in our favor.

O’Rourke, looking at the maps, concurred. “There’s a clearing that way,” he said, pointing. “A little bit of cloud, but we should be able to get a full day. Tomorrow looks pretty good down there as well.” It appeared that we might have a brief window in which to deploy more probes.

Greenbaum and Bishop bent over a map of Thwaites and started sorting through possible waypoints, trying to account for wind resistance and fuel burn. They chose fifteen sites—a bombing run near the glacier’s grounding line. To reach the eastern targets, we’d need to stop at an improvised refuelling depot, which the pilots had established a couple of weeks earlier and named Bishop’s Knob.

We set out that morning. It took us an hour to reach the depot, which first appeared as a single red point in a featureless plain of white. Bishop landed; the engine grew quiet, and an imposing silence took hold. We were surrounded by Antarctic nothingness.

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