ERDC researcher experiences ‘awesome’ maiden trip to Antarctica

By Justin CampfieldJanuary 20, 2024

For most people, long, exhausting days, negative 40-degree temperatures and no off days wouldn’t be considered ideal working conditions. But Hannah Wittmann can’t wait to do it all again.

Wittmann, a research physical scientist at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover, New Hampshire, recently returned from her first trip to Antarctica, where she helped perform critical crevasse detection and mitigation work along the roughly 1,000-mile long South Pole Traverse (SPoT) route.

“I knew it would be awesome, but it surpassed all expectations,” said Wittmann, who interned at ERDC-CRREL as a University of New Hampshire student before joining the laboratory full-time after graduating in 2021. “I think this is the coolest work I’ve gotten to do in my whole time here at CRREL.”

According to her project supervisor and expedition companion, Dr. Zoe Courville, Wittmann was a valuable asset to the SPoT crevasse detection and mitigation team, which in addition to the two ERDC-CRREL researchers also included mechanics, heavy equipment operators and an explosives expert.

“She was very enthusiastic about the work we had to do, and particularly helpful when we needed help with safety aspects of the job, including anchoring and rigging in the crevassed areas we work in,” said Courville. “The crew was impressed with her skills, but most importantly, the cold, long hours and hard work never got to her. She always had a positive attitude and was fun to work with.”

Crevasse detection and mitigation

Courville, an ERDC-CRREL polar researcher who first visited Antarctica as a graduate student in 2003, is very familiar with the “cold, long hours and hard work” associated with the southernmost continent. Except for two years following the birth of her son, she has travelled to Antarctica every Austral summer since 2010 to ensure that critical fuel and supplies arrive safely to the Admundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

Before the first supply SPoT convoy can leave McMurdo Station on its way to the South Pole, the team first uses ground-penetrating radar to find crevasses, determine how wide they are and if the traverse fleet can safely cross them. If the crevasses are too wide to be repaired, the team blows them open with explosive charges, then uses heavy machinery to fill them in with snow.

Even once repaired, the crevasses require annual monitoring to ensure they remain safe to cross.

“Right now, we are monitoring about 40 that we’ve mitigated, and of course new crevasses form every year,” said Courville.

While the SPoT route is about 1,600 miles long, Courville and Wittmann's work took place on the most problematic portion of the flagged trail, a three-mile-wide shear zone where the McMurdo and Ross ice shelves meet. Because the two shelves are moving at different speeds, the area where they contact is extremely unstable and changes from year-to-year.

“Typically, it takes about two weeks to do the survey of just those three miles,” said Courville.

Life-sustaining support

The work requires a unique skillset, including operating heavy equipment, crevasse detection, setting charges and sampling snow and ice samples. It is also grueling — workdays average about 10 hours and the crew camps along the route in a bunk house on skis — and vital for the people and research projects that are based at the South Pole Station.

“The South Pole Traverse plays a critical role in the successful operation of the South Pole Station,” said Carla Haroz, operations program manager for the U.S. National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics Section, which manages the station. “Each traverse brings hundreds of thousands of pounds of cargo and gallons of fuel that are necessary for the station to run throughout the year, particularly through the long, dark winter months.

“The work performed at the beginning of season by the CRREL team helps define a safe path for SPoT to navigate, which ultimately leads to a quicker, less dangerous journey,” added Haroz. “This time savings helps the SPoT team complete several trips a season and ensures the survival of the personnel living and working at the South Pole.”

In other words, if the problematic shear zone along the SPoT route can’t first be made safe by Courville, Wittmann and company, life-sustaining supplies won’t reach the approximately 50 researchers and support personnel who winter-over at the South Pole.

“It’s not an option for us to fail,” stated Courville.

‘Counting the minutes’

The Antarctic trip was Wittmann’s first experience using ground-penetrating radar in those conditions, but she is looking forward to finding additional ways to incorporate it into her research, which focuses on cold regions snow and ice characterization.

“Getting to see it in action and actually see under the snow and ice was amazing,” said Wittmann.

And while Courville and Wittmann’s plans for the upcoming year include a project in Greenland and field testing in Colorado and Alaska, Wittmann already has her sights set on a return to Antarctica.

“The terrain and mountains are so beautiful, and it’s fun to be in such a harsh environment,” said Wittmann. “I am counting the minutes until I can go back.”