A career on ice

Don Voigt knows something about extremes. As a longtime research associate for Penn State’s Ice and Climate Exploration group, he spent a good bit of his working life in proximity to the North and South Poles. In all, Voigt logged 18 seasons in Antarctica, seven in Greenland and two on the Juneau Ice Field in Alaska.

A background in the Navy served him well, as Voigt’s duties included everything from running a field research operation to building, deploying and troubleshooting equipment; from figuring out the endless logistics required for a successful polar expedition to baking pies for the Thanksgivings spent far from home. Among many accomplishments, Voigt drilled and dated cores on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and helped set up one of the earliest seismic networks across the southernmost continent. He also served as trip chronicler and photographer, and still enjoys sharing his experiences with local school groups and others.

Shortly before he retired in September, Voigt shared some reflections from a career on ice.

How long is a season on the ice?

Anywhere from six weeks to three months. It takes a week or more to get onto the ice, and we are usually in McMurdo [Station, the U.S. Antarctic research center] for 10 days to a month. By the time we get to the deep field we only have four to eight weeks to work. It takes another week to pull out and redeploy home.

What are the typical conditions you faced in the field?

In the field in Antarctica it is flat and white. Sometimes you can see relief to the ice surface, but usually not. Twenty-four hours of sunlight. When the wind blows it is unrelenting; there is nothing to stop it. It is a rare opportunity to have sunburn, windburn and frostbite all at the same time.

The few calm days are amazing, especially if there are no clouds. It can be so still and quiet that you can hear your heart beat. It might be 20 degrees [Fahrenheit] but the reflection of the sun off the snow makes it feel like you are in a reflector oven and it can actually be too hot to sleep in a tent. 

When it is windy and overcast, there are days when we are tent-bound. You have no definition and can’t see the surface, so you stumble around tripping over every little bump in the snow. Occasionally, when visibility drops to zero, we will run hand lines from tent city to the “town” structures for people to follow. If you can’t see the next tent when you poke your head out, you zip back up and crawl back into the sleeping bag until the visibility improves. 

What are the living conditions?

Most of the seismic work I have done is from small, self-supported camps with two to 10 people living out of tents. Sometimes we fly into a larger camp with a support crew of two to 15 people who keep the ski-way prepared for the aircraft and handle cargo and fuel. We will fly in by LC-130 [a ski-equipped turbo-prop airplane flown by the Air National Guard] with our equipment. Then we either traverse to our field site or shuttle equipment out by small aircraft, staging fuel along the way.

In the bigger camps where we are drilling ice core, we still sleep in tents but usually have structures called Jamesways, of Korean war vintage, or a newer version. They are like quonset huts. There we have a galley, communications hut, a hut for the scientists, a medical hut, berthing for pilots, and other support structures that can be broken down at the end of a season and put up on berms so they don’t get buried during the winter.

Going to extremes

What brings researchers back again and again to the coldest place on Earth? In this video, Don Voigt explains the attraction. 

C Roy Parker

What are some particular challenges of working on the ice?

Working in Antarctica is a very focused endeavor. Everything you do is directed toward the task at hand. The environment drives everything. Every task takes twice as long.

Foremost in your mind is keeping hands and feet warm. Handling screws and bolts can be very difficult and you have to develop unique ways of doing things. Batteries are constantly dying and you get used to having batteries in your jacket or sleeping bag to keep them warm. The wind will drive you nuts when it blows constantly for days on end and, especially when we are doing seismic work, sometimes you just have to wait till the wind stops.

One of the challenges is getting everything done in the allotted time. When the plane arrives to pick you up at the end of a season, you get on the plane. Doesn’t matter if you are done or not. So, you have to work as hard as you can, as long as you can, every day that you can. That, along with 24 hours of sunlight, makes for some long days. 

What’s it take to get there?

For Antarctica, we fly commercially down to Christchurch, New Zealand. From there we fly either by LC-130 (eight hours) or C-17 (four hours) to McMurdo Station. There are occasional weather delays in both directions. Some flights south will “boomerang” if the weather in McMurdo goes down during the flight.

The LC-130s have a “PSR,” or point of safe return, where they no longer have fuel to make the return and have to press on no matter what the weather. It used to be called the “PNR.” It is not unusual for a flight to get past the PSR and have to land in the whiteout zone near McMurdo. This is an area where no travel is allowed and there are no structures so a pilot can set a glide path, descending until they find the snow surface. 

To get to Greenland we usually fly from Scotia, New York, to Kangerlussuaq, a seven-hour flight, sometimes stopping in Goose Bay, Labrador, for fuel and ice cream.

What personal qualities are most important for this kind of work?  

The ability to be flexible and adjust to whatever situation arises. I have had a whole season’s plan changed in an instant while on the ice, and have had to readjust everything. 

A willingness to be uncomfortable comes in handy. There are many times when you will not be comfortable; cold, hungry, tired. They are all part of getting the job done.

Being out of communications with the “real world” can be particularly distressing for some. We are often without any contact other than satellite phone.

Being a pleasant expedition partner is one of the most important qualities. People can put up with a lot if their field companions are helpful, willing to work hard, and have a good attitude.

What was your favorite part of spending so many seasons in Antarctica?

The whole atmosphere of being in such a remote, beautiful place gets into your blood. I enjoy the people I meet and the focused nature of the work we do. 

What was the hardest thing about working there?

Dealing with bad weather. Getting around can be a task as well, and there is a point every season, when crammed into a cargo plane or when waiting and waiting for a flight, when everyone asks, “Why do I put myself through this every year?” Fortunately, those thoughts pass.

What has it been like being a part of the Penn State team?

Working with the students and researchers as part of PSICE has been probably the greatest work experience I have ever had. I’m having trouble expressing it, to be honest. We had a run of spectacularly gifted students and great projects when exceptional work was done. I like to think I have a part in that.

Do you plan to go down again even though you’re officially retiring?

I figure I have a couple more years where I can meet the physical requirements. I would go in a heartbeat.

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Last Updated January 15, 2018