NASA's Icebridge P-3 Orion at McMurdo: NASA photo by George Hale

Now for something completely different to Qantas versus Virgins!

The one day of the high polar year is well and truly underway over the highest latitudes of Antarctica, with sunset not due to begin at and near the south pole until late March, and in recent weeks NASA has been flying ice cap research missions using a four engined turbo-prop that might look oddly familiar to older flyers.

Yes. That ISN’T a Lockheed Electra, the domestic mainliner that served the domestic Australian routes for Ansett-ANA and TAA well into the 60s, as the Boeing 727s, the T-tail tri-jet, gradually took over.  It’s a Lockheed P-3 Orion, based on the Electra L-188 airframe, which is also used by the RAAF as an aging yet highly effective anti-submarine and maritime surveillance platform.

This particular P-3 has no military role. It is optimised for studying the glaciers that discharge the vast domed ice realm of Antarctica into the southern ocean, as well as working with satellites to map the ‘ice budget’ mechanics of the inland ice caps themselves.

One of the counter intuitive consequences of global warming in extremely cold environments is that of increasing snow fall, because snow fall happens most prolifically in air that is to close to freezing rather than down to the -50 to -60 C regimes that are commonplace over Antarctica away from its coastlines.

Using satellites and aircraft and programs such as NASA’s Icebridge studies, science is looking at where the ice budget is positive, as well as negative, and in this case , is especially focused on the ice shelves, the large glacial fans of ice that push outwards from the polar icecaps that bury Antarctica in places under as much as 4000 metres of granite hard ice.

(In 1979 the writer reported from the South Pole for the Sydney Morning Herald, during which a science team at the Amundsen-Scott base mentioned in passing that their early work on ice core samples suggested there ‘might be a problem’ with the rising levels of CO2 observed in the youngest layers compared to the deeper, older layers.)

The photos posted by NASA show its P-3 using the sea ice runway at McMurdo Sound, rather than the graded ice Pegasus strip, which generally comes to its own later in the ‘day’ when the sea ice begins to weaken enough  for tidal forces to break it apart.

The NASA photo below was taken in recent days by George Hale.

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