Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Remnant of Byrd's Camp?

© David Eldred

The faceted, angular sides on this "tabular," or flat-topped iceberg were formed when it calved from the ice sheet. Ice sheets are made of layer upon layer of compressed snow that become more dense the older and further down in the 'berg they are. Like the rings of a tree, the horizontal striations in this iceberg are evidence of seasons past.

© David Eldred

Little America III?

Antarctic ice shelves have a life cycle of their own, constantly growing and shrinking as sections break off, some forming huge icebergs - gigantic ice islands that have been known to float around the Antarctic waters for years. In 1962, a section of the Ross Ice Shelf broke up, splitting a portion of Admiral Richard E. Byrd's "Little America III" away from the shelf. What appears to be a structure and several objects on this iceberg may be the remains of that early exploratory outpost. It has been noted that a small iceberg with a portion of Little America III was sighted on the western edge of the Ross Sea in 1962. If so, this would be an important and historic photo.

Of course, this photo may simply show the remains of a contemporary, and temporary, scientific outpost.

Byrd's third Antarctic expedition (1939-1941) is notable, among other reasons, because of the unusual "Snow Cruiser" vehicle that accompanied the expedition. The Snow Cruiser was a low, wide, balloon-tired vehicle that was designed to drive on the Antarctic snow. Along with a crew and supplies it also carried an airplane, perched on top of the vehicle.
It was designed by a member of one of Byrd's earlier expeditions, and built by Pullman company. It was paraded through hundreds of towns on its way from the factory to the port from which it was to depart with Byrd.

Once in Antarctica, however the vehicle proved all but useless. Although it could attain forward motion on ice, the tires couldn't gain enough traction to control the speed and direction of the vehicle. In the snow, the heavy snow cruiser sank, and the tires spun helplessly. Although useless as transportation, the Snow Cruiser did serve as a first class crew headquarters. With a machine shop, galley, sleeping and working spaces that were comfortable, heated and well insulated, the cruiser may have been the first, and only, Antarctic mobile home.
When the camp was abandoned in 1941, the Snow Cruiser was left behind, stored in a special garage cut into the ice by the crew. The camp was found again in 1958 and the Snow Cruiser was reported to be safely ensconced in its ice cavern. Subsequent attempts to locate the Snow Cruiser have been unsuccessful. Some have speculated that the Russians removed the cruiser for their own investigations. More plausible theories are that it still remains in the ice, at a depths the preclude rediscovery, or that it was lost when Little America III broke up in early 1962.
But the Snow Cruiser may be awaiting rediscovery. According to an article in Polar Geography, by Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center,
"Analysis of a series of maps, sightings, satellite images, and aerial photos indicates that a 5 km2 section of the eastern side of the Bay of Whales containing the buried remains of several bases from the 'heroic era' of Antarctic exploration calved in early 1962. A small iceberg from this event (or closely-spaced events), with the remains of Little America III exposed in the ice face, was sighted in February 1963 near the western end of the Ross Ice Shelf front. More recent calving events, monitored by satellite images, confirm that most small icebergs generated in the eastern Ross drift westward and repeatedly impact the ice front, fragmenting as they move. This implies that a number of artifacts from the bases, such at the 1939-1940 Byrd Snow Cruiser, are likely strewn along the seabed near the 1962 ice front position. Major Ross Ice Shelf calving events of 2000 and 2002 have made much of the 1962 front area accessible to ships. Thus a search for the artifacts is technically more feasible for the next few years until shelf ice flow re-covers the area."


29 January, 2007, addendum:

I emailed a link to this post to several people knowledgeable in Antarctic history and geography. They took a look and replied with their thoughts on the identity of the remains on the iceberg. The executive summary? It isn't a piece of Byrd's camp.

Here's what they said:

Hi Mike,
While is possible that this is part of Little America III, I think it unlikely.
Most moving ice-located stations are subject to build-up over the years, and from 1941 to 1962, the Little America station would likely have been substantially buried, so when it fell off the edge of the ice-shelf, was more likely to have been part-way through the ice-berg rather than still riding on top of it.
I found this picture on the web: a painting made in 1956 called the "ghost of little America III." This is very similar to other pictures I have seen of stations falling off the end of ice-shelves, old, abandoned and buried British Hally Bay
stations (they were replaced when too buried) and (I think) the German Filchner station. I am more familiar with conditions in the Peninsula and Weddell Sea region of Antarctica than the Ross Sea area.
I may be wrong, of course, and it is obviously an abandonded encampment of some sort, though my guess from the snow accumulation is that it is not old enough to be Little America III if it was taken in 1962.
Paul Ward


I can absolutely answer your question. That photo was taken in McMurdo Sound. The hills behind the iceberg are part of Hut Point Peninsula. The high area to the right is Arrival Heights. To the far right, at the very tip, you can see Scott's 1901 hut. That's Hut Point.
The material on the iceberg is one of three things:
1) Possibly buildings and material left on the Erebus Glacier Tongue,
and part of the tongue has broken off.
2) Possibly buildings and material from Williams Field, the packed
snow skiway on the McMurdo Ice Shelf.
3) Most likely metal trash that was hauled out to the edge of the ice
shelf and left there, to wait for it to break off and float away.
(That's how garbage was disposed of in those days...)
The material is definitely NOT from Little America, as the site of that camp is thousands of miles away from where this photo was taken.
Hope this helps.
Jim Mastro


Thanks to all who replied,



Ray L Buckner said...

This could be the original HUM V

Christine said...

An intriguing mystery! I enjoyed reading the history behind it and the replies you received from the experts. --Chris

Allen said...

my father, USN Seabee, was in antarctica at some point and said they they had found the Snow Cruiser in a "snow cave". some of the seabees even slept in it, as it was more comfortable than what they had.

a few weeks later they went back to find it again and that part of the ice had broken off and went out to sea.

he also said they put a large engine in a M29 Weasel (both the engine and the weasel were stolen from the army), and used it to go to a hot spring somewhere nearby...I guess it was large enough to even send divers down into, to see if anything was alive down there. they didn't find anything.

I wish I could tell you the year, but he passed in 2009. it could have easily had been 1958, as he joined the navy in 1957.