On Tuesday February 10th, we went out on our second expedition in a row. We are always more tired on the second day in a row, but we endure! This time we went to Site 6, north of Point Barrow. Site 6 is over ocean more than 20 feet deep and the ice is about 1.09 meters thick. We ran into a problem almost immediately: three cores in a row broke near the middle.
This was in part due to the drill stopping periodically; it was clearly having problems and had started smoking! We buried the drill in snow, fearing that we had totally fried the engine, and then checked to see where and why our cores were all breaking.
Because all of our cores were breaking in different places, we decided it was unlikely that we were hitting a weak layer in that location. Instead they must have been breaking due to our technique. Cores can break for any number of reasons but a common one is jerking the drill during the coring. Because our drill was acting up so much that day, it was jerking a lot, applying too much pressure when it got a burst of energy, but slowing down when it overheated. We couldn’t get it to core an unbroken meter.
We tried to use the manual coring handle next, thinking that if the process was much slower, maybe the core wouldn’t break. Boy, were we wrong. The constant jerking of our imperfect manual drilling ended up breaking the core in three places.
We ended that venture sweaty and tired. We even tried to use our smaller, battery-powered drill to no avail; it didn’t have enough juice to keep the drill going for more than a few seconds. Finally Nelson, our bear guard that day, came to the rescue. It seemed that the electric powered drill had cooled down enough to stop smoking. Applying the right amount of force and pulling back when the drill got too smoky, Nelson got us a full one 1.09 meter core.
It made more sense to us now why the core kept breaking, it was so porous and damp it was amazing that we managed to trim it and got it into the ICE-MITT box without breaking it. By this time the air smelled like a burned engine oil, and our poor drill was never going to be able to get another core.
Nelson had radioed Araina, one of the UMIAQ staff, and she was her way with a Jiffy Drill 9a gasoline powered drill. The box containing it bounced off the back of her snowmobile on the way and she was delayed, so we tried once more with the hand crank. We tried a few different turning techniques (including lever arms) this time but the core was still broken when we pulled it out. At least the exercise kept us warm!
When Araina arrived we unpacked the Jiffy Drill only to realize that a connector had been lost when the box fell off her snowmobile. The box had upended completely, dumping the drill and some parts in the snow. When Araina had realized her loss, she turned back. However, at the site of the fall, she noticed fresh polar bear tracks across her own snowmobile tracks. Due to her haste in her retrieval, she missed the connector in the snow (it was retrieved later that day).
As a result, we ended up with a pretty, for lack of a better word, sketchy set up involving two extensions loosely attaching the drill and the corer. The final apparatus was so tall that Ross and Nelson had to stand on top of two snowmobiles to operate it.
This drilling process was also too rough for the ice, and we were left with another broken core. By now the sun had set, leaving us with just enough light to get home. Cold, and loosing the dexterity in our hands, we packed up the recent core in plastic and an isothermal core tube, got the sled packed and left.
However, if one lesson was learned today, it was that when out in the field or working with ice or working at -20˚F for that matter, you cannot always rely on your equipment. Plan time for failure!