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Interview of Carl S. Benson by Karen Nichols Brewster

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Title: Interview of Carl S. Benson by Karen Nichols Brewster
Creators: Benson, Carl S.
Contributors: Brewster, Karen Nichols
Keywords: U.S. Geological Survey
SIPRE (Snow, Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment
Thule Air Base
Central Sierra Snow Laboratory
Greenland Traverse, 1955
McCall Glacier
Greenland Ice Sheet
Issue Date: 2005-07-12
Publisher: Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program
Series/Report no.: Polar Oral History Program
Abstract: Dr. Carl Benson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on June 23, 1927 to Swedish immigrant parents. In 1944 Dr. Benson joined the Navy, where he served as an aviation machinist's mate until September 1946, at which point he began college at the University of Minnesota. He majored in geology and minored in mathematics and physics. One of Benson's mentors at this time was Robert P. Sharp, who eventually went on to become the Director of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Cal Tech. He was influential in Benson's work in Greenland. Benson graduated from the University of Minnesota in March of 1950 and went with the US Geological Survey to Northern Alaska. His work involved the area around the Utokok and Etivluk Rivers, near what is now called the Mesa Site. After completion of this field season, Benson returned to the University of Minnesota to work on a Master's degree. During this time, he took an assistantship with SIPRE (the Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment- now the CRREL or Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab). This assistantship lasted from 1950-51, after which Benson worked for SIPRE from the end of 1951-1956. He worked specifically for the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory in the area of micrometeorology with Robert Gerdel, the Chief Scientist for the Climate Research group at this time. Henri Bader, the Chief Scientist at SIPRE, asked Benson to accompany him to Greenland in 1952 to assist the Air Force in construction plans for Thule Air Base; the men were charged with looking at the ice sheet to try to find a way to measure the accumulation rate and temperature ratio in order to determine the physical characteristics of the Ice Cap and the adjustments that were necessary for the construction of a radar station. Benson describes the new Air Force aircraft SA-16, which was a modified pontoon plane with attached skis to be able to land on land and water. This plane was unsuccessful and was grounded, but in the process items had to be taken off of the aircraft and left behind; Benson went as part of a group to retrieve the items and was able to do pit studies at night along the way because of the constant light. Benson returned to Greenland in 1953 and 1954, spending the winters at the Central Sierra Snow Lab testing snow compacted runways. He also spent time working with the US Corps of Engineers in Kapuskasing (Northern Canada) and Goose Bay Labrador. Benson describes transportation, delivery, and staffing frustrations while working in all of these areas, particularly at the Thule base. Benson discusses the traverse in more detail, including research methods used in 1954 and 1955 such as oxygen isotope ratios and stratigraphic measurements. He also details the route the traverse followed, how often measurements were taken, and how the team used these measurements to develop a temperature isotherm map of Greenland. Other findings, such as a model for the densification of snow, the discovery of different facies in the surface of the ice sheet, and the study of magnetic declination are described in detail as well. Benson goes on to discuss the airdrops which took place during the 120 day traverse in 1955, including they types of planes used (C-54s, C-119s, C-47s) and the free drop method developed for this purpose. The members of the traverse included a radio technician (Jim Holston), a mechanic, a medic, a navigator (George Wallerstein), and two scientists. Benson spends a good amount of time talking about the group morale on this traverse and how the time and temperature affected the men. Benson used the data he had collected as material for a dissertation at Cal Tech from 1956-60. His dissertation was completed in 1960 and his findings published by SIPRE in 1962. In 1960 Benson moved to Alaska to take a position as an Assistant Professor in Geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He also taught courses in the Geology Department. His main function at the University was research within the Geophysical Institute, including low temperature air pollution (ice fog), stream freezing, seasonal snow, and temperature gradients. Benson goes into detail discussing glacier volcano interactions in the Wrangell Mountains, specifically after the Prince William Sound earthquake in 1964. He also discusses the Arctic Slope and the discrepancies in snow accumulation there as measured by the [National] Weather Bureau. Benson, along with other members of the University, recorded data to provide an accurate gauge for snow accumulation on the Arctic Slope, in tundra regions, and other similar areas. In addition, the Wyoming Snow Shield developed through funding by the NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. This snow gauge was used by Benson on the Arctic Slope. Benson discusses the structure of snow on the Arctic Slope and the formation of drifts extensively. Benson goes on to discuss his relationship and interaction with students. In particular he mentions Sue Ann Boling who worked on the radiant effects of ice crystals for her Masters and PhD, which was a continuation of work that Benson had done with Ingvar Gotholson. He also describes his experience in the Antarctic from 1961-62 in cooperation with the Center for Polar Studies at Ohio State [sic, Institute of Polar Studies] (now the Byrd Polar Research Center). During this time Benson compared the stratigraphy and physical properties of snow at the Byrd Station and points in Greenland where the basic parameters were the same. This subject brings Benson to discuss the working conditions in Antarctica at this time and the risks that were present then that had been solved at the time of the interview. He also engages in discussion of navigational issues, such as the position and path of the sun. This trip was Benson's last to the Antarctic (1962). Benson spends a great amount of time discussing the machinery used in the Antarctic and Greenland, particularly the Tucker Sno-Cat and the Weasel. He analyzes the wear and tear to expedition vehicles and which held up under extreme conditions most effectively. He also describes the food eaten and the conversion from C-rations to dehydrated items to cut down on weight. Benson discusses military/civilian interactions at the South Pole and Greenland along with the funding and budgeting of expeditions via the military. He also describes advances in technology for the measuring of and communication from the Ice Cap and other Arctic Regions, along with advances in science which aid in interpretation of data. Benson goes on to discuss his work at the McCall Glacier, beginning in 1969. The glacier had been chosen as a study subject during the IGY (International Geophysical Year, 1957-58) and work by Benson continued from 1969 until 1975. His primary focus was the heat and mass balance of the glacier. Keith Echelmeyer was the lead scientist for the McCall Glacier (and approximately 70 other Alaskan glaciers) at the time of this interview, using Benson's work as a database. Benson talks about his career in perspective of the years past and discusses his disappointment in the loss of history with the advancement of technology. He feels that his greatest accomplishment has been his work with students and his studies of Greenland. He discusses his mentors including Sharp, Bader, Gerdel, Joe Weinberg, Frank Oppenheimer, and Ernie Loughgrin. He also spends time describing the working environment of the Geophysical Institute and the people involved in its formation (Sidney Chapman, Bill Wilson, C.T. Elvey). Benson retired from the Geophysical Institute in 1987 but continues to work as a Professor Emeritus. His current research involves evaporation rates from cooling ponds as sources for ice fog and volume losses in the north crater of glaciers.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1811/6050
Rights: Restrictions: This item is not restricted.
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