“ANTARCTICA!! WOW!! What are you, nuts?”
That’s basically how conversation go whenever the subject of my adventures in lands far south begin.
People often ask me, “what the hell ever possessed you to go to Antarctica?” The answer is both simple and somewhat obvious plus there’s a bit more to it than just that.
I suffer from a major case of “ants in my pants”, an inability to sit still for very long. Having spent basically my whole life traveling and moving about, one can almost guarantee Antarctica was a logical choice for me. After all, at age six I came to America, at age 9 we moved houses, at age 12 we moved again, at age 16 once more, at age 19 I joined the Air Force and moved 8 more times in 26 years. I’ve been to Brazil, England, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Korea, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Andorra, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba. Go on, tell me. What’s missing? Yep, the South Pacific/Antarctica and Africa. OK, Russia, China, India, too, but give me time!
So about a year or so post retirement I’m cruising the internet and spot something about Antarctica. I set the bookmark aside. After my Pacific Coast bicycle trip in late 1998 I was in the mood for something to do in 1999. Browsing, browsing, browsing, mucking about aimlessly. Seeking an adventure.
Then I get an email in January 1999 from a friend who had a strange looking email address. I thought, “Hmmm, where the hell is he now?” So I wrote back asking same. He responded—Antarctica! “What the hell?” I think. So I email him asking if I could call. He says, no can do, Inbound phone calls are restricted. So he calls me. I’m hooked! I dig out that bookmark (yes, I still had it), find out there’s a job fair in April in Denver, book a flight and got hired several weeks later as a warehouse supervisor.
Now, for those of you interested in possible employment in Antarctica, check out http://www.polar.org
Also, take a few minutes and continue reading to get a feel for what to expect. What you will read will be part personal observations detailing day-to-day life intermingled with snippets of information that help you determine how things work down there.
To begin with, if interested in employment, you will need to fill out an application. Also send a resume and cover letter to HR. If you know the department you want to work in, try and find out who runs it and call them at least once a week after they’ve received your paperwork. If you wait for them to call you then opportunity may pass you by. Remember, thousands of people want to work there. Have a skill. Have an interest. Be persistent.
Let’s say you apply (no real need to go to the job fair as I was involved in hiring during a summer stint in Denver and many folks had just faxed or emailed their info to us.)
So then you get a phone call and are selected for the first phase of “weeding out.” Congrats!
The company requires a complete physical the comprehensiveness of which is determined by one’s age. The older you are the more bodily orifices need to poked and prodded. Full dental workups are also required. Once determined to be PQ’d (physically qualified) the company provides the traveler with airline tickets to Christchurch, New Zealand (you keep the frequent flyer miles.) In Christchurch, lodgings are provided for which you pay out of the daily stipend you receive.
While in Christchurch, orientations are given as well as a wheelbarrow full of Arctic gear (mittens, gloves, boots, socks, long underwear, fleece jackets, parkas, hats, etc.) Any delays in Christchurch result in more per diem which, unless you insist on staying in 1st class hotels, easily covers lodging and food.
On Ice, housing, laundry, and meals are provided. Out of pocket expenses? Drinks at bars, souvenirs on station, additional toiletry type items, etc. More to follow later so stay with me.
My other motivations to go to Antarctica? Well, since I’d asked if bikes were allowed to be shipped over and was told they could be rented at the Recreation Center, I knew I’d be among the few in the world who could ever claim to have cycled in Antarctica
So, ready? Here we go: (Be forewarned. The following is taken from journals I keep on my adventures. I am not a “writer” in the sense that the story flows as a narrative written in the third person. What you will find is that the style may jump around a bit and you will obviously be able to tell where I’ve lifted straight from the journals and where I’ve inserted more current information. You’ll also see that I “rant” a lot. Sorry, that’s just how it goes. Stay with me and I think you will enjoy reading it.)
As you know already from reading the previous page, I got a job! Well, was I excited!! I hustled in getting my paperwork done as I had booked flight to Portugal prior to being contracted and wanted everything sorted out before I left. The last couple of days were a whirlwind of activity making sure my folks would be taken care of, that my house was closed up for 6 months, a lawn service contracted to maintain the yard, and arrangements made to pick up my mail.
Then it was off to Denver for orientation (it is now done in NZ. It was uneventful with the exception that fate thumbed its nose in my general direction with a final insult: the hotel I am staying in is the Sheraton and it is located on Clinton Dr. How ironic that I spend my last night in the US on a street with that asshole’s name on it. Almost as if the gods of Cynicism were trying to get their last laugh at my expense.
The lobby took on the appearance of a big family-type reunion in an environment of camaraderie. There are sure a lot of folks returning for another tour of the Ice. I met a few of them, had dinner at the hotel’s bar/restaurant and called it a day. On my subsequent return trips I felt like the veteran running into people from the previous years, catching up on news and events and generally participating in a class reunion type festival. Funny, though, was that when I went and shook hands with some of them, I could not remember their names! Then all of a sudden it all came back. Weird! There is a phenomena on the Ice for those that spend the winter wherein you kinda lose your mind for a while (due to sun deprivation) so you’ll start a conversation with someone, walk away without finishing, answer questions long after they are asked, etc. So in some instances I felt like I was the one who’d spent a winter there. In a way those first reunion days are like being a participant in a long running movie where the people take several months off from one another, gather again, and continue their stories.
Being super excited, I couldn’t sleep worth shit. Woke up throughout the night with messed up sinuses and couldn’t go back to sleep. Very frustrating as I can not seem to shake this cursed cold/allergy/sinus infection. FUCK!! SHIT!! HATE!!! DAMMIT!! DAMMIT!! DAMMIT!!
Spent the most part of the day in briefings about all manner of stuff concerning our upcoming stay on the ice. Got to meet a few more new people and, of course, in that never-ending confusion of new faces and names I could remember very few names.
That evening it was off to LA and then a 12 hour flight to Christchurch. One thing I thought about as I was headed south was the fact that I’d be spending Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, my birthday, and Valentine’s day all at the bottom of the world. I’d been looking for a unique way to celebrate the passing of the 1900’s and this trip fits the bill.
Jumped that invisible line called the Date Line and lost a day so our calendar shot forward.
Flying over Auckland provided magnificent views of islands sitting like pieces of jade set against a light blue background. It’s the first time in my in my life I’ve ever been this far south on this side of the planet. Then we flew over the Southern Alps. Magnificent. They had just been dusted with snow so the effect was spectacular.
It was quite warm when I got to the Croydon House Bed and Breakfast (arranged for me by the company) but it cooled off rapidly when the sun went down. Guess it didn’t help that the room had a southern exposure and the sun was blasting in there for hours.
Wandered around town a bit and saw that Kiwi kids are quite similar to US kids in dress and appearance. In other words, badly dressed, rings in all manner of body appendages and piercing all over the place: eye brow, lip, tongue, belly button, breasts, nose, etc.
To me Christchurch is very similar to any US city. Lots of single homes, few apartments, good roads well maintained and well signed, too. Internet access was extremely easy to find with kiosks and cafes all over the place and the cost was very reasonable.
In my perambulations I discovered that Baillee’s Bar is the hangout for Ice employees. Chatting with folks revealed many were either staying in the YMCA or at the Hikers Hostel. A hell of a lot cheaper then what I was paying even though we were paid enough to recompense us for expenses. What the hell, any money left over could go to a good cause: beer, souvenirs, my retirement account.
Since the afternoon was so warm and inviting, I wandered towards the botanical gardens and stumbled upon the Arts Center. It used to be an old campus but it is now converted to a meeting place for artisans. Lots of handcrafted items and quite well set-up. I will need to return in February to do some shopping.
The Avon River, which cuts through town, gives it less of a “big city” look and feel yet adds tons of charm as it is lined with parks and trees. Floating on it were some punters which reminded me of England. All in all a very nice day.
Fell asleep at 530 and awoke at 3 in the morning. Not feeling sleepy I started going through my luggage to figure out what I’d send ahead and what I’d keep with me. It’s a bit of a nuisance as I am not sure exactly what to expect at the terminal and how strict they will be nor what my weights are so I did not want to take a chance.
Sometime during my first night in New Zealand it began to rain and the weather turned quite nippy. The wind picked up and with its gusts made for an unpleasant outing. But it was better than being cooped up in the room. So I walked around town and ran into three folks scheduled to leave on the 28th. Nobody is sure if we will make it out on time but we hope. The last thing any of us wanted was to be caught in a “boomerang” flight situation where the aircraft launches, flies for 5 hours and then is forced to turn around due to conditions at McMurdo. Last year this happened several times and it exhausted the folks as you have to get up about 4 AM for a 5 AM show, then a 8 or 9 AM launch, add 10 hours to that for flight time, return to Christchurch, undress, re-pack all your bags, find shuttles to your hotel and begin all over again the next day. Nasty!
By the afternoon the sun was fully out so I wandered around the botanical gardens, went to the Christchurch museum, and had lunch at Dux D-Lux. Not a bad place at all, lunches reasonably priced.
Man! This whole town is in bloom! And how appropriate they named it the Garden City. It was laid out in the 1800s with a mandatory amount of green area and it is an absolute pleasure to walk, bike, or drive through town. The effect is great as there are very few high-rises. Based on what I saw for density it did not seem like they needed many anyway. New Zealand has a population of about three million. The North Island has two million, and the South Island the balance with Christchurch having 350,000 of those million.
The suspense surrounding departure to Antarctica is slowly dissipating as we take steps to prepare ourselves. I had to go to the clothing issue warehouse and get fitted for all the cold weather clothes. Got a whole lotta stuff! Two parkas, 9 pairs of gloves and mittens, thermal underwear, wool socks, sunglasses, goggles, polar fleece jackets, wind pants, etc. I took advantage of being in the neighborhood to go visit the Antarctic Center. The Kiwis have done a nice job with the place. It was quite interesting.
Found out our flight was delayed by 24 hours so I get to collect per diem. Not a bad deal!
Since the flight was delayed and I did not want to have a repeat from the night before of going to bed too early, I cruised on down to Bailees. Met up with a guy who will probably work the galley. Got a beer and filled in some tourists on what we do down there. Seems many people think we have top secret biological or chemical scientific experiments going on or else they have this preconceived notion, through seeing old Greenpeace movies, of the pollution that is generated and dumped. Of course, Greenpeace, for all their good intentions elsewhere either won’t pull the movie or won’t update it to show that all trash is taken away by ship. Virtually no pollution occurs and solid wastes are shipped back to Washington state for recycling, burying, or disposal in a landfill. Even the guys who go out into the field get special receptacles to put their human waste into and they bring it all back to McMurdo. Since it is frozen, packaging is much simpler. No peeing allowed all over the ice. Even urination is controlled to certain areas!
Heard McMurdo was in a whiteout condition which might bump us another day. If that happens we may end up finding ourselves being kicked out of our rooms as other inbound personnel are programmed in. Under perfect conditions, the new folks would occupy the rooms we’d just vacated but with delay upon delay, the situation gets dicey.
Some years these exercises in transportation to the Ice work out well with little delay. Other years it is nothing short of a nightmare. My second trip down was somewhat like that except my personal level of inconvenience was low but the headaches to those responsible for moving folks south were awful. We had delay after delay after delay. Some mornings we’d get up, go to the lobby to get transport and find out we were cancelled. Other times we were delayed so were in a holding pattern in the hotel. Other times we’d get a knock on the door at 3 AM saying not to bother to awaken as we were cancelled for the day. Other times we’d get all the way to the airport only to wait for hours. Or maybe even take off and find ourselves within minutes of landing but having to return for another 5 hour flight to NZ. Then there are those instances where ALL the above happen in one year. Imagine the weary traveler! Worse yet, imagine the logistical nightmare of having a couple of hundred people arriving every day, stacking up on one another with no place to house them I went through that where the hotel staff asked if we’d mind sharing rooms as they were all out.
So we could never take anything for granted. If something could go wrong (aircraft malfunction, bad weather on the Ice, or, as happened to me, AWFUL weather in Christchurch) it would do so.
One observation that can’t help but be noticed are the number of punctured kids here. Just like the US. Pretty sick if you ask me. But hopefully it is a fad and will not spread to the next generation. Wonder if these kids realize what they will look like when their bodies lose their youthful shine and tautness and begin to get flabby and loose? What a sight they will be.
Also noticed many Japanese here. Must be proximity and cheapness relative to Japan. A bizarre observation is the tendency for Japanese youth to dye their hair. So many of them try to dye their hair brown (which looks rather stupid as their eyebrows, etc are solid black) and the job comes out looking like they’ve dyed their hair a strange shade of dirty, muddy red. YECH!
Having heard the flight was delayed an hour I was able to get up an hour later—5 AM. The shuttle picked me and 7 others up and soon we were at the Clothing Distribution Center getting our clothes on. What a hodgepodge of people and gear and bags and luggage. Of course, we all started to sweat as the flight boarding was not until 8 AM. So soon I began hearing all manner of zippers getting unzipped, snaps getting unsnapped, and straps getting unstrapped all in an effort to cool off a bit. Fortunately we had a much cooler morning than yesterday when the flight was delayed several hours and the folks even made the evening news clomping around seeking relief from the heat wearing not much more than bunny boots.
There were quite a few Kiwis going along with us for the ride bound for Scott Base. Finally got to the C-5 and had to climb this steep staircase up to the passenger area where we all packed ourselves in. Few windows. Few views. The C-5 is a huge aircraft capable of carrying not only tons and tons of cargo but also 70-some-odd passengers in fairly good comfort if they are not waddling around in Antarctic gear. We were all cramming stuff under seats, in the aisles, anywhere we could. No FAA rules for us on that matter! Fortunately the crew kept the air conditioning systems going full blast so we’d not sweat. Had we traveled on a C-141 (which I did my second and third years, a peek in the interior would see us packed like sardines.
Shortly afterwards we lurched skywards and were Southbound!!
The trip was uneventful with many people sleeping or reading. At about the 4.5 hour point into it, we’d start getting up to peek out the sole window in the emergency door trying to see land. Finally got a glimpse of the Antarctic mountain ranges and I found it incredible I’d come so far. Landing was a snap, albeit on ice!, and we disembarked quickly, some posed, and then we were herded into “Ivan, the Terra Bus.”
“Great God, this is an awful place!” So spoke Robert Falcon Scott the day after he finally arrived at the South Pole, having been beaten to it by Amundsen. Then to add to his disappointment, finding himself not able to make great progress northwards back to his camp because of force five gale winds and the resulting blizzard.
I can not even come minutely close to uttering such heart stirring words as:
“What lots and lots I could tell you of this journey. How much better it has been than lounging about in too great comfort at home.”
“Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale…”
But those words do so accurately reflect the unforgiving harshness of this place. Imagine the courage required to pen such eloquence all the while knowing you are dying and nobody was coming to rescue you.
So, whereas I can not be so eloquent when writing this journal of my much-bedecked-with-comfort adventure, I do hope to share my thoughts and feelings on living at the bottom of the world as we approach the end of another century.
This is all so very exciting to me that it got me to thinking about how it seems like quite an adventure to me at 47 years of age even after experiencing my 26 years of fun in the Air Force, my cross country bike trip, my Pacific Coast trip, my travels to Brazil and Portugal, and other little mini-adventures scattered throughout my short existence. But isn’t that we are put on this planet for? To live life to its fullest? To enjoy all we can before our miserable little lives get snuffed out either by death, infirmity, or the humdrum of routine?
It was then that my thoughts wandered over to how the young kids currently here consider this in their lives. Do they think it is such a great big deal? Is it routine to them? Are they so used to thrill-a-moment lives that this is just another notch in their belt-of-life? Or do they feel like I do? Eager to fill their every moment with something new, fascinating, invigorating, challenging, awe inspiring? What will they do for a follow-up to this? Go to the South Pole? Climb Mt Everest? Live at the bottom of the ocean when that possibility presents itself? Go to space? Or will they feel like there is no way to top this episode…..only to go on to a drab and dreary life style feeling frustrated with themselves? They are so young and I almost envy them being able to do this so soon. What would I have felt? How much more could I have done?
All of these questions to which no answers readily present themselves nor will ever be forthcoming. But that’s OK as I go on my path to happiness and fulfillment even so late in my life.
Got rushed to get onboard so I was not able to get a photo of myself but I did photograph Ivan. Looking back towards the C-5 I noticed there was a helicopter jammed into its maw which explained why we had to almost crawl along a very narrow walk space.
Got ferried to the galley (chow hall) for our first briefing, room assignments, etc. Also met the winter supply manager and the winter-over warehouse supervisor who I was replacing.
Then I went to my room. Of course, everyone on station got to tell who the FNGs were simply because we were all wearing these clodhopper white bunny boots. Felt like I was back in basic training with my hair shaved off. So much for being low key.
DAMMIT it is COLD here! The temp was 11 below and seeing a number like forty-two below zero wind chill in a newspaper or on TV and actually sticking your face into it are two totally different things! And to think it is springtime! Ah, I can smell the flowers now…or is it the penguins?
Now for some historical perspective and lots of facts about Antarctica:
—It is the driest, coldest, windiest place on earth. Land mass is 14 million sq. km Vs USA’s 9.3 Million sq.
—Entombed under Antarctica’s ice are mountains, hundred mile long lakes, and deep troughs.
—The Ross Ice Shelf is equal in area to France. (Ross Ice Shelf in where McMurdo is located)
—In the Dry Valleys on the continent tiny ponds of water exhibit microscopic life in the summer. Miniature wingless insects hide in patches of moss and lichens.
—The penguin is the most highly specialized of all birds for marine life. With wings that resemble flippers, a penguin can swim as fast as 25 m.p.h. in pursuit of fish, squid and shrimp. When on land, it fasts.
—Mt. Erebus was named for the flag ship of Captain James Ross in 1841. It is a fitting name for a volcano that reaches perhaps a hundred kilometers into the earth. In the Greek myth, Erebus is the personification of primeval darkness, born together with “Nyx” (night) from the primordial Chaos. Erebus was the dark region beneath the earth through which the shades passed to the realm of Hades below.
—Antarctica has more ice and snow than all the glaciers and snow fields of the rest of the world combined.
—The Beardmore Glacier is over five miles wide at its mouth. If glaciers are “frozen rivers” then the Beardmore is the widest “river” in the world.
—The surgeon on Ross’ Erebus and Terror voyages, Robert McCormick, also served on the Beagle. That small surveying brig carried fellow naturalist Charles Darwin on the research journey that led to his publication of “Origin of Species”.
—The first black man to sail to Antarctica was Peter Harvey. Working on the Nathaniel B. Palmer’s Hero, he was one of the five crewmen on the historic voyage of discovery in 1820-21.
—George Bernard Shaw named the classic of Antarctica adventure stories. “The Worst Journey in the World” has been continuously in print since 1922. Apsley G.B. Cherry-Garrard was assistant zoologist on Scott’s last expedition. He accompanied Bowers and Wilson to Cape Crozier to retrieve Emperor penguin eggs. G.B. Shaw was a friend living in a nearby village. Cheery reported he asked Shaw: “What shall I call this book? It was the worst journey in the world but I can’t come up with a title.” Shaw exclaimed: “That’s it!”
—Fifty-one U.S. aircraft have been lost in Antarctica since 1946.
—The average annual precipitation in the interior of Antarctica is less than 2 inches, drier than the Sahara desert.
—Nunataks are mountains that are buried so deeply in snow that only their tips peek above the ice.
—No rain has fallen in the Dry Valleys in approximately a million years and the occasional traces of snow are quickly blown away.
—Scott and his companions lugged 37 lbs. of geological samples all the way to their deaths.
—Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Scott’s expedition, in The Worst Journey in the World wrote: “And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore…You will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers; that is worth a good deal. If you march your winter journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”
—The name Antarctica is derived from the Greek word “Antarktikos” meaning “opposite the bear”. “Arktos”, “The Great Bear” (or Big Dipper) is the constellation above the North Pole. The ancient Greeks felt that the earth was a sphere and that it was logical that a southern landmass would be present to balance the known, northern world. Early mapmakers named the assumed continent “Terra Australis Incognita” – “The Unknown Southern Land.”
—The shape of an iceberg is usually an indication of its age. A large Antarctic Iceberg may weigh 400 million tons and rise ten stories above the surface of the water. A berg of this size would contain enough freshwater to supply a city of three million people for a year. In 1987 an iceberg broke from the Ross Ice Shelf that was 86 x 22 nautical miles -approximately the size of the state of Delaware.
—The largest glacier in the world is the Lambert Glacier in the vicinity of Prince Charles Mountain; measuring approximately 25 miles wide and 250 miles long.
—When Antarctica freezes in the winter the ice cover doubles the area of the continent, extending it to approximately 30 million square miles. Even in summer, almost the entire continent is covered by ice with an average thickness of almost a mile.
—There is about eight times more ice in the Antarctic than in the Arctic region. Antarctica’s year-round snow cover reflects nearly 80 percent of the incoming radiation into the atmosphere. Heat is simply not retained in Antarctica to the degree it is in the Arctic.
—Scott’s old ship, the Discovery, made thirteen successive summer cruises in the Southern Ocean to investigate the biology and oceanography of the region.
—No land vertebrates can survive Antarctica’s harsh conditions. The continent’s largest permanent inhabitant is a 1/2 inch long midge, a tiny two-winged fly.
—Russia’s Mirny Observatory on the West Antarctic Ice Shelf is provided with 1 ton of clear fresh water per day. Three tubular electroheaters are inserted into a hole in the ice and water accumulates in the hole. The ice melts and does not freeze up again, even though the outdoor temperature often reaches minus 30 C.
—800 gallons of rum and 45 sheep were packed on the “Discovery” in 1902. They were part of the provisions for 48 men for three years, which included 42,000 pounds of flour, 10,000 pounds of sugar, 3,000 pounds of roast beef and 23 sledge dogs (not part of the menu).
—The “weirdest bird-nesting expedition that has ever been made” was undertaken in 1911 to collect penguin eggs from Cape Crozier. Edward A. Wilson the geologist, medical officer and artist on Scott’s two Antarctic expeditions believed the penguin to be the most primitive bird in existence. He hoped to gather eggs to trace the ancestry of the species. The excursion to the Cape was undertaken in total darkness except for the occasional glow of the moon and aurora.
—Hot and humid Florida holds the geological materials collected in polar regions. The Antarctic Marine Geology Research Facility and Core Library is located at Florida State University.
—A South Polar skua was found in Greenland six months after being hatched and banded on Shortcut Island near Palmer Station on Jan. 20, 1975. It was recovered by an Eskimo at Godthabsfjorden, Greenland on July 31. The South Polar skua is believed to range farther south than any other bird and has been sighted at the geographic South Pole.
—Two alpacas were brought to Antarctica with the Ronne expedition of 1947-48. When purchased in Valpariso, the animals were thought to be llamas and were loaded onto the Beaumont with 1,000 kilograms of hay. On the journey to Stonington Island one of the huskies broke loose on the ship and killed the alpacas.
—The first duck-billed dinosaur found outside of the Americas was located in sands about 66-67 million years old on Vega Island off the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The finding of this hadrosaur gives support to the theory of a land bridge between Antarctica and South America during the Cretaceous period. It is assumed quantities of vegetation existed in Antarctica to support these large plant eaters, some of whom may have stood 20-feet tall.
—Paul Siple first came to Antarctica as a Boy Scout. He was 19 years old during Byrd’s 1928 expedition. His skills with dog handling persuaded Byrd to allow him to join the winter team.
—The biggest earthquake in the world in 1998 was the March 25 quake just off the Balleny Islands, which registered 8.1 on the Richter Scale. By comparison, the 1995 quake in Kobe, Japan, measured only 7.2 and killed 6,000 people and injured 35,000.
—October 1998 was the coldest and stormiest summer in McMurdo since 1973, breaking a 25-year old record.
—The ice sheet and the South Pole is nearly two miles thick and is constantly shifting, carrying the facilities along with it at a rate of about 30 feet per year.
—The highest mountains of Antarctica reach over 14,000 feet, about the height of the U.S. Rocky Mountains.
—If completely melted, the present Antarctic ice sheet houses enough water to raise the global sea level by 200 feet.
—Antarctica is depressed more than half a mile to near sea level under the weight of ice.
Now for a little bit of info regarding McMurdo Station, Ross Island and some of the different points here plus how they got their names:
McMurdo Station is Antarctica’s largest community. It is built on the bare volcanic rock of Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island, the farthest south solid ground that is accessible by ship. Established in 1956, it has grown from an outpost of a few buildings to a complex logistics staging facility of more than 100 structures including a harbor, an outlying airport (Williams Field) with landing strips on sea ice and shelf ice, and a helicopter pad. There are above-ground water, sewer, telephone, and power lines linking buildings.
Ross Island is one of the most fascinating places in Antarctica. Of volcanic origin, situated at a latitude of almost 78 degrees South latitude, roughly triangular in shape, and some 45 miles wide and an equal distance long, it is the site of Antarctica’s largest and most active volcano, Mount Erebus, 12,450 feet high. On its western side, at Cape Royds, the island harbors a group of Adelies in the world’s southernmost penguin rookery; at Cape Evans, several miles south of Cape Royds, the world’s southernmost penguin rookery; and on its eastern side, on the ice shelf just off Cape Crozier, the world’s southernmost emperor penguin rookery.
The south end of the island is the world’s southernmost land accessible by ship. On that spot is situated the continent’s largest and most populous station. McMurdo Station is the United States prime logistics for inland stations and is the center of the Nation’s scientific research in Antarctica. Two miles east of McMurdo, on the opposite side of Cape Armitage, is New Zealand’s Scott Base. Within a few miles of McMurdo are two of the world’s most remarkable airfields- Williams Field, built on the floating Ross Ice Shelf, and, in early austral summer, a runway on the annual sea ice of McMurdo Sound.
Ross Island is fascinating not only for its present-day activities but also for the numerous important historical events that have occurred on or near it and for the remarkable stature of certain of the players in them. In this respect, too, it surpasses any other place on the continent. The visitor to Ross Island is fortunate to be intimately exposed to a profound sense of the Antarctic past and to the influence of heroic times and men. Both Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) and Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) used the island as a base for their explorations. Scott’s two huts at Hut Point and Cape Evans, and Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, are still intact. All three are protected as historic sites under the Antarctic Treaty.
The island was discovered by James Clark Ross (1800-1862), a British explorer who also discovered the Ross Sea and the Ross Ice Shelf and who named many of the conspicuous features of the island and of its vicinity: Mount Erebus, Mount Terror, Cape Crozier, Cape Bird, McMurdo Bay (renamed McMurdo Sound by Scott), Victoria Land, Beaufort Island, and Franklin Island. On his first expedition, Scott named the island in honor of Ross.
Ross entered the Royal Navy at the age of 12. He was a member of several important expeditions to the Arctic. At age 31 he discovered the north magnetic pole. He commanded Erebus and Terror during the Antarctic expedition of 1839-1843. On this voyage he conducted experiments in terrestrial magnetism and gathered much important data on the behavior of magnetic compasses in the high southern latitudes. Also, he tried to reach the south magnetic pole. His hopes of being the discoverer of both magnetic poles was frustrated by the landlocked location (then in Victoria Land) of the south magnetic pole and by the dangerous lateness of the season, which made it imperative that he return north without an attempt to winter on the continent. It was while intrepidly drawing ever closer to the magnetic pole that he broke through a wide belt of pack ice and into the large and clear sea that was to bear his name.
He discovered Ross Island in January 1841. In his book A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, Ross described his first sighting of the island. “With a favorable breeze, and very clear weather, we stood to the southward, close to some land which had been in sight since the preceding noon [26 January], and which we then called the ‘High Island’; it proved to be a mountain twelve thousand four hundred feet of elevation above the level of the sea, emitting flame and smoke in great profusion; at first the smoke appeared like snow drift, but as we drew nearer, its true character became manifest.” This is still the largest eruption of Mount Erebus to be witnessed and recorded. Mount Erebus, named after Ross’s ship, remains an active volcano, and on most clear days steam can be seen emerging from the summit crater.
Although Ross made landfalls at Possession and Franklin Islands in the Ross Sea, he made none at Ross Island, which remained untouched by man for sixty- one more years. On January 21, 1902, Scott, in the ship Discovery (of about 700 tons and specially built for Antarctic work), with a crew of some fifty men, became the first explorer since Ross to make his way into McMurdo Sound. The Sound, which lies between Ross Island and Victoria Land, is forty miles wide at its entrance and is approximately fifty miles long. Its southern terminus is the Ross Ice Shelf and the ice sheet of the Koettlitz Glacier.
Scott’s National Antarctic Expedition (1901-1904), often referred to as the Discovery expedition, and was sponsored chiefly by the Royal Geographical Society. Like Ross’s expedition and numerous Antarctic expeditions both before and after Ross’s, it had two main goals: geographical and scientific exploration. During this visit to the Sound, Scott wondered about the possible advantages of setting up winter quarters to the eastward. He was seeking a sheltered place, yet one that would provide him with more than local meteorological data and that would afford him ready access to the south. He planned to explore the Ross Ice Shelf (known as the Ice Barrier or the Barrier at that time), as well as to sledge in the direction of the geographical pole.
Turning north, he sailed around Cape Bird and Cape Crozier, examining the coastline from the ship, then proceeded eastward for several days alongside the imposing clefts of the ice shelf. Finding no satisfactory harbor, he returned to McMurdo Sound, where on February 8 he decided to winter at Hut Point, the southwestern extremity of Ross Island. The Discovery hut was constructed during February and the early part of March.
Scott devoted almost his entire life to the services of the Royal Navy. He became a naval cadet at thirteen, a midshipman at fifteen and a full lieutenant at twenty-three. He was reticent, sensitive, and moody. It is said that his intelligence and admirable personal style marked him as a leader. He was a naval commander when he was selected to head the Discovery expedition.
During the expedition he introduced a number of Fridtjof Nansen’s artic techniques into Antarctic work and opened the era of full-scale land exploration of the continent, using sledding traverses. He made many geographical discoveries, among them Edward VII Land, which much later was found to be a peninsula and was renamed accordingly. he also discovered and named Mount Discovery, the Royal Society Range, and many more important landmarks among the “Western Mountains.” The Western Mountains was the name often used by him for the chain of mountains (part of the Transantarctic Mountains) beautifully visible from McMurdo Station, on the western side of McMurdo Sound. He, Earnest Shackleton, and Edward A. Wilson sledged to a new farthest south of 82 degrees 17 minutes on December 30, 1902.
It was the Discovery expedition that named many of the features of Ross Island. Scott wrote in The Voyage of the “Discovery”:
“Names have been given to the various landmarks in our vicinity. The end of our peninsula is to be called ‘Cape Armitage,’ after our excellent navigator. The sharp hill above it is to be ‘Observation Hill’; it is 750 feet high, and should make an excellent look-out station for observing the going and coming of sledge-parties. Next comes the ‘Gap,’through which we can cross the peninsula at a comparatively low level. North of the “Gap’ are ‘Crater Heights,’ and the higher volcanic peak beyond is to be ‘Crater Hill’; it is 1,050 feet in height. Our protecting promontory is to be ‘Hut Point,’ with ‘Arrival Bay’ on the north and ‘Winter Quarters Bay’ on the south; above ‘Arrival Bay’ are the ‘Arrival Heights,’ which continue with breaks for about three miles to a long snow-slope, beyond which rises the most conspicuous landmark on our peninsula, a high precipitous-sided rock with a flat top, which has been dubbed ‘Castle Rock’; it is 1350 feet in height.”
I’ve taken the above excerpts from: http://www.theice.org
As late as 1921, there was still no proof that Antarctica was a solid mass of continent even considering all the different places that were discovered at so many different points.
Oh, and a couple more personal observation factoids: Snow starts to blasting down hillsides and since it is fine it gets into every nook and cranny. If a door is left just slightly ajar on a truck and it gusts at night, in the morning expect to find it filled with snow—literally!
And factoid 2: Daylight increases by 16 minutes every day, 8 in the AM and 8 in the PM. Currently rises at 515 and sets at 830. The pace will pick up some soon and within 3 weeks it will be daylight 24 hours a day.
Big excitement today for those who have been here all winter—freshies came in today and it is amazing to see how people who wintered over just attack the piles of fruits and vegetables. They pack them into their pockets, stuff them into their faces, and overall hover over the serving tables picking it over.
Found out Monday’s C-141 flight was cancelled as the aircraft took an air strike on its wing when it departed Christchurch. Seems no one noticed until it got here. After refueling, a leak was detected and when the crew went to investigate they found where the bird impacted the wing and damaged the fuel line. The aircraft took off anyway (minor leak) and was to be repaired in Christchurch. Folks are not happy about that as delays will certainly occur for the departees.
Sat in at the local radio station and found out there is a 24 hour AFRTS feed but if folks volunteer they can be DJs. Pretty cool! I plan on volunteering and got a good look at how things work. The station has a huge library of CDs, mini-disks, and LPs.
Folks are pretty serious about waste management here. Got a briefing on how to treat everything from sanitary napkins, paper, plastic, clothes, food, glass, food contaminated items, large thickness sheet metal, thin metal, wood, busted up construction parts, and the list goes on and on. Everything goes to Washington state for recovery. A very costly project and the objective is to minimize waste to reduce retrograde cargo and simultaneously reduce ship space required to haul that retrograde material. Concurrently it would reduce the amount of time we spend on ship off-load/on-load in February. Read an article about waste here.
First full day there and I awoke with a bad headache and a very dry mouth. Must be lack of water.
I also need to re-adapt to dorm life to include being quiet, dressing without banging stuff around, finding moments of privacy, and when nature calls, re-learning how to dress, leave the room, walk down the hall to urinate and somehow try to stay sleepy. All the water we are required to drink makes it a bit hard to get a full night’s sleep. Gone are the days of sleeping in the buff. Also gone are the days of just popping on a pair of shorts to go outside and drive or walk anywhere. Leaving a building is a complicated process of layering on clothes.
Talked to a guy who’d been here before and is currently trying to get a winter-over contract. We came on the same plane over here and we got to talking about personalities and the motivators people have for coming here. Some folks absolutely do not want anything to do with much of society so they like to stay here. One guy’s been here for 10 or 12 winters. He probably holds the world record for most time on the ice. Others never return after the first trip. So basically the saying goes that you come here the first time for the adventure, the second time for money, and the third time because you can’t do anything else. Pretty funny. Another saying is that the romance ends when the plane takes off so if someone decides to shack up, all is well while on the ice. Once airborne, all contact is broken.
He also described the folks that play music on Saturday nights at Gallagher’s, one of the bars on Station named after a guy who died here of a heart attack. At first it’s for a goof. Then when others start to tell them they are good, their heads begin to swell and they begin to act like rock stars. Hilarious! What a microcosm of the planet we have here. All weirdnesses are represented.
Also got told the story of the guy who was put on suicide watch. He and his girlfriend decided to get married in Christchurch and then deployed to Mac town. All went well for a couple of months and then one day, out of the blue, she says she wants to move out and moves in with her supervisor. The guy went bananas. Needless to say, there are lots of stories of men and women swapping partners, switching rooms, etc.
Another little tale deals with this fat, ugly gal who would give herself away to these guys feeling she was not only getting attention but making friends in doing so. What happened was that when all of them ended their contract, they ignored her in Christchurch. She cried a bucket of tears lamenting how they all had fun at McMurdo but all of a sudden she was ignored. Little did she know she was nothing more than a port of call for those guys. They cared nothing about her as a person. Yet these are the types of folks that sometimes make it down here: lonely, looking for attention and finding it only to lose it all upon return to the real world.
I guess I should consider myself fortunate. Arrived on Ice late Friday, worked one day and then lucked into a “weekend”. I guess I should explain: the typical workweek is 9 hours a day (usually 7:30 to 5:30; hour for lunch) six days a week. Which leaves Sunday as your only day off until Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years for which you “generally” get 2 days in a row off.
So I tried to take full advantage of it and found myself getting a great break out of it—went on a trip to Cape Evans. The sign up list was filled but someone who’d been here awhile told me I should sign up as an alternate, show up at the appointed time and that if I were lucky the folks who’d signed up and had been to Gallagher’s the night before were too drunk or hung-over to want to make it. Priority was given to the winter-overs (understandably) so I got into all my gear and arrived a half hour early to tempt fate and try my luck. BINGO! Lots of folks never showed. I was thrilled to be able to go. The trip took almost an hour and a half on a huge machine called a Delta. It’s a truck looking thing on enormous balloon tires pulling a trailer that has a compartment for people on it. Rocking and rolling over the ice on the Deltas is better than 6 Flags. A couple of folks began to get ill to their stomachs!
Saw Captain Robert F. Scott’s camp erected in early 1900’s. The huts left by Shackleton at Cape Royds and Scott at Cape Evans tell of the courage and perseverance of the men who first explored Antarctica. Both are maintained by the New Zealand Antarctic Society, and everything is just as it was left, including bales of hay for the ponies, slabs of seal meat for the huskies and many containers of food, drugs, spices, etc. There were also many dishes, experiment labs, a dead penguin laid out on the table. The cots and parkas are still there as are other assorted items of daily living.
On leaving, got to see a seal that chewed its way through where two ice ridges had collided and lifted up creating a weak area suitable for surfacing. It had been in a territorial fight and looked the worse for wear. Seems they have their territories laid out under the ice pack and when the time comes for mating they duke it out. One of the first areas they go for is the genitalia and this one was bloodied as we saw where it had surfaced, dragged itself to lay out and rest all the while leaving a bloody trail for us to follow. It will survive but was not pleased that we seemed to be near its territory. One of the girls that went along on the trip said that if we were to have gotten into its home area it would have let us know. At that point we’d have to retreat as it is against Antarctic Treaty rules to harass any animals. Harassment is considered making noises at the animal to get its attention or causing it to make moves it normally would not make. Therefore we are prohibited from “staging” photos. We had to be careful where we walked as the ice was cracking under pressure and leaving small crevasses. We’d give the snow cover over the crevasses tentative pushes and scrapes with our boots to see if it went deep, always making sure we didn’t lose our step!
Before I knew it the weekend was over and it was time to head back into the salt mines—and an awakening into a much colder day.
The good news is that I suffered much less from Mojave mouth, a condition resulting from sleeping with a plugged up nose necessitating breathing through the mouth and causing the tongue, roof, and cheeks to dry such that when you wake up for whatever reason it feels like you have a piece of old leather slapping around inside your food hole. What a pain in the ass.
Got a tour of the various warehouses and outside storage locations we have stuff squirreled away in. Some of it is frozen solid into the ground, some of it is buried under snow, some stuff is in unlit, unheated warehouses. I got a fire hose full of info and am still trying to sort it out.
The low temp today was –17 with a wind chill of –61. Fortunately I did not have to be outside at the times of those extremes. For the most part I was out in –10/-12 with 10/15 MPH winds.
Early in the season much travel around the perimeter and away from the station is restricted. One needs to go with a partner, sign out at the firehouse, and take a radio. Plus some of the trips require a safety briefing as weather can go from bad to miserably fucking awful in minutes and this way when we get stuck out there they can send a search and rescue mission for us. Of course, if bad weather were to hit, we are to just hunker down and wait to avoid walking into a crevasses and never being seen again. Last week one guy was in a truck, a white-out popped up and he thought he was going in the right direction and kept going. The fire dept looked for him where he should have been and only after a couple of hours was he located—miles from the base! Ugly.
This land is starkly beautiful but oh-so-unforgiving. It does not give a shit who you are, how nice you are, how smart you are. You are nothing but a warm blooded alien attempting to tame its ice cold heart. And it won’t hear of it.
An advantage? No annoying damned cell phones! None going off to disturb a person in a meeting or gathering or lunch/dinner, etc.
One of the joys of the job is rooting around snow filled warehouses looking for stuff. Since the doors and windows are not well sealed and the buildings are not heated, snow gets in everywhere. And it’s really easy to determine which warehouses have little traffic by the amount of snow in them and how hard it is packed down.
Found out that whenever people have photos they take to be for public consumption, they post it on one of the public drives. Went out and found the ones for the trip to Cape Evans. With the good comes the bad, of course. So many people have digital cameras here and they put shitty, unfocused, poorly composed images out on the common drive on the intranet for others to view. All it does is clog it and makes it harder and cumbersome to go through the images. Assholes. Who wants to see an out of focus close-up of someone’s nose hairs?
They were right at our briefing when they said this place dehydrates you. If you do not drink at least 2 liters of water you get headaches. I guess the dryness of the air (something like 5% humidity) along with the dryness of the body act in concert to make your head feel like it is being pounded into aridity.
Another nice interesting observation about this place: no spiders, flies, cockroaches, ants or any type of insects. But then again, no cats, dogs or other animals. Nor are plants permitted anywhere on the compound. If a person is found with a plant they are fired. Simple as that. So it’s no problem to leave food out or leave containers open. Nothing will get into them (except dust). I’d find myself capping or closing food and drink containers only to realize there was no need to do so.
Other rules: if you are in a fight you are fired. You are allowed to hit back only in the case of threatened serious bodily harm. Once free of the conflict, if you land a punch you are as guilty as the guy who started it.
No drugs. Drinking and driving means you’ll get fired.
If fired, you go back on the next flight and lose all bonuses. Plus you have to pay your way home from New Zealand. Serious stuff.
There is no doubt about one thing here: the cold hits all parts of the body without regard with the extremities feeling it the most. Males have it particularly bad as we have an extra bit of anatomy that can be considered an extremity and it wants to crawl back inside to stay warm! Hunting around for it can be a nuisance when one is layered with clothes. Not sure what problems women have—-OOOHH!! I know one. When on field trips and we have to have a pee break, women can’t just unzip. They literally have to drop their pants. BRRRRR!!
Wonder of wonders, I got a new room! I couldn’t believe it. Someone had suggested I apply now before the mass crowd got here and that must have been the ticket. YIPPEE! It’s bigger, better, cooler. Plus it has more washers/dryers, too and they are conveniently located nearby the room. Also helps that it is close to the end of the building so I can sneak in the back door without tromping all over the hallways!
As of this writing, Raytheon, the company responsible for the services contract, has 3 levels of dormitories and they are strict at enforcing it. For first year people, more than likely they will get super small rooms where one roomie must stay put if the other needs to move about. These two dorms are a bit further away than the rest and require bundling up to go to dinner or the clubs. Usually second year people get to go to the most recently remodeled dorms which are a bit larger and closer to the “center” of town and depending on the weather, not as much bundling needs to be done if one is headed only to dinner or a workout or the Coffee House. Both of the above have communal latrine/showers in the centers of the buildings. The last group of dorms go to those who either have lots of months of time on Ice or have a position that gives them enough points to merit them. These are nicer, have shared bath facilities in between rooms, sinks inside the rooms, and also have sauna facilities, too. If you have LOTS of time on the Ice you might even get a window room facing the bay. THAT’S upscale!
Ideally, no matter what dorm you are in you should consider yourself fortunate if your roomie works night shift. That way, you are up at 6 or so and roomie is still at work. You go to work and the roomie comes in and sleeps. You get off work and stay out of the room until about 6 PM or so as he/she is just then waking up. It’s sweet and almost like having a room to yourself.
Finally had another C-5 come in (other than the one that landed us) and it was bizarre to watch it do its little “circle the runway” dance wherein it would come close, fly out to the Royal Society Range, come back, circle again, and over and over until the pilot finally decided to land. Not sure what his problem was and really do not think there was any. Suspect he just wanted to get photographs of the mountains.
If it were later in the season we’d probably have reason to suspect the pilot was afraid the ice would not be able to handle his load. It is not unusual to see a C-5 land and because of its weight, as it rolls down the runway, the ice sheet forms a wave that “flows” out in front of the aircraft much like a wave that a surfer surfs on. I can only imagine how cool something like that looks like.
And no wonder, really, as the view was the clearest we’ve had so far to date. We got to see Mt Discovery and lots of interior mountains. I went to look at a map to get an idea of just how far they were and realized they are well over 40 miles away.
Approaching a week now that I’ve been here and awoke to simply an amazing morning today. The sun was shining off Mt Discovery and other glaciers to the south of us. I had a very quick breakfast and got my camera for some photos. Awesome! Awe inspiring! Inspirational! Beautiful! Cosmic! I run out of adjectives to describe it. Plus the temperatures were not so bad. It was only zero today so it actually felt pleasant. A 10 degree difference is very noticeable in the level of comfort one feels.
Also noticed the Post-It pads lose their “stickiness” here. They dry out quickly as do tires on vehicles. Many have dryness cracks on them. Cellophane wrappers on candy deteriorate due to dryness, too.
Pizza day today. YUMMY!! After dinner I went photo taking as the day was absolutely beautiful. On the way back to building 140 I overheard someone say “Scott Base.”
BINGO! That’s what I wanted to do! Not only go to Scott but be a shuttle bus driver for the run. I resolved then and there that I’d go and take advantage of the opportunity the weather offered and the potential to see Mt Erebus, the active volcano (at a distance, natch!). Hurried to the room, got film and made the bus. Seeing that mountain gives one pause to wonder about the sanity of any individual who comes to the bottom of the world, the most inhospitable place on earth only to live on the same island as an active volcano! Awesome!
A little about Ole’ Erebus: (taken off the web)
Mount Erebus (elevation: 12,444 feet, 3,794 m, located at 77° 50′ South / 166° 42′ East) is on Ross Island in the Ross Sea. Erebus is an active volcano with a convecting lava lake within a summit crater. It has been continuously active since 1972. Most eruptions are small and Strombolian in character, tossing bombs onto the crater rim. The volcano is less than one million years old.
Erebus is named for a character in Greek mythology that ferried the souls of the dead over the river Styx in Hades.
It is the largest and most active volcano on the Antarctic continent. This volcano has a unique convecting lava lake of anwraporthoclase phonolite magma. This feature and its southerly locality (it may be a major source of aerosols to the Antarctic atmosphere) has focused a number of types of research efforts on Mt. Erebus, including studies of gas chemistry, impact of gas emissions on local and distant atmospheric and snow chemistry, crystal formation and magmatic evolution, eruption dynamics, and geophysics of the volcanic edifice.
The Antarctica plate is mostly asesmic and moves little relative to other plates. About 95% of the edge of the plate is a divergent (spreading) plate boundary. Antarctic volcanoes are located along the margins of large rift systems. These rifts total 1,900 miles (3,200 km) in length, comparable to the East African Rift.
But having a volcano in your backyard can be quite awesome, too!! If you want to know more about the volcano, read the science page entry for it.
Finally had a chance to go to the SKUA, a place where stuff that people throw out gets stored for others to paw through and take. It is also named after a very aggressive bird that begins getting here in late spring. It is primarily a scavenger/aggressor and this led to the “recycle” facility here being called SKUA. Some folks find boots, pants, thermal underwear, appliances, books, etc. It was fairly well picked through by the time I got to it so I was told I need to do some dumpster diving at the individual dumpster set up on base for that purpose. It’s not like dumpster diving in the US where food and garbage get mixed up. All of it is segregated: clothes, metal, paper, construction stuff, food, etc. If you want more info on the Skua Barn, read this article. In my three seasons on the Ice, I skuaed two pair of boots, a dinner jacket, a top hat, humidifier, coats, pants, and shirts.
Hunted around for info on why my CD player won’t work on the computer and determined I needed software so I got one off the web and now I have music. I am styling, let me tell you!!
After dinner I found the library and it was quite nice. Tons of books and a whole section dedicated to books on Antarctica. DUH! I wonder why? ?
I found the gym and as soon as I get my act together on this journal I will be going there to use the bike machines.
Still need to rent a cross country bike in order to do some cycling here. What a hoot that would be! Then all that needs to be done is to find someone to take my picture tooling around.
I guess a word or two should be given to the types of people that can be found here. Many folks are “green”: environmental types that want to defend the earth (tree hugging granola munchers) Almost all the folks here have a spirit of adventure I’ve not found in any other cross-section of the population I’ve ever associated or worked with but then again, if you volunteer to come down here you HAVE to have some sort of spirit of adventure.
I know someone here who is into such things as the universe and the metaphysics associated with it. He also does yoga aerobics and wants to teach it. Another guy, a sheet metal worker, plays and makes almost world class violins. He will be going to Italy for 3 years to learn how to build them and give him title of a world class builder. To offset costs he will be staying at a monastery that offers room and board for free if he volunteers 3 hours a day manual labor. Another young lady is also a violin player and brought her 150 year old violin to play. I am trying to convince them to put on a recital.
Whenever anyone mentions Antarctica, many people think only of the South Pole. So here’s a few paragraphs on the South Pole station. It is being built anew. Seems the original domed structure built a couple of decades ago is slowly disappearing into the ice; or rather, the ice is building up around it and slowly swallowing it. It used to be at ground level when constructed but now there is a ramp leading down almost 35 feet into it. Eventually it would have been completely buried and with tons of pressure from built up ice it would have slowly been crushed. Given enough time (several tens of thousands of years from now) the ice itself will be at the blue ice stage where even air bubbles have been squeezed from it and anything in its grip is squeezed unmercifully at thousands of pounds of pressure per sq. inch!!
So the new facility is being built on stilts that will allow snow to pass under it and when necessary, the structure will be jacked up and new sections added to the stilts to keep the structure above ground level. The whole process will take several years to build because construction can only happen in the summertime. Even inside the current, halfway buried dome is generally 50 below zero most of the year. I thought ice was ice and froze at about 30 degrees and if you could protect yourself from the wind inside one of those igloos or whatever ice cave you built, then you’d be pretty comfortable. I guess not!
South Pole station is at an elevation of 2,900 meters; however the equivalent pressure elevation, based on polar atmospheric conditions, will vary from 3,300 to 4,000 meters. No landmarks are visible on the 3,000-meter-thick plateau of ice. (They actually sell sweatshirts with the saying: “Ski South Pole: 2 miles of base, 2 inches of powder.”) South Pole Station is 1,350 km from McMurdo Station and is supported entirely by special ski-equipped planes, among them the LC-130 planes operated for the U.S. Antarctic Program.
From 1955 until 1999, the Navy [Antarctic Development Squadron Six (VXE-6)] flew various aircraft in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program, including LC-130 aircraft. In 1998 at the Navy’s request, the Air Force/Air National Guard took-over command of the DoD support to the USAP (Operation Deep Freeze) from the Navy. VXE-6 continued to augment the Air National Guard with LC-130 flights until it was disestablished in March 1999. The New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, which had augmented VXE-6 since 1988, became the sole USAP provider of LC-130 aircraft support, beginning with the 1999/2000 field season.
The geographic South Pole (90 degrees South) has long been a prized goal of Antarctic explorers. The first to reach it were four Norweigians led by Roald Amundsen in 1911. About a month later, in January 1912, the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole with four companions. Scott and his party perished from exposure and hunger on their attempted return on foot to the McMurdo Sound region.
U.S. Navy Admiral Richard E. Byrd was the first to fly an airplane over the South Pole (1929), but he did not land there. The site was not visited again until 1956, when Navy Admiral George J. Dufek stepped off an LC-47 with an advance party to build the first permanent South Pole Station. The station was established in 1957 for the International Geophysical Year under Paul Siple, first station scientific leader. It continued to function year-round until January 1975, when the present station was occupied. The new station is about 350 meters from the true Geographic South Pole, and is drifting toward the pole at about 10 meters/year.
Scientific research at the station falls into the general disciplines of upper-atmosphere physics, meteorology, earth sciences, geophysics, glaciology, biomedicine, and astrophysics.
Sun — During the winter at the South Pole, the Sun never rises. (The 6 months of night is another reason this site is good for astronomical observations.) During the summer, the Sun never sets! It goes all the way around the sky every day. All this light can actually be dangerous. Because the South Pole is a high altitude site, the sunlight is very intense. And, in addition, you have lots of reflected light from all the snow. You can’t go outside at all without sunglasses (with uv-blocking coating). In fact, there is a substantial risk of snow blindness, where you literally sunburn your eyes — it can be serious and painful. (Oh, and when you go buy your sunglasses, make sure that you pick ones where none of the metal frame touches your skin!)
Wind and Snow — There is only a trace of precipitation, and drifting is the primary factor in snow accumulation around station structures. Average wind speed is around 12 knots, although many summer days are calm.
Temperatures — The average annual temperature at the South Pole is -50 degrees C and generally ranges between -21 degrees C in the summer and -78 degrees C in the winter.
Is it dry? Although there is lots of snow and ice around, the Pole is really a desert environment, because it averages less than 4 mm of precipitation monthly, about the same as the Sahara Desert.
Is it windy? Many people think of Antarctica as a windy place. That is true, but only near the edges of the continent. At a coastal location, like Australia’s Mawson Base, winds average 40 km per hour, with week-long blizzards bringing winds in excess of 80 km per hour and gusts up to 190 km per hour.
The severe coastal winds called the katabatic winds result from cold air flowing down off the interior ice sheet. These winds are further disturbed and strengthened by the low pressure systems that ring the continent. But…..high on the plateau, at the South Pole, the average wind speed is typically less than 14 km per hour, with the peak winds rarely over 40 km per hour. There the winds almost always blow from the same direction – the compass quadrant containing Dome A, the highest point on the Antarctic Plateau. At Dome A, typical wind speeds are less than a few km per hour, making it possibly the calmest place on Earth.
OK, so what kinds of weather do you find at the Pole itself? The South Pole is located within a permanent polar high, making it possibly the most consistently clear place on Earth where there is a scientific station. This air mass is created by the normal Hadley Circulation that causes air to descend at the poles of the Earth.
Radiative cooling causes this air mass to become very dense and relatively thin. The troposphere is only 7-8 km thick at the Pole, almost half of its thickness at low latitudes.
Forming around this permanent high is the polar vortex, a jet stream of stratospheric winds. This vortex is responsible for isolating the polar stratosphere and thereby enabling the chain of events that leads to the notorious ozone hole.
The violent weather that coastal Antarctic inhabitants experience is due to cold, outward flowing air from this high meeting the warm moist air from the circumpolar trough of low pressure cells.
How thick is the ice sheet? The average thickness of the ice sheet that covers 98% of Antarctica is 2,200 meters (7,200 feet). This amounts to 90% of the ice and 70% of all the fresh water in the world.
The thickest ice found is in Wilkes Land, where it reaches a depth of 4,776 meters (15,669 feet). That is about as deep as the highest of the Alps is high.
If the ice cap were to melt, the average sea level would rise 67 meters (230 feet). This doesn’t seem like much, but it would easily inundate most coastal cities, among them: New York, London, and Hong Kong. Los Angeles, however, would survive.
The weight of all this ice is so enormous that the continent buried beneath it would rise to an average altitude of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) if the ice sheet were removed.
How many people live there? Not too many decades ago, one could count the number of people on the Antarctic continent on two hands. Today the peak scientist and support personnel population reaches 4,000 during the summer season. Tourist numbers are comparable.
The population at the South Pole also peaks when the summer sun is high, reaching 125. The winter is a different story. The number of people at the South Pole during the winter of 1993 was only 28.
Unlike the human population, the number of dogs in Antarctica has been declining. In fact, the “1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty” bans dogs from the continent entirely starting April 1, 1994. This was done to protect the seal population from distemper.
What is the altitude of the site? The South Pole is a high-altitude site. The elevation of the South Pole is 2,835 meters (9,300 feet), about the same height as mountain top observatories like Kitt Peak, Arizona. Some parts of the Antarctic Plateau are higher than 4,215 meters (13,830 feet), the altitude of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The total amount of air above the Polar Plateau is reduced an additional 20% or more by the combined effects of the Earth’s rotation and the low temperatures.
How many South Poles are there? There are three South Poles. The first is the striped ceremonial pole where people have their pictures taken. The actual geographic pole is about 90 meters away along the 160 west longitude line.
The third pole is the south geomagnetic dip pole and is over 2,700 km from the geographic pole. In fact, it is currently not even on the Antarctic continent, but is off the coast near the French Dumont D’Urville station. The last time it was located (1986) it was at 65.30 S and 1400 E.
The geomagnetic pole wanders because of the motion of Earth’s conducting fluid interior. In 1841, James Ross located this Pole for the first time to be over the continent at 75.50 S and 1540 E.
The south geomagnetic pole was not visited until 1909, when Australians Mawson, David, and McKay found that it had wandered 375 km north of Ross’ position, heading for the sea at a rate of 5.5 km/yr.
Life at McMurdo has had it’s moments. One occurred a couple of years ago where this guy contracted cancer and the company scrambled to get him out of the South Pole only to be stymied at McMurdo unable to get aircraft in to airlift him out. Not that it would have mattered much as he was close to death anyway. He ended up dying on station and all flight efforts were cancelled and they kept him in cold storage and shipped his body out when things got better.
In 1986 some guys were hiking and tried to cross a field only to fall in a crevasse. Two die and one survived. Since then flags have been used to mark safe walkways and no one can cross beyond them.
One of the people here, Julian, is also quite interesting. He used to work in the computer gaming industry QCing the text and voice-overs for games. His department also was responsible for translating the text and voices into appropriate languages for shipment. He got really tired of the tight deadlines and quit. Heard a couple of stories about how folks would try to sneak in nasty comments or bad translations and then he’d have to scramble to fix it before the licensing agencies (MGM, Paramount, etc) sued them for contract violations.
Julian also made the local paper when it was found out his great grandfather used to come here decades ago. Rather than telling the story myself, here it is out of the paper:
Like Grandfathers, Like Grandson By Josh Landis The Antarctic Sun
We all have our reasons for coming to Antarctica. It may be that it’s an adventure too inviting to resist, a way to save money and travel, or simply a job. For Julian Ridley, it’s a legacy that began more than 100 years ago.
In the Heroic Age, when men were set on setting records, testing themselves and discovering the last continent, a 27-year-old man named William Colbeck signed on as the navigator of a ship called the Southern Cross. Setting sail from London on August 23, 1898, Colbeck was unaware the course he was charting would extend not only to the next generation with his son, but into the next millennium with his great-grandson, Julian.
“Antarctica was one of the first words I learned,” says Ridley, a hazardous-cargo handler at McMurdo. He remembers playing hide-and-seek as a child in his native England, where he would crouch behind a case that held a stuffed penguin. The bird was just one of many Antarctic artifacts his family had collected since the turn of the century.
Landing on Cape Adare in 1899, Colbeck and his companions led by the Norwegian Carsten Borchgrevink became the first men to spend a winter in Antarctica.
Colbeck made history, but his time below the Antarctic Circle wasn’t over. In 1902 he sailed south as master of the Morning to relieve Robert Scott, whose ship, Discovery, was trapped by ice in Winter Quarters Bay a few hundred feet from where McMurdo Station now stands.
The ship couldn’t be freed so Scott decided to spend another winter there but several men, including Ernest Shackleton, made the trip back to England on Colbeck’s vessel.
When Julian repeated the journey south with his first trip to the Ice in 1988, he was overcome with emotion.
“Tears welled up in my eyes,” remembers Ridley. “It was just so close to where my grandparents had been. I felt like I was continuing a tradition.”
He was. It wasn’t just Ridley’s great-grandfather who ventured here before him, but also his grandfather.
In 1929, Colbeck’s son, also named William Colbeck, was the navigator aboard the same ship his father had come to rescue in 1902. It was years after Scott had died but his contemporary, Douglas Mawson, led the Discovery’s multinational expedition to map the continent, study whales and perform other scientific studies.
The younger Colbeck gained more than fame on his voyage. During one of his last port calls in Australia before heading south, he met his wife-to-be. When he returned to England she followed, and so did a 48-year marriage and a family of three, including Ridley’s mother.
Ridley remembers building and sailing model boats with his grandfather in England, flipping through old photos and hearing about adventures in Antarctica.
Those times planted a seed in Ridley’s mind that grew as the years went by. In 1991, two years after his first trip to the Ice, Ridley wintered at Palmer Station. Now he’s back with an appreciation for Antarctica that’s stronger than ever.
“I think we all grow and learn at a certain age that we pursue our own passions,” states Ridley. The Ice has become a passion for him, just as it was for the men who came before him.
“The continent has made me respect Mother Earth in a way I can’t put into words.”
Antarctica is a brutal place that demands respect, but it’s also a land that preserves. It’s a place where water stays frozen for thousands of years; where explorers’ huts stand as testaments to those who lived and died inside them; and where a family legacy thrives more than a century after it began.
“A day doesn’t pass when I don’t look out over Hut Point or the sound or the Royal Society mountain range and think about days of old and wooden ships coming in,” says Ridley. “It’s a romantic place to me.”
Good article, eh???