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Tuesday, November 13, 2007: Reinforcements Arrive

We’ve had a mid-season changing of the guard on the SCINI project with the previous Sunday’s arrival of Rusty and Blee and today’s (Friday) departure of Marcus and Mindy on a northbound C-17. That leaves some big shoes to fill for myself (Rusty) and Blee. We have been going through the week long basic survival and logistic trainings (sea ice, snow school, vehicles, small engines and radio communications) and completed all just in time for us to take over some of our roles tomorrow.


Last on my list of trainings is a check out dive so that I can take over Marcus’s diving responsibilities on the project. There are 19 divers on the continent this year so it’s a pretty exclusive group of scientist to rub shoulders with and a rare opportunity to see things few divers have ever seen. For me it has also been a long held goal to experience a dive under the cover of ice so I’m getting really excited as that time nears.

Fortunately we had some time between classes yesterday for a Video Ray ROV dive just outside McMurdo, at the wastewater outfall, so that Blee and I could learn the basics and begin to better understand our project roles. Planning a research ROV dive, setting up the system through the ice, testing it prior to a dive and establishing effective navigation, all precede the fun of actually piloting the ROV on a science mission. The highlight of yet another day of firsts for me was piloting the ROV at the end of the science mission and getting a feel for the various propulsion and video controls. It’s like playing a video game where crashes at a minimum will cost you a day of wearing a really silly looking hat. Damaging the ROV obviously has more serious consequences because FedEx doesn’t deliver here.

Before our narrow focus on science blurs my first vision of Antarctica, I’d like to pass on some glimpses of life at McMurdo station. First impressions start with walking off a C-17
that has just landed on 12 feet of frozen ocean, and standing on flat whitish-blue sea ice with a surrounding view of black volcanic island and mainland peaks in every direction.

In the cold clear air and 24 hour sun the perceived distances deceive the eye and peaks 40 miles distant beckon as if they were only an afternoon hike away. From the airstrip which is a mile away on the flat sea ice of McMurdo Sound, McMurdo Station has the appearance of a mining camp perched on the side of a volcanic cone called Observation Hill (a small mountain to some). A bustling city of 1100 people (150 over-winter) occupy a spacious cluster of buildings representing various eras of architecture. Most won’t win any awards for architectural genius- typically square with metal exteriors, with few if any windows, painted in earthy tones of brown, green and tan. A few of the newer structures are inter-connected by large insulated conduits containing various pipes for heating, freshwater and wastewater. Only the rectangular two and three story dormitories sport windows and most windows are covered to block the assault of the midnight sun and its impact on northerners’ ability to sleep. Dormitories are spartan and take one back to early college life. Little time is spent there however so they adequately fill a need.

The newest and most elegant structure on station is the Crary Science Lab, a multi-level modern facility that we scientist occupy. Around 150 scientists are on station during the summer while the remaining 80% of the population serve the needed support roles to make the science projects possible. This includes pilots, mountaineers, administration, postal services, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, cooks, and virtually any other trade (including a couple bartenders) one can think of as mandatory to survival and science in this harsh environment. All these folks walk bundled from the cold on ground that is a contrasting mix of black volcanic rubble, ice and drift snow. At this time of year the low mid day sun warms the station to just above freezing, melting the snow to create a black volcanic slush. These summer days see morning and evening temperatures drop to near zero, re-freezing the slush in a recurring cycle. Strange tracked vehicles bearing names like Mat-track, Piston Bullie and Tucker course these frozen black roads between buildings at all hours, but as in all small cities the bustle slows in the wee hours of the bright night.

The view from our laboratory window is across the frozen McMurdo Sound and on to the Ross Sea. The 10PM sun courses high above the southern horizon illuminating endless miles of glistening ice. To the south lies the Ross Ice Shelf where Black Island and White Island emerge and rise over 3000 feet from the sea ice. Between the two islands lies the 800 mile path to the South Pole. To the north is Ross Island crowned by 10,698 foot Mount Terror and the active volcano 12,447 foot Mount Erubus. To the west are countless glaciers with names like Koettlitz, Blue and Ferrar and the Taylor dry valleys where a polar desert boast environments seen nowhere else on earth. The stark contrasts of white and black, ice and volcano, day without night and people where none should exist gives McMurdo Station its own unique character that can only be inadequately described. It must be experienced to give each visitor that sense of awe and the same inability to describe its wonders. I am very fortunate to be here.

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This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. ANT-0619622 ( Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.