77deg 51min S, 166deg 40min E
McMurdo is the hub for all US Antarctic operations aside from Palmer station. It sits on the end of a long peninsula on the southern end of Ross Island. Two mountains, the active volcano Mt. Erebus and a smaller mountain Mt. Terror, dominate the rest of Ross Island.
The gritty town, first established in 1955, is a quirky mix of scientific research station, military outpost, mining town, and college dorm. (Note: as per the Antarctic Treaty there is no mining on the continent and military operations are peaceful and unarmed) McMurdo supports a population from 150 in the winter to over 1000 in the summer. Most everything needed and used here is flown down from New Zealand via the C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemasters. There is also a cargo ship that usually arrives in February. Power is generated both by wind turbines and diesel generators. Fresh water is created via reverse osmosis, and wastewater is fully treated on site.
The buildings are scattered across a rocky hill bordered to the north by a fairly steep incline and to the South by the wide expanse of the frozen Ross Sea. Along the Southern horizon the massive Transantarctic Mountains sit majestically. There are 10 stop signs in town along roads of either crushed volcanic rock or compacted snow/ice covered with crushed rock for traction. The station has evolved over the years, buildings being renovated and built as needed. Nothing is level. Nothing is straight. It’s industrial and artsy.
Lifted F-350 trucks and 12 passenger vans with huge tires share the road with heavy equipment and snowmobiles (until the snow melts). Thick insulated utility pipes run above ground with bridges for pedestrians built over them in places. Slippery doorknobs placed close to the frame are impossible to use with huge mittens on, and as it’s unadvisable to touch cold metal with bare hands, most doors here have been fitted with a pipe lever, with a plastic handle. It’s not unusual to find windows bordered with Velcro – with an opaque piece of fabric to block out the midnight sun. Buckets of sand are placed by nearly every door to throw on icy steps. I’ve grown used to it, but there are dozens of little things like this that make life just a little different from home. McMurdo is a petri dish of all sorts of bugs coming from all around the world. Everyone has to PQ, but the “crud” is a force to reckon with. A giant “hand-washing station” is set up just outside the galley.
They’ve issued little pocket maps this year, which have proved helpful for those of us who haven’t spent more than a few days in town. Each building has a number and an official name, but many others are simply referred to by their nicknames. Skua Central, building 155, Hut Ten, VMF, MacOps, The BFC…The Carp Shop is where the Carps, or carpenters, work. The VMF (Vehicle Maintenance Facility), or Heavy Shop, is where vehicles and equipment are repaired.
There are a ridiculous number of acronyms used in daily speech, and still more ice slang thrown around: fuelies, wasties, carps, HEOs, milvans, skua-ing, Con-1, Baja, boondoggle….I forget how much is new and strange to FNG’s, or those here for the first time.
Few animals are visible yet, but a rich ecosystem thrives beneath the sea ice. Weddell seals are starting to appear along cracks in the sea ice. Later, at the height of the Antarctic summer, penguins will show up out near the runways to molt. Leopard seals aside, there really isn’t much other than the cold to worry about down here. Polar bears live solely in the Arctic…the only place they’ll encounter a penguin is in a zoo. Inland there are no sources of food or water, so it’s only the most rare and unfortunate bird that is sighted at the South Pole.
I’ll be “in town” through the end of the month for trainings and to help prepare for the field. This is an intense process and the three of us “Byrds” will be busy for the full two weeks scheduled in McMurdo. We have to collect our weather instruments, comms equipment, medical supplies, order food and pack it, weigh, measure and TCN all pieces of cargo heading to camp, undergo various trainings and meetings, study inventory lists from previous years to make sure we have enough office supplies, shovels, toilet paper, replacement parts for equipment and gear, pack our sleep kits and emergency supplies… We will have HF radio and iridium satellite phones, but no internet access. We will have a few large heated tent structures, but will sleep in unheated Arctic Oven tents. We will have a lot of canned and frozen food, but very few “freshies” such as fruits, vegetables, and eggs.
Everyone heading out to field camps or the South Pole travels through McMurdo and I’ve spent each meal catching up with friends from last year and the year before. The weather has been good this past week – more or less clear and calm. The wind bites, but at 5-10F it’s balmy compared to Pole. I find Big Red and my blue boots to be too warm for work. The sun is strong and bright, during the day and still sets for about an hour at night.
For more information about current conditions the main McMurdo website (http://www.mcmurdo.usap.gov/) is a great resource.
I may always be a Polie at heart, but it’s a good change to be heading to the field this year.
Some interesting facts from the intranet here:
• During Robert F. Scott’s expeditions of 1901 to 1903 and 1910 to 1913, he used sled dogs (23 Samoyeds) and Siberian ponies to haul supplies. Expeditions and Antarctic bases continued to use dogs up until as late as the 1980s. It is now against the Antarctic Treaty to bring non-indigenous species to Antarctica.
• Sea ice up to three meters (10 feet) thick forms outward from the continent every austral winter, creating a belt 500 to 1,500 kilometers (311 to 932 miles) wide. During the summer season, an ice-breaking ship helps to disperse the ice near McMurdo to open water.
• Erebus is the world’s southernmost active volcano and one of only a handful with active convecting lava lakes. Although it is not a major threat to McMurdo Station it offers a unique opportunity to study eruptive process from lava lakes and is monitored year round.
• In 1979, Mount Erebus, 3,794 meters (12,448 feet) in height, was the site of a plane crash that claimed 257 lives on a sightseeing and photographic flight over Antarctica.
• The Royal Society Range is a volcanic range that is part of the Transantarctic Mountains, one of the world’s longest mountain chains (Antarctic Connection), and is located on McMurdo Sound’s southwestern shore.
• Large numbers of meteorites, including specimens that have been identified as coming from Earth’s Moon and Mars, have been recovered in Antarctica, and it has been determined that meteorites striking this vast continent are better preserved than anywhere else in the world because of their burial in the ice.
• One of the world’s most extreme deserts resides just west of McMurdo Sound within Victoria Land, called the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The Dry Valleys have extremely low humidity and lack snow or ice cover, and in fact, at 4,800 square kilometers (1,875 square miles), form the largest relatively ice-free region in Antarctica.