While we’re waiting to get to Pole I thought I’d write about some interesting facts and history regarding Antarctica as a whole and the stations that I will be at. First off – a map of the continent. At the very center is Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, if you look straight below (and a little to the right) you’ll see McMurdo Station in red letters. On the Antarctic Penninsula, far left, is Palmer Station.
Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest continent on earth. At 5.4 million square miles it’s almost twice as large as Australia, for scale the US is 3.79 million square miles. The average thickness of the Antarctic ice cap is 2000m (almost 7000ft), though it can exceed 4km in places (that’s over 13,000ft, or more than 10 Empire State buildings stood end to end!). While I’m at sea level here in McMurdo the surface rises gradually to reach nearly 10,000ft at the South Pole, and much of the East Antarctic ice sheet is at an even higher elevation. Technically a desert, Antarctica receives about 6 inches of precipitation per year on average. At the South Pole it is usually too cold and dry for actual snowflakes to form and fall.
Antarctica is also the only continent on earth with no native population nor recognized political land claims. The international Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, prohibits armed military presence and any commercial use of resources (so no mining or drilling). The US Air Force and National Guard is allowed for Operation Deep Freeze, providing air support as the mission is peaceful and no weapons are carried aboard the planes. More information about the Antarctic Treaty can be found at the National Science Foundation website: http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/antarct/anttrty.jsp
McMurdo Station, 77 degrees 51 minutes South and 166 degrees 40 minutes East, is the largest on the continent and the hub for all USAP operations, excluding Palmer Station on the Antarctic Penninsula. Everyone and everything must pass through McMurdo on it’s way to deep field camps, sea ice camps, the dry valleys, or Pole. The strategic position of the station allows for wheeled planes to land on the ice runways while the deep harbor permits acess by sea for a container ship (with the aid of an icebreaker) to bring fuel, food, and supplies in late summer. The name “McMurdo” comes from it’s proximity to McMurdo Sound, itself named for a Lieutenant aboard the H.M.S. Terror, an expedition led by James Clark Ross in 1841. In honor of the two ships used in that expedition the dual volcanoes rising above McMurdo were formally named “Mt. Erebus” and “Mt. Terror.”
The current station was established in December 1955 by the US Navy and is built on the bare volcanic rock of Hut Point on Ross Island (a point some people use to argue that “Townies” have not technically been on the continent). Right now the ground here is fairly white with ice and snow, but during mid summer the McMurdo area will be brown pumice-like rock.
The peak summer population in Mac Town is around 1,200 individuals. With telephone poles and power lines, crushed volcanic rock roads, stop signs, and over 100 buildings it feels very much like a mining town of sort. Large red trucks and 12 passenger vans share the roads with heavy equipment and the monsterous Ivan the Terra Bus.
A very interesting, highly detailed image of Mac Town can be found at: http://www.gigapan.org/gigapans/43856/