Category Archives: History

Antarctic Traverses…

There is a long history of traverses in Antarctica. From the original expeditions to explore the mysterious frozen continent and reach the South Pole accomplished via foot, ski, and sledge to the modern day tractor traverse endeavors. One of the first tractor traverses was across West Antarctica from the Little America base to establish Byrd Station during the 1956-57 International Geophysical Polar (IGY) year.

The 1957 Little America to Byrd Traverse!

The 1957 Little America to Byrd Tractor Traverse

1960 Trav

1960-61 Byrd Station to South Pole Traverse (Courtesy of: southpolestation.com/trivia)

In the late 1990s and into the 2000s there was the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE) that covered much of the West Antarctic high routes and along the Transantarctic mountain range. See this link for one of their official informational posters: http://www2.umaine.edu/USITASE/images/poster/poster.jpg

In 2007-08 and 2008-09 the Norwegian-U.S. Scientific Traverse covered much of East Antarctica collecting data on past climate. Since then there have been several more traverses to assist the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) camp and WISSARD project. Last year and this season traverses were used to retrieve cargo left at Pine Island Glacier and Byrd.

For more information on various traverse routes check out the National Ice and Snow Data Center’s map: http://nsidc.org/data/thermap/antarctic_10m_temps/traverses/us.html#map. A list of traverses by date can also be found at the National Snow and Ice Data Center website here: http://nsidc.org/data/thermap/antarctic_10m_temps/dates.html or on Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Antarctic_expeditions

There have been a number of traverses in Marie Byrd Land in West Antarctica alone. Experienced Antarctic mountaineer, Forrest McCarthy, wrote a great blog post on Marie Byrd Land exploration and history which can be found here: http://forrestmccarthy.blogspot.com/2012/12/west-antarctica-driving-guide-to-marie.html

While there are a growing number of small tourist/exploration traverses via trucks or ski, most modern traverses support scientific projects that require mobility and various sample sites along the traverse route. Alternatively, some traverses are simply for moving cargo and/or fuel. However counterintuitive, it is much cheaper to drag weight over the snow behind tractors than it is to fly it! Our little traverse this year and the PIG traverse last year fall into this category.

PIG_20141228_337 copy

The PIG-WAIS Traverse leaving Pine Island Glacier during the 2014-15 season

2012-13 Byrd-WAIS-PIG traverse

The Byrd-WAIS-PIG Traverse leaving Byrd in 2012-13

2012-13 Byrd-WAIS-PIG Traverse Fuel

The Byrd-WAIS-PIG Traverse fuel bladders leaving Byrd in 2012-13

Pole Fuel tanks 3

An AN-8 fuel tank at the South Pole

Perhaps the most well-known traverse is the South Pole Overland Traverse (SPOT) that hauls fuel from McMurdo, where it is supplied via ocean tanker, to the South Pole Station. The Antarctic Sun published an article in 2008 covering SPOT which can be found here: antarcticsun.usap.gov/features. All operations down here rely on a low-grade jet fuel. It’s what the LC-130 Hercs and other aircraft burn as well as being close enough to diesel that all our heavy equipment and generators run on it as well. Some additives are added for Antarctic operations to lower the freezing/gelling point – thus the AN-8 or JP-8 terms used.

Fuel drum cache Byrd!

A remote fuel drum cache for aircraft near Byrd

At the South Pole large generators burn this fuel to supply power to the station. The waste heat is captured to melt snow for water and to heat the main station. Heavy equipment is necessary to clear snow from around the buildings and berms, groom the skiway for the planes, and move cargo. It’s vital to supporting science and life down here. They burn over 300,000 gallons annually. Summit Station in Greenland on the other hand, burns only about 40,000 gallons while WAIS Divide (a large deep field camp) goes through roughly 45,000 gallons during the summer season. WAIS burns so much fuel in part because it initially supported a 24/7 deep ice core drilling operation, which required massive generators. Since drilling has ceased they have primarily supported airborne surveys of the region with Twin Otters and Baslers, which also uses significant amounts of fuel.
At the year-round stations the big push in the short summer season is building up the fuel reserve for winter. Ideally 50,000 gallons are on site at Summit Station in Greenland before the end of summer and more than 400,000 gallons at the South Pole station!

Pole Fuel arch2

45 tanks (10,000 gallons each) sit inside one of the arches at the South Pole

Pole Fuel arch3

Looking along the fuel arch at Pole

Pole Fuel tanks

The emergency fuel cache tanks at the end of the world at Pole

A field camp 10,000 gallon bladder at Byrd

A field camp 10,000 gallon bladder at Byrd

Typically, fuel is flown in via Hercs, however this is a terribly inefficient process. I’ve been told various ratios and it depends heavily on winds and cargo loads, but on flights to the Pole Hercs burn between one and three gallons for every gallon delivered. A few years ago the South Pole Traverse was developed as an alternative to supplying fuel to the South Pole.

In Greenland a similar operation called the Greenland Inland Traverse, or “GrIT”, is used to haul fuel from ocean tanker supplied Thule on the NW coast to Summit Station.

SPOT 2011-12 at Pole bladders

The South Pole Traverse delivering fuel at Pole

SPOT 2011-12 at Pole2

The South Pole Traverse parked for the night at Pole in 2010-11

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT) arriving at Summit Station in 2010

Fuel tanks at the end of the world

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Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, GRIT, History, South Pole, SPOT, Traverse, WAIS Divide

Byrd Surface Camp 2012-13

Our sticker/logo/image for this year – courtesy of August Allen (PIG camp)

80deg 0.9min S, 119deg 33.5W

West Antarctica is notorious for its weather. So not surprisingly we’re delayed in McMurdo. The number of aircraft here in Antarctica are at a minimum, so any delays wreck havoc on the flight schedule. Our first Basler and Herc were ideally supposed to put camp in on Monday, but weather moved in around Byrd and Siple which cancelled those flights. A flight to Casey Station in East Antarctica has cancelled due to weather, stranding a group of Australians hoping to make it to their base. The weather here in McMurdo has been lovely, sunny and relatively calm, but it’s either foggy, or too cold, or too low visibility for the planes to land at any of their destinations. Often they’ve taken off and had to return, or “boomerang”, after flying several hours. It’s not easy, but as we often say for anything that isn’t just right – “it’s a harsh continent!”

For the past two weeks we’ve been working and training in McMurdo, collecting and packing gear, packing food, checking our equipment, and going over flight schedules, cargo weight limits, and emergency plans. Now that we’re delayed we’re free to either tie up any loose ends in town, or help out with other departments. I’ve been working with Waste in preparation for winter and with the South Pole Traverse team.
We won’t have internet or email once we get into the field, so I thought I’d write a bit about “Byrd Surface Camp,” what I’ll be doing this summer, field camps and research projects in West Antarctica at large, more about the research and set-up of Byrd this season, and give you lots of pictures and links…I will continue this blog once I get back to a place with internet so save your questions or post them below!

Byrd camp is one of the oldest Antarctic field camps. Named after Admiral Richard E. Byrd and set in the heart of Marie Byrd Land of West Antarctica, it was first established by the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1956-57 as a year-round underground station. In 1972 it was changed to a summer-only field camp, but aside from a gap between 2005-09 it has been in near continuous use.

The photo below shows the tractor traverse on December 4, 1956 heading out to establish the first Byrd Station.
Photo: Jim Waldron/Antarctic Photo Library

An October 14, 2012 satellite image of the Byrd winter berm shows heavy drifting. At the end of the summer everything is closed up and placed on the berm. The square “Galley Module”, heavy equipment, boxes of extra food, drums of fuel, two snowmobiles, the tents we will sleep in are all there. On the lower left there are 4 squares in a line a little ways from the berm – these are the fuel pits, four 10,000 gallon bladders of fuel. The large item near the middle and just to the left of the berm is the sled used to load and unload the largest and most awkward cargo. There’s no denying that there is a lot of digging ahead of all of us, but it’s promising that some individual structures are still visible and are even casting shadows!

The Byrd winter berm on which everything is stored.

This season I will be working as the heavy equipment operator, one of three women staffing the camp. My primary job will be using the 2010 Tucker Sno-cat to groom the skiway and camp, though we will also have a CAT 931 tracked loader to move snow and cargo. We won’t have too much cargo going through camp, but every flight will likely be bringing fuel and with such a small camp staff we will all be busy.
Over the years, Byrd’s population has fluctuated between 3 and 50. The projects and goals have also changed dramatically. Our primary purpose this season is to support the Pine Island Glacier (aka P.I.G.) Traverse, a “mini traverse” to WAIS, and the aerial survey project GIMBLE in January.

There have been a number of camps and traverses in West Antarctica since the 50’s, but today the region is of particular interest for those studying climate change. Computer models indicate West Antarctica as becoming increasingly unstable if the current warming trends continue as expected. The break up of the Larson ice shelves, alarming amounts of melt, and dramatically increasing acceleration of glaciers have prompted a number of studies over the past few years. If the entire West Antarctic ice sheet were to collapse it could potentially raise sea levels by 6-7 meters. Countries around the world have been supporting various research groups to better understand the systems involved and improve climate models to predict sea level rise. This year, USAP is supporting five main “deep field” camps in West Antarctica: Siple, Pine Island Glacier (PIG), West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide (WAIS), WISSARD, and Byrd.

Map of West Antarctic Field Camps – Some of the main deep field sites are shown here, along with the PIG and South Pole traverses. WISSARD is not shown, but sits just above the H point.

Siple, or Siple Dome, is the smallest of the five with only 2 people. It has a long and interesting history and was a site of an ice core in the late 90’s, but today only a few small tent structures, a skiway, and a fuel cache is all that remains. It is in essence, a glorified gas station and a backup for planes flying the capricious weather of West Antarctica. Note: there was an old station called Siple Station which was fairly expansive, but this was on the other side of West Antarctica, near the base of the Penninsula  and the Ronne ice shelf.
The Pine Island Glacier project is comprised of two components: PIG camp itself and the PIG Traverse. PIG camp is located 1,300 miles from McMurdo, near the coast of the Amundsen Sea. The traverse will haul fuel from Byrd to WAIS, and on to PIG. Surprisingly, this is the more cost effective option than flying it in via Herc. The project, lead by Robert Bindschadler of NASA, is hoping to deploy instruments below the ice to measure various parameters of the seawater under the glacier tongue and the dynamics of where the glacier transitions from bedrock to seawater. Their hypothesis is that warming ocean currents are melting the ice from beneath, increasing the velocity up the length of the glacier. Helicopters will transport researchers and equipment to various points along the glacier to drill and deploy instruments. Recently, they’ve discovered a major rift in the glacier. “What makes this one remarkable is that it will lead to calving of a significantly larger iceberg than PIG has produced in the last few decades,” says Joseph MacGregor, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “It is likely that the front of PIG will be farther back than any time in the recent past after the iceberg calves.” The satellite images can be found here.

There is more information on the NASA project website: http://pigiceshelf.nasa.gov/
And the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Island_Glacier

A satellite image of the Pine Island Glacier with notable signs of disintegration

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide, or WAIS, has been in progress since the 2005-06 season and has been in the process of extracting the most recent ice core in West Antarctica. On December 31, 2011 they reached their goal depth of 3,405m, making it the longest U.S. ice core yet. While they have finished drilling there is still a lot of research to be done with the borehole and the project will continue through this season. More information on the research going on at this camp can be found on their website: http://www.waisdivide.unh.edu

WISSARD, or Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling, (http://www.wissard.org) is a fascinating new project. Over the past two summers they have conducted surveys using ground-penetrating radar and have found a subglacial lake of interest. This year they will begin drilling – hoping to deploy a suite of instruments into the borehole and isolated lake beneath. Here is a short animation they put together for PR of the route from the U.S. to the Whillans ice stream.
The group has also posted an interesting and informative video on YouTube (“Researchers prepare to drill through Antarctic ice”) explaining the main goals of the project and the “clean drilling” technology used.

This season Byrd Camp will be supporting the science group GIMBLE/ICECAP. This is a collaboration between the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC), the Australian Antarctic Division, Laboratoire d’Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales (LEGOS), the universities of Edinburgh, Exeter, and Texas at Austin. ICECAP (or “Investigating the Cryospheric Evolution of the Central Antarctic Plate”) is interested in using ground penetrating radar, geomagnetic data, and lidar to measure the top and bottom surfaces of the ice – essentially mapping the bedrock of Antarctica beneath the ice, and hoping to gain insight to the evolution of the Antarctic ice sheet. This is important for constraining ice flow and climate models, and for knowing more precisely the volume of water locked up in the polar ice caps that could potentially melt, causing sea level rise.
The following website gives a good explanation of one of the affiliated projects, BEDMAP-2, which measured subglacial topography in Eastern Antarctica:
http://www.antarctica.gov.au/science/cool-science/2011/bedrock-map-reveals-ice-free-antarctica

This group has done quite a lot of work in East Antarctica already, around Australian Casey Station and Russian Vostok. Check out this 2010 Science article for more information: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5986/1630.full
They will be doing much of the same measurements in West Antarctica, based out of Byrd.

A rough map of the Antarctic bedrock – blue areas are under the current sea level. Note the extremely high Transantarctic mountains. There is also a little muontainous region within Marie Byrd Land. – BEDMAP Consortium/BAS

Comparatively, Byrd will be a quiet, cozy, little camp. Last year there was quite a large camp set up at Byrd, with nearly 40 people. This year we will have close to 20 for put-in and take-out, but there will only be 3 of staying for the entire summer: Abby the Camp Manager, Tara the Field Coordinator, and myself, the Heavy Equipment Operator. We will be the only all-female staffed field camp this year, and potentially the first ever all-women deep field camp in Antarctica. (If anyone knows of others outside of the Dry Valleys, let me know!)

A photo of Myself, Abby, and Tara at Hut Point near McMurdo. We’ve been called the Byrds, Lady Byrds, Skittles (for the bright purple, green, and blue jackets), Charlie’s Angels…

Byrd sits at an elevation of 1,553m (~5,000ft) Byrd is located 1,400km (~870mi) from McMurdo and 1,120km (~700mi) from the South Pole. We won’t have email or internet access, but we will have two HF radios, two IRIDIUM satellite phones, and VHF radios for on-site comms. We will check in with McMurdo daily and I’ve been told the BBC still broadcasts news on HF. Flat mail will be delivered on the 12 or so Hercs scheduled throughout the season. While some folks might balk at the idea of leaving the grasps of modern media, I find I’m really looking forward to the break.
Our work will be to maintain the camp, supporting the PIG Traverse, flight ops, the research group, and fighting the never-ending battle against being buried under drifts.

The rough outline of the season is as follows: Put-in will take place during the first week of November, in late November the PIG Traverse departs for PIG camp, leaving a heavy mechanic and a second operator behind, in early December those two will launch a “mini traverse” to haul fuel the 100mi to WAIS Divide. In late December a carp crew will come in to set up some more tents, and then in early January the GIMBLE group with their Basler and crew will arrive.

I won’t be able to post anything until I return to McMurdo at the end of the austral summer, but I will be sure to take lots of photos. In the meantime, here are some cool links about Byrd now and then. Byrdcamp.com is an awesome, interactive website created a few years ago when the population was large enough to warrant cooks, GAs, medics, and many others. We won’t have half as many people, nor will we have as many tents set-up, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The Antarctic Sun published a couple short articles in 2009 that are also worth taking a look at – Byrd History and Byrd Camp Resurfaces

Have a wonderful Thanks Giving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

The flat white – several hundred miles from any visible rocks, Byrd is just as much on the Flat White as Pole.

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Filed under Antarctic, Byrd, Field Camps, History, Pine Island Glacier, Science!, Siple, Traverse, WAIS Divide

McMurdo Station! Aka: Mac Town, MCM, or just Town

77deg 51min S, 166deg 40min E

McMurdo Station, Antarctica

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.

A bridge provides access over utility lines

A fancy USAPed door handle

The “handwashing station” next to the main entrance of 155 and 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 dorms at the base of Ob (short for Observation) Hill

One of the newest pieces of equipment here in McMurdo – the Kress. Pallets of cargo can be loaded on the rear bed, or a large cab for passengers.

rocks and snow

One of my last sunsets…tonight the sun will set for about an hour.

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.

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How to get to Antarctica, the easy way…?

So despite a very nearly successful attempt to do something different this year – the ice sirens would not go unheard. This time I am heading to the “Deep Field”of Byrd Field Camp as the Heavy Equipment Operator (HEO)!

At 80°S, 119°W, and 1553 m elevation Byrd is in the heart of Marie Byrd Land, named for the wife of Admiral Byrd, the first man to fly over the South Pole in 1929. Established in 1956 by the US Navy it was in continual year-round use until 1972 when it became a summer-only field camp. After being abandoned in 2005 it was reopened and now operates as a support station for activity in West Antarctica. This year there will only be 3 of us running the camp – the Camp Manager, a Field Support Coordinator, and Heavy Equipment Operator. Both the manager and coordinator are women – which for now at least makes us the only all-women camp 🙂

It will be much smaller than in previous years, but the website http://byrdcamp.com gives a comprehensive picture of the facilities and camp life during previous austral summers. The Antarctic Sun did a story a few years back on Byrd – some interesting tidbits and a good map:  http://antarcticsun.usap.gov/features/contenthandler.cfm?id=1792

Though there will only be the three of us there for the full season we will rarely be alone. In addition to fuelies*, carps*, and flight crews, Byrd will be the home base for the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) Traverse, some excursions to the nearby WAIS Divide camp, and also a science group coming out for several weeks to do aerial surveys in the area via Bassler plane.

(Positions in the Fuels and Waste department are affectionately and all but formally referred to on-ice as “Fuelies” and “Wasties.” “Carps” refers to carpenters. More terminology and explanation for slang and acronyms can be found on the Acronyms page at the top of this blog)

Wikipedia has a good summary of the Byrd field camp history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byrd_Station

With the Raytheon to Lockheed transition there are lots of changes underway in the organization and operation of the US Antarctic Program. I’ve heard quite a lot of frustration from friends getting ready to deploy this year. Perhaps the key is to just wait till the VERY last minute to get hired…I went from getting an offer to getting my tickets (to training in Denver at least) in 3 days. I’m sure this was not very nice for the folks in Denver, but it’s all moved quite smoothly on my end. Still, it takes some flexibility to undertake the acrobatics required to make it through each one of the flaming hoops of paperwork joy. I have spent hours printing, signing, initialing, filling in, scanning, organizing/renaming, attaching, and emailing the dozens forms…acknowledging risks and hazards, agreeing to appropriate behavior and conduct, signing away my life…

I am also hoping to winter this year at the South Pole, so the next two weeks are chock full of training for OSHA, fire fighting, emergency medicine, stress management, and the multitude of appointments to complete the PQ process to be medically cleared to deploy.

I won’t lie – getting a job in Antarctica can be hard, but getting cleared to actually do it is even harder. If you can make it to the ice you can make it through the season 🙂

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Filed under Antarctic, Field Camps, History

The Elevated Station

The sign welcoming visitors and tourists to the South Pole

I’ve written a little bit about the station in previous posts, but here is a little bit more about the station itself.

The Elevated Station sits about 12 feet above the ground on large steel pilings. Facing the Ceremonial Pole the front of the two story station is smooth and flat – the lower level cut away for a more aerodynamic shape in an attempt to reduce drifting issues. Four wings extend off the backside toward the berms. The long “front” of the station is where most communal sites are, while the gym, a lounge, an emergency power plant, bathrooms and housing are in the wings.

The back of the station

Emergency escape stairs leading off the end of each wing

Looking under the station – the Ceremonial Pole is to the right

There are three main entrances/exits to the station: Destination Alpha (D.A.), Destination Zulu (D.Z.), and the “Beer Can.” D.A. is the grand entrance and is closest to the skyway. A wide stair case and short steps make for an easy climb for all the folks fresh off the herc and unused to the altitude. D.Z. is a little rougher with unfinished wood railing, but is the primary entrance to and from Summer Camp. All the doors are large metal freezer doors with hanging sheets of plastic on the inside to block out drafts. The “Beer Can” is a tall metal sheathed unheated cylinder housing many sets stairs that lead from the upper level of the station down to the Ice Tunnels and Arches. While an elevator was installed to help transport heavy awkward cargo and food, people must take the stairs.

Destination Alpha

Destination Zulu

The "Beer Can" the nickname was not officially endorsed, but it stuck

The windows lighting the above snow portion of the Beer Can

The lower level of the station contains a small lounge with some books and couches for movie watching. There is also an IT room that focuses on the radio and satellite equipment, the Craft Room, Reading Room/Library, Laundry room, Greenhouse, Post Office/Store and a coat room. The upper level has the Galley, computer lab, science lab, and two conference rooms. Both levels look very similar and it’s a little confusing at first trying to remember which floor the library is on.

The "Quite Reading Room" or Library

Looking down the hallway outside the Reading Room - towards D.A.

With Summer Camp being a bit of a walk away I try not to make more trips than necessary. On Sundays I shower out in Summer Camp then take my laundry and anything else I’ll want for the day and head into the station.

The Elevated Station is the third station to be constructed here at the South Pole. In 1957 the US Navy constructed “Old Pole” which was followed by the iconic Dome. Over the past 10 years the new Elevated station was constructed and the Dome was taken down piece by piece, and shipped back to the states. Old Pole, on the other hand, had a far more interesting fate.

After being abandoned Old Pole was buried completely by about 30 feet of drifting snow. In the summer of 2009-10 a piece of equipment that was driving in the vicinity fell into a cavity that had formed around the remaining buildings. The area was cordoned off and last summer a team from CRREL (Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory) came to survey the area with ground penetrating radar. With future safety in mind they decided to implode Old Pole. Crushing the buildings and collapsing the cavities with explosives. As a General Assistant last summer I got to help out with this project. Holes were drilled with hot water 30 feet deep to the station level and strings of 7-9 sticks (5.5lb each) of dynamite were lowered on detcord. Three days and three blasts later the site was finally deemed stable.

The blasters from McMurdo brought boxes of tnt for the project

Stringing the explosives together on detcord

It was a chilly day – all the frost on my face is from my breath condensing and freezing to my neck gaitor and hat.

It was quite the project and the other G.A. Jason and I were very excited to be a part of the small blasting crew. On the day of the blast people lined the roof tops of the buildings here and a general all-call was made by comms so no one would miss out. Using an old pump action detonating device we ignited the detcord. Geysers of snow shot up from each hole like a giant water fountain display and cameras clicked away. I stood with the blasting crew a safe distance away.

This was taken from the roof of the station – not by me – I was in the brown coat right in between the two red Pisten Bullys

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Centennial Celebration

On December 14th,1911 man stood at the Geographic South Pole for the first time, unveiling one of the last places of mystery on earth. On December 14th, 2001 a ceremony was held at the Pole in commemoration of Roald Amundsen.

An Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station group photo taken at the Geographic Pole on Tuesday the 13<sup>th</sup>. (I’m in my brown carhartt jacket and dark hat, just to the left of the American flag, third from the front, between a green and a red coat)


In honor of the Centennial RPSC groomed a special camping area for the planes to park and the tents to be erected. A visitor’s center was built to provide information about the US Antarctic Program and the science going on at the Pole. With several hundred tourists expected during these busy few months of summer it would be disruptive, and often unsafe, to have tours of the work centers and research sites for each tourist group to arrive.

The United States Antarctic Program welcomes you to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. 90˚00’ South. Established 1957.

The Visitor Center complete with outhouses and solar panels

People arrived from all corners of the globe. Some were flown straight to the Pole, others were dropped off by Twin Otter and skied the last degree, a few skied all the way from the coast! A Kazakhstani expedition arrived in specializedToyotatrucks (with tires inflated to 4psi).

One man arrived in traditional fur clothing similar to what Amundsen’s team wore.

The Norwegian press groups who were here with the Prime Minister interviewed some of the tourists and the Prime Minister himself skied a bit around the Pole.

The Prime Minister skiing to the Pole

The week of December 14th 2011, for me, was fairly typical, flights to load/unload, pallets to build, and cargo to deliver. I’m back on days now so work from 7:30am-5:30pm Monday through Saturday. On the 14th however, everyone was invited to an all-hands ceremony at the Ceremonial Pole. We gathered together in a semi-circle around the Pole; an eclectic mix of the 233 people here with USAP and the more diverse 93 person group of tourists/visitors.

A microphone and speakers were set up and cameras placed on tripods. The snow squeaked and crunched as people gathered and found their places. I arrived early and knelt in front near the camera men. Foreigners held up their national flags, and there were lots of pictures taken.

The ceremony was filmed and sent back toNorwayduring the satellite pass just following event.

Some of the tourists standing across from me

The ceremony commenced with fellow Cargo Load Planner Zondra Skertich playing the Norwegian national anthem on the flute.

The Prime Minister then spoke, commemorating Amundsen, honoring the ultimate price paid by Scott and his men, congratulating the success of the international peaceful Antarctic Treaty and gently urging the world to face the facts of a changing climate – to note that this seemingly untouchable and pristine place is indeed changing.

The Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

Giving final thanks to the United States Antarctic Program, the National Science Foundation, and the people who work here every day he unveiled a beautiful ice bust of Amundsen – taken from the same mold used to create a full body statue of the famous explorer unveiled simultaneously in Norway by the King.

Simon Stephenson, the NSF rep here for the event, spoke next touching on the science happening here at Pole from the kilometer square ICECUBE project, to long term seismological stations, and NOAA’s sampling of the purest air on earth.

South Pole Area Director Bill Coughran and the director of the Norwegian Polar Institute said a few words as well, and then the Prime Minister presented Bill with a Norwegian flag and that was it – keeping true to Amundsen’s sentiments on a ceremony in the same place one hundred years before: One gets out of the way of protracted ceremonies in those regions — the shorter they are the better.

It was just over half an hour all together and I stood up moving my cold and stiff knees and shaking the blood back into my hands. We all milled about for a while, chatting with the visitors and taking pictures of the bust and dignitaries, and then moved back to the galley to warm up and enjoy dinner.

South Pole Area Director Bill Coughran and NSF Rep Simon Stephenson with the Norwegian flag

The crowd around the Ceremonial Pole

The Norwegian Prime Minister and myself at the Geographic Pole

The Norwegian Polar Institute

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One Hundred Years

December 14, 1911. One Hundred years ago.

Superconductivity was discovered, Bingham rediscovered Machu Pichu in Peru, the first public elevator was unveiled, and construction began in Boston for Fenway Park.

Only three years before, in 1908, the Ford Model-T car made its debut. The year after, in 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank. It would be another three years yet, in 1914, that the First World War began.

One hundred years ago today, Roald Amundsen of Norway (1872-1928) became the first man to reach the Geographic South Pole. He and four companions left the coast, anchoring their ship the Fram in the Bay of Whales in the Ross Sea on October 20th and arriving at the South Pole on December 14th 1911. They stayed for three day to take, and re-take, sun measurements and verify their actual position at the Pole.

Amundsen's team leaving their ship the Fram

Taking a solar observation at the South Pole on Dec 14, 1911

It was a long and arduous journey – a race against England’s Robert F. Scott. Yet as much as it was a competition between contemporary polar explorers it was a competition between the established country of England and the young nation of Norway (which gained independence in 1905). Both were experienced and tenacious men, however the two differed significantly in their planning, preparation, and outlook. The goals of the two teams also differed in that Scott and his financial supporters saw the expedition as a platform for science as much as exploration, whereas Amundsen’s primary purpose was to reach the Pole as efficiently and quickly as possible.

Roald Amundsen

Robert Falcon Scott

Learning from his experience in the North and with the Inuit populations Amundsen’s team brought dog teams and sleds, skiing much of the way. Amundsen had dreamed of being the first to reach the North Pole, but Frederick Cook and Robert Peary beat him to it, reaching the North Pole in 1908-9. He thus turned his passion for polar exploration to the South. Scott on the other hand, was motivated less by passion than by duty. He would have received notable promotion upon planting Britain’s flag at the Pole. He brought ponies, who unlike the dogs could not eat penguin and seal meat and whose fodder had to be brought all the way). They designed special snowshoes for the ponies, but these proved to be fragile. When the ponies succumbed to the harsh cold and exertion they resorted to man-hauling the heavy and cumbersome sledges by foot. While Amundsen’s men had been skiing for many years Scott did not attempt to do so before starting the journey itself. It proved to be difficult and frustrating and in the end they walked. Another piece which I found particularly interesting with a sizable rock collection in storage myself: Scott and his men hauled over 30 lbs of rock samples from the mountains they passed early in the journey all the way to the pole.

Amundsen near the Pole with his dog team

A photo from Amundsen's journey

Perhaps surprisingly Scott did manage to make it to the South Pole, arriving on January 17th, 1912. Heartbroken at finding Amundsen’s tent and Norwegian flag planted and left more than a month prior he turned around depressed and pessimistic. Tragically while Amundsen returned to his base camp, with no casualties, nearly 100 days after leaving, none of Scott’s expedition survived the return march from the Pole.

Upon his return and his telegram announcing their success in reaching the Pole Roald Amundsen penned a manuscript detailing his voyage and experience:
“Brisbane, Queensland, April 13, 1912.
Here I am, sitting in the shade of palms, surrounded by the most wonderful
vegetation, enjoying the most magnificent fruits, and writing — the history of
the South Pole. What an infinite distance seems to separate that region from
these surroundings! And yet it is only four months since my gallant comrades and
I reached the coveted spot.
I write the history of the South Pole! If anyone had hinted a word of anything
of the sort four or five years ago, I should have looked upon him as incurably
mad. And yet the madman would have been right. One circumstance has followed on
the heels of another, and everything has turned out so entirely different from
what I had imagined.
On December 14, 1911, five men stood at the southern end of our earth’s axis,
planted the Norwegian flag there, and named the region after the man for whom
they would all gladly have offered their lives — King Haakon VII. Thus the veil
was torn aside for all time, and one of the greatest of our earth’s secrets had
ceased to exist.”

The official photo of Amundsen's team and the tent and flag they erected

On November 29th, 1929 Admiral Byrd flew over the South Pole, but Scott’s arrival in January 1912, marked the last man stood at the Pole itself until 1957. It was the International Polar Year (IPY) and the US Navy constructed the first South Pole Station. There has been a US station manned year-round ever since. The first women did not make it to the Pole for another 12 years. In November 1969 six women stepped off the back of a US Navy plane, so none could claim to be the first, these women were Pam Young, Jean Pearson, Lois Jones, Eileen McSaveney, Kay Lindsay, and Terry Tickhill.

The first women to stand at the South Pole - US Navy photo

The first station, now familiarly called “Old Pole”, was built of simple rectangular buildings and covered walkways placed on the snow itself. Steadily the drifting snow began to bury the place and in the end it was buried completely. In 1972-73 the iconic Dome was built and Old Pole was abandoned. Construction of the new Elevated Station began in 2000 and was finally completed in 2008. The Dome has since been completely deconstructed and Old Pole was demolished last year. (a post about that event will come shortly)


Today the new Elevated Station rises almost majestically above the wide flat polar plateau. It looks a bit futuristic, standing eerily out of place reminiscent of the obelisk in 2001 Space Odyssey. Shinning a dark grey-green with a sloping aerodynamic bottom it sits about 15-20 feet above the ice beneath on numerous columnar legs. Four wings or “pods” stretch back towards the cargo yard, summer camp, and the berms. The front of the station faces the Ceremonial Pole; the galley windows looking out over the white nothingness to the often indistinct flat line of the horizon. There are over 230 people here today: support staff, research groups, and DVs or Distinguished Visitors and over 90 tourists/visitors – a record for the largest number of people at the South Pole yet! Of note the Prime Minister of Norway is here for the centennial along with several camera crews and advisors. A small tent city of tourists has grown about 500m on the other side of the Pole, facing the station. Two larger tents have been erected as a visitor’s center in something of the middle ground. Tourists are not allowed into the station except in small guided groups, we are not to go marching into their tent area without express permission. Most are on Chile’s time. It’s a bit surreal sometimes to be having breakfast and watching men and women pose next to the Pole in their expensive and brightly colored expedition down suits. Some have skied in all the way from the coast, some flew in today, some are self-supported, but most are with tour companies. There are world renowned adventurers and mountaineers and people who just had enough cash to buy the ticket. And then there are us – here for several months in the name of science to maintain the U.S. presence at the axis of the Earth.

It’s remarkable really, to think of all that has happened in the past 100 years; from World War 1, to putting men on the Moon, to the development of the internet and cell phones. There are few places as untouched as this. If one were to walk away from the station, off the groomed and pushed or drifted snow, past the bamboo poles and little nylon colored flags, past the buildings and berms and antennas, past the snowmobiles/machines and heavy equipment, past the exhaust of the power plant and furnaces…if one were to pass beyond these signs of habitation the view is exactly the same as Amundsen and Scott and their men witnessed a century ago. Beyond our bubble, our island of influence here, we are surrounded by literally hundred of miles of snow and ice, the emptiness that is the Great Flat White.

An excerpt describing in detail the arrival at the Pole from The South Pole Vol. 1 and 2 by Roald Amundsen:

“The weather during the forenoon had been just as fine as before; in the afternoon we had some snow-showers from the south-east. It was like the eve of some great festival that night in the tent. One could feel that a great event was at hand. Our flag was taken out again and lashed to the same two ski-sticks as before. Then it was rolled up and laid aside, to be ready when the time came. I was awake several times during the night, and had the same feeling that I can remember as a little boy on the night before Christmas Eve — an intense expectation of what was going to happen. Otherwise I think we slept just as well that night as any other.
On the morning of December 14 the weather was of the finest, just as if it had
been made for arriving at the Pole. I am not quite sure, but I believe we despatched our breakfast rather more quickly than usual and were out of the tent sooner, though I must admit that we always accomplished this with all reasonable haste. We went in the usual order — the forerunner, Hanssen, Wisting, Bjaaland, and the reserve forerunner. By noon we had reached 89º 53′ by dead reckoning, and made ready to take the rest in one stage. At 10 a.m. a light breeze had sprung up from the south-east, and it had clouded over, so that we got no noon altitude; but the clouds were not thick, and from time to time we had a glimpse of the sun through them. The going on that day was rather different from what it had been; sometimes the ski went over it well, but at others it was pretty bad. We advanced that day in the same mechanical way as before; not much was said, but eyes were used all the more. Hanssen’s neck grew twice as long as before in his endeavour to see a few inches farther. I had asked him before we started to spy out ahead for all he was worth, and he did so with a vengeance. But, however keenly he stared, he could not descry anything but the endless flat plain ahead of us. The dogs had dropped their scenting, and appeared to have lost their interest in the regions about the earth’s axis.

At three in the afternoon a simultaneous “Halt!” rang out from the drivers. They had carefully examined their sledge-meters, and they all showed the full distance — our Pole by reckoning. The goal was reached, the journey ended. I cannot say — though I know it would sound much more effective — that the object of my life was attained. That would be romancing rather too bare-facedly. I had better be honest and admit straight out that I have never known any man to be placed in such a diametrically opposite position to the goal of his desires as I was at that moment. The regions around the North Pole — well, yes, the North Pole itself — had attracted me from childhood, and here I was at the South Pole. Can anything more topsy-turvy be imagined? We reckoned now that we were at the Pole. Of course, every one of us knew that we were not standing on the absolute spot; it would be an impossibility with the time and the instruments at our disposal to ascertain that exact spot. But we were so near it that the few miles which possibly separated us from it could not be of the slightest importance. It was our intention to make a circle round this camp, with a radius of twelve and a half miles (20 kilometres), and to be satisfied with that. After we had halted we collected and congratulated each other. We had good grounds for mutual respect in what had been achieved, and I think that was just the feeling that was expressed in the firm and powerful grasps of the fist that were exchanged. After this we proceeded to the greatest and most solemn act of the whole journey — the planting of our flag. Pride and affection shone in the five pairs of eyes that gazed upon the flag, as it unfurled itself with a sharp crack, and waved over the Pole. I had determined that the act of planting it — the historic event — should be equally divided among us all. It was not for one man to do this; it was for all who had staked their lives in the struggle, and held together through thick and thin. This was the only way in which I could show my gratitude to my comrades in this desolate spot. I could see that they understood and accepted it in the spirit in which it was offered. Five weather-beaten, frost-bitten fists they were that grasped the pole, raised the waving flag in the air, and planted it as the first at the geographical South Pole. “Thus we plant thee, beloved flag, at the South Pole, and give to the plain on which it lies the name of King Haakon VII.’s Plateau.”

That moment will certainly be remembered by all of us who stood there. One gets out of the way of protracted ceremonies in those regions — the shorter they are the better. Everyday life began again at once.

Discovery has a brief and interesting article at:
http://news.discovery.com/adventure/100-years-ago-today-amundsens-farthest-south-111208.html

Bill Spindler has a great summary of Antarctic history at: http://southpolestation.com/trivia/igy/intro.html. More recent history can be found by following the link at the bottom back to the Timeline.

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Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station United States Antarctic Program

Bright. That’s probably the first thought that comes to mind, the first perception my senses register. The sun is up 24/7 during the austral summer and at nearly 10,000ft, with no ozone, extremely low atmospheric water content, and virtually no dust it’s harsh. Beneath me the earth is pure white snow. Above me the sky is one moment a cirrus haze…and the next a most magnificent infinite blue.

Then, Cold! A shock that steals the first breath and nips at bare skin. So cold sometimes the metal tracks of the heavy equipment crackles like rice crispies. So cold that doorknobs stick to finger tips and palms. So cold that breath freezes onto eye lashes like chunky white mascara and films over sunglasses, hats, and gaiters, with persistent frost.

The world down here is white and blue; the horizon as flat as a sheet of paper. The only place that has come close to this openness is the sea, far from the sight of land. The minute relief of sastrugi provides a bit of texture, it is the waves of the ice – the result of the constant wind that drifts and scours, transporting some grains and hardening others. The result is a beautiful wave-like surface. They generally rise no more than a foot or so in undisturbed areas around Pole, but can grow to several feet with sheer sides depending on conditions.

The white and blue horizon of the polar plateau. Note the sastrugi on the wave-like surface.

It’s sterile here. The first step off the plane is exhilarating to most, myself included, but can instill a deep sense of intruding in some people – a sense that humans are not suppose to be here. That life is not supposed to be here. It takes an enormous amount of energy to support a station here, a fact that is not forgotten or taken lightly. There is no plant or animal life, nothing to smell; too dry even for mold. Some days this simple world seems untainted and pure, while at other times it’s just dead. We joke about the common sense of the rest of the animal kingdom not to venture to the edge of the world.

Despite all of this it’s beautiful. The cold is bearable and just adds to the sense of exotic and adventure. It’s at once a very plain and simple landscape, but also one of the most complex I’ve encountered. Like the sea there are innumerable moods to the seemingly boring landscape of snow and ice. Never exactly pure white, it’s a mix of pale blues, yellows, greens, purples, pinks, browns, and grays – a bit like clouds. The texture and movement of the snow changes by the hour.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station beneath the immense sky.

Welcome to the South Pole, Antarctica.

90 degrees South – where the pin fits into the bottom (or top) of the globe. It’s on the rotational axis of earth, so standing at the surveyed pole itself you are in all time-zones simultaneously! For convenience we operate on New Zealand and McMurdo time. This means we’re a day ahead of the U.S. because we crossed the date line flying to N.Z. At the time of this post it is 6pm on November 12 here, and 9pm November 11 on the Pacific Coast.
The sun rises and sets once a year at the Equinox and other than a few weeks of dusky-dawn light it’s either daylight or night 24/7. The sun follows a gradual spiral higher and higher to a point about 23.5 degrees above the horizon at the December solstice, and subsequently follows its path down to a point at the same angle below the horizon in June. (This is indeed the same angle as the earth’s tilt – if the earth spun on a axis exactly perpendicular to its orbital plane the sun here would stay right on the horizon all year round)

There’s no change in temperature between noon and midnight. It’s just varying degrees of cold. While -50F to -60F isn’t unusual for this time of year the temperature will gradually rise to -30F and up to almost 0F around New Years before dropping again in February. Lately it’s been very warm for this early in the season – yesterday the high was -32.4 F and the low was -42.7 F.

A red and white barbershop pole topped by a mirrored ball marks the “Ceremonial Pole” and is surrounded by the flags of the first 12 countries to sign the Antarctic Treaty.

The Ceremonial Pole

This site is positioned pictorially front and center of the new station. The actual Geographic Pole is a little ways away. The ice here is gradually moving towards the sea carrying the station and everything else here with it. This motion makes it seem as if the Geographic Pole is moving. Eventually it will sit right on top of the VMF or Vehicle Maintenance Facility (aka Garage)! Surveyed annually the actual pole is marked by a metal rod and a sculpture designed by the departing winter-over crew.

The Amundsen-Scott U.S. South Pole Station is named for the first two men to reach the Pole. It was a close race and a competition not only of the men and their crews, but of the countries and philosophies they represented. Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole on December 14th 1911. Sir Robert Falcon Scott arrived on January 17, 1912. Brokenhearted, Scott died on his return to the coast.

There have been several stations here since the U.S. Navy erected a year-round base in 1957. The modern station is a futuristic two story building raised up about 15ft on pilings.

The back of the station as seen from the Cargo Yard where we build and tear down pallets from the aircraft

In theory the wind scours beneath and around the structure automatically clearing drifts. Like everything here it works better on paper. In practice, while it does scour quite well directly underneath, a large bow wave-like drift grows in front of the station and long contrail-like dunes extend downwind. This main building contains housing for ~150 people, a kitchen and galley, a small gym, a half basket ball court, an emergency power plant, a small experimental hydroponic greenhouse, a few lounges for movie watching and game playing, a little self-help library,   a laundry room and bathrooms.

I took this picture of the front of the station last year during an early season storm.

The other ~100 or so souls that reside at Pole during the austral summer live in “Summer Camp.” A series of Jamesways about a quarter mile from the main station. Jamesways are structures of insulated fabric stretched over wooden ribs on a wood foundation.

A few of the Jamesways in Summer Camp

The view of the station from Summer Camp – as we sleep in Summer Camp and all meals are in the station it’s a bit of walk each morning and evening, especially at -30F or -40F and at ~10,000ft.

They are dark and warm inside, which is really what counts. The space inside is separated into 8-10 rooms with walls of canvas curtains and a narrow walkway down the middle. Over the years people have taken charge of their small space installing desks, windows, plywood walls, or cubbies and shelves. Each space is unique.

J-12: my home away from home this austral summer

People from all over the world, with a full range of backgrounds and experiences, end up down here. The dinner conversations alone are fascinating.

A picture of me last year as a G.A. or General Assistant as we shoveled out buried Summer Camp doors

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Intro and Info

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.

Image by the "Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica" project by the USGS, NSF, and NASA

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/

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McMurdo Station

McMurdo Station, McM,
Mac Town, or simply Town is the largest of the three primary US Antarctic bases
(Palmer on the penninsula and South Pole being the other two). It’s a mix between a community college, a mining camp, and a military outpost. People heading to field camps, the dry valley’s, WAIS Divide, or the South Pole all pass through here. This includes most of the South Pole cargo team, which will be staged here until the first C-130 Hercules (aka Herc) flight scheduled for November 1. Flight schedules here are always taken with a grain of salt, and it seems that more often than not that a flight will be bumped up a day or given a 24 hour weather delay. Right now while it’s been a balmy -5F here in McMurdo, it’s still around -70F at the South Pole, well below  the -50F the Herc limit.
Luckily McMurdo is bustling with energy and plenty of tasking and training so there isn’t much downtime. In addition to hikes and taking in the impressive views of the mountains nearby we’ve been learning how to operate the heavy equipment we’ll primarily be using at Pole.
CAT 953 and 950-G. As well as the details of building and planning cargo pallets. Everything coming to the South Pole is either dragged down via the “South Pole Overland Traverse” (aka SPOT) or is flown down on a Herc. Material being flown on the Hercs must be loaded onto 88″x108″ Air Force pallets. With a core of balsa wood and a metal outer layer they’re relatively light and durable.

One of the highlights of this week was a visit to Discovery Hut on Hut Point, just out of “town.” This site is specially protected by the Antarctic Treaty so visits are limited. One of the few designated people on station with a key to the hut offered to take a group of us “Polies” inside before we left McMurdo. The hut was built in 1902 by the 1901-1904 British Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. Constructed of wood panels with a thin felt liner between it was too cold to live in and the crew resided primarily onboard their ship just off the coast. Originally one of several buildings, the rest were destroyed or damaged until the Antarctic Treaty dedicated it as a protected historical site. Today you can still see clothes hanging to dry, rations in wooden crates, and tin cans left on the shelves inside. Cold, dark, and eerie one can almost hear the bubble of water on the stove or the shuffle of feet clad in the felt and hide boots worn during that long expedition over a century ago.

I also wanted to mention that I have and will be posting more photos at:
www.picasaweb.google.com/marie.mclane

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