Category Archives: McMurdo

Around Mac Town

Ross Island dominated by Mt. Erebus in the center as seen from out on the ice shelf. McMurdo and Scott Base are located on the dark area to the left.

The weather in Antarctica is notoriously capricious, especially in the stormy West Antarctic, and its storms are legendary. Teams heading out to the “Deep Field” are brought into McMurdo several weeks in advance to complete training and preparations for the field, but also to give a buffer for deployment to field sites. Weather delays of a week, or two, or three are not uncommon especially when combined with ageing aircraft and shifting priorities with many groups needing to utilize flights. Once field preparations are complete we volunteer with other departments and projects and take advantage of the hikes and activities offered around the main USAP hub of operations. It can be frustrating at times to have clearly defined projects and goals and not be able to start. On the other hand most deep field camps are on the bright flat white so the majestic mountain views, hiking trails, and wildlife are savored while amenities like hot showers and warm dark rooms are appreciated. I wrote a post about McMurdo back in 2012 – not too much has changed : ) Check it out here: and another here:

CRREL: This year I’ve spent a fair bit of time assisting some friends with the Cold Regions Research and Engineer Laboratory (CRREL) as they conduct ground penetrating radar (GPR) and GPS surveys of the McMurdo area. One project is looking at the structure of the McMurdo ice shelf. With the airfields and runways built out on the flat ice it is an integral part of USAP logistics and would pose a huge problem should a large piece calve away unexpectedly. To do the survey we towed 200MHz and 400MHz GPR devices behind snowmobiles along predetermined transects using a precision Trimble GPS unit to record location and elevation. Ice cores were manually collected to determining the depth of the brine layer – essentially the ice depth at specific points. The cores ranged from 5-16 meters deep!
The sea ice, which may break up during the summer, is roughly 1-7m thick, while the ice shelf which remains frozen year-round reached depths of greater than 40m!

Another project was examining the geology and bedrock structure of the McMurdo area in town. While there are still significant patches of ice and snow it’s starting to melt out and most of the roads are clear by now. We made an amusing sight: one person in the lead with a rope around their waist dragging a bright pink plastic sled loaded with a big orange box along the gritty uneven rock roads and hillsides…the other person walking next to the sled wearing a yellow backpack with a big antenna sticking out the top.

SPOT: The South Pole Traverse is heading out around this time of year too so there is a lot to do to help them get cleaned up and on the ‘road’ to Pole. I spent several days helping the SPOT teams reorganizing drums and securing cargo to their sleds. While their set-up is much larger and more complicated than ours will be, the theory is all the same and it was good to re-familiarize myself with the Cat Challengers, though the ones we will be using at WAIS are far older and a bit smaller. See my previous post for more information on SPOT:

Dive Tending: One morning I got to assist the Divers. On that particular day they were recording water column visibility along a steep drop-off not far from the station. We met in town and loaded up a Pisten Bully with all their gear and supplies. Out on the ice we stopped at one of the “Fish Huts.” Small brightly colored buildings, the heated huts sit over maintained holes in the ice at designated dive points. Bundled up in long underwear, a full insulated down suit, and a sturdy dry-suit the two divers were uncomfortably warm while we got everything ready. Gear was brought inside the hut and a line was tied off to the hut wall and then lowered into the water with strobes, flags, and an emergency air tank. In the dim light under the ice and with very limited places to surface it is imperative not to lose the dive hole! Then sitting at the edge of the hole, with practiced efficiency, they pulled on their hoods and masks, strapped on their weights and flippers, locked on their thick lobster-claw mittens, and hoisted on their air tanks and regulators…and then they slipped into the hole!


With a burst of bubbles they sank down the 3-4ft hole through the sea ice and disappeared into the dark water. Once they were gone I lowered the ladder and closed the shutters of the hut. The sunlight filtering through made the ice glow an electric blue around the black water. The dive lasted about 20 or 30 minutes as I watched from above noting feathers, or platelets, of ice growing on the surface of the ~28F water and keeping an eye out for the divers as they swam under the hole.


The second diver about to enter the water

Before I knew it there was a mass of bubbles and one of the divers appeared in the hole. I assisted with hauling out their heavy air tanks so they could climb the ladder and warm up next to the stove. Then it was back to town in time for lunch!


Pressure Ridge: An interesting feature in the McMurdo area is the pressure ridge. An area of ice that’s been forced together by ice flow and tidal movement it forms each year right in front of New Zealand’s Scott Base. With unrelenting pressure the ice is driven into the air cracking and breaking to form stunning features – the snow bright white and the ice glowing a deep blue. With so much relative ice movement thin spot and air holes form making it very popular with the Weddell seals in the area.

A friend’s website with some amazing photography of pressure ridges and more can be found here:

Ob Tube: The Observation Tube (aka Ob Tube) offers a unique glimpse under the sea ice just in front of McMurdo. A tube, anchored to the ice surface, houses a ladder down 10ft or so to the base where there is a small round area with windows. Not for the claustrophobic, it is a tight fit and is quite dark. Some light filters through the ice to illuminate sea stars on the ocean floor while tiny fish, jelly fish, and pteropod “Sea Angels” float past the thick ice rimmed windows. Perhaps most notable is the texture of the sea ice base. While the top of the sea ice is a varied terrain of snow, blue ice scoured clear, or area of melt later in the summer, the base is comprised of delicate sheets and leaves of ice called platelet ice. The seawater is below freezing here at ~28-29F on average and as the fresh water freezes a salty shimmering brine solution is formed just below the ice level.
Later in the summer the ice will thin and possibly break up here so the Ob tube is a temporary feature only deployed for a few weeks in November.

Check out this post from a fellow polie about the Ob Tube here:

Arrival Heights: Arrival Heights is an area just Northeast of McMurdo Station proper, not far from the Castle Rock hiking loop trail. It is an area reserved for clean air sampling and radio and light sensitive experiments – a bit like Summit’s Clean Air Sector and South Pole Dark Sector combined. Several special camera suites study auroras so in the winter the use of lights is kept to a strict minimum. Other experiments are looking at the ionosphere and magnetosphere (space weather) utilizing huge antenna arrays which are highly sensitive to radio transmissions.

As an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) it is off limits to the public at large, however occasional guests are permitted as long as they are accompanied by official personnel and traffic, either by foot or vehicle, is limited to designated routes only.
Exposed to some brutal winds it also offers one of the most beautiful views with the Royal Society Mountain Range clearly visible to the West and unhindered views North towards Cape Evans and the sea ice edge.


Cape Evans:
About 20km North of McMurdo Station on Ross Island is Cape Evans. Named for Robert Falcon Scott’s second-in-command Lieutenant Edward Evans it was the staging point for the British Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1913 .
The expedition’s hut, now dubbed Scott’s Hut, was prefabricated in England and reconstructed on Cape Evans in 1911. It was built to house the 25 men of the expedition during the following winter while they prepared for the journey inland. With lessons learned from Scott’s previous, and frigid, Discovery Hut (located on Hut Point, just a short walk from McMurdo Station and used by Scott during the 1901-04 Discovery Expedition) the 1911 Cape Evans hut contains two stoves, better insulation, and is surrounded on some sides by a covered stable and storage area. Some of the men reported that it was “warm to the point of being uncomfortable.”
In the austral spring of 1911 Scott and several of his men set out to be the first men to reach the South Pole. For more information on that check out this fantastic 2011 article Race to the South Pole by the National Geographic. They arrived on January 17, 1912 to find a tent and a note from Roald Amundsen who had reached the South Pole first on December 14, 1911. Their dreams dashed, they headed towards the coast, however suffering from malnutrition and cold injuries there were no survivors.

This is of particular historic significance as it was this brutal expedition that arrived at the South Pole (just behind Norwegian Roald Amundsen) and from which Scott never returned. Several men remained at Scott’s Hut for the winter of 1912 to search for Scott’s party, however in 1913 they left Antarctica as well, leaving Scott Hut stocked with supplies.

The Hut was used again in 1915-17 by 10 men from Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea party after their ship, the Aurora, with the rest of the crew, broke adrift and was taken North in the ice in May 1915. The Ross Sea party was the counterpart to Shackleton’s 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition expedition, the ill-fated attempt to cross the continent. They were responsible for laying supply depots for Shackleton’s return from the Pole, however Shackleton trapped in the ice aboard the Endurance, failed to ever reach the continent itself and so the entire effort was for naught.

Due to sub-freezing temperatures, low humidity, and conservation efforts by the US and New Zealand and the Antarctic Heritage Trust both Scott’s Hut and Discovery Hut have remained much as they were left in the early 20th century; Beds are made with shoes tucked beneath, a desiccated and partially dissected penguin lies on a table, glass vials of medicine and solutions line shelves while the kitchen is well stocked with tins and cartons of various food stuffs. A massive pile of seal meat is stacked out in the covered storage area, fairly well preserved for being over a hundred years old, though smelling a bit rancid…The entire site is full of amazing artifacts from the expedition such as snowshoes for their ponies, and cartoons tacked to the wall.

Check out Amusing Planet’s page on Scott’s Hut for more information on the hut’s artifacts and the expedition in general:


Filed under Antarctic, McMurdo, Science, Stations

Aurora Borealis

Aurora behind the Big House

Aurora behind the Big House (HDR)

A month since the last plane and a month yet to go, we’ve settled into our respective winter roles keeping the station running and warm. Our focus so far has been to get everything stored for winter and we’re almost there. All the cargo has been moved to the berm, the buildings have been dragged out away from the main station, and our HEO has been working diligently to clear as much snow as possible from around the remaining buildings before the winter storms begin in earnest.

It’s definitely autumn here on the ice sheet. The sun is setting around 7:00pm now and rising around 6:00am, and by 9:30pm or 10:00pm it’s properly dark outside! It catches me off guard…I know it sounds odd, but I’m used to the ice being either light (summer) or dark (winter). I’m not used to seeing the sun set below the great flat white each day, and how fast it changes!

Along with the darkness comes stars, and auroras! We had our first sighting this week. While I’ve seen the Southern Lights this was my first undeniable glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.

The MSF, 50m Swiss Tower, and Auroras...

Aurora Borealis over the Mobile Science Facility (MSF) and the 50m tall Swiss Tower…

Auroras illuminate the sky behind the 50m Swiss Tower

Auroras illuminate the sky behind the 50m Swiss Tower

Named for the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, the Northern and Southern Lights are formed by the same process. In summary: charged particles carried by the solar wind are deflected by Earth’s magnetosphere and carried towards the polar regions where they interact with the upper atmosphere releasing photons – light. For a more thorough explanation please refer to my previous post here…or check out these websites for more information:

As these charged particles are released by solar flares and carried on the solar wind, aurora events can be forecasted somewhat, though the accuracy is even less than predicting the weather. (

The aurora is a beautiful and magical phenomenon, but it is not rare – it is happening nearly constantly day and night! The light emitted is so faint however, that it can only be seen at night. Every planet with a magnetic field has auroras at the poles – those that don’t, such as Venus, still have the occasional aurora, but they are more random and not specifically polar.

Ultra violet aurora on Saturn.

Aurora on Saturn seen in ultra violet

Over the past few days we’ve had stronger winds and more blowing snow in the air, while this has obscured the night sky it did illuminate the normally invisible LiDAR instrument shining through it’s little window in the MSF roof. A very strong laser, the LiDAR instrument is part of a suite of experiments that compose the ICECAPS project that are studying precipitation and cloud properties over the Greenland ice sheet. Check out the official Polar Field Services blog for a more complete summary:

The CAPABLE Lidar visible in the blowing snow

The CAPABLE Lidar visible in the blowing snow

The NOAA Observatory webpage has some interesting information on the MSF and the ICECAPS project found at:
The University of Wisconsin website also has a webpage with information on ICECAPS:

Temperatures have stayed fairly warm so far (between 0F and -20F), though we have had the occasional dip down to -40F. The general trend is that it’s either clear, calm, beautiful, and very cold (-30F to -40F)…or windy, overcast, snowing and warm (+5F to 0F). As the winter progresses and the days get shorter temps will continue to fall. It won’t reach the coldest temps seen at the South Pole in winter, but it gets cold enough!

For those who might be curious, Summit’s weather data is publicly available at:

And HDR image of the SOB in the dark.

The SOB at night – the generator exhaust illuminated by the building lights. (HDR)



Filed under Arctic, Greenland, McMurdo, Stations, Summit Station, Winter

Mac Town Time


After four flights and over 28 hours of travelling I finally landed in Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s spring in the southern hemisphere and lovely, with vibrant leaves and birdsong. The next morning, we assembled at the Clothing Distribution Center (aka CDC) for a welcome briefing and our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear issue. The standard ECW set includes everything you need to work and survive in the Antarctic climate – the enormous Big Red, insulated carhartt bibs and jacket, fleece long underwear, hats, goggles, mittens, gaiters, gloves, socks, and boots – either the Bunny, or Mickey Mouse, boots or the blue FDX boots. While Bunny boots are the classic white USAP footwear, they’re rubber and don’t breathe. FDX boots are a bit warmer and are leather/cloth so they breathe, but the soles are very thick (part of why they’re so warm) and there’s no ankle support so can be treacherous at times.
A lot of it is personal choice. I generally bring my own long underwear (of varying thickness), my extra warm fleece neck gaiter which I’ve modified with chest/back flaps to protect against zipper and neck drafts, a thin gaiter more for sun and wind protection than cold, a knit wool hat with a fleece lining, a ball cap for sun, liner gloves, thick expedition weight socks, liner socks etc…

0014222d98500f73b15b06 This season I’ll be heading out to Pine Island Glacier, near the  coast  in far West Antarctica (75°45’S 100°16’W and approx. 850m  elevation), as part of the 4 person “WAS Recovery team.”  It will be  cold early in the season, but will become  downright warm by  Christmas and New Years – we’ve been told to anticipate heavy wet  snow and even the possibility of rain! So I made sure to  get good  rain/wind pants and a “little Red” jacket that is more of a  shell  than parka.
After getting our ECW and going through a few introductory briefs  we were given our mandatory flu shots then had the rest of the afternoon to enjoy Christchurch and the botanic gardens.
On November 3rd we flew to McMurdo aboard a US Air Force C-17. The whole West Antarctic family is here now: WAIS Divide, the PIG Traverse, WISSARD, Siple, and now the WAS Recovery Crew. A week or two is needed in town for training, to finalize cargo lists and put-in plans, and to round up all the gear and material needed for the season. A lot of these camps have been used season after season and most of their supplies were left overwinter on the berm. Our team is a bit different; while PIG was a large camp in 2012-13, this year we won’t be setting up the buildings or supporting any science. Our goal is just to recover the material.
As soon as WAIS gets established we’ll fly out there on an LC-130, spend a night or two then load up a Twin Otter and fly to PIG, set up a few mountain tents and get to work excavating the berm. While there are a lot of supplies buried out there most of them are useless to us, our outfit is pretty bare bones. Without a skiway the planes can’t take in much cargo. We’ll be living in small mountain tents with one larger heated yurt-like tent. We’ll have no running water or showers, and will be cooking and melting water on camp stoves. There’ll be no internet or fresh food either.
Our main focus this week in McMurdo has been to decide what to bring with us: how much food, what cargo, and which flight it will go on. We’re planning for two planes. The initial “put-in” flight will bring in our survival gear and us. The cargo list for this flight includes our tents, survival bags, sleep kits, stoves and some fuel, a basic medical kit, comms equipment (satellite phone, HF and VHF radios), our Personal Locator Beacon (PLB for emergency use), a human waste bucket, a water jug, and our shovels. The second plane will bring spare parts, fluid and fuel for the vehicles out there, more food and tools such as a heater to warm up and melt out equipment.

Our cargo staging cage

Our cargo staged in the BFC cage (the taped off plastic jugs and bottom two shelves are for a different project)

Of all the cargo, our shovels may be used most. We’ll need shovels to knock down sastrugi to clear spaces for our tents, to dig out equipment so we can dig out the pallets, to clear drifts created by the wind, to mine snow for water. We’ll be shoveling every day. Professional D-1 Operators.
“So what kind of shovels should we bring?” Our team lead asked. Immediately all four of us agreed: short shovels with square blades and D handles. We’ll bring a long handled one as an extra. Then we all laughed shaking our heads…not only do we know the types of shovels, but we didn’t have to think about which type we like best for shoveling this kind of snow! Is that a good thing….or have we been doing this too long?
The long ones are great for deep pits, or for tall people. The rounded blades that come to a bit of a point are good for dirt and rocks…but for snow I prefer the short handled small square blades – It’s short enough to wield without knocking into things, the small blade is sturdier and less likely to crack while trying to pry out chunks of hard snow, the flat edge cuts clean blocks, which is most efficient. You can also carve smooth walls and scrape flat surfaces, and if you need a point you can use the corner. Maybe I have shoveled too much…

We were originally scheduled to fly out to WAIS Divide on the 15th, but there have been significant weather and mechanical delays so this date may well get pushed back.


McMurdo as seen from Ob Hill. (HDR)

"Roll Cage Mary" on Hut Point. Ob Hill and McMurdo are in the background.

“Roll Cage Mary” on Hut Point. Ob Hill and McMurdo are in the background. (HDR)

Mount Erebus on Ross Island

Mount Erebus and Castle Rock on Ross Island. (HDR)

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Filed under Antarctic, Field Camps, McMurdo, Pine Island Glacier

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 ( 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.


Filed under Antarctic, History, McMurdo, Science

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:

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:

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Filed under Antarctic, History, McMurdo, South Pole

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:

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Filed under Antarctic, History, McMurdo


It’s Friday October 14th here at the largest base on the continent. Outside it’s sunny, a little windy, and the temp is -6F with a -26F windchill. Lovely.

The process of getting here is a long one. Beginning in February or March with online job announcements and applications the next few months are busy filling out paperwork and completing the rigorous process to get medically PQ’d (Physically Qualified) to work in Antarctica. I finally deployed on October 8th.

The first stop was Denver, Colorado. Everyone working on the continent must have a few days of OSHA and safety awareness training at the Raytheon Polar Services (RPSC) headquarters. This morning I woke at 0400, the shuttle picked us up at 0430 on the dot and we all made our way to the Antarctic Center near the Chch airport. We checked in and got a quick breakfast. Then taking a last look at the grass and trees, boarded the plane heading to the ice. The flight is about 5 hours, and if the weather changes it’s not uncommon to “boomerang” or turn around and fly back to Chch. If this happens it’s a LONG day. Most people fly down on a USAF C-17 Globemaster. Last year I was on that plane, but this year I was put on the Airbus – a regular commercial plane. There’s only one Airbus that flies down and it’s quite the luxury. Stewardesses with tea and coffee, seats that recline, much quieter than the military planes so earplugs aren’t required and you can listen to music. The best part though was having a window seat and getting some AMAZING views of the sea ice and transantarctic mountains on the way in to McMurdo.

So here we are: McMurdo Station Antarctica. Its Friday Oct 14th here (New Zealand time to make flights and schedules easier) and a lovely sunny spring day on the coldest, highest, driest continent on earth.


Filed under Antarctic, McMurdo