Category Archives: Science

Nacreous Clouds!

The sun is on its way back and while we still have 3 weeks until the first sunrise each day is a little brighter than the last. New Year’s Eve dawned bright and clear with crisp stars and a few very special clouds on the horizon. At first they were startling neon pink, orange, and red. The first real sign of the sun in weeks and a beautiful contrast to the greens and blues of the night sky and aurora. As the day progressed the clouds grew in size, becoming clearly iridescent. With no insulating clouds overhead it was a chilly -60F ambient. The cold temperature, otherwise clear sky, low sun, and wavy iridescent features all pointed towards these clouds being Polar Stratospheric Clouds (aka PSCs or Nacreous Clouds).

These rare clouds are both terrible and beautiful. Forming in the stratosphere at 49,000-82,000ft and at temperatures below -100F they are composed of water, nitric acid and/or sulfuric acid. While beautiful, they are implicated in the depletion of stratospheric ozone – an important protective layer against harmful UV rays. According to
PSCs were long regarded as curiosities and of no real consequence. However, Type I clouds are now known as sites of harmful destruction of stratospheric ozone over the Antarctic and Arctic. Their surfaces act as catalysts which convert more benign forms of man-made chlorine into active free radicals (for example ClO, chlorine monoxide). During the return of Spring sunlight these radicals destroy many ozone molecules in a series of chain reactions. Cloud formation is doubly harmful because it also removes gaseous nitric acid from the stratosphere which would otherwise combine with ClO to form less reactive forms of chlorine.”


Bright neon clouds


Polar Stratospheric Clouds – note their brightness, iridescence, and feathery/wavy structure

Measuring the ozone layer above us and the seasonal Arctic ozone hole is one of the many projects we support here at Summit. Every week the science techs launch a large balloon with a carefully calibrated instrument to measure ozone concentrations, as well as normal meteorological data (wind speed and direction, pressure, temperature, and humidity). The data is sent back via radio signal to the computer here at Summit.


Filed under Arctic, Greenland, Science, Summit Station, Winter


It was lightly snowing last night, ice crystals falling from high, thin clouds as I walked from the Big House to the Green House. Looking towards the MSF there was just enough ice in the air to illuminate the ICECAPS LiDAR – a laser measuring cloud matter, phase, and crystal orientation. ICECAPS is a relatively large, long-term project researching cloud characteristics and their impact on climate. This knowledge is crucial in developing climate models as well as understanding our changing climate. More information can be found here:

Most of the time the laser is invisible, however with just the right conditions enough light can be reflected back to show the brilliant green beam. If you look carefully you can also see the vertical laser, however this is weaker and thus less visible. Beautiful science!

*If you are familiar with LiDARs you may have seen this spelled LIDAR, lidar, LiDAR, or LADAR – according to NOAA’s Digital Coast Blog all spellings are correct though LiDAR is gaining in popularity. 


The ICECAPS LiDAR here at Summit


The LiDAR at NOAA’s ARO facility at the South Pole Station


An example of the LiDAR data:


Filed under Arctic, Greenland, Science, Science!, Summit Station


Auroras may grace the polar skies at night, but the day sometimes brings phenomenal halos and sundogs. It’s hard to describe the intangible beauty of these phenomena – vibrant spots of rainbow on either side of the sun, glowing pillars of light from the sun, a brilliant stream of light encircling the sky parallel to the horizon…a good display is simply awe-inspiring.

In general atmospheric optical phenomenon (sundogs, halos, rainbows) are not uncommon. Frequent halos and sundogs can be seen around the world when ice crystals in the atmosphere reflect and refract light. Infrequent halos are more often seen in polar regions or at high elevations with colder temperatures and more ice in the atmosphere. A common occurrence with halos is “Diamond Dust” which is essentially a ground level ice cloud filling the air with glittering ice crystals.

All photos below were taken by me, click on any of the images to open the full photo with caption.

The different crystal shapes generate different optics, however ice crystals form in hexagonal symmetry, thus while the crystal might be long or short (columnar or plate-like) the internal angles are always the same. Here at Summit the ICECAPS project, housed primarily in the MSF, is researching these crystals and cloud formations to better understand the complex processes involved in these systems.

The following website is a brilliant source of information regarding atmospheric optics and identifying features: An impressive full list of optical phenomenon can be found here: For more Summit specific photos and information check out the Polar Field Services blog, Field Notes.


Photograph of a good halo display – 22° halo, upper tangent arc, 46° halo, and parhelic circle at Summit Station, Greenland


Below are some of my favorite photos of optics that I have witnessed in the Arctic and Antarctic. If only I’d had my wide angle lens in past seasons! Click on images to bring up caption and full picture.


According to, 120° parhelia are infrequent, but not super rare. They are often faint and short lived however, I have only ever seen them twice. Below is a panorama at Summit showing bright 120° parhelia.


Bright sundogs, 22° halo, and definite rare 120° parhelia! (Summit)


Looking opposite the previous photo – the 120° parhelia can be seen along the parhelic circle (Summit)

Moon halos are not uncommon either, but require a nearly full moon and darkness as well as halo forming conditions.


Other interesting optical phenomena include the green flash and fogbows. The green flash lasted a few hours at the South Pole Station in 2013 (check out my post from that sunset with more green flash photos here). This photo was taken through a telescope. It’s a bit blurry due to heat waves and light distortion near the horizon, the same process which causes the green flash to be visible. Fog and fogbows are a frequent occurrence at Summit, Greenland.



 Happy belated equinox and sunrise at Pole!

20101216-halo silouhette.jpg

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Filed under Science, Summit Station

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 Australis

Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis – the Northern and Southern lights respectively – are one of the most iconic phenomena of the polar regions.
Dancing streams of light, ephemeral and enchanting, appear in the dark sky spanning a spectrum of color from white to green to red and near purple. They have fascinated mankind and until recently were thought to be spirits or signs from god. Today we understand the physics behind aurorae, however this explanation is no less amazing. It is still one of the most awe inspiring natural phenomena I have ever witnessed.

A nice diagram showing the magnetosphere and solar wind

A nice diagram showing the magnetosphere and solar wind

Charged particles emitted by the sun reach Earth and are diverted around the magnetosphere. This strong magnetic field is induced by the spinning mass of liquid iron in Earth’s core and acts like a shield protecting Earth from the solar wind. Without the magnetosphere our atmosphere would be blown away and terrestrial life would be exposed to extreme radiation emitted by the sun. The magnetic field lines originate and converge at the axis of Earth. Solar particles are charged so they follow the magnetic field lines and are essentially funneled into the atmosphere at the Poles.

The interaction between these charged particles and atoms in our atmosphere produces light. This phenomena occurs year round, but the light is only visible in the dark of night. Here at the South Pole we have one long day and one long night each year – so the auroras are only visible during the winter months.

Auroras as seen from space

Auroras as seen from space

An image of auroras from space

An image of auroras from space

NOAA's space weather forecast showing the aurora oval - where auroras are most likely to occur.

NOAA’s space weather forecast showing the aurora oval – where auroras are most likely to occur.

Walking out to the berms to check on something or find more supplies, I watch the sky above me. With no light the stars shine brilliantly, the sweeping arc of the Milky Way plainly visible. My breath hisses in the cold, my eyelashes freezing together, my steps crunch loudly on the ultra dry snow. I glance up to see a slight glow, a pale green that gradually brightens as it expands. Other bright spots appear and it unfurls in a long curtain of light – reddish at the top and green at the bottom. It seems to stream downward, undulating and pulsing, curling upon itself in sections only to unfold again. It moves across the sky sometimes breaking into parallel lines. After a while it fades away again leaving only the darkness and pure starlight behind.

During winter everyone on station carries a personal radio with them. We can call each other individually, in programmed groups, or do an All Call. With some people working nights and others “free cycling” (for example researchers who do not have to stick to a regular schedule and instead follow a 27 hour day) All Calls are reserved for emergencies only. One of the programmed groups is “Aurora Lights.” This is a channel used to announce especially good auroras. A few months ago, when it was just getting dark, everyone would go running to the upper deck at DA when there was an aurora call. Now that we’ve passed midwinter people are starting to get a little jaded. Only an especially good aurora will draw a crowd…

This past Monday however, we had a spectacular show. Here are some pictures from myself and others here on station (as referenced):

Auroras over DA from May

Auroras over DA from May

Auroras over DA

Auroras over DA

More auroras from this Monday

More auroras from this Monday


A gorgeous shot by our Research Associate Andrew

A gorgeous shot by our Research Associate Andrew

Another nice pic with a fisheye by Andrew

Another nice pic with a fisheye by Andrew

Auroras over the station photo by IceCuber Felipe

Auroras over the station photo by IceCuber Felipe

Another shot by Felipe

Another shot by Felipe

The South Pole Telescope with auroras and the Milky Way. Photo by our power plant mechanic Eddie

The South Pole Telescope with auroras and the Milky Way. Photo by our power plant mechanic Eddie

An awesome picture Robert Schwarz shot this week of some nice auroras and a meteor!

An awesome picture Robert Schwarz shot this week of some nice auroras and a meteor!

Home Sweet Home from the top of the ARO tower

Home Sweet Home from the top of the ARO tower


Filed under Antarctic, Science, South Pole, Winter


Last week I was walking to the End of the World to help our station manager Weeks dip the fuel tanks when he noticed something unusual – small balls of snow all around us. “Yukimarimos! Haha, not really…those are just ice chunks…They’re way too big to be yukimarimo” He had seen them before, but only around sunrise/sunset. I got down on my knees turning on my red headlamp and gently reached my thick mittened hand towards one. At the slightest touch it rolled away from me picking up speed in the gentle wind. “What?! They really are Yuikimarimos! Those are HUGE!” I turned my head, illuminating dozens surrounding us, some easily 3-4inches (8-11cm) in diameter. They jostled together and rolled off into the darkness in the light breeze. Tiny ones only centimeters across filled in our footprints behind us. It was ~85F below zero with 5 or 6 knots wind.

The Haz Shack, Store DNF, Cargo DNF, and Cargo office on the way out to the fuel tanks

The Haz Shack, Store DNF, Cargo DNF, and Cargo office on the way out to the fuel tanks

After lunch we returned to dip more fuel tanks, a very cold task. This time we were joined by a band of excited Yukimarimo hunters armed to the gaiters with red headlamps, tripods, and cameras that would die in the cold after half an hour. I tried to pick one up, but my clumsy oversized mitten crushed it completely. Pulling off my mitten I gently cradled another in my soft glove liners. It was a 3 inch snowball light as air, long hoar frost crystals held together by static electricity. “I dare you to eat it!” Weeks joked, I pulled down my thick fleece neck gaiter that covered my nose, cheeks, and mouth. “No! I was just joking! It’s -85F!” The Yukimarimo melted at the hint of my breath, leaving naught but a drop of water in my mouth. A ball of air held together by frost.
A while later our meteorologist, Phil, found a cache of them hiding under the station itself.

Congregations of yukimarimo under the station

Congregations of yukimarimo under the station

This tricky phenomenon has only recently been scientifically documented (1997)and requires very specific environmental conditions – only forming in the heart of the Antarctic plateau in winter.

“These balls of snow form best deep in the Antarctic winter, when the air temperature is below minus 60 °C (minus 76 °F), and there is a gentle wind blowing – conditions under which even well-equipped polar explorers stay in heated buildings. In this frigid environment, delicate needles of hoar frost form on the surface of the snow. Some of these are rolled about by the wind and create these fragile snowballs, which grow to a size of about 30 mm”

“The researchers gave these dainty formations the name ‘yukimarimo’. ‘Yuki’ is the Japanese for snow, and ‘marimo’ is a globular water plant found in a lake in Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island.”

The full article in Nature can be found here:

A yukimarimo - photo by Blaise Kuo Tiong

A yukimarimo – photo by Blaise Kuo Tiong

A little blurry and the light's not great, but that's part of my plastic ruler that shattered in my pocket...

A little blurry and the light’s not great, but that’s part of my plastic ruler that shattered in my pocket…

My mitten next to a large one

My mitten next to a large one

Many little yukimarimos gathering between sastrugi

Many little yukimarimos gathering between sastrugi

The expediton: Daniel, Phil, Blaise, Myself, Andrew, and Kris in front

The expediton: Daniel, Phil, Blaise, Myself, Andrew, and Kris in front

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Filed under Antarctic, Science, South Pole, Winter

Sunset at the South Pole

March 21, 2013: The Equinox – the technical date that the sun, as a point, sets at the South Pole. On a perfectly spherical earth, with no topography, no atmosphere, no height above the ground the sun would be exactly halfway below/above the horizon on this day …Of course this isn’t the case, so our sunset is a little more variable. Since reaching a peak height of 23.5deg (the tilt of the earth) on the December solstice the sun has slowly spiraled towards the horizon. For the past few weeks we have witnessed increasingly beautiful displays of gold, pink, and purple light. Shadows stretch exponentially and the sun spins around us, just skimming the horizon, moving as much as 15deg an hour. Inside it has become noticeably darker, with lights turned on in the galley and my room nearly dark at night. This is a pretty big deal for us winter overs as the sun rises and sets only once a year here at the South Pole – events witnessed solely by those who commit to winter here, a total 1389 people (197 women)since 1957.

A good visual (thanks wikipedia) of variuos dusk/twighlight terms.

A good visual (thanks wikipedia) of variuos dusk/twighlight terms.

Due to a combination of phenomena, the sun is still visible today and will likely remain so for a few days yet. Even after the orb ducks below the horizon we will have a few weeks of light, phasing from daylight to civil twilight (0-6º below horizon) to nautical twilight (6-12º below) astronomical twilight (12-18º below) and eventually to full darkness. The moon rises and sets on a two week cycle, the brightness of which can be significant, so we will not be in full darkness for the entire winter. That said, it will be pretty dark for a good ~4 months.

The next moonrise is March 26th, but the sun won’t show it’s light again until the next equinox (vernal for us in the Southern hemisphere, autumnal for those of you further North) on September 21, 2013.

The latest update from the Coldest Journey which has just begun their trek to the Pole:

A few factors that influence the actual sunset are variable topography, air densities, and thermal inversions. The topography at the South Pole is not completely flat and uniform as it might seem, gradual undulations over miles create nearly imperceptible hills and valleys. These become noticeable this time of year with the sun appearing to be right on the horizon at noon and a few degrees above at 5pm. Strong thermal inversions exist here as well which can significantly refract the light, making the sun visible many days after it has technically set. The refractive effects of our atmosphere can make the sun appear to be flattened or squished against the horizon, or deceptively higher than it actually is, and is the cause of the green flash (LOTS more on the green flash and refraction here: – a phenomenon that has been visible for several hours in past years. Today it’s quite cloudy, but here’s a photo of a green/blue “flash” taken in 2000 by Rodney Marks:

blue flash And some more from 2003 (photographer unknown):

2003 greenflash.jpg


And here are some of my photos of the sun taken this year:












And so begins the longest night…


Filed under Antarctic, Science, South Pole, Winter

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

The Greenhouse aka NASA’s Food Growth Chamber

The “South Pole Food Growth Chamber” aka Greenhouse

Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how sterile it is here. We are all caught up in our jobs, our daily routine, but every now and then some small rocks and dust on a pallet from McMurdo or a bright bowl of freshies (apples, bananas, oranges, salad) in the galley brings it to mind. Walking through the station there are no plants, no windows overlooking green grass or trees, no animals…it’s just plastic and metal until you reach the Greenhouse. With the curtains drawn it’s almost easy to miss, but a bank of windows sits in the wall of the lower hallway between the Post Office and Quiet Reading Room (aka Library). Open curtains spill yellow sodium light onto the black hall floor…I push open the large freezer-type door and walk into the foyer – into a wall of humidity, warmth, and the smell of life and growing things. The sharp contrast between the dry, cool nothingness outside is almost overwhelming. The air feels thick, hard to breath at first. Approximately 10ft x 6ft, the foyer is filled with a blanket covered couch, small table, some edible flowers, and a stereo. This is separated from the “primary growth chamber” by large glass doors.

The "primary Growth Chamber" as seen from the small ante-room

At 70F and 60% humidity it’s a veritable sauna compared to the cooler 4% humidity air throughout the station. Just a few minutes of sitting in the antechamber relieves stress, renews energy, and generally lifts moods. Very rarely do I walk by and see the couch empty – many times it’s just one person with their head back, eyes closed, just breathing. Stepping into the Greenhouse calls up memories of tunneling through hay fields, climbing massive trees, rain drops on giant Pacific Northwest sword ferns, and the feeling of spongy bright green living grass beneath bare feet.

The Greenhouse is technically a NASA experiment; a hydroponic operation using water cooled sodium lights and a tightly controlled atmosphere with supplemented CO2. Consuming 140 litres of water and roughly 1.2 kg of CO2 per day, the system isn’t quite perfect, but it’s a HUGE moral booster.

The growth chamber consists of three rows of two tiered sliding trays. Carefully monitored nutrient/salt enriched water runs through the trays bathing the roots of the plants. To give structural stability to the roots they are grown in a matrix of vermiculite or more often, “rock wool.”

The trays can be pushed back underneath to make room to walk by

"Rock wool" provides structure for the roots and support for the leafy green above

At peak production the Greenhouse can produce up to 6kg per day of biomass, 2.8 of which is edible (the rest is a combination of roots/stocks/inedible leaves etc). This is enough for roughly 2 salads a day for the 40 people overwintering. During the summer with our population between 220 and 250 fresh greens augment flown in “freshies” – colorful nasturtium flowers, deep green waxy chard, and various types of curling crunchy kale are a welcome sight in the food line!

To protect this last continent from invasive species and to limit impact and disturbance the Antarctic Treaty prohibits growing anything inedible on the continent. You may laugh, but there are some places with exposed soil such as within the Dry Valleys and on some places along the Peninsula.

Baby cucumbers


Delicious Kale!

Some links to more info on the Greenhouse:
An interesting blog by our summer Greenhouse Tech John Rask:


Filed under Antarctic, Science, South Pole



MAPO, or the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory, is the first building one encounters upon crossing the skiway. The blue box-like building housing the telescopes Viper (now complete and waiting demolition) and SPUD, used to sit high above the snow surface to avoid drifting issues, but the stilts are now long buried.

SPUD is looking at a similar radiation spectrum as the South Pole 10m telescope (about 2mm wavelength) but at a much larger scale with far less resolution. The project is described in the Science Planning Summary USAP-2011-2012 as:
Small Polimeter Upgrade for DASI (SPUD) is the next generation instrument in the ongoing Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEPT/BICEP2) program of experiments. It will place multiple receivers similar to BICEP2 on the telescope mount originally built for the Degree Angular Scale Interferometer (DASI) experiment. SPUD will increase sensitivity over BICEP2 by increasing the number of detectors and in future seasons by also expanding to other frequencies to mitigate possible foreground contamination. The scientific objective is the same as BICEP2 – to attempt to measure B-mode polarization caused by gravity waves spawned in the first tiny fraction of a second after the big bang by the process of “inflation.” Inflation is the favored cosmo-genic model and finding direct “smoking-gun” evidence for it is one of the highest priorities in cosmology today. SPUD will increase sensitivity over BICEP2 by increasing the number of detectors, and, in future seasons, by also expanding to other frequencies to mitigate possible foreground contamination.

The South Pole Telescope as seen through the SPUD telescope

As with the South Pole Telescope this is not an optical telescope. The image to the right is of the South Pole Telescope as seen through SPUD.

The telescope is extremely simple as far as telescopes go; inside each receiver two lenses focus the radiation on the primary sensor. Opaque Teflon and nylon disks, looking a bit like the plastic from a milk jug, help filter out unwanted wavelengths. The sensor is comprised of four silicon chips with extremely thin metal resistors imprinted upon the surface. Very slight changes in temperature from the incoming radiation induce resistance variations, producing a temperature map of the sky, of the Cosmic Microwave Background. Five receivers will be mounted inside the ground shield and can rotate 360 degrees as well as scan vertically. From the station the Ground Shield looks like a giant plywood flower or bowl, but inside it’s lined with mirror-like metal. The purpose is to limit radiation bouncing off the buildings and snow surrounding MAPO.

The SPUD telescope attached to the side of MAPO as seen from ground level

The commemoration plaque by the entrance to MAPO

The view from inside the receiver housing, looking down the ladder to MAPO

The walls inside the receiver housing

One of the new receivers before being mounted inside the housing

The silicone film inside the receiver itself

The door into the shield - the part of the telescope visible to the rest of the station

The receiver housing as seen from the outside - note the station seen just above the edge of the ground shield

The mirror lined ground shield reflecting the mottled cloudy sky

The Station as seen from MAPO

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Filed under Antarctic, Science, South Pole