Tag Archives: Scott

Around Mac Town

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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: antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/mcmurdo-station-aka-mac-town and another here: antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/2014/11/10

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: Antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/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!

McMurdo_Sound#Life_below_the_ice

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.

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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!

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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: www.benadkisonphotography.com/antarctica

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: http://davidpablocohn.com/ob-tube

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: www.amusingplanet.com/captain-robert-scotts-hut-in-antarctica.html

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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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Filed under Antarctic, History, South Pole

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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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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Filed under Antarctic, History, McMurdo