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Notes from the Field

We are in Antarctica!

December 1st, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Ludovic Brucker

Our military C-17 flight landed on 2.3-meter thick sea ice in McMurdo Sound. McMurdo has three airfields that are used at different times during the austral summer. The sea-ice runway is located a few miles from McMurdo, and it usually operates from October to December, until the sea ice begins to break.

For a large number of us, this is our first time on the southernmost continent on Earth and, as you can imagine, landing on McMurdo Sound’s sea ice felt very special. The first minutes off the plane everyone was looking around and smiling a lot.

Weather conditions on landing were nice, despite a low cloud that turned everything extremely bright and made it difficult to tell the sky from the snow-covered ice.

Shortly after stepping into the snow, we had to jump into one of the two charismatic vehicles that were ready to transport us to McMurdo Station. We could choose between the famous Ivan the Terra Bus (red as our parka, a.k.a. the Big Red) or an orange delta truck from the early 80s (that vehicle was already carrying people from the runway to McMurdo station before I was born!). Both vehicles have incredibly big tires.

The ride to the station normally takes 15 minutes, but it can be four times longer when sea ice conditions aren’t safe anymore and the runway is then re-located on the ice sheet farther from the station.

After a warm welcome and a short briefing at McMurdo, we got our room keys and headed toward the dormitories. That gave us the first opportunity to walk a bit through the station. McMurdo Station (located 77° 51′ S  166° 40′ E) sits on bare volcanic rock on the coast of Hut Point Peninsula, Ross Island. The station was built in 1955; its 85 or so buildings range in size from a small radio shack to large three-story structures. It is the largest Antarctic station and the logistics center for the U.S. Antarctic Program. There are repair facilities, dormitories (for a maximum of 1200+ people), administrative buildings, a firehouse, a power plant, a water distillation plant, a wharf, stores, clubs, warehouses, and a science and engineering center (where we will spend some time before heading to Byrd, hopefully next week). All the structures are linked by above-ground water, sewer, telephone, and power lines.

By the time I checked into my room and picked up my bag, a cold, light snow had started to fall. How nice! In the next days, we are going to go through several training sessions, make sure that our scientific equipment made it here undamaged, and prepare our shipment to Byrd station.

More on the flight to Antarctica

November 30th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Randy Skinner

Our shuttles to the airport were waiting for us at 4:30AM on Monday, 21 November, as we were scheduled to report at the Clothing Distribution Center at 5:00AM. As we arrived we were instructed to change into our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) clothes. So we found ourselves hanging out in Christchurch at 65 degrees Fahrenheit, dressed in clothing designed for -20 degrees. It was a bit toasty.

After a short flight briefing and safety meeting we loaded onto busses for the ride to the aircraft. Our flight was on a USAF C-17 transport. It’s a big plane. The center of the fuselage was filled with pallets of gear and supplies for the base. There were 30 seats on each side of the fuselage for passengers, and seats for 25 more in the center at the front. With the plane filled with 80 passengers, including the King of Malaysia, we taxied out and took off into cloudy skies. It was 8:15AM.

Onboard, most people slept due to the early departure time, others searched though the sack lunches we were provided with for the 5-hour flight. As there is always a possibility the plane will “boomerang” (have to return to Christchurch without landing), the lunch is big enough to serve as two meals. It was a lot of food!

As we moved further south the temperature in the plane dropped lower and lower, until people were quite happy to have all of that ECW clothing on. Just before noon, out of the small porthole style windows on the plane (there are 6 windows on the whole plane), the edge of the sea ice, and the continent of Antarctica came into view. The feeling on the plane was electric. Not many people ever have the opportunity to visit this remote land.

We landed on a runway melted into the sea ice at 12:47PM. After thousands of miles, and days of travel and preparation, we were on the frozen continent.