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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.