IceBite Blog: Learning to Respect the Weather
Getting to Antarctica - Almost
The trip to Antarctica started with first going to Christchurch in New Zealand: the first staging area. After a needed night of rest from the 16-hour flight, the following day we went to the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) center to start getting set up. We were given our first set of instructions about Antarctica, and were given our standard issue Antarctic gear: that includes a huge red fluffy jacket (it’s incredibly warm!), many sets of long underwear and fleece, hats and gloves of all types, and big white bunny boots that are practically guaranteed to keep your feet warm even in the coldest of times. We had to try out all of this clothing to make sure it fit. This was lots of fun, though with all the layers on we looked like huge red marshmallows and fast movements were not really an option…
Having gotten our clothing from the CDC we were all ready to leave for McMurdo the next morning! Our bags packed, our alarms set for the 6:00 am airport reporting time, and excitement building, it was hard to sleep the night before! So when we got the call at 4:30 am that our flight was cancelled due to bad weather in McMurdo, it was rather disappointing. But then again, with any field work in extreme environments, bad weather is just part of it all. As it turns out, for the next three days McMurdo was pounded by a severe storm – even by Antarctic standards! It was a “condition 1” storm, which means that all personnel were not allowed to leave whichever building they were in!
Actually Getting to Antarctica!
There are practically no windows on the plane; our flight was full of cargo, which was what constituted our beautiful view for the flight. The less posh way to travel here is on a C-130. They are also pretty amazing airplanes, but are prop planes and take about 8 hour to get to Antarctica. A great bonus on our flight was that we were welcome to go up to the cockpit and look around! It’s just amazing! One of the co-pilots was nice enough to take the time and explain to me all the buttons and displays! And there are many! Here’s an interesting tidbit for you: the C-17 can be refueled in mid-flight, extending its nominal 15-hour flight time to pretty much anything that’s needed!
Getting off the airplane in Antarctica was surreal! There had been 5 hours since Christchurch, but with no windows to show the changing landscape, it was hard to believe just where we were! The landscape here is incredibly beautiful: a white expanse with mountains rising in the distance. We were quickly whisked away to McMurdo base where we had our first set of briefings – safety, environment, what we are supposed to do to get ourselves set up, and so much more. After collecting our luggage and getting set up in our assigned dorm rooms, it was time to start setting everything else up so we would be ready to go into the field as quickly as possible.
You Can Find Everything in McMurdo
And then there are the training courses. Many of the courses are to educate everyone on how to protect the beautiful and fragile environment around us – for example, McMurdo does an incredible job at recycling most of its waste, and the remainder is shipped off the continent at the end of the season. This is practicing “leave no trace” on a truly grand scale. Also because of the harsh weather in Antarctica, and because of the very unpredictable weather which can turn the harsh weather into extreme weather, there are many safety courses which are required before one can get out into the field.
The most notable of these is the “Happy Camper” course that everyone is required to take. Happy Camper encompasses some class lectures, but more importantly setting up camp in a snow field (on a glacier) and spending the night there without any instructors or other help. The setting up of camp entails expert instructions on building a wind wall out of cut out snow blocks, setting up various types of tents, tying them down so that they can withstand up to 70 mph winds, burying them, setting up the kitchen, making dinner, building snow trenches, what you would do in emergency situations, and then how to take care of all your clothing so that it can keep you as warm and comfortable as possible. This truly is an experience! For our Happy Camper, we had the additional excitement of having to take down our camp during some rather serious wind (I would guess about 30 mph sustained wind). The wind had also drifted in a lot of snow overnight, which meant that a lot of snow shoveling was required to get the tents and supports out. I now have a rather different respect for the weather and for surviving out in the snow!
Countdown to Deployment!
Our helicopter flight out to our first site is set for Monday. Can’t wait! Wish us good weather and clear skies. :)