IceBite Blog: Learning to Respect the Weather

All scientists who visit Antarctica are issued required cold-weather clothing, which includes a pair of yellow “bunny boots.”
Credit: Margarita Marinova/IceBiteMBARI

NASA’s IceBite project will spend three austral summers in Antarctica testing ice-penetrating drills for a future mission to Mars. A team of seven scientists is in Antarctica now for the first field season, installing scientific probes in the ice and frozen ground, and scouting for sites where the drills will be tested the following year. One of the team members, Margarita Marinova, is writing a blog of the team’s activities. In this first set of entries, she describes preparations for deployment to the field.

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!

The cargo-filled C-17 transport plane that flew the IceBite team from Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo in Antarctica.
Credit: Margarita Marinova/IceBite

After a few days of flight delays (and so some time to explore around Christchurch) we were finally on our flight to McMurdo! When we go to the airport, there is a special check-in procedure: weighing everything to make sure the aircraft was balanced properly, checking that we had all the necessary cold weather gear, and listening to a number of safety briefings. We flew on a C-17 – that’s considered flying in style! With a C-17 the flight down takes about 5 hours.

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

Blog author Margarita Marinova in a snow trench she dug as part of her extreme-cold-weather training.
Credit: Jen Heldmann/IceBite

The two things that have truly amazed me about McMurdo so far are the sophistication of the base as a whole, and the large number of training courses that are required before one is allowed to leave for the field. McMurdo truly is like a little town. People had told me that before, but it was hard to believe without seeing it for myself. McMurdo has a large mess hall where we eat all of our meals: and the food is phenomenal! There is an awesome carpenter’s shop, and a metal working shop – they can build pretty much anything. There is a department from which you can check out vehicles of various sizes and abilities. A shuttle and taxi are available at all times if you need to get around. There is a coffee shop and two pubs. There is a gift shop, a post office, a mail room, cargo areas, a large food store where you get your food for the field, numerous staging areas. There are even at least two gyms! This place is truly amazing!!

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!

Thirty mph winds made The tent camp set up by the IceBite team in 30 mph winds, during Happy Camper training at MucMurdo before deployment to the field.
Credit: Jen Heldmann/IceBite

After coming back from Happy Camper, and sleeping in, it was time to really get going on all the equipment and supplies we need to get ready for deploying into the field. Everything from getting our food for the next 3 weeks, to building last minute probes, getting all the collection equipment we need (vials, bags, etc), making sure all of our personal sleeping gear is in order, and anything else you can imagine that you need for a very long camping trip – plus all the additional science and safety requirements because we are doing this in a remote and extreme environment. Today we carried most of our gear to the helicopter staging area. For the remainder of tonight and tomorrow we need to finish setting up some of our science equipment, and then test some of it in the area surrounding McMurdo – just to make super sure that we are ready for deploying everything in the field.

Our helicopter flight out to our first site is set for Monday. Can’t wait! Wish us good weather and clear skies. :)