Ice Diary I: Shooting Stars on Ice

21 November, 2002

The adventure has begun. Getting to Antarctica is no easy task. The easiest was flying Denver to Los Angeles in a spacious, uncrowded airplane. In LA, I met the rest of the team except for our guides, who are meeting us in McMurdo. We boarded a Quantas 747 that didn’t have one empty seat. I sat next to Dr. Nancy Chabot, our team leader and a good friend.


Expedition author, Andrew Caldwell. "The diary is an art form just as much as the novel or the play. The diary simply requires a greater canvas." – Henry Miller

It’s difficult to sleep under those conditions, but a 12.5-hour flight is a long time to pass, so I did my best, and felt a little sore and tired after the experience. We landed in Auckland early Wednesday morning, completely bypassing Nov. 19.

So far, meteorite hunters have found about 26 rocks on Earth that have been identified as having come from Mars (some of these broke apart upon entering the atmosphere, so the 26 rocks were found in about 40 separate pieces). For these rocks to have reached Earth successfully, their origin –often beginning billions of years ago– likely blasted from at least a two-mile-wide impact crater on Mars.

Most remarkably, at any given moment, this interplanetary sample transit delivers about one Martian meteorite landing on Earth each month.

Since 1976, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET), funded by the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation, has recovered more than 10,000 specimens from meteorite stranding surfaces along the Transantarctic Mountains. ANSMET continues to be one of the few Antarctic research projects that invites graduate students and senior researchers from other institutions to participate in field work on a volunteer basis–including the Teachers Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) program. As a multi-agency collaboration, the NSF supports field operations, NASA supports storage curation, distribution and notification of recovered samples, and the Smithsonian provides long term curation facilities for the collection and assist in sample characterization.

New Zealand is beautiful, with rolling green fields and sheep…lots of sheep. The air is sweet and moist, but cool. It’s summer here, but it feels like a fall day in Seattle. The people couldn’t be friendlier, with a smile and an accent that melts your heart.

Today we each tried on our extreme cold weather gear. After putting on layer after layer, you couldn’t really recognize who was who. We are scheduled to leave at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow on a C-130, dressing in all of our gear in case we should go down and can’t be rescued for a while. There’s a good chance that the flight will be delayed, because we hear they are running behind at McMurdo and can’t get people out for 2 to 3 days. Given a choice between spending more time here or in McMurdo, New Zealand wins.

22 November, 2002

I’m writing from a crowded bench seat in the hold of a "Kiwi" C-130. The American C-130s were out of service, so the New Zealand Air Force is flying us down. Have I mentioned recently how great the Kiwis are? A C-130 is a 4-turboprop cargo plane that was not designed with comfort and passengers in mind. I heard Dr. Dean Eppler, a member of our team, saying that the reason the Army uses C-130s for paratrooper training is that it is preferable to jump out than to stay in one very long. My body feels like I bought the cheap seats at a baseball doubleheader.

We woke to a rainy morning in Christchurch, but were relieved last night to hear that our flight had been delayed from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. Nonetheless, many of us woke at a very early hour simply out of anxiety and excitement. As we exited the shuttle to the airport, Dr. Danny Glavin commented to me that he was a little anxious about the flight. I think Danny spoke for all of us, and I felt better knowing I wasn’t the only one.

The next few hours consisted of "hurry up and wait." We dressed in our ECW (extreme cold weather) gear and waited until afternoon to board the airplane. Apparently, something had to be fixed.

The C-130 has few windows, but occasionally we have the opportunity to get glimpses of icebergs through the clouds. We have a ritual where we stand and stretch every hour on the hour. This is a 7-hour flight and would be longer if our C-130 were ski-equipped like the American version.

24 November, 2002

We arrived at McMurdo on a runway carved out of pure ice late Friday night. I was a little anxious about landing on ice, but it was actually one of the softer landings I’ve experienced.

Antarctic changing landscape. Coldest surviving organisms: 5 F (-15 C) Cryptoendoliths

I’m not sure how they stop the plane. If they didn’t reverse the engines I believe it would drift for quite a while.

This is an amazing place. It is cold here, with daily highs in the upper teens, but not uncomfortable. After a while you realize that nothing is alive out here. There are no plants, and the only animals we’ve seen are large birds, called skuas, that feast on trash. There aren’t even houseplants in any of the buildings. There are no children in McMurdo either. As a teacher, it s hard to adjust to not seeing anyone under 18 years of age.

But this is a vibrant community. Three major groups populate McMurdo: scientists, support staff, and military. The scientists are people like the ANSMET team, most of whom are just passing through on their way to another site. McMurdo has complete lab facilities for any scientific group, though. The military is here to handle the transport of goods and services to and from Antarctica.

Over 1200 people work here as support staff for the scientists. The majority seem to be in their 20s, but they range in age. They work all sorts of jobs: maintenance, galley, communications, and so forth. Most of these people have worked very hard to get here. There are stories of medical doctors who worked here as truck drivers just to see Antarctica. There’s also the story of a woman who was a powerful lawyer, but came here and worked in the cafeteria just so she could see Antarctica. Without this support staff, our expedition would probably not be possible.

Antarctic meteor map
Major investigated regions of Antarctica where meteors have been successfully identified
Credit: JSC/NASA Meteor Program

One of the first things we did in McMurdo was familiarize ourselves with the town. To do this, Dan, Dante, Cady, Diane, and I got certified to drive the vehicles used here. These are not normal vehicles. They use jacked-up 4WD Ford F-350s and 4WD Econoline vans. We took one of the vans for a spin and filled it up with gas. Not even a fill-up is normal in Antarctica. Everything is paid for by the National Science Foundation, so we simply pumped the gas and drove off. I kept checking my mirror to see if we were being pursued for not paying.

Helicopter are constantly flying in and out of town, along with the C-130s that take off and land right on the ice sheet. That will stop by mid-December, when the ice begins to break up. Then they’ll have to land on Ross Island.

In many ways, McMurdo reminds me of a mining town high in the mountains. It’s kind of like Leadville, CO, with the climate and atmosphere of young people. McMurdo has the basic requirements of a town: two places to get carbonated beverages,"a coffee shop", and even a bowling alley (one more than we have in Castle Rock, CO). It also has the southernmost chapel in the world.

25 November, 2002

Almost everyone who comes to Antarctica is given survival training after arriving on "The Ice." For ANSMET team members, we must do a bit more. This includes a complete "shakedown" overnight trip that will take us on snowmobile about 12 miles from here. There is a great deal of preparation that goes into this.

Exotic crystalline landforms from Antarctica arise from extreme cold and dryness.

John Schutt and Jamie Pierce are our mountaineering guides and safety experts for our expedition. This truly is an expedition, much like the ones held in the early part of the 20th Century. Despite our technology and knowledge, the same dangers are here that existed 100 years ago. Jamie and John made that very clear to all of us yesterday, giving us a lecture on what can happen to us in the field. There are many hazards in the work that we’ll be doing, but as long as we’re smart and prepared, the risk should be reduced. However, as John and Jamie showed us, a little first hand experience goes a long way.

Jamie needed to demonstrate methods for performing CPR and the Heimlich maneuver, and he used me as the model for this. I trust Jamie, because he is confident and experienced. But at one point Dan Glavin came over to get a feel for where to press when doing CPR, and Dean Eppler nearly had a heart attack himself. He was worried Dan would start CPR on me, which can be deadly to a healthy subject. Luckily, Dan knew this too.

We spent the afternoon learning some rope techniques that could save us if any of us should fall into a crevasse. We learned how to put ourselves on a rope securely, and how to climb a rope if necessary. Afterwards, we learned about setting up a pulley system to rescue a victim. I pointed out that we teach the mechanical advantages of pulleys in the 9th grade course, Intro to Physical Science. This brought a good laugh – here was a room of scientists and experienced mountaineers trying to figure out something that 9th graders do.

26 November, 2002

We needed to be ready by 7:30 a.m. to start loading gear into a truck to bring to the ice edge. This isn’t glorified car camping. This means bringing tents, sleds, food, climbing equipment and a host of personal items about a half-mile to the sea ice and the ski-doos.

Dry, cold conditions in Antartica make ice form very slowly in the air. The perfect hexagonal crystals refract like a prism against the long-summer daylight.

Once at the edge we learned the art of loading a sled so that it doesn’t tip easily. These sleds are large and designed to be pulled by a strong little ski-doo, but it really makes you appreciate the early Antarctic explorers, who towed sleds with dogs or by themselves.

About an hour into the traverse, we stopped at "Castle Rock," a large black rock sticking right out of the snow. Being from Castle Rock, CO, I wanted to compare and contrast this with the one back home. While the Castle Rock I know from home is a conglomerate sandstone about 35 million years old, this one is probably only a few thousand of years old and is made of a rock called Hyaloclastite. This igneous rock forms quickly when magma comes in contact with ice.

Speaking of volcanism, as our ski-doos rounded the corner outside of Scott Base, the New Zealand base adjacent to McMurdo, I caught a view of Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world. A plume of steam was rising from the top, producing a long thin cloud against a crystal clear blue sky. This day was cool, but comfortable, and with all of us wearing our gear it felt down right warm by afternoon.

We set up camp on the flanks of the volcano, on the Erebus glacier tongue that extends from the volcano to McMurdo Sound and the Ross Ice Shelf. From this elevation, you can see for hundreds of miles. The Ross Ice Shelf is the size of Texas and full of trapped icebergs and pressure ridges. But from here it looks as flat as a calm sea.

After camp was set up, we went to a crevasse area and went over the basics of roping up and crevasse rescue. Jamie Pierce and John Schutt are really gifted teachers. They set a good pace and gave us practical experience. But mostly they made it fun with their personalities and stories. We learned everything from how to set up an anchor in the snow, to how to set up a pulley system to raise a victim from a crevasse.

I think my favorite part of the day was when we roped up and walked through a field of crevasses and serracs, large chunks of falling glacial ice. At one point, Jaime disappeared into the crevasse on purpose, forcing his team to orchestrate a rescue. I couldn’t stop laughing because he looked so funny going over the edge.

It was getting pretty late, but it was such a nice evening (and the sun never sets during the summer), so we gave the ski-doos a real shakedown at a place John calls the Wall of Death. You plunge your snow machine down an embankment and right up a steep wall that underlies a cornice. Then you race up the other side, hoping to "catch a little air."

27 November, 2002

The tents do such a good job of holding in heat, I was almost disappointed that it was so warm (32 F) when I woke up this morning. I’ve camped in colder weather many times. My tentmate, Jaime, made breakfast and tried to radio McMurdo. We were actually so close that our signal bounced off the ionosphere and passed right over the base. So he had to call a team at the South Pole and have them radio McMurdo to let them know we’re fine.

Life on the Edge. South Pole view from Space.Credit: NASA

We continued our crevasse training by lowering Dr. Carlton Allen of the Johnson Space Center into a crevasse. I hope his wife, Jackie, doesn’t kill me for allowing this to happen. Then we used our training to "rescue" Carl from the ice. We constructed pulley systems that worked so well that Dr. Scott Messenger and I were able to pull him out with relatively little effort. Scott and I are not exactly burly, so it’s a real testament to the power of the simple machine. It’s amazing how often we use what we learned in 9th grade Intro to Physical Science in our lives!

We headed out early in the afternoon and stopped by the Happy Camper school. This is where most of the people at McMurdo learn how to survive if caught outside. They build a number of snow structures that fill multiple roles. Igloos look cool (literally) but take a lot of time and effort. A good alternative is a snow dome, where you pile and pack snow on your gear, then pull out the gear and dig a tunnel to the dome. An ice cave or trench is a good structure to make in a hurry if one doesn’t have lots of gear, but can be the coldest of all.

Arriving in McMurdo meant about two more hours of unloading gear and running it inside. We were exhausted, so some members of our team went to bed by 9:00. But a few of us felt we needed to celebrate with a "carbonated beverage."

In this multi-part Ice Diary series, all commentaries are attributable to Andy Caldwell unless otherwise noted, and reprinted by permission as part of his participation in the Teachers Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) program.

Related Web Pages

Ice Diary I: Shooting Stars on Ice
Ice Diary 2: Great Scott, A Ghost
Ice Diary 3: Cheer for Team Meteorite
Ice Diary 4: The Hunt Begins
Ice Diary 5: MacAlpine Hills or Bust
Ice Diary 6: Contacting The Mother Pod
Ice Diary 7: Summer Christmas
Ice Diary 8: Where No One Has Gone Before
Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET)
Planetary Materials Curation (NASA/JSC)
Mars Meteorite Compendium (NASA/JSC)
AMLAMP: Antarctic Meteorite Location and Mapping Program (database of where meteorites have been found)
National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs
McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project
Ice Cube of Exotic Microbes
Antarctic Microbes Colonize under Mars-like Conditions
Cryobot (JPL)
Meteorite Repository (JSC) Rock Descriptions
NIPR Meteorite Collection (Japan)