Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Howie Koss Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Homeward Bound Tue, 09 Dec 2008 21:23:33 +0000 Howie Koss OFFSHORE NEW HARBOR CAMP, ANTARCTICA– November 24th, 2008: my final day at the Offshore New Harbor Camp. After completing nearly 48 kilometers of seismic data collection and setting a new standard for how this type of study should be performed on sea ice, the scientific objectives of our expedition were met and exceeded. It was time to celebrate with a helicopter ride into the Dry Valleys.

Dr. Pekar as the helicopter landed at the Offshore New Harbor field camp.

The excitement built when a distant dull hum steadily became a louder roar as the helicopter approached and finally landed at our camp. Eight of us strapped ourselves in for a most memorable ride.

Flying in the helo.

I had only been in a helicopter once before and I couldn’t wait to see the view unfold before my eyes. We were going to be flying over New Harbor, a sight we had seen from afar every day since we had arrived at our field camp. But this time, it would be different. Once over New Harbor, we would fly through the Ferrar Valley, over the Ferrar Glacier and eventually to the Friis Hills field camp to visit with Dr. Allan Ashworth and Dr. Adam Lewis who were looking at 20 million-year-old glacial lake sediments for fossilized plant leaves to better understand Antarctica’s role during that relatively warmer time period of Earth history.

Looking up Ferrar Valley, flying over New Harbor.

Shortly after take-off we were already getting a much closer view of New Harbor and the Ferrar Glacier as we quickly approached Ferrar Valley. As we sped past glaciers seemingly falling off the sides of mountain tops, the vastness of the Transantarctic Mountains opened up. We were in the Dry Valleys.

The banded mountains of the Dry Valleys.

The mountains were huge and banded with different colors, each color a different rock type. As we soared higher and flew deeper into the mountains, the enormity of Antarctica showed itself.

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The largest continental mass of ice on Earth, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, could now be seen. We were only seeing a very small portion of it, but it extended as far as the eye could see beyond the mountain tops. This is the source of the ice producing the glaciers that we could see all around us.

Friis Hills field camp as the helicopter touched down.

The helicopter landed at the Friis Hills field camp, and the first thing I noticed was how the Dry Valleys got its name. It was dusty and gritty, very different than what I was used to out on the sea ice. The rotor blades of the helicopter blew sand and gravel into the air. Sand and stone were everywhere. But it hasn’t always been that way. We were meeting Dr. Ashworth and Dr. Lewis. They had agreed to take us on a tour of their research site and explain to us what they were studying.

Walking through a former glacial lake.

Dr. Ashworth and Dr. Lewis explained to us that in the past glaciers cut through the surrounding hill tops, and that 20 million years ago it was a relatively warmer time in Earth’s history. And because it was warmer, some of the ice from the glaciers melted to form lakes. By studying how these glacial lakes formed and what kinds of vegetation were in these hills of the Dry Valleys, Dr. Ashworth and Dr. Lewis hope to better understand how Antarctica responded to this warmth.

The most exciting part of their tour was to see the 20 million-year-old leaf fossil impressions that they had dug up at their research site. The leaves themselves are gone, but what is left is the impression that these leaves made in the lake-bottom mud. The leaves of bushes bordering this lake were blown into the water when they fell off the branches. They then sank into the mud on the bottom of the lake. Shortly afterward more mud accumulated on top of the leaves. The leaf material then disintegrated but a mark was fossilized in the rock where the leaves once laid.

20 million-year-old leaf fossil impressions.

We made our way back to our camp. This was the last time that the entire team would be together out on the sea ice. Andrea, Shakira, Joanna, and I were flying back to McMurdo Station on the helicopter that had taken us around during the day. We had a few minutes to gather our belongings, load up the helicopter, and have a group photo taken, by the helo pilot no less (thanks Paul!).

The Offshore New Harbor Team.

I had mixed emotions as the helicopter took off. I could see how tiny our existence on the ice was as camp soon became a little speck on the horizon behind us. The only way to notice it as we got further and further away was by following all of our tracks on the ice surface that we had traveled to get out to the transect lines where we were collecting data. All paths lead back to camp. We were 17 people in the vastness of Antarctica. 17 people working together to accomplish a common goal. We were successful against early setbacks and I was proud of what we had done as a team. The data that we collected will be used to identify a drilling location to obtain sediments to study our past climate in order to better understand our future changing world. And I was a part of it all. I felt extremely lucky to have been selected to join the Offshore New Harbor Expedition and very honored to have shared that place with every other member of the team.

Offshore New Harbor Field Camp from the air.

This new path with no track in the snow was not going to take me back to camp. I was beginning the long journey home. Back to McMurdo Station, fly to New Zealand, and then make my way back to New York. I am going to miss the Offshore New Harbor Team and the many good friends I’ve made at McMurdo. But thoughts of family and friends I haven’t seen in many months flooded my mind. I have missed them immensely. I am ready to leave. I am ready to return home. My work here is done, for now.

McMurdo Station from the air.
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Our Scientific Process Tue, 09 Dec 2008 19:50:20 +0000 Howie Koss OFFSHORE NEW HARBOR CAMP, ANTARCTICA– In this video dispatch, Dr. Marvin Speece, professor of geophysical engineering at Montana Tech and co-Principal Investigator of the Offshore New Harbor Project, discusses how our expedition collects scientific data.

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Fata Morgana Mon, 01 Dec 2008 18:37:21 +0000 Howie Koss OFFSHORE NEW HARBOR CAMP, ANTARCTICA– Fata Morgana. This Italian expression rolls nicely off the tongue, but what do these foreign and wonderful words mean? What is the origin of this ghostly term? How does this phenomenon manifest itself in nature?

Mount Erebus with a Fata Morgana at its base.

A beauty to behold and a commonly photographed landmark in McMurdo Sound is the volcanically active Mount Erebus. Standing taller than Mount Bird and Mount Terror, which all together make up Ross Island, its telltale plume of smoke and recognizable shape loom over the surrounding icescape. Yet there is something not quite right about this photo, something strange happening toward the bottom.

Two misshapen icebergs in the distance.

A Fata Morgana, in short, is an optical illusion, a mirage. It occurs from an atmospheric temperature inversion when warmer air rests above cooler air closer to the ground. Fata Morgana is a very complex mirage showing inverted and upright images with alternations of compressed and stretched regions. During calmer conditions, the stable interface between these air masses can act like a refracting lens. When light passes from one transparent medium to another, in this case two different masses of air, it changes speed and bends. If you have ever put a straw in a glass of water you’ve likely noticed this before; the straw seems disconnected from itself above and below the water surface.

Mount Bird with a strong Fata Morgana near its base.

The Italian term originates from Morgan le Fay, a powerful sorceress in the King Arthur legend. She is associated with boats that fly over the sea, never to reach the shore, and the golden castles that float above the Straits of Messina. In folklore, The Flying Dutchman is a ghost ship doomed to sail the oceans for ever, never to return home. It is often seen from far away and sometimes can be shrouded in a glowing ghostly light.

A distorted Beaufort Island and exaggerated sea ice surface features.

On many mornings toward the middle of November, there were very pronounced mirages. Shapes of nearby icebergs, mountains, and islands became distorted. Surface features of the sea ice stood up into the air, grossly out of proportion to their normal size. But the most unsettling of all these false images was when the eye perceived open water in the not-too-distant area.

Open Water?

Open water could mean only one thing around here: the sea ice was breaking out, a sure sign that summer had reached the White Continent. Waking up one morning and stepping out of my Scott Tent, I gazed toward the north, toward what appeared to be open water. If this water got any closer, I thought, we’d surely have to pack up our camp as quickly as we possibly could. I hadn’t looked at the satellite images of our area lately, so I wasn’t sure just how far away the sea ice edge was from camp. But with no sea ice to support our camp and activities, we’d no longer be floating above McMurdo Sound I reasoned; we’d be forced to retreat to terra firma or to swim the frigid waters. Once the coffee kicked in from breakfast and my widening eyes pushed the sleep aside toward a new day, I realized that my eyes had been tricked by one of Mother Nature’s mighty optical illusions. I had seen a Fata Morgana, one a little too real.

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Journey to Our Field Camp Wed, 19 Nov 2008 05:38:03 +0000 Howie Koss OFFSHORE NEW HARBOR CAMP, ANTARCTICA– This video captures the energy and excitement of our traverse across the sea ice to the Offshore New Harbor Field Camp.

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The Ice Cave Tue, 11 Nov 2008 23:25:51 +0000 Howie Koss October 20, 2008

MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– After our full day of sea ice training, we headed back to McMurdo Station, with a steaming Mt. Erebus looming above us amid a picturesque swirling wispy sky. Yet what was in store was the highlight of the day. We found out that our next destination was an ice cave.

I knew this was going to be amazing as soon as I jumped out of the Hagglund and saw the ice cave entrance in the distance.

The ice cave entrance in the distance.

As we approached, the scene quickly became other-worldly, like nothing I had ever laid eyes on before. We were at the very edge of the Erebus Glacier Tongue, and about to walk into the glacier. This is where the Erebus Glacier, spilling off from the Mt. Erebus, goes out to sea. And here, at this location, the sea ice afforded an ideal location to walk right up to it. The icescape became an uplifted, gnarled jumble, very different than the relative flatness of the sea ice we had spent the day out on.

The view surrounding the ice cave entrance.

As I slid through the narrow entrance to the ice cave and down the slippery corridor drawing me deeper in, I began to wonder if I was still on Planet Earth.

Entering the ice cave.

Wow! Am I really seeing this? Am I really here? Is this really real? Stalactite spikes of ice were hanging from the ceiling of the corridor leading to the inner cave chambers. The light became not like the bright sun-splashed scene out where we had just been. It was starting to become a greenish-blue as light was filtered through the overhanging snow and ice. The corridor was steep and slick, but I had to go further inside this natural wonder.

Easing down the corridor, going deeper into the ice cave.

Inside the cave, away from the influence of unfiltered sunlight, a crystal palace started taking shape, draped in an ethereal blue light that only deepened as I went in further. The ice took on new shapes and character, and I was astonished as I ventured further into the main chamber.

Ethereal blue light in the crystal palace.

The ceiling, walls, and internal structures of the ice cave were formed from the glacial ice tongue. If melted, you could drink the fresh water. The floor is sea ice, which is salty from the frozen ocean water. The main chamber was the most magnificent of the whole with a large twisting spine leading up to a recessed area capped by skylights to the outside world, a world I felt a million miles away from at the moment.

The main chamber.

Further along, moving deeper within the ice cave, a rear chamber could be seen. The ice bridge over the entrance seemed to bar the way, but a peek back revealed a narrow chasm lit from above with ice crystals of various shapes and dimension all around.

Looking toward the back chamber.

I turned and walked back the way I came, feeling energized and exhilarated by this adventure. Gazing out the entrance I was reminded of where I was. I was floating over McMurdo Sound on a vast and dynamic layer of ice; from one other-worldly place to another. What a wonderful treat. What a special place.

Gazing out the ice cave entrance to the vast sea ice.

We decided to have a little fun while waiting for others to fully enjoy their own experience in the ice cave. Yup, that’s me, hanging from an ice axe over Mt. Erebus!

Dangling from an ice axe above Mt. Erebus.

Reality soon set in hard, bringing all of us back for our time in the ice cave. As we gathered the group back into the Hagglund to drive back to McMurdo Station, not long into our ride, we ran out of gas.

The Hagglund out of gas.

A little bit of patience, and reserve fuel, we were on our way, and back in time for dinner.

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Sea Ice Training Tue, 11 Nov 2008 17:48:54 +0000 Howie Koss October 20, 2008

MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– The Hagglund awaited us as we prepared to depart for sea ice training. This was a requirement since our expedition is to be based on the ice that forms over the ocean of McMurdo Sound every austral winter. We had to learn how to identify cracks and do thickness profiles of the ice across them, how to determine if a crack was safe to cross depending on what type of vehicle we were traveling in, and how to make ice anchors to secure things like our tents or equipment to the ice.

The Hagglund that brought us out to the sea ice.

The first introduction was looking at the tide crack just off from McMurdo Station. This forms between the fast ice which is attached to land and doesn’t move and the sea ice which succumbs to the rising and falling of the tides. A tide crack forms everywhere where there is sea ice meeting land. We poked at it with bamboo poles to check for snow thickness and competency to make sure where we were walking was secure.

The tide crack at the transition between the fast ice near McMurdo Station and the sea ice.

We hopped back into the Hagglund and drove north along the flagged Cape Evans Road in search of cracks between plates of sea ice. We drove past the Erebus Glacial Tongue, through the Dellbridge Islands which are actually the high points of a former volcanic mountain that is buried beneath the ice. Soon we came up on the crack we were looking for.

Driving along Cape Evans Road.

We pulled up to some flags marking a crack that crossed the roadway. Now we would learn how to travel safely across the sea ice. Most first-year sea ice is about 2-meters thick (or about 6.5 feet), but the minimum thickness of ice to travel on is 30 inches, so in most cases we would be okay. The gap that forms in a crack is of critical importance to determine whether or not you can ride across it, and the minimum width is dependent on the length of how much of the vehicle is in contact with the surface. A crack is considered safe to cross if it is 1/3 or less of the length of the vehicle treads.

Flags marking a crack crossing the Cape Evans Road.

First thing when approaching a crack is to identify the edges of it by poking a bamboo pole into the snow. The snow should be excavated across the crack down to the ice surface. Then you drill to penetrate through the ice into the underlying water. This is done on either edge of the crack and in the gap. The thickness of the ice is measured through the drilled hole and recorded. The profile of the crack is then complete. The ice around the crack we analyzed was more than 30 inches and the width of the crack was less than 1/3 of the length of the vehicle, so it was determined that it was safe to cross and we carried on.

Profiling a crack in the sea ice – drilling to determine ice thickness.

One of the more important things we learned was how to make a V-thread ice anchor. Being out on the sea ice there is very little snow cover. V-threads are used to secure things to the ice. The wind can be very strong in Antarctica, and anything not secured will surely blow away. V-thread ice anchors are constructed by drilling into the ice either with ice screws, as pictured below, or by using a drill.

Making a V-thread ice anchor.

Two holes are drilled at about 45-degree angles that intersect each other. A piece of strong rope is passed through these, knotted together, and anything that needs to be secured is lashed to the anchor line. The ice is quite strong, and when the wind blows powerfully, the ice anchors will make sure nothing blows away.

Once we were finished with our training we turned and headed back toward McMurdo Station with a steaming Mt. Erebus looming above us amid a picturesque swirling wispy sky.

Mt. Erebus steaming in the distance.

We could see the remains of an iceberg nearby that became locked within the sea ice when it froze during the earlier winter.

Remains of an iceberg frozen in the sea ice.

We passed through the Dellbridge Islands that we came through on our outbound journey.

Tent Island (left) and Inaccessible Island (right) of the Dellbridge Islands.

Yet what was in store was the highlight of the day. We found out that our next destination was an ice cave…

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Happy Camper School Thu, 30 Oct 2008 20:19:59 +0000 Howie Koss October 17, 2008

MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– As the Delta drove away after dropping off our group for Happy Camper School, also known as “Snowcraft 1” and survival training, I had a distinct mix of adrenaline excitement and nervousness.

The Delta driving away after dropping our group off for Happy Camper School.

The day was cloudy and gray. The wind was up. And it was cold. But this was my first real Antarctic experience, the first time away from McMurdo Station. I was energized to learn survival skills to endure the frigid Antarctic night and help my group set up a camp on the Ross Ice Shelf.

We walked quite a long way to where we would start our training, each of us alone to our thoughts bundled against the wind. I was actually happy to leave the relative comfort of McMurdo Station. This was one of the things I was looking forward to most when I came down here, the opportunity to experience Antarctica.

Walking on the Ross Ice Shelf to Happy Camper School.

Castle Rock came into view, and again I was reminded of those who came before me. The early explorers didn’t have training on how to live in this harsh environment. They were the ones who, by trial and error, passed down the knowledge that we have benefited from today. They went out seeking to comprehend the world around them as we do now, but they wrote the lessons of survival that we now follow.

Castle Rock in the clouds.

I turned and looked behind me toward what was familiar and saw Mt. Discovery shrouded in clouds behind Scott Base, the New Zealand scientific research facility. I made the decision to actively be engaged in my training to absorb everything I could. There is a deep respect I have for the extreme weather which can and does occur in the Antarctic. In order to feel confident about my own ability to withstand the potential difficult moments, times that would require a clear mind and deliberate action if they teetered on the edge of life and death, I had to fully learn how to cope with my surroundings.

Mt. Discovery shrouded in clouds behind Scott Base.

One of the first lessons our instructors taught us was how to use and fix a WhisperLite stove. We would later use them to make water from melted snow and to heat the water for meals, hot drinks, and to fill a bottle to keep in our sleeping bags as we slept to keep warm throughout the night. These stoves are very well suited to be used in such a cold environment because they can be lit with almost any type of fuel.

Learning to use a WhisperLite stove.

A snow shelter we were taught to make was called a Quinzee. It’s different than an igloo because an igloo uses carefully placed blocks of snow in its construction. A quinzee is made by hollowing out compacted snow. We piled up all of our duffle bags that contained our sleep kits (sleeping bags, fleece liners, and ground mats) and shoveled about 1 foot of snow on top of it. This was packed down by smacking the backside of our shovels against it. We then let it sit for about an hour so the snow crystals would lock together to form a solid structure. A hole was dug into the side of it, and the bags were removed. And what was left was a hollow mound of snow that protected against the wind and elements. The inside was excavated to make a flat sleeping surface, and it was ready to use. I chose to sleep inside of this later in the night.

Constructing a Quinzee snow shelter.

Our sleep shelters were finally constructed and laid out. We had 2 orange Scott Tents, the Quinzee, and several blue and yellow Mountain tents. It’s very important how a camp be set up, and one of the most significant things is to determine where the dominant wind is coming from. This will likely be the direction from where the most severe weather would come. All of the entrances to the shelters were placed away from the wind.

Our camp with 2 Scott Tents, the Quinzee, and several blue and yellow Mountain tents.

The next thing our instructors taught us after our sleep structures were set up was how to excavate snow blocks. We would use these to construct walls around our camp to prevent the full force of the wind from getting to us. We put them around the Mountain tents and the area where we would be setting up the stoves to melt snow for drinking water.

Learning to mine snow blocks for a wind wall.

After all of our hard work, the clouds mostly cleared out and it became a beautiful evening. Our camp was set up. Everything was secure. We ate dinner and warmed up with hot drinks.

Mountain tents protected from the wind by the snow block wind wall.

I was really tired after being outside the whole day in the cold. I set up my sleeping bag in the Quinzee and got ready to spend my first night out on the Ice in Antarctica.

Sitting in front of the Quinzee ready to sleep.

With a full belly and a warm water bottle to help heat my sleeping bag, I turned and looked toward one of the last sunsets on the continent for the season. I was amazed. I had made it. I was now in Antarctica!

Mt. Discovery and Black Island at sunset.
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Antarctic Waste Management Tue, 28 Oct 2008 00:55:39 +0000 Howie Koss MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Here I interview James Van Matre, Waste Management Supervisor at McMurdo Station. We talk about Antarctica’s waste management practices of the past and present, and why it’s important to recycle.

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Firefighter Howie Sun, 26 Oct 2008 20:30:33 +0000 Howie Koss October 14, 2008

MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– Today I had the opportunity to interview Lieutenant Mosher of the McMurdo Station Fire Department. He gave me a tour of the whole firehouse and showed me all the fire trucks they use. We had a lot to talk about because I was really interested in what separated this Fire Department from all others that we’re familiar with back home. I even got to wear all the gear the firefighters use daily. The real reason was that I really wanted to go for a ride in one of the fire trucks out on a call with them…

Antarctic Fire Department, McMurdo Station Firehouse.

An important distinction that Lieutenant Mosher made was that the firehouse at McMurdo Station is the only one around. This means that here at McMurdo, the men and women who protect everyone who live and work down here have no back up if something serious happens. The fire department is the last line of defense to keep this station running. The firefighters don’t just fight the rare fire that happens, they also know how to make sure the power and heating plants are operational. If those went down in an accident, it would be entirely catastrophic for the entire community.

A drawing on the wall inside the firehouse.

Lieutenant Mosher and I also talked about how the extreme environment effects how the firefighters do things differently down here in Antarctica. Usually, we’re used to firefighters spraying water on fires. Down here, if they did that, the water would freeze so fast, that a really large mess would be made. To combat this, the firefighters put glycol into the water so that it doesn’t freeze. Because the regulations for environmental protection are so stringent here, any water with glycol that is sprayed onto the ground surface, whether snow or rocks and dirt, must be cleaned up afterward. So of course the first priority of the fire department is to keep everyone safe and to address any situation as it comes up. But then, after a fire situation has been completed, they must become a Hazardous Waste Team and remove the contamination by putting the chemical-soaked snow or ground into containers that will be shipped off of Antarctica for proper disposal in the United States.

Many of the vehicles that are used on station closely resemble the fire trucks and ambulances that I’m used to seeing at home. The major difference with these is that they have really big tires and are elevated off of the ground to be able to get through the snowiest of conditions. It’s the other vehicles that were really interesting to me. Some of the trucks the McMurdo Fire Department uses have tracks instead of wheels. These are really useful in really bad weather conditions or when the firefighters have to go up or down really big hills or rugged terrain. The vehicles that the Fire Department uses out at Pegasus Field where the airplanes land are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. These trucks are huge, massive even. They have tracks like a military tank has and are highly articulated so they can maneuver in just about any direction.

A tracked fire truck.

Finally Lieutenant Mosher let me get suited up in all the gear that the firefighters wear. He took me up to the loft of the firehouse where there is a huge storage of clothing in all different sizes. First he had me try on a helmet to make sure that it fit. And little by little, I started looking like a real fireman. It’s very important that this specialized clothing fit just right.

Trying on a helmet.

The clothes that the firemen wear are really heavy because they are composed of multiple layers. And it’s hard to move around in them. One layer is for warmth. Another is fire-resistant. The outside layer defends against tears and rips. It must be really hard to be a fireman and have to carry heavy hoses and all their equipment while wearing these clothes. I think many firefighters, not just here at McMurdo Station, are in very good physical shape partially because of this.

Fitting my firefighter pants.

No firefighter would be complete if they didn’t wear an air tank on their back. The mask on their face not only keeps them protected from the heat of a fire, but it also supplies fresh air to them if they have to run into a burning building. The smoke and fumes from a fire make it very difficult for a firefighter to advance into it if someone is trapped inside and needs to be rescued.

Making sure my air supply mask fits.

When Lieutenant Mosher got me all suited up, from the loft I could see the big garage door open. A truck was coming back to the firehouse! Maybe this would be my chance to hop a ride for the next call. After all, I had all my fireman gear on already.

A truck backs into the garage bay.

As I climbed down the ladder of the loft, I started getting really excited that I would be able to go out with the fire department on the next call.

Climbing down the ladder of the clothing loft.

But then Lieutenant Mosher explained to me that it’s not just about riding around in a big truck. Every fire fighter at the McMurdo Station Fire Department has to help out with all the chores necessary to keep the firehouse functioning. So, wouldn’t you know it, Lieutenant Mosher asked me to sweep the floor of the garage where they keep all the trucks. Of course I agreed because I wanted to experience what it was like to be a firefighter in Antarctica.

Once I was done with sweeping, I again was really thrilled because I thought “Now’s my chance!” But Lieutenant Mosher told me that all the trucks have to get cleaned everyday. And then he said that once a week, the trucks get an extra special cleaning, and that today was the day! So he handed me a bucket of soapy water and a sponge and off I went to scrub the trucks down. The other firefighters who were around the station house at the time thought it was really funny that the “newbie” was doing their job of making sure everything was clean and tidy.

My chance finally came. After I finished my chores, I was able to get on a truck and go out on a call.

Full gear on and ready to go out on a call with Lieutenant Mosher.

I want to thank Lieutenant Mosher for taking of his time to spend with me to answer my questions about how the McMurdo Station Fire Department is different than other stations back home. It was a nice treat to be able to experience what it’s like to be a firefighter in Antarctica, and I have the utmost respect for the men and women who put their own lives at risk to keep all of us safe on station.

Stay tuned….a video of my day at the McMurdo Station Fire Department will be coming soon!

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A Gorgeous Day at McMurdo Fri, 24 Oct 2008 20:07:32 +0000 Howie Koss October 13, 2008

MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– The last couple of days have been really busy down here at McMurdo. I’ve been going through a lot of training sessions and have had many meetings with our Team. We’ve been trying to get all of our equipment together for the long journey across the sea ice to New Harbor. It’s a really long process to make sure we have everything we’re going to need at the field camp.

But today I had some free time in the morning. The weather was incredibly clear and crisp. I took the opportunity to climb up Observation Hill.

Observation Hill.

Observation Hill is a large hill that is 750 feet tall next to McMurdo Station. It is commonly called “Ob Hill” by the people who live and work here. It is the most climbed peak in Antarctica. The hill was named by Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition when they explored this area of Antarctica between 1901 and 1904. Members of Scott’s team would climb to the top to make weather observations.

The further I got up on Ob Hill, the better the views became. I could see all the way across McMurdo Sound. I could see Mt. Discovery (right), Black Island (left), Brown Peninsula (low, and in the middle), and the Royal Society Range of mountains (not shown) as they stretched to the north as far as the eye could see. The straight line on the ice was the roadway that I traveled on from Pegasus Field just a few days before.

Southwest view across McMurdo Sound looking at Mt. Discovery (right), Black Island (left), and Brown Peninsula (low, in the middle). The straight line across the ice is the road to Pegasus Field where we landed.

As I climbed higher and higher, it became windier and colder. Snow was blowing around and I was glad I brought my thick insulated gloves and my ski goggles with me. With the cloudless blue sunny sky above, I bundled up and continued up to the summit.

Almost to the top.

Finally I got to the top of Ob Hill. I gazed down on McMurdo Station 750 feet below me. It looked like a tiny town. There are fewer than 1000 people here now, with more on the way. The population will grow to nearly 2000 during the height of the summer season. I’m amazed at how efficiently this small community runs to support the lives and activities of the people who venture down to the white continent. Looking down at McMurdo Station from this vantage point reminded me just how isolated we truly are down here.

McMurdo Station from the summit of Observation Hill.

There’s a giant cross that was erected on the top of Observation Hill to honor Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the members of his expedition who died on their return traverse from the South Pole during their Terra Nova expedition between 1910 and 1913.

Observation Hill Cross.

Scott and his men got trapped in their tent on the Ross Ice Shelf during an unusually long storm. They were already very weak and they ran out of food. When they got trapped, they were only 11 miles from a depot where they had enough food to get back to their camp on Ross Island. On the cross that Scott’s men built is an inscription from “Ulysses” by Alfred Tennyson which reads: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” These words are inspiring to me. I will try to not cease my own efforts to understand future climate change. To do this, I am in pursuit of knowledge of the past climate on the continent of Antarctica.

This place is so stunningly beautiful. Everywhere I look away from McMurdo Station I see various shapes of dark grey rocky peaks covered with white snow and ice. That or the smooth, flat ice of the Ross Ice Shelf and the lumpy sea ice floating on the surface of the Ross Sea in McMurdo Sound. It’s easy to get lost in the sheer expanse and isolation of this wilderness. But focusing on the details of the shapes, the way snow blows over a mountaintop, or how the sun moves around the sky in a circle gives perspective on singular aspects of the beauty of Antarctica. I can’t wait to get out into the field, to be away from “civilization” in town, to see new views of this other world.

Looking northeast across the summit of Ob Hill to Mt. Erebus.

There are constant reminders here of past exploration. Looking to the north from the summit of Ob Hill I could see Hut Point at the end of Hut Point Peninsula. The peninsula sticks out 15 miles to the southwest like a little finger off of the side of Mt. Erebus. There, a cross memorializing another fallen explorer and Scott’s Discovery Hut.

Looking north to Hut Point and Scott’s Discovery Hut.

As I descended Ob Hill to get back into the warmth of my room, I snapped one more photo of the wind-swept Mt. Erebus. The smoke and vapor coming out of the top of the volcano, and the snow and ice crystals being blown across the landscape show me how dynamic this environment is.

A windswept Mt. Erebus.

The glorious day turned into an amazing night. Seeing the sun dip behind the Royal Society Range around 11pm was a rare picturesque treat. Our last sunset here will be on October 21st. After that we’ll just watch the sun circle around the sky, neither rising nor setting. It will just roll around the heavens all day.

Sun setting across the Royal Society Range.

Tonight’s vivid scenery was accentuated by thin wispy clouds illuminated by the setting sun behind Mt. Discovery. I had to go outside and take some photographs. I could get used to this place!

Sunset behind Mt. Discovery.
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