The Real Antarctica
MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– We have finally made it to McMurdo Station, our first Antarctic stop before our final destination: our remote field site on the Whillans Ice Stream. We’ve been preparing for this for months, but as I’m learning, our preparations are far from over.
Eight weeks before our departure date for this project we had to ensure that our instruments were in the hands of the US Antarctic Program logistical support crew in Port Hueneme, California. They would transport the 200 lb drill and the other bulky cargo to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
A little over nine weeks later, we now have to oversee that that cargo leaves McMurdo so that it’s with us when we leave here for our final destination. Not only the instruments but also our supplies – our kitchenware, tools, sleeping kits, etc – all have to be coordinated with the line of operations that support moving us to our exact field site. We must pack all of our equipment and send a report dictating the volume and weight of each box, case, or other oddly shaped piece of cargo. This way ‘they’ can determine how to pack the plane(s). ‘They’ are the people who I initially assumed would complete all this work automatically, before our arrival.
My understanding of the McMurdo juncture of our trip, was to walk in, take a few classes out of necessity (to check off satisfying a few rules of precaution), and be off again, weather permitting of course, to our field site where I would finally taste the ‘real Antarctica’.
But instead, I learned that there were lots of logistical things that had to be set in place, for which we had to start the balls rolling during the first couple hours after our arrival, and before the ‘crowds’ of other NSF science groups came in to get the best, soonest, appointment time. The appointments for all the training courses — how to ride a snowmobile, the basics of survival in Antarctica, crevasse rescuing, etc – have to be made and cannot conflict with each other.
And, we have to check all of our gear for holes and functionality. Afterall, these sleeping bags, tents, stoves, etc., are what we’ll depend upon for our survival at our field site. It would be wasteful and inefficient to call in a plane just to replace a stove that we can’t seem to turn on.
We’ve accumulated about 50 pieces of cargo, and that’s even before accounting for food. Each of those boxes is important in some way, so they all must be on the Hercules LC130 flight with us to Siple Dome, and then from there to our field site on the Whillans Ice Stream. Not one can get left behind because these flights are sparse and expensive to carry out.
I also learned that this – McMurdo – is the ‘real Antarctica’. Just because there are buildings, cars, 900 other people, electricity, Fox News, and kiwi fruit at meal times doesn’t mean that the weather won’t change in 20 minutes from calm winds and sunshine to big blankets of stratus clouds and gusts that immediately freeze your hands. Nor does it mean you can wear a single layer beneath the parka (the “big red”) that every USAP participant is issued. No, because just that run across the street from your dorm to the cafeteria can numb your face and your hands are always reflexing into a pocket if not covered by gloves an inch thick.