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Posts from Antarctica: Life at McMurdo Station

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The latest update is that our advance team is delayed another day, and weather at WAIS Divide is looking iffy for another few days. That makes it fairly likely that the rest of our team could be pushed into next week before flying out, although we haven’t yet totally given up hope of getting out this week. Delays are an expectation when going through WAIS Divide, and we have enough wiggle room built into our schedule that we’re not yet concerned about having enough time to get our science done. But for our own peace of mind, we would like to get out soon!

Pretty soon I’ll run out of interesting things to tell you about at McMurdo, but I’ve got at least a couple more posts in mind. Since we’re spending lots of time in McMurdo, I can tell you a little bit about what life is like here and get you oriented to our current location. McMurdo is sited on the southernmost reliably ice-free land area in the world that also can be reached by ship. It’s dry and windy enough here that the snow tends to sublimate away before enough can build up on top to start making ice, so the ground stays mostly clear, making it a great place to build a research station.

Looking down on McMurdo Station from nearby Observation Hill

The map below shows McMurdo’s location on the tip of Ross Island. The solid red line on the map is known as the “grounding line” – it’s where ice goes from sitting on land to floating. Everything to the left of the solid red line is ice sitting on the mainland of Antarctica. Everything to the right of the solid red line is floating ice (or ice on islands). There’s also a dotted red line that intersects with Ross Island. That’s the approximate line between the permanent ice shelf (which is ice that has flowed from the ice sheet out onto the ocean but is still attached to the ice sheet) and sea ice (which is ice that froze out of ocean water, so it was never a part of the ice sheet).

The location of McMurdo on Ross Island, with nearby features labeled. The satellite imagery is from the MODIS Mosaic of Antarctica (MOA) 2009 image.

When you stand on the shoreline at McMurdo this time of year, it’s hard to remember there’s an ocean there, because McMurdo Sound is full of sea ice (and also seals; spoiler alert, my next post will contain pictures of baby seals!). It’s also difficult to tell where the sea ice ends and the McMurdo Ice Shelf begins. Most lines between sea ice and an ice shelves are very obvious because ice shelves tend to be much thicker than sea ice, but the McMurdo Ice Shelf is very thin, making the dividing line difficult to spot. It’s possible to drive vehicles and even land planes safely on the sea ice this time of year, and it’s safe to do that year-round on the McMurdo and Ross Ice Shelves.

Looking out over the sea ice on McMurdo sound on a beautifully lit evening.

Most of McMurdo life, however, takes place on solid ground on Ross Island. McMurdo Station was founded in 1956 and is the largest research station in Antarctica. In the summer it houses around 1,000 people, and can support up to ~1,250. In the winter the population dwindles to just a couple hundred. McMurdo was built for functionality, not for aesthetic; it has a very industrial feel. Buildings are fairly austere, although a few are cheerily colored, and they’re all numbered (although there’s no spatial logic whatsoever to which number is where!).  None of the roads are paved and heavy machinery is abundant, so you spend a lot of time walking in wheel ruts. Being new to McMurdo, I made the mistake of brining tennis shoes rather than hiking boots for daily wear. Fortunately, there’s a building where any item left behind by someone in the past is available to anyone else for free, and I happened to walk in 10 minutes after a pair of brand new hiking boots in my size were set out on the shelf. I am at a loss as to why someone abandoned them, but I’m feeling very lucky that I was able to snag them!

A typical scene around McMurdo.

Everyone lives in dorms at McMurdo and eats in the dining hall, which is known as the Galley. Ingredients – particularly fresh ingredients – are often very limited, but McMurdo’s cooking is excellent (particularly when it comes to desserts). There is a store on-site, as well, where you can buy necessities like shampoo and medicines, comfort items like chocolate bars and alcohol, and a range of souvenirs (I confess that it seems strange to me that the McMurdo souvenirs aren’t available to purchase in Christchurch – as it is, they fly everything down so we can fly it back home. On the other hand, it does mean that my family members will get shirts that have actually been to Antarctica!).

The Galley, where an artist-in-residence was giving a talk on Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition.

As McMurdo’s primary function is to support scientific research, many of the buildings are dedicated to science or to getting scientific equipment out into the field. Our team spends most of the time during the day squeezed into a couple offices in the Crary Laboratory building, which also houses equipment for chemical and physical experiments, and includes a set of aquariums on the lower level with bizarre Antarctic aquatic organisms. We also spend a lot of time at the Science Support Center (SSC) where we did our rope training, which has space to set up tents and stage gear inside, the Berg Field Center (BFC) where much of our issued field gear is housed, and Science Cargo where we sort and package all of our equipment on pallets and turn it over to the professionals to get it loaded onto the plane. Our team has approximately 37,000 pounds (yes, that’s the correct number of zeros) of equipment to carry out our science and live fairly comfortably in the deep field for a couple months, and getting it all labeled, weighed, organized, and entered into the cargo system is a huge task.

Our team members putting away an Arctic Oven Tent that we had set up inside the SSC. Getting all the air out is a team effort.

Although we have been working hard, McMurdo also has many opportunities for leisure time. There are several gyms on-site, as well as a great set of hiking trails (which I’ll talk about in my next post!). We have lectures twice a week from scientists and artists-in-residence, either in the dining hall or in the library at Crary Lab. There are three bars (one of them is also a coffee house) that are very popular in the evenings, which often host scheduled or unscheduled parties. And there are several other rooms that provide diversions, such as the craft room and the gear distribution center, which includes skis and mountain bikes as well as musical instruments for loan. We even have several TV channels that get sports or news feeds from the US, and a local channel that plays movies.

The gym that houses the cardio equipment, known as the Gerbil Gym.

We’re really anxious to get out of McMurdo so we can start our research, but it is pretty incredible what kind of support systems are available here. Just across the bay from my dorm is a hut built by Scott’s Discovery expedition in the early 1900s (I will also talk more about that in a later post). I don’t think that any of those men, who huddled in the drafty hut through long Antarctic winters, could have guessed what incredible amounts of infrastructure would be built on Ross Island in just a few short decades.

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