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Landing on Thin Ice: Arriving in McMurdo Station, Antarctica

The sea ice around McMurdo Station, Antarctica has been especially soft this year with devastating consequences for those who live there. There have been no fresh fruits or vegetables delivered since Christmas. Rumors are flying that the McMurdo store has almost sold out of beer and wine. Shampoo rations might be in everyone’s future.

McMurdo Station is by far the largest Antarctic base, supporting more than one thousand scientists and staff at the height of the austral summer season. A facility of this magnitude requires a steady supply of food, gear, and other resources, which are normally supplied via a huge C17 military plane. But this year, the sea ice runway where the planes land has been far too soft to support a C17 landing.

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Our team boarding the LC130 (left) and inside of the aircraft (right).

While waiting in Christchurch, New Zealand, we heard rumors of McMurdo’s supply shortages and proceeded to stock up on two month’s supplies of toiletries, extra lab gear and creature comforts (for me, that meant 6 pounds of chocolate). We packed up and then boarded a LC130 – a much smaller plane equipped with landing skis that can safely touch down on the sea ice runway outside McMurdo.

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Arrived on the ice! Note the skis on the bottom of the LC130 (left). Ivan the Terra Bus takes us from the sea ice runway to McMurdo (right; photos by Christina Reisselman).

While many of McMurdo’s summer residents have finished their season and headed home, we traveled with a handful of support staff that are coming down to “winter over.” During the cold and dark Antarctic winter, the station’s population drops to about 150 people, all of whom must pass a thorough physical and psychological evaluation (the psych exam includes questions like: Do you like your mother? Has anyone suggested that you stop drinking?). When the final flight leaves McMurdo at the end of the austral summer, these winter residents are stuck on the ice until flights resume again the following season. Despite the lack of sunshine and fresh food, winter residents celebrate amazing moonlit nights and southern lights.

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Church in McMurdo in the midnight twilight (left). Stained glass window inside the church (right; photos by Cassandra Brooks).

Despite being at the bottom of the world and having the raw look and feel of a mountain mining town, McMurdo has remarkable infrastructure. Upon arriving, I spent an afternoon getting physical therapy at their well-equipped hospital. My team set up shop in their expansive top-notch science facility. I toured the grounds, checking out the fire station, church, and post office. Some of our team went to yoga class while others hung out in one of McMurdo’s two bars.

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Around McMurdo. Lots of great hiking trails (left) and a view outside the hospital (right; photos by Cassandra Brooks).

The most surreal aspect of being down here is the 24-hour daylight. As I write this post, its 1:34 am and the sun is circling low on the horizon and will soon begin to rise again. The low light turns the surrounding sea ice a milky blue while bathing the mountain top glaciers in soft orange hues. The landscape is memorizing, making sleep all the more difficult.

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McMurdo Station (photo by Cassandra Brooks).

Tonight my team rests on the boat. Within a day, our research will finally begin.

Comments

  1. Roger Pyle
    Astoria, OR
    February 19, 10:36 am

    Hello Cassandra,

    I just wanted to add my 2 cents worth. I am a retired Coastie who lived and worked on the Coast Guard Icebreaker Polar Star (WAGB-10). Although stationed on the “Polar Pig”, I did have the honor of making two flights to McMurdo Station from Christchurch, NZ. These two flights were in the C130 aircraft flown by the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing. The professionals involved in these flights were fantastic and they provided an amazing service and even though these flights are dangerous, they went off without a hitch. My hat is off to them.

    I would have to say that Antarctica would have to be the harshest but the most awe inspiring and beautiful place in the world I have ever been. McMurdo Station had a wonderful collection of people from all over the world. To this day, I would go back there is a second. My time spent there will never be forgotten. Both times, the Polar Star was out somewhere along the Ross Ice Shelf and I had the pleasure of spending a number of days waiting for here to return. There is truth in the statement, “work hard, play hard”. I can verify that truthfully. I became a regular to the “Erebus Club”, a place to socialize with others and have a little fun. Thanks for listening, gave me a chance to remember some very memorable times.

    Roger Pyle

  2. Sherri Fabre
    October 5, 2013, 12:09 pm

    Matthew, as you know the folks in the Air National Guard in McMurdo Station work in short rotations throughout the summer season. This means for a majority of them their time there lasts for 3 weeks or so. They are not “civilians” and therefore do not fall under the same jurisdiction as the contract workers do. There experiences are also quite separate.

    So when I made a brief comment about how things have changed for the support staff I was talking about the civilian support staff.

  3. Olivia Bourke
    Sydney, AUS
    May 13, 2013, 4:40 am

    Hello.

  4. Jessa
    London, England
    April 3, 2013, 3:55 am

    To be fair, Cassandra was only there for a few days while waiting for RVIB Palmer to depart, so she might not have the whole story on what happened with cessation of C-17 flights – some of which was scheduled, some of which wasn’t and was due to unusually warm temperatures and a storm that compromised the ability of wheeled aircraft to land at Pegasus when they were meant to resume flights. She also didn’t mention McMurdo’s proximity to Scott Base, which maintained a decent supply of chocolate AND wine and beer (so had she actually been stationed there, she wouldn’t have had to lay in a supply in advance) or the fact that while fresh fruit and vegetables were absent for an abnormally long period of time for a summer season, the station population were remarkably good sports about it and for whatever grumbling they may have done in private, they certainly appreciated the fact that the galley was doing their best. It’s a harsh continent.

  5. Matthew Karns
    Albany, NY
    February 22, 2013, 10:59 am

    I retired this year from the NY Air National Guard and was part of the LC130 maintenance team on the ice for many years. Most comments are correct about the annual sea ice and Pegasus permanent ice runway. This year was so warm that C-17 flights had to be either canceled or given severe weight restrictions for landing at Pegasus. This bumped many “moral” items this season. As for the past 10 years and the comments from Sherri. I think NSF and the contractors do an outstanding job in giving us the best creature comforts you can have. Remember you are at the bottom of the world and logistics can be at times a challange. I have to admit in all my years of going to the ice, I never missed a meal or ever had a problem getting alcohol. If you have spent any time in the desert, Antarctica is a dream. I enjoyed my many years traveling to the ice, but have to admit won’t miss it.

  6. Sherri Fabre
    California
    February 17, 2013, 10:17 am

    The sea ice runway is always temporary. The surveyors in town always check the deflection of the sea ice and its thickness for every plane that lands on that runway. Once the melting is too great the runway is moved over to Willy field which is only a few miles away. Further on in the season the Pegasus runway is used. These have been the workings at McMurdo Station for many years.

    Supplies for the store (such as beer) are ordered and delivered by the cargo ship that comes once a year. “Freshies” are delivered by planes throughout the season. Supplies like Alcohol and “Freshies” are part of keeping a good moral going on station. In the past ten years the NSF and the contractors it has hired have stripped many of the hard working support staff in McMurdo of many small comforts we used to have. Why? Who knows ask them?

  7. kelly
    westfield mass
    February 15, 2013, 5:06 pm

    Cassandra, I am a teacher and doing postcards from around the world social studies project. Would it be possible to get a postcard from Antarctica? Here iaddress Kelly Doktor , sullivan elementary school, 400 Jarvis avenue, Holyoke Massachusetts 01040 USA. THANK YOU IF YOU CAN!

    • Cassandra Brooks
      February 16, 2013, 1:35 pm

      Hi Kelly,

      I would have loved to and could have from McMurdo! But we are now at sea and I won’t get back to a post office until we land in Chile. I can pass on your note to other scientists still at McMurdo if you like (though the postcard wouldn’t come until later in the year as their post office has closed for the season).

      -Cassandra

  8. Cassandra
    United States
    February 13, 2013, 4:42 am

    Thanks S Miller for your corrections. Clearly I succumbed to the rumors on and off the ice! Also – a C17 landed the day after we left (as the weather cooled). Hope it came bearing freshies for McMurdo!

  9. S. Miller
    Salem, MA
    February 12, 2013, 8:06 am

    Cassandra, enjoy your time on the ice. I just wanted to correct a few things about your post. First, the Ice Runway closes in December. C17s land at the Pegasus Runway about twenty miles outside of McMurdo on a glacier. This ice usually does have some melting and pooling issues due to warmer weather. Second, toiletries, beer and like items are not supplied to McMurdo from C17s. They arrived about a week ago on the supply vessel. Yes, freshies come in on the C17 but essential items, ie: science equipment, people, often bump the luxury of freeshies on the flight.

  10. CHristine Brooks
    New Hampshire, USA
    February 11, 2013, 10:54 pm

    Cassandra writes in a manner that is so fascinating. One can’t wait for further ventures where very few people have actually gone.