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McMurdo Station Archives - 2013

November ramps up as researchers return to McMurdo Station

Life at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site slowly returned to normal in November after the U.S. government shutdown derailed the 2013-14 austral summer for more than two weeks. About 80 percent of the field projects originally scheduled to be based out of McMurdo are still being done, though some at a reduced scope.

One of the big projects that was saved at the last minute was a NASA External U.S. government site mission called Operation IceBridge External U.S. government site, which involves flying various radars and other instruments on aircraft to measure and monitor ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. This was the first year since the program began in 2009 that it was based out of McMurdo Station. [See previous article — Flight availability: NASA IceBridge campaign to be based out of McMurdo Station for first time.]

Plane sits on ice.
Photo Credit: Michael Studinger/NASA
NASA’s P-3B aircraft flew five missions from McMurdo Station in November.

NASA’s P-3B aircraft External U.S. government site flew five missions, collecting data on ice sheet elevation and other details about Antarctic ice, including the sea ice over the Ross Sea, covering about 12,500 miles over 43 hours. A couple of days after the last flight by the P-3B, airfield operations were moved from the Sea Ice Runway External U.S. government site near McMurdo to Pegasus Airfield External U.S. government site on the permanent ice shelf about 14 miles away.

The bumpy start to the field season meant a busy month for everyone at station. That was especially true of the kitchen staff, which cooks up a traditional Thanksgiving meal every year. This season the holiday was held a week early due to the shift in airfield operations.

About 800 people were on station for the holiday meal, which included 1,300 pounds of turkey and nearly 600 pounds of ham. Sides included more than 500 pounds of mashed potatoes, 265 pounds of stuffing, nearly 300 pounds of green beans and almost 40 gallons of butternut squash soup.

Of course, the galley staff is busy year-round. The recent introduction of 24-hour pizza means the bakers are cranking out nearly 100 pies per day. That’s a lot of ’za.

Farther afield, work at various field camps is also under way, with more than 80 people at 14 different locations around the continent, most around the McMurdo Dry Valleys External U.S. government site. That’s about half the number that was deployed at field camps at the same time last year.

Two tents pitched among rocks and snow.
Photo Credit: Mel Li
A field camp in Wright Valley.
Person prepares to lay wreath at memorial.
Photo Credit: Elaine Hood
NSF PLR Operations Manager Maggie Knuth lays a wreath at a memorial service at Scott Base for victims of a plane crash on Mount Erebus volcano that occurred 34 years ago.

A refueling mission to Black Island, where the U.S. Antarctic Program’s External U.S. government site main telecommunications facility is located, proved to be successful but exhausting. The trip across the ice shelf required about 10 hours due to heavy snow.

Two 5,000-gallon fuel tanks were parked at the base of Black Island. The refueling truck known as Delta Scharen, which sports oversized wheels for snow travel, had to make six round trips between the fuel tanks and the telecommunications facility, each one requiring about three hours.

For about the next two months, air traffic between McMurdo and Christchurch, New Zealand, where the U.S. Antarctic Program maintains its off-continent logistics hub, will be limited to LC-130 aircraft flown by the New York Air National Guard External U.S. government site.

The Gap, as the period is known, means there will be less cargo and fewer passengers, as the U.S. Air Force External U.S. government site C-17 External Non-U.S. government site cargo planes return to Joint Base Lewis-McChord External U.S. government site in Washington State until late January. The limited air traffic will help reduce wear and tear at the ice runway at Pegasus Airfield, which was severely damaged last year due to warm temperatures and a dust storm from Black Island. [See previous article — Bumpy ride: Melt issues at airfield, snow roads disrupt transportation at McMurdo.]

The Gap doesn’t mean a drop in science. Two of the biggest projects of the season are scheduled to get under way soon. The Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets External Non-U.S. government site, or CReSIS, will test its unmanned aerial vehicle that carries radar systems similar to those used by IceBridge to measure ice properties.

The WISSARD External Non-U.S. government site project, which last year made history by sampling a subglacial lake and discovering microbial life, will return to Lake Whillans for a scaled-back effort to continue its investigation into subglacial waterworks under the ice sheet with geophysics work. [See previous article — Life under the ice: WISSARD team discovers evidence that bacteria live in Lake Whillans.]

Meanwhile, back at Ross Island, the month wrapped up with a ceremony at New Zealand’s Scott Base External Non-U.S. government site, with U.S. officials joining their Kiwi colleagues for a small but poignant service on Nov. 28 to remember those who died in an airplane crash against Erebus volcano 34 years ago. Wreaths were laid at a replica memorial koru on a rocky mound overlooking the volcano to commemorate New Zealand's worst air disaster. A minute's silence was observed.

McMurdo back on the move with traverses following partial government shutdown

The 16-day partial government shutdown in October caused many ups and downs at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site, as support personnel arrived with jobs, lost them, and got them back again. Scientists were turned back to Christchurch, New Zealand, only to boomerang back, scrambling to begin their research belatedly after funding was restored to the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site.

McMurdo had a different vibe in the first half of October than what most returnees were used to. The only social events were the occasional goodbye parties for the new hires who had been notified they were going to have to leave the continent after just getting to it. Some of the farewells lasted days due to the inclement weather that canceled scheduled flights back to Christchurch.

Line of tractors pull tanks on sleds.
Photo Credit: Alasdair Turner
Tractors pull fuel tanks as part of the Marble Point traverse to refuel the helicopter depot.
Iceberg frozen into a sea of ice.
Photo Credit: Keros Johnson
An iceberg froze in McMurdo Sound en route from McMurdo Station to Marble Point.
Bulldozer pushes snow into hole.
Photo Credit: Paul Thur/Antarctic Photo Library
A crevasse in the shear zone near McMurdo Station is filled in during a previous field season.

Collin Stackhouse lightened the dark mood in early October playing the fiddle at the Coffee House. A large crowd of people flocked to hear his fiddle playing, able to forget the worries of the world for a little while. A dance at the Berg Field Center that turned into a costume party also helped to salve the somber mood around station, which began operations to move into caretaker status.

Then the sun came out from behind the clouds. Funding was restored to the USAP, which started the process to rehire employees and restore the science program.

On the operational side of the post-government shutdown, traverses to Marble Point, Black Island and the crevasse-riddled shear zone for South Pole Traverse got under way.

Black Island Traverse completed its first run to carry supplies and water to McMurdo’s telecommunications facility about 20 miles away. The crew commented on how nice the weather and roads were this season, though a veteran chuckled that they used to complete the seven-hour, one-way trip in two hours in a pickup truck because the roads were much easier to compact on the sea ice back then.

Due to bad road conditions in past years, Marble Point had not received a fuel shipment since 2010. Marble Point, located across McMurdo Sound, serves as a gas station of sorts for helicopters that support field camps in the McMurdo Dry Valleys External U.S. government site. This year, the two traverses to Marble Point were escorted by the first skuas of the season along smoother roads, sunny days and fantastic views of icebergs. Marble Point now has more than enough fuel for two seasons of science in the Dry Valleys.

The South Pole Traverse, which delivers fuel and some cargo to the USAP’s southernmost research station, has made a couple of trips to the nearby shear zone to fill in crevasses and “blobs” found by ground-penetrating radar in preparation for the two tractor trains that will leave this month.

The shear zone crossing has been worked and reworked for 11 seasons since 2002, with blasting and filling of holes with snow. It has become harder to “mine” snow for the fills, and they are looking toward finding a new crossing by 2015.

Anthony Powell’s labor of cinematographic love, Antarctica: A Year on Ice External Non-U.S. government site, premiered last month at McMurdo Station to a crowded house and much applause for his 10-year effort. A former USAP employee and National Science Foundation Artist and Writer External U.S. government site grantee, Powell spent numerous winters and summers at McMurdo compiling stunning time-lapse photography for a feature-length documentary that is currently garnering awards at film festivals across the United States. [See previous article — Final countdown: Powell wraps up Year on Ice documentary about Antarctica.]

McMurdo locals laughed and squealed as they caught glimpses of themselves and their friends appearing throughout the movie.

Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Hut External Non-U.S. government site, located near McMurdo Station on Ross Island, has closed its doors for the summer season for conservation work by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZAHT) External Non-U.S. government site. Work this season will focus on weather proofing the hut and restoration of artifacts at Discovery Hut.

The Halloween party, sponsored by the Cargo department, went off without a hitch. The creativity of the costumes was amazing. Waxed wrestlers, walking floral arrangements, a Pillsbury doughboy and even a performance by Cirque de Antarctique. What else could one ask for at a Halloween party than to see the best impression of Hulk Hogan ever? 

Winfly brings five planes to McMurdo Station in August and September

The skies above McMurdo Station External U.S. government site once again buzzed briefly with activity, as the prologue operation to the 2013-14 summer field season in Antarctica made five successful flights in August and September.

The first plane to touch down at McMurdo Station’s Pegasus Airfield External U.S. government site in five months landed on Aug. 15, ending the winter isolation for 141 people.

Cargo is unloaded from an airplane.
Photo Credit: Gareth Weaver
Cargo is unloaded from an Australian Antarctic Division Airbus A319 at Pegasus Airfield on Sept. 8.

The U.S. Air Force External U.S. government site C-17 External Non-U.S. government site carried about 50 people south to the main hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site, which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site. A second flight, also using night vision goggle capability and carrying only cargo, followed a couple of days later.

The two flights represented the first phase of what’s known as winter fly-in, or winfly, when a vanguard of support personnel arrive at McMurdo to help prepare the station for the busy Antarctic research season, which begins in October and runs through the end of February.

Three more flights carrying about 100 people arrived the first week of September, using the Australian Antarctic Division’s Airbus A319 External Non-U.S. government site.

A number of projects were under way in September to prepare the station for the upcoming field season. Worked ranged from creating a temporary runway on the sea ice near McMurdo Station to repairing damage at Pegasus Airfield due to warm temperatures and a dust storm last season to a station-wide cleanup day at the end of the month. 

Day in the life: Tracking the movement of four people across winter darkness

Yes, we celebrated Midwinter’s Day on June 21. We had a feast fit for a five-star restaurant. Our dining room was decorated like a ballroom, and we wore our finest clothes while eating hors d’ oeuvres, dancing and carrying on a tradition that started with the early explorers like Scott and Shackleton.

But what does a day look like at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site? Not a day that stands out like Midwinter’s Day, but an ordinary day with regular tasking, doing the job that keeps me in Antarctica during the winter?

It’s June 11 at 9:57 in the morning, and I’m at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. It’s the middle of the winter, which means I haven’t seen the sun since April 19, but I have felt the cold and wind and seen the Southern Cross at noon.

Person gives thumps up in front of small trucks.
Photo Credit: Bryan Chambers
McMurdo Station heavy equipment mechanic Rich Gunderson.

To describe my job today, it’s best to think of Radar O’Reilly from MASH. I am monitoring three radios to my left, seven different frequencies in front of me, and on my right I can communicate with the South Pole Station External U.S. government site using our high-frequency radio.

The reason I’m here today is because a crew of four people left our base in two vehicles to traverse across McMurdo Sound to Black Island, where we broadcast and receive all of our satellite communications, including phone and Internet.

The reason you’re reading this now — an email that I sent from Antarctica — is because it was sent from McMurdo to Black Island, then to Australia and finally to Denver. In Denver, my words hopped on the Internet and ended up in The Antarctic Sun.

As the crow flies, Black Island is about 25 miles away, but there aren’t any crows in Antarctica or straight roads. By the time the Black Island tractor traverse gets to its destination, the vehicles will have traveled a little more than 60 miles, and it will take about eight hours.

This traverse is like astronauts walking untethered from the International Space Station. They are headed to Black Island to do routine maintenance on the satellite receivers and generators. If the generators, receivers and modems are not regularly maintained at Black Island, then we would be both literally and figuratively left in the dark.

This is my job today — monitoring the movement of four souls across the winter blackness of Antarctica.

Station pulls together for winter-time medical evacuation

On Tuesday, April 16,the rumors around the dinner table started humming. The people in Fleet Operations knew they had a meeting first thing in the morning to discuss the white ice runway at Pegasus Airfield External U.S. government site.

The ice runway? What was there to discuss? The ice runway is supposed to remain buried until August when we normally get our next flight.

The next day it all made sense. One of our community members needed to leave due to a medical emergency, and he needed to leave quickly.

People inside a plane await a patient offload.
Photo Courtesy: Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica
A C-17 Globemaster III crew from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., alongside aeromedical evacuation and critical care air transport team members, safely evacuate a patient from McMurdo Station, on April 22.

The ice runway was covered in up to 10 inches of compacted snow. The electricians would need to hook up power; the fuelies would need to build a fuel pit. Other tasks included setting up lights for the runway, heat for the buildings and many other things to ensure the runway was safe for a plane to land at the start of our winter.

For many, their normal 10-hour shift became around-the-clock 12-hour shifts. The galley, once a buzz with rumors of a medevac, was now staying open later to feed those who were working atypical winter hours.

The weather was the only entity in McMurdo Station External U.S. government site that did not cooperate with our need to get this runway running. The temperatures were consistently below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was projected to take more than a week before the Air Force External U.S. government site could land a C-17 Globemaster III External U.S. government site. Instead, thanks to the hard work of everyone in McMurdo, the plane arrived on Monday, April 22.

Taking only six days to turn a snowfield into an Air Force-ready runway speaks for itself. We are a community dependent only on each other right now, and when our mettle was tested, we came together for one of our own.

And we had to do it all over again in May when a second medical evacuation occurred. 

Cold weather can't disguise winter at McMurdo Station

McMurdo Station External U.S. government site didn’t have to wait long to feel the chill of Mother Nature as winter got under way last month.

Wind gusts blowing more than 60 knots and temperatures dropping to degrees that would be warm if they were on the plus side, we learned quickly what can be in store for us this winter: Cold, cold and cold, with a seven-month extended weather forecast of cold and blowing winds.

Twilight casts glow over building and town.
Photo Credit: Ben Adkison
The setting sun casts a glow on Discovery Hut and McMurdo Station.

Even if we hadn’t read Antarctica for Dummies before coming down here, most of us probably had a faint recollection or inkling that winter at McMurdo would include cold temperatures. No one complained about the cold; the biggest problem with March coming in like a lion was that we haven’t had enough time to meet our 143 co-inhabitants of McMurdo.

With the cold weather came face masks, goggles, scarves and our standard issue Big Red parkas. Even if my mother was stationed down here, I would not have been able to distinguish her from Jeremy the Plumber, as they would both be clad in the same attire.

Most people dealt with this inability to recognize people by simply keeping their head down as they ducked in and out of buildings. I just started calling everyone “Mike.” There are seven “Mikes” in McMurdo this year. With 5 percent of the population named “Mike,” I was only wrong 95 percent of the time. In some aspects of my life, this is a huge improvement.

And, when I was met by a cold stare (likely), then I’d run through the other popular names. There are five guys named “Rob” and four named “David” or “Ray.” Throw in a few named “John,” “Dan,” “Brian,” “Jason,” “Richard,” or “Bill,” and now you’re saying, “hello,” to almost 30 percent of our population.

The women have proven to be a bit more difficult. Only two share the same name: Cynthia. And one insists on being called “Cindy,” because that’s her name.

The Lion of March quit roaring just in time for us to celebrate Easter. With limited supplies, eggs and costuming, we did the best we could. We decorated beverage cans and it was eggcellent. Though it’s a good thing there aren’t any kids down here; our bunny lacked cute and cuddly.

Winter under way at McMurdo after a few false starts

Winter has begun at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site. No, it hasn’t. The start of the winter season kicked off on March 5. Nope. OK, it’s the beginning of winter at McMurdo Station, and we’re all settling into our new roles as winter-overs. Wrong again.

The start of the 2013 winter got off to a rough start for the 143 inhabitants of McMurdo Station this year due to mechanical delays of the last flight in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Mother Nature at McMurdo Station.

People stare at plane in sky.
Photo Credit: Ben Adkison
McMurdo Station personnel look up to the sky from the Chalet administration building to watch the last plane of the 2012-13 summer season leave.

The 60 remaining summer participants should have flown north on March 5. There were going-away parties, tears and hugs the night of March 4. After the first delay kept those friends and co-workers one more day, there were still hugs, but less tears the night of March 5. 

By the time the plane finally took off on March 9, travel plans for the summer people had gotten cut short. Not to mention the fact these 60 people were still eating our freshies — real fruits and vegetables that will mostly be gone in just weeks. It seemed like the main form of saying goodbye on Saturday was a kick in the pants and a shove to the back to get them on Ivan the Terra Bus and to the airfield.

Now, a few days into our winter season, we’ve had our first All-Hands meeting, first “Welcome to Winter Party,” first watching of the movie, “The Thing,” and we’re currently preparing for our first mass casualty incident (MCI) drill to test our preparedness in case of an emergency.

The people to our left, right and across from us in the dining hall are the people on whom we will be depending for fun, work, friendship — and possibly to save our lives.

Winter has begun at McMurdo Station. Yes, it really has, and we’re preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best. 

Summer season winds down with arrival of supply ships

The holidays have ended and business around McMurdo Station External U.S. government site has begun to take a new shape as the parade of ships begins to arrive at the newly built ice pier.

The first to reach McMurdo Sound was the Russian icebreaker Vladimir Ignatyuk External Non-U.S. government site, which clears a channel through the sea ice for the other vessels that follow. The research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer External U.S. government site was the next to arrive. At the time of this writing, the fuel tanker Maersk Peary External U.S. government site was unloading 5.5 million gallons of fuel. Lastly, the cargo ship Ocean Giant will arrive with most of the materials and food for the next year.

Ship sails in front of dome-shaped mountain.
Photo Credit: Deb Wilfong
Russian icebraker VLADIMIR IGNATYUK cuts a channel through the sea ice into McMurdo Sound.

It will be a busy time on the waterfront over the next few weeks.

The warmer weather this summer has made for challenges at the airfield, which delayed the return of the Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster III External U.S. government site. These planes were on a scheduled six-week hiatus from flying between December and January, but their return had been delayed due to melting conditions at the ice runway at Pegasus Airfield External U.S. government site. (Editor’s note: The C-17 returned to flying on Feb. 11.)

The station continued to receive passengers and supplies via the smaller Hercules LC-130 External U.S. government site, but the community was anxious for return of the C-17s. The big jets represent fresh fruits and vegetables (“freshies”), packaged mail, and a shorter plane ride off the continent. It’s all part of the challenges of living and working on the harshest continent on Earth.

Sad days passed through McMurdo as news that three Canadian crewmembers of a Kenn Borek External Non-U.S. government site flight died while in support of Antarctic research External U.S. government site. A memorial service was held on station on Sunday, Feb. 3.

Three flags fly.
Photo Courtesy: Pam Hill
The Canadian flag is flown at McMurdo Station in honor of three men killed in a plane crash.

The Canadian flag was flown, flanked by the United States and New Zealand flags, which were in honor of those in support of the recovery effort. A book was made available for members of the McMurdo community to sign to send their condolences and words of comfort to the families.

Elsewhere on station, science has picked up speed as members from deep field camps are arriving with their samples.

One interesting study of note is a project out of NASA’s Astrobiology Science & Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) External U.S. government site program led by Chris McKay External U.S. government site. Collaborating on the project are members from Honeybee Robotics, McGill University and the Canadian Space Agency External Non-U.S. government site.

Called IceBite, scientists and engineers are developing an ice auger and sampling bit for use on Mars. Ice-rich locations on Mars could have preserved biological material from when it was previously in a liquid state. The terrain in the McMurdo Dry Valleys External U.S. government site offers Mars-like conditions for testing the drill. 

McMurdo Station gets in a festive mood for December

December is a festive month all over the world, and McMurdo Station External U.S. government site is no exception. The town lacks the frantic pace and commercialism, but it comes to life in its own way for the holiday season.

One of the popular holiday events in town is the Christmas Acoustic Show at the Waste Barn. This show began in 2007 and evolved out of the Zimm Brothers Christmas Show that was previously held at the Coffee House.

The Waste Barn is the central location for sorting and packaging trash on the station, but on this night, the space is transformed into a small club or concert hall, with holiday decor and artwork. Chairs are lined up for the more than 100 people in the audience.

Crowd gathers in front of stage.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
The annual IceStock festival at McMurdo Station.

Typically, 10 to 12 performers or groups are invited from the community to play. The feel of the event is that of a private party. The music is great but even an off-key note receives equal applause. It’s a feeling that you are amongst family when you play in this town.

The other popular musical event of the season is the New Year’s Eve outdoor concert, IceStock. The event began in the late afternoon with a chili cook-off and soloists performing on stage. The crowd slowly formed, as the evening gradually ramped up to full bands that got the crowd moving. There was even a performance by the local dance troupe with a few added extras. Baby New Year was present to help welcome 2013.

Other holiday events included the town Christmas party at the Vehicle Maintenance Facility, complete with Santa and Mrs. Claus on the PistenBully. MAAG, the McMurdo Alternative Art Gallery, always draws local artists and craftsmen to show their works. Every year MAAG also holds an event on stage. This year it was a cabaret show, complete with an illusionist, belly dancer and a burlesque show, amongst other acts.

The McMurdo Community Christmas Choir performed at various events including one at MacOps. MacOps is the radio call sign for the Emergency Management and Station Communication at McMurdo. They run the 24-hour communications center for the station and communicate with the various field camps. On this particular day, MacOps helped to spread holiday cheer around the continent through the high frequency air waves. The South Pole Choir also sang a few songs to some of the field camps.

Each department typically has its own party to celebrate the season. The chapel had Protestant and Catholic services to remind us of the spiritual origin of the season. And, of course, the kitchen served up a feast for the town to enjoy.