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McMurdo Station Archives - 2015

Trotting Turkey

At the tug of war, the U.S. team pulls their hardest against the Kiwi team from Scott Base.
Photo Credit: Michael Lucibella
At the tug of war, the U.S. team pulls their hardest against the Kiwi team from Scott Base.
Runners in outlandish costumes line up at the starting line of the annual TurkeyTrot 5K race.
Photo Credit: Robert "Duncan" Lennon
Runners in outlandish costumes line up at the starting line of the annual TurkeyTrot 5K race.

Living in Antarctica can make celebrating the holidays difficult. Station residents couldn’t be further from friends and family, and the limited bandwidth prevents many simple communication methods like Skyping. Needless to say, during the month of November, the residents at McMurdo Station did their best to bring the holidays to the bottom of the world.

November began with the warmest weather of the season and the stirring anticipation of Thanksgiving celebrations to come. Along the way, many residents partook in special activities like tug of war against our neighbor station, New Zealand’s Scott Base. While the Americans put on a valiant effort against the Kiwis, the victory went to the island nation.

Not long after, residents competed against each other in a pair of 5K races aptly named the TurkeyTrot and Turducken. They were a great way to not only ease the guilt brought on by the extra consumption of scrumptious Thanksgiving meals and sweets, it also served as a great opportunity to continue McMurdo’s costume wearing tradition. Tutus, neon spandex, turkey and minion costumes were just some of the many eccentric outfits seen at the starting line. Others chose to celebrate the coinciding two-day weekend in a little more relaxing style and cheered on the many racers from the sideline. Celebrations with smiles, hugs and laughs were everywhere at the end of the race.

It’s not easy to host a Thanksgiving meal for a station at near-full capacity, but the food service staff did a wonderful job this year. Thanksgiving Day meals were separated into three different dinner times with a separate midnight seating for the nightshift workers. It seemed that nearly everyone dressed up for the occasion and most chose to attend with a close group of friends and coworkers. The cooks provided all the goodies sure to please any diehard Thanksgiving fan. Turkey, prime rib, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, apple, pumpkin and pecan pie were just a few of the wide assortment of tasty foods prepared.

The mighty C-17 aircraft, which delivers and exports much of the personal mail to McMurdo, made its last visit of the year in November. Station personnel eagerly rushed to send presents and postcards to friends and loved ones back home. Many residents celebrated Christmas early, having received their holiday mail a month early.

November at McMurdo proved that while we might not always be able to celebrate the holidays at home, sometimes a piece of home can come to you, even at the bottom of the world.

Halloween Under the Midnight Sun

The 3AM sun dips low over the Royal Society Range
Photo Credit: Michael Kitchen
The 3AM sun dips low over the Royal Society Range, lighting up the sky in a radiant display.
Max Spitzer looks on after being approached by an Emperor penguin
Photo Credit: Alasdair Turner
Max Spitzer looks on after being approached by an Emperor penguin (not someone in an elaborate Halloween costume).
Diver Steve Rupp swims up next to the recently installed Observation Tube
Photo Credit: Rob Robbins
Diver Steve Rupp swims up next to the recently installed "Observation Tube," a popular recreational activity for station residents to peek below the sea ice around McMurdo Sound.

October’s skies were a sight to be seen. The sun danced on the horizon, giving way to spectacular sunrises and sunsets that silhouetted the Royal Society Range and draped the surrounding landscapes in beautiful orange and pink hues. Novice and advanced photographers alike took to the outdoors to capture the sun-kissed landscapes. Because the sun won’t set again until February, we are experiencing ever-rising temperatures and with them, the start of many outdoor recreational activities. Hikers and joggers took to the outdoors to traverse the newly exposed earth around station.

For many residents on station, Halloween is the most anticipated time of the year. As is historically the case, some began preparing their costumes months in advance, having brought large portions of their attire all the way from home. Though not all residents are so creatively inclined or inspired to dress up, the finished costumes provided entertainment for all.

This year, Halloween conveniently fell on a Saturday, permitting most residents to enjoy the festivities with the chance to sleep in the following morning. The station’s big gym was transformed with all the Halloween decorations, dance space, and audio equipment needed to ensure it would be a night to remember. Several categories of costume judging took place, including Best Costume, Best Antarctic Theme, and Best Group Costume. The winners in each category will get to enjoy a day excursion to surrounding areas in the Ross Island region.

While Halloween was certainly the talk around town, October at McMurdo was more than just costumes. Helicopters took to the skies supporting deep field science, the Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica arrived, wildlife came out to play, guided tours for the station residents of the nearby historic landmarks began and the celebrated McMurdo Coffeehouse opened its doors. Caffeinated cups of happiness can now be enjoyed alongside the company of friends while nestling into the warm ambience and comfort of the coffeehouse’s furnishings. Such creature comforts are a pleasant reprieve to the hustle and bustle of an ever-growing station population.

With mainbody well underway and a successful October on the books, McMurdo Station and its personnel eagerly await the challenges, rewards and warmer weather of the coming months.

Mainbody Begins

Rebekah Osgood enjoying September's Blood Moon
Photo Credit: David Chu
Rebekah Osgood enjoying September's Blood Moon.
Nacreous clouds make for a spectacular sunrise at McMurdo
Photo Credit: Rebekah Osgood
Nacreous clouds make for a spectacular sunrise at McMurdo.

In McMurdo, September means the start of mainbody— also known as the summer season in Antarctica. This year, McMurdo welcomed two C-17 aircraft in mid-September, officially marking the beginning of season. With them came a lot of changes for the personnel on station. Of the remaining people who worked through the winter season, many flew off continent and headed home. In their place, each aircraft delivered more than 100 McMurdo personnel and grantees as well as some much-desired station supplies and personal mail.

September also kicked off the first rounds of scientific research for many of the grantees on station and they’re already off to exciting starts. Among the science groups creating a lot of buzz on station was the SIMPLE team. Standing for Sub-ice Investigation of Marine and Planetary-analogue Ecosystems, the group is a NASA funded project seeking to better understand the ice-ocean interface under Antarctica. With news surfacing from NASA this month about flowing water on Mars, the SIMPLE project’s findings may one day prove beneficial in exploring other bodies in the solar system for water and possible lifeforms.

To coincide with the start of science research on station, the staff at the Crary Lab began offering tours. Held every Sunday, the tours provide an exciting up-close look into the science conducted and supported by McMurdo operations and personnel.

Mother Nature presented many challenges during the month of September, with McMurdo Station receiving a couple days of Condition 1 weather. But it also provided much beauty to behold, with several days of prominent nacreous cloud formations and a rare unobstructed Blood Moon which will not be seen again until 2033.

With mainbody preparations in full swing, many departments on station have been offering training. Environmental, field and safety training courses can now be found around station for all new personnel. Among other preparations in September were the de-winterizing of several dorms in preparation for the influx of personnel arriving on station.

An exciting variety of new recreation classes started in the month of September. Different kinds of martial arts, aerobics and yoga were among some of the new classes offered. Such classes have been a healthy antidote to the influx of cookies that are now provided 24/7 by the galley staff. In addition, the cooks instituted a variety of changes over the month of September. They began testing a series of different food and dining arrangements to better serve the growing population on station. Egg lovers rejoiced when it was announced that the current two-egg limit had been removed. However, the most exciting addition has been the reopening of the locally famous American Grill.

The new Alpha Runway concept, which is expected to hopefully take over the current Pegasus Runway once complete, made some exciting headway, with several key snow compactions having already been completed. The waste department also instituted a big change by overhauling the previously separated recyclables into one, new “Mixed Recyclables” category, alleviating much of the time previously spent on separating recyclables.

September was a month of change and anticipation for things to come. The fruit of many departments’ hard work and preparation over the last month will now be seen as mainbody gets underway.

Winfly Lets Science Get off the Ground

An Air Force C-17 taxis on the Pegasus Runway during one of the Winfly Flights.
Photo Credit: John Swanson
An Air Force C-17 taxis on the Pegasus Runway during one of the Winfly Flights.
The sun peaks out from behind Mount Terror as fleet ops personnel work in the foreground.
Photo Credit: Travis Senor
The sun peaks out from behind Mount Terror as fleet ops personnel work in the foreground.
Nacreous clouds peppered the skies over McMurdo Station in late August
Photo Credits: Travis Senor
Nacreous clouds peppered the skies over McMurdo Station in late August.

Winter is over. At McMurdo Station, August marks the beginning of what can be called, at least in Antarctic terms, spring. The sun returns, as do a significant number of station personnel. In purely McMurdo terms, August means one thing: WinFly.

WinFly is that time of year when the station’s population nearly triples, as an influx of personnel - some long-time returnees and some first-timers - arrive on station to lay the groundwork for the short but busy summer science season. The arrival of WinFly usually also means the arrival of horrendous weather, and this August was no different. Day after day of poor weather, sometimes bordering on Condition 1, caused multiple flight delays, occasionally resulting in as much as a week of lag time between arriving flights. Normally scheduled for completion by late August, this year’s WinFly effort carried into early September due to the precociousness of the McMurdo area’s weather patterns.

But this wasn’t necessarily all bad. The gradual introduction of new faces into station life allowed, for some, an easier transition into the hustle and bustle of WinFly than would the usual rapid deluge of new residents.

It did not, however, prevent the start of the season’s first science projects. Four separate science groups arrived during WinFly, conducting atmospheric, robotic, microorganism and seal studies. Science support personnel, with help from the search-and-rescue team and station volunteers, tirelessly mapped and flagged sea-ice travel routes, allowing researchers to get up and running with little delay.

With these new faces also came the return of a more familiar, though recently consistently absent one: the sun. On August 19th, the sun rose for the first time since disappearing in April, although it could only be seen from Pegasus Runway. The bulk of Mount Erebus and the other lesser hills surrounding McMurdo Station itself prevent the sun from being seen from the station proper until early September. In any case, the return of the sun marks a defining date on the Antarctic calendar, as those who stayed on through the prolonged cold and darkness can see their time on the Ice coming to an end.

The sun’s return brought with it a rare natural phenomenon. While the depths of winter are remarkable for the chance to view brilliant auroras, the extended sunrises and sunsets in late August make for the noteworthy appearances of nacreous clouds. Technically known as polar stratospheric clouds, the extreme cold of the polar winter allows these clouds to form in the stratosphere, at an elevation that is normally not conducive to cloud formation because of its extreme dryness. The high altitude of these nacreous clouds, combined with the curvature of the Earth, allow them to reflect sunlight from below the horizon, giving them their fiery, iridescent appearance.

Unfortunately, nacreous clouds are also tied to ozone depletion, as their structure supports chemical reactions that catalyze ozone destruction. Aesthetically, however, they are at their most spectacular in the short time before sunset, when the fading light hits them in such a way as to make the entire sky appear as if it were alight with a fire of many hues. This month, it is a beautiful farewell to winter.

As the Condition 1 Wind Blows

Zero visibility from Building-155 during the Condition 1 storm
Photo Credit: Travis Senor
Zero visibility from Building-155 during the Condition 1 storm.
Shoveling out the weight and fitness room in Building 155
Photo Credit: Sadie Rusby
Materialsperson Lisa Babcock, carpenter apprentice Kerre Grant and materialsperson Andrew Brown shovel out the weight and fitness room in Building 155.
The sun begins to return as work continues on the Ice Pier, July 2015
Photo Credits: Travis Senor
The sun begins to return as work continues on the Ice Pier, July 2015.

July is the last full month of winter before the hustle and bustle of WinFly in August, when a vanguard of planes carrying support staff and scientists arrives to prepare for the summer field season. Normally, July is another quiet month at McMurdo Station, but like the most recent June, it was not a normal winter’s month. Once again, a C-17 flew into McMurdo, carrying cargo, fresh food and another small mountain of mail. There were, of course, a few new faces onboard as well.

However, unlike June’s near-flawless arrival, this time the capriciousness of Antarctica’s winter weather would not allow this flight to be pulled off quite so easily. A week before the C-17 was due, a ferocious storm blew through the region, resulting in the first Condition 1 of the season.

During a Condition 1 storm, travel between buildings is forbidden without the use of pre-placed hand-lines or a search-and-rescue-team escort. The combination of high winds and minimal to zero visibility make safe, independent travel impossible, as it becomes too easy to get completely lost and disoriented merely crossing between close buildings. There is also the additional risk of being struck by airborne debris.

This particular storm topped out at 95 mph at McMurdo. At Pegasus Airfield, the winds were even more severe, hitting upwards of 200 mph. Needless to say, this wreaked havoc throughout the McMurdo area, drifting snow in buildings and doorways, blowing equipment and outbuildings over, and making the previously-prepared runway unusable.

As soon as the storm cleared, crews got to work digging out, with an added sense of urgency due to the impending arrival. However, even after clearing the snow and debris, another three consecutive days of weather delays kept the C-17 from arriving on schedule. Then, mere hours after it finally made its deliveries and departed, the weather closed in again. While the local crews performed exceptionally, it was, at least in terms of the weather, a close-run thing.

In addition to all of the flight preparations, station residents also celebrated Independence Day. There were games and a cook-out, just like in the much, much warmer North. The annual festivities, hosted at the Vehicle Maintenance Facility, featured live music, several games of skill and chance constructed by station residents, and food ranging from burgers to ice cream. Despite the lack of sunshine and warmth, it was a proper Fourth of July in every sense.

Lastly, July marks that time during winter in which the horizon to the north becomes visibility lighter with each passing day. As the month wore on, the northern sky became more and more imbued with shades of pink, orange, and an ever-lightening blue, presaging the return of the sun lying just beyond the horizon.

But the sun itself won’t return in full until August, and by then, summer will be right around the corner.

A Midwinter’s Flight

McMurdo Station residents celebrate MidWinter's Day.
Photo Credits: Mike Kirchner
McMurdo Station residents celebrate Midwinter's Day.
Materialspeople Andrew Brown and Shaun Bonneau unload cargo pallets from the June 3, 2015 C-17 flight.
Photo Credit: Sadie Rusby
Materialspeople Andrew Brown and Shaun Bonneau unload cargo pallets from the June 3, 2015 C-17 flight.

McMurdo Station made history this June. The first scheduled winter resupply flight in nearly half a century arrived at Pegasus Airfield, bringing with it thousands of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, much needed mechanical supplies, and (most important to some) a small mountain of letters and packages. The air crews had a generous, ninety-six hour window to make the flight, and took full advantage of their first opportunity to execute the mission without delay. After lining up on two approach passes, the arriving C-17 landed in the pitch dark using only on-board night vision equipment to see the landing strip. The runway and building lights at Pegasus Airfield were shut off for the final approach, a necessary test for future winter operations.

Not long after the plane’s payload was transported back to the station, many of McMurdo’s residents chipped in to help sift through the newly arrived pallets. Converging on the galley and the mail room, people began unpacking and sorting some of the flight’s long-anticipated cargo.

A sizable portion of that cargo, the fresh fruits and vegetables, contributed to another, more traditionally significant event: Midwinter’s Day. Observed on the June solstice, Midwinter’s Day is the only uniquely Antarctic holiday and is celebrated with all the appropriate festivities. This season, residents again pulled out all of the stops to highlight McMurdo’s people and history as the centerpiece of festivities. The station’s galley staff also put in many long hours of preparation to provide this year’s holiday meal.

Throughout the entire continent, every wintering station celebrated in kind, exchanging greetings and well-wishes across countless miles, time zones and languages. Each station brought their own brand of Midwinter merriment, including an in-person guest appearance from McMurdo’s New Zealand neighbors.

However, even though the season is half over, there’s still a lot of winter to go. With one more flight planned for mid-July, McMurdo’s crew will be on their game to duplicate June’s effort. Station personnel have already begun surveying and planning sea ice travel routes, in anticipation of supporting scientific projects during the coming summer season. It is a reminder that, while McMurdo is still in the depths of winter, another busy summer is right around the corner.

Special projects dominate McMurdo winter

A brilliant aurora shimmers near McMurdo Station
Photo Credit: Liz Widen
A brilliant aurora shimmers near McMurdo Station.

May is the first month of the year in which McMurdo Station receives no direct sunlight. There are ever-shortening periods of twilight on the northern horizon, but on clear days the sky above town is dominated by a thick blanket of innumerable stars. This particular May also saw residents treated to several aurora displays.

Against this tranquil atmosphere, many winter residents find themselves engrossed in special, long-term projects that a bustling summer population just does not permit. For example, a minor dormitory renovation project is currently underway, aimed at updating and increasing the comfort of some of McMurdo’s living places.

Many work centers also receive face-lifts during the winter, as the station lodging department takes on the task of performing special cleaning projects (such as waxing and buffing floors in Gallagher’s Pub and Crary Lab) that summer foot-traffic does not permit. These winter projects serve to keep McMurdo station’s facilities in a state of visibly good repair and preserve their service life.

May is also when McMurdo residents begin preparing for Antarctica’s only unique holiday: Midwinter’s Day, held in late June. In preparation, lodging coordinator Kira Morris launched a project aimed at tying the pioneering spirit of the early Antarctic explorers to the researchers and support staff of today.

The traditional May holiday of Memorial Day is also observed at McMurdo, and while conditions are not ideal for the usual cookouts and bOver two separate sessions, Morris photographed McMurdo residents in their best approximation of a famous portrait of the Heroic Age explorer, Tom Crean. These will help set the tone for the coming Midwinter celebrations in late June.each parties one might see in the United States, station residents still took time to remember fallen servicemen and women. A brief reception was also held in the McMurdo cafeteria, and some station residents provided paper poppies, a token of remembrance dating back to the end of the First World War.

First winter flight to McMurdo a success

Luke Stucky directs the Australian Airbus A-319 at Pegasus Airfield
Photo Credit: Sadie Rusby
Luke Stucky directs the Australian Airbus A-319 at Pegasus Airfield.

April is usually a quiet month at McMurdo Station, notable for its long, calm twilight and final departure of the sun. Last month, however, saw a flurry of activity, as the first of three planned winter fights arrived at McMurdo Station.

On April 18, an Airbus A-319, operated by Australian provider Skytraders, which also supports the Australian Antarctic Division, arrived at Pegasus Airfield. Departing Hobart, Tasmania, several hours earlier, the flight brought 13 new residents to McMurdo, along with some essential supplies for ongoing winter projects. It left with 37 personnel.

The flight was the latest planned departure for summer participants in McMurdo’s history. Two further winter flights are scheduled for June and July, as the National Science Foundation tests the feasibility of year-round air service to its main research base in Antarctica.

While the Airbus arrived and departed with little hiccup or fanfare, an attempted Royal New Zealand Air Force flight had to be aborted due to ongoing maintenance requirements and continual weather delays. Many winter-overs hoped for its success, as it was bringing package mail along with fresh fruits and vegetables.

McMurdo Station and Mount Erebus, as seen from Pegasus Airfield
Photo Credit: Steven Allinger
McMurdo Station and Mount Erebus, as seen from Pegasus Airfield.

Despite the repeated delays, McMurdo crews stood ready for more than a week to handle its arrival, prepping and grooming the ice runway, maintaining guidance lights, and ensuring fuel and cargo transportation were ready to go. Even though this flight didn’t materialize, the experience still provided excellent training for the realities of year-round flight operations at McMurdo.

U.S. and New Zealand personnel also combined efforts to mark the annual commemoration of ANZAC Day. Held every April 25, ANZAC Day commemorates the soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, as well as veterans of other conflicts. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the first Gallipoli landings in 1915. [See related article — Day of remembrance: McMurdo joins New Zealand neighbors for ANZAC ceremony]

In the middle of all of this activity, the aurora australis, or "southern lights," also made their first visible appearance at McMurdo this winter, delighting residents who had the dedication (and the camera equipment) to seek them out. While these early auroras were relatively faint, their appearance gives hope that McMurdo may bear witness to many truly spectacular celestial displays as the winter progresses.

Finally, on April 24, the sun set on McMurdo Station for the last time in a long time, not to return until mid-August. Unfortunately, several days of poor weather prevented us from witnessing the sun’s disappearance. When the clouds broke, what remained was a long, calm twilight of black, blue and orange, stretching north across the Royal Society Range. As April flows into May, these periods of twilight will shrink until perpetual darkness blankets McMurdo.

McMurdo readies for winter darkness with safety drills

March is generally a quiet month at McMurdo Station, as the last flights of summer have gone and the station population settles into a winter routine. The temperature begins its steady decline and the sea ice repopulates McMurdo Sound, chasing away the last remnants of summer wildlife.

The reduced population and winter quiet can bring a closer sense of community, as evidenced by McMurdo’s annual skua sorting event. To most, the word “skua” brings to mind the scavenger gull native to the Antarctic environment. But to McMurdo residents, it has a second meaning – thrift shopping. [See related article — Sorting it out: McMurdo residents find second-hand treasures while cleaning up station.]

Generally, before heading north, summer personnel deposit good quality, unwanted items (clothes, books, electronics, and other miscellaneous goods) in containers around station. These items are left for re-use by interested winter-overs or brand new personnel arriving in the spring.

People walk toward blue building.
Photo Credit: Deborah Zamd
McMurdo Station winter-overs follow rope lines in a simulated Condition 1 fire drill.

Like all second-hand goods, these need to be sorted and inspected before being put back into circulation. Re-useable items are set aside for public consumption, and those that are too far gone are earmarked for recycling. This all takes place during McMurdo’s annual Skua Sort. It serves as an excellent method for keeping down unnecessary waste on station, and is great way for winter-over community members to get to know each other.

Safety is also on everyone’s mind as the station transitions into winter. Taking advantage of the last period of substantial daylight, station personnel rehearsed important Condition 1 fire procedures. Condition 1 refers to whiteout weather conditions with zero visibility and high winds, which can occur anytime of the year but especially during the winter.

In the event of a fire under these circumstances, station residents follow rope lines laid between major buildings on station. These are placed by Search and Rescue personnel. The rope lines are essential when visibility is nonexistent and navigation impossible. Practicing these scenarios during calm weather during daylight is critical should they ever have to be implemented during a real emergency in the dead of the polar night.

Finally, March also marks the arrival of night itself in McMurdo. Stars began appearing in a breathtaking night sky, something many station personnel haven’t seen for many months. March 22 was the autumnal equinox, one of two times during the year when the hours of daylight and darkness in a 24-hour period are equally divided.

Every day since the equinox, we have seen greater and greater hours of stunning twilight and darkness. April will bring even deeper night, including the eventual appearance of the much-anticipated aurora australis, and the likely arrival of the first of several planned winter flights. 

February storms shove out sea ice, opening McMurdo Station region to wildlife

Winter is coming.

February is generally the traditional end of summer at McMurdo Station. The sun begins its steady transit below the horizon in earnest, as the summer population makes its way north to warmer climes and green fields. February also marks McMurdo’s transition from bustling science and logistics hub to quiet, winter town.

As the month drew to a close, the summer seemed poised to end the same way it began, with prolonged bouts of bad weather, biting cold and grounded flights. After a nearly flawless weather window for the Maersk Illinois’ cargo vessel operations,  fierce southerly winds blew in just as the fuel tanker Maersk Peary began offload operations.

Despite consistently high winds, blowing snow, and poor visibility throughout the McMurdo area, the Peary offloaded her valuable fuel without incident. The multi-day operation was a testament to the professionalism and hard work of the ship’s crew and McMurdo’s Fuels department.

Plane flies over mountains and sea.
Photo Credit: Travis Senor
The last C-17 for the 2014-15 season flies past McMurdo Sound.

The pleasant upshot of this poor weather was the disappearance of much of the sea ice in McMurdo Sound, and with it the late arrival of wildlife. After a big year for critters in 2013-2014, the 2014-2015 season seemed destined for a year mostly devoid of penguins and whales, with the winter residents to be frozen in with only themselves and the ubiquitous skua for company.

February’s storms changed all of that, as orca and minke whales, Weddell seals, and even a few Adélie penguins, made multiple appearances in McMurdo’s environs once the sea ice blew out. For first-timers and veterans alike, it was a welcome surprise to mark the close of a bustling summer season, and one of those moments of unadulterated natural wonder that reminds U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) participants why they keep coming back year after year.

Guests of the hominid variety also arrived on station, as the Spirit of Enderby, a New Zealand tourist vessel, made a visit to McMurdo. After calling at numerous points of historic and geographical significance in the Ross Sea area, the Spirit of Enderby landed its complement of awestruck guests and crew at McMurdo Station itself.

Several McMurdo residents volunteered their own time to lead special tours for the Enderby’s guests, enhancing what was likely already the trip of a lifetime. The volunteer guides provided a rare chance to see firsthand what it is like to live and work in the Antarctic, and highlighted the people and the scientific research that make up the USAP.

Speaking of scientific research, not all research goes completely quiet once the summer ends. While most science groups have closed up shop and headed home by late February, one grantee remained behind to operate an experiment through the polar winter.

Person works on computer.
Photo Credit: Elaine Hood/Antarctic Photo Library
Previous winter-over Weichun Fong monitors the LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) instrument located at Arrival Heights.

The University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences operates a LiDAR at Arrival Heights year-round. The instrument uses laser light to measure atmospheric temperature changes in the upper atmosphere to understand its physical and chemical properties.

Graduate student Jan Zhao will stay behind this year to run operations through the winter for a project led by principal investigator Xinzhao Chu. However, his winter will not be the same as it was for his predecessors – nor will it be for any of this year’s winterovers.

The National Science Foundation, which manages the USAP, plans to conduct multiple flights from Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo over the coming austral winter in April, June and July, as a proof-of-concept that the station can be supported and accessed year-round. Normally, flight operations cease between March and August except in emergency situations.

These winter flights are a critical element in a proposal still under development to rebuild much of McMurdo Station. Winter flights would help move people and cargo in future years to help modernize the station to support Antarctic research. In the short-term, from the winterover perspective, winter flights will also mean the continued delivery of mail and freshies.

Winter is coming – but in a different way.

Vessel arrivals dominate operations at McMurdo Station in January

January is crunch time at McMurdo Station, when science activities stretched across the continent reach a zenith – and just as rapidly wind down in anticipation of the upcoming winter.

January started with a brief break before the final push with the annual music festival known as IceStock, featuring about a dozen bands on an outdoor stage.

The big news out of the deep field came from a place on the other side of the Ross Ice Shelf from McMurdo Station, where a team of scientists and technicians drilled through about 740 meters of ice using a hot water drill. In the shallow ocean cavity at the so-called grounding zone – where ice and bedrock meet – scientists spied small fish and tiny amphipods.

[See related article — In the zone: WISSARD project penetrates Ross Ice Shelf and finds life on remote seafloor.]

The find represents the farthest south marine life has been found under an ice shelf. It also signifies the final field season for the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project. Two years ago, the same team penetrated a subglacial lake and found life on a much smaller scale – a rich diversity of microbial life inhabiting the lake soil and water.

Cranes move around on a ship.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Cargo vessel operations took about a week to complete.

Closer to McMurdo, an altogether different operation took place at the ocean surface. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Polar Star appeared mid-month to carve a channel through the sea ice to pave the way for a small parade of ships to reach the station’s ice pier.

The research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer was first up, picking up a couple of research teams for a two-month cruise that will eventually end in Hobart, Australia. Scientists are investigating ice extent and related glacial processes dating back to the Last Glacial Maximum when the ice sheet reached into the Ross Sea about 20,000 years ago.

The cargo ship Ocean Giant arrived Jan. 26 with supplies for McMurdo and South Pole stations for the upcoming year. The eight-day operation included unloading about seven million pounds of cargo and then loading a similar amount of waste, science samples and other materials destined for the United States.

The Ocean Giant departed Feb. 2, just in time for the tanker Maersk Peary to arrive Feb. 5 to unload five million gallons of fuel.

Fuel was on the mind of many in January. A field camp in West Antarctica, known as WAIS Divide, was running low on fuel most of the field season due to numerous flight delays from weather and mechanical problems. Finally, the backlog started to clear in January, as the New York Air National Guard was able to get LC-130s into the air.

Crowd gathers in front of outdoor stage.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
January started with the annual music festival known as IceStock.

That also helped South Pole Station, which relies on diesel generators to power its station facilities and experiments. More than half of its fuel this year came from overland traverse. Three tractor trains delivered more than 300,000 gallons of fuel to South Pole, covering about 3,000 miles in the process.

The decision to reopen Pegasus Airfield, which is used by wheeled aircraft that can carry more passengers and cargo than the LC-130s, also helped fueling and support operations at the South Pole and field camps. The ski-equipped LC-130s are now available to work on the continent, instead of being spread thin between Antarctica and New Zealand, carrying passengers north and south.

A mild summer meant little melt at the airfield, a marked contrast from the last two years when temperatures, sunny days and dirty snow conspired to create huge melt pools that caused an unscheduled shut down of Pegasus Airfield.

[See related article — No fly zone: Melt issues at airfield delay wheeled aircraft, shift airlift burden to LC-130s.]

The last summer flight is now scheduled for Feb. 28. 

Congressional delegation visits McMurdo just before Christmas holidays

A high-profile visit by 10 members of the U.S. House of Representatives proved to be the big highlight of December at McMurdo Station.

The congressional delegation, or CODEL, was led by Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House, Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which has jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation (NSF). Most of the visiting CODEL members are currently members of the committee. Astronaut John M. Grunsfeld, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, also accompanied the delegation.

Small crowd gathers in a hangar.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
William Jones, principal investigator for the SPIDER experiment, speaks with the Congressional delegation during a visit to the Long Duration Balloon facility near McMurdo Station.

The delegation arrived mid-month following a one-day weather delay, shortening an already brief five-day visit. The ski-equipped LC-130 arrived with the CODEL and staff on a snowy Wednesday afternoon.

The delegates immediately embarked on a whirlwind tour, despite the eight-hour plane ride, with a visit to the Long Duration Balloon (LDB) Facility, where telescopes are launched into the atmosphere aboard balloons for studies ranging from particle physics to astrophysics.

The next two days found the congressional members in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the penguin colony at Cape Royds, and eventually at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The delegates also took the opportunity to meet with constituents from their home states during a reception Thursday night in the McMurdo Station dining facility.

Saturday morning found the CODEL making a couple of last stops en route to the airfield including at the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center, the main lab facility at McMurdo.

Three people perform on stage for audience.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
A musical performance during the annual Waste Barn Christmas party.

Rep. Jerry McNerney from California lauded the work by the NSF and U.S. Antarctic Program in his blog External U.S. government site.

“Our nation should be very proud of the scientific work being conducted in Antarctica. I was extremely honored to have the opportunity to see it firsthand,” he wrote. “Many are concerned that other nations are gaining on us in scientific research and advancements, possibly putting our nation at risk. This is a legitimate concern, but when I see what the United States is doing in Antarctica, I feel confident in our continuing scientific and engineering leadership.”

Indeed, research continued at a brisk pace throughout December, with the successful launch of the ANITA III payload from LDB. ANITA III, an experiment designed to learn more about subatomic particles called neutrinos from high-energy events in the universe.

Weather delays on the ice shelf where the balloon facility is located lasted for about a week. Nearly windless conditions are required to launch the balloon-borne instruments.

People run up a hill.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Runners participate in the annual Ob Hill Up Hill race on a snowy Christmas morning.

Tolerances are less restrictive for flying aircraft to remote locations in Antarctica. Nevertheless, a number of weather delays have wreaked havoc on some science project schedules, particularly at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide field camp. The camp is low on fuel, with much work to be done still, including the dismantling of the ice drill platform that has been at the site for about a decade.

The Christmas holidays offered a break from the frenetic pace with a rare two-day weekend, though the gauntlet of good-cheer festivities itself can prove exhausting. Events included a holiday music extravaganza at the Waste Barn, Christmas Eve party at the Vehicle Maintenance Facility, a race up Observation Hill on Christmas Day, followed by a proper holiday feast by the station’s kitchen staff.

The station’s Christmas choir made the rounds at several events, including a special performance over high-frequency radio, singing carols that were heard by stations and field camps around Antarctica. Even ham radio operators in the Netherlands, Germany, Australia and the United States heard a part of the broadcast.

Finally, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus. The station received about 6,000 pounds of mail on Christmas Eve, and a few elves took the time early Christmas morning to sort and hand out boxes.