The Eagle has landed

The Eagle has landed (week 1 on the ice)

Arrival on the ice (September 30th): Nothing can really prepare you for getting off an airplane that just landed on a runway, made up of compacted snow and ice on the Ross ice shelf, the largest ice shelf of Antarctica. I imagine this is as close I will ever get to feeling like stepping of the lunar module Eagle. This runway is called Pegasus field, named after the C-121 that crashed there in October 1970. Not much time to hang around though. A quick picture with my ride (Picture 1) and we are loaded up onto Shuttle Bob’s very awesome large-wheeled personnel carrier (Picture 2) for the 60 min crawl past Scott Base (home of the Kiwis) into McMurdo. Upon arrival, we gather in the Galley, to the right of “highway one”, the main corridor of Building 155 (the Blue building in the center of McMurdo), for our initial briefing, basically an introduction to McMurdo, and to pick up the key to our dorm room (our team is in Building 203A). Next, to pick up our bags (all my luggage made it one piece, except my USAP-issued goggles, worries for later), and bed linen. My roommate (to be determined) hasn’t arrived yet so I get first choice of the bed (close to the window and the heater).

Day one in McMurdo (October 1st): I’m turning 42 today. My wife (Eva) and my mom (Lily) snuck birthday cards in one of my bags. Nice to have a little taste of home, but not much time to celebrate. Our first appointment of the day is at 7.30am for the brief-in with the Science and Technical Project Services (S&TPS) implementation management team in “the Chalet”, home to the local headquarters of the National Science foundation (NSF). After giving an impromptu introduction of our science project, we get to know a little bit more about how NSF can help us get our work done. From the Chalet, we dart (carefully, it is slippery!) to the galley in 155 for our 8am light vehicle training (best to adhere to the speed limit when driving big trucks on icy roads through a densely populated McMurdo in bad weather with severely limited visibility), we learn about general fire safety (from the Fire Chief for the entire continent; I spotted him later in a TB12 Jersey: Go Pats!!), and about waste and (single stream) recycling (over 60% of waste is recycled in McMurdo). From the galley, we go to the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center (CSEC), named after the first person to set foot on both the North and South Poles, for a lab safety briefing and a tour of our lab (Picture 3) and the entire Center.

Following lunch (we get served 3 elaborate meals per day in the galley), it’s time for our Antarctic field safety course by one of the Field Support and Training (FS&T) instructors in the Science support center (SSC, the building with the eyebrow). Topics include Antarctic survival skills and risk management (some graphic frost-bite pictures do the trick to remind us of the dangers of working outside in really cold weather; sorry Bostonians, last winter was nothing compared to what we have to deal with here), setting up camp on the ice, using a Whisperlite camping stove, tying a trucker’s hitch (I need more practice), info on helicopter safety, and an introduction to traveling on sea ice (we’ll get a more in depth practical course on how to profile cracks in the ice and how to interpret sea ice maps later this week). To finish the day, we head back to the lab to start unpacking our cargo (well, at least the part that made it to McMurdo).

Day two in McM (October 2nd). This morning we get to learn about the skidoos we will ride on the sea-ice. The supervisor of the Mechanical Equipment Center (MEC), patiently and skillfully teaches us which bolts to check before taking off, how to operate the snow machines, and how to fix them when they break down. I learned more about engines this morning than in the previous 42 years. Our afternoon is spent in the Berg Field Center (BFC) to sort through our equipment and supplies that we will need when we are out on the ice.

Day three in McM (October 3rd). Saturday is just another day in the 6-day workweek around these parts. Today I get to attend the sea ice course. I’m excited to venture out on the sea ice for the first time. But first, we learn how to use our GPS. Our FS&T instructor sends us on a pre-loaded navigation exercise through town. A GPS only works after you disable simulation mode; lesson learned! I’m also glad that I am wearing my ECW gear, that we are required to wear for the sea ice course; my colleague, Allyson, who is already a sea ice expert (this is her 6th deployment) and does not need to take the course again, seems cold in her regular gear. Wind chill temperatures are expected to dip in to the negative 40s (doesn’t really matter whether we are talking Celsius or Fahrenheit anymore…it is expletive cold).

Going onto the sea ice takes preparation, beyond wearing ECW gear. We fill the Hägglunds (a cube-like tracked, articulated, all-terrain carrier originally developed for the Swedish army, Picture 4) with survival bags, our lunch bags, and sea ice drills. After a 30 min drive down to the ice, we stop to profile “Big John”, one of the larger recurring cracks in the sea ice. Sea ice cracks form as a consequence of the tides or because the 6-foot thick sea ice collides with the 200ft thick Ross Ice Shelf, often in the vicinity of an island (e.g. the Tent-Erebus Glacier Tongue or Tent-EGT crack forms every year between Tent island and the Erebus Glacier Tongue). The sea ice on either side of Big John is upwards of 2 meters thick but our drilling and measuring reveals a more complicated pattern including a stretch of ice less than 1 meter thick. No worries because, this time of the year, when the ice is at its strongest, Hägglunds require a mere 38 cm to cross safely, and a snowmobile, which will be our main means of transportation, only needs 13 cm. Our FS&T instructor also teaches us how to use the ice to our advantage to create an anchor (e.g. for a tent) by making a V-cut using a long ice-screw (again, I need more practice).

Tomorrow, most of the work centers on base have the day off (as do we), so we are allowed to bring a bottle of wine to the galley for dinner. After dinner and a late work visit to our colleagues of B-009 (a friendly group of scientists who collect Weddell seal census data; we will count on them to help us identify study subjects), we head to the bar (Gallagher’s) to have drinks with some new friends. Getting there and, later that evening, getting back to the dorms, was complicated a bit by Condition 2 (Con2) weather (high winds with speeds up to 55 knots, low visibility and extremely low temps). It could be worse. Pegasus airfield is at Condition 1. Con1 in town would require everyone to stay where they are with only mission critical travel permitted.

October 5th: More training (a 30 min Environmental field brief in CSEC) and more bad weather. Blizzard conditions are preventing flights originating from Christchurch with more people (including the rest of our team) and cargo to come in. Allyson and I take advantage of the delay to deal with a controlled substance mix-up (the science support staff helped us fix the problem), to get our iridium satellite phone (a back-up means of communication for our VHF radios), to continue to set up the lab, and to drive gear from the BFC to our fish hut (#6). The fish hut is a small wooden structure, that will be pulled to a spot to be determined on the sea ice and that we can use as temporary shelter to spend the night/eat lunch/do some basic experiments while we are working on the ice. We’ll be visiting our hut plenty more times over the next few days to stock up on food (which we get from the BFC food room in the cargo warehouse, basically a stop and shop, but no need to pay at the register when you leave with boxes full of goodies), fuel (and berms to prevent spills), a generator, and some basic lab equipment (e.g. a centrifuge).

October 6th: Still no flights, so more of the same. Today, we bring sledges and survival bags to our skidoos, located just around the corner from the water treatment plant and a short stroll away from the helipad. Luckily, we can “rent” a pick-up truck from the SSC to make all our deliveries (Picture 5). Like everything else in this town, picking up the truck requires more than what I am used to back home. Before taking the truck out, we need to pop the hood and check fluids and belts. We detach the power cord to the engine (to keep it warm), look for spills, remove the chock (always chock a wheel in McMurdo!), and make a note in the logbook of miles and hours driven. The trucks in McMurdo do not have a handbrake; instead they have a mico-break that takes a little bit getting used to. I kind of miss my car.

October 7th: Even though the first week flew by, Allyson and I are looking forward to the rest of our crew (Kaitlin and Luis) and cargo to arrive so we can finally do what we came here to do (they are expected to arrive tomorrow). If anything, the first week on base was a humbling experience. It is simply mind-blowing to see how much effort and resources are being spent too ensure that we, as scientists, can do our job (did I mention before that science is cool?). Not only is the fact that a place like this was constructed this far south amazing; hundreds of supporting staff (in the galley, science support center, carpentry shop, communications, electrical, fire, medical, aviation, cargo, etc) left everything behind to come work in one of the harshest and uninhabitable places on our planet. Pressure is on to make this worth everyone’s hard work!

To end the week, we take advantage of a break in the weather to witness an incredible sunset. The days are getting longer by ~20 min every day now. Soon, on October 24, the sun will no longer set. Even now, we get only an hour or two of nautical twilight. From Observation hill (Ob hill), we have a great view of McMurdo (Picture 6). It is a perfect vantage point to watch the sun set behind Mount Discovery on the other side of McMurdo sound (Picture 7).

Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram and Twitter.