A Season in Antarctica

John Pollack
May 01, 2002

McMURDO STATION, Antarctica—

On the sea ice just off Ross Island, where massive C-130s land on a frozen runway staked out with hundreds of quivering bamboo poles, the wind is gusting so hard that civilization—on a hillside only three miles away—is lost in blowing snow.

brown building among snow and mountains
Don Voigt

The Royal Society Range dwarfs Hut Point, and Scott's 1902 hut.

Of course, civilization here is a relative term. Although McMurdo Station is the largest research base in Antarctica, it is little more than a speck on a continent nearly as big as North America; a human beachhead that clings tenaciously to the rough, volcanic scree at the foot of Mt. Erebus, some 2000 miles south of New Zealand. At first glance, McMurdo looks something like a small, hardscrabble mining town; a gritty place of monster trucks, heavy equipment and utilitarian buildings that boast heavy freezer doors to keep the cold—not in—but out.

It is also a place where, during four months of constant daylight, nearly a thousand researchers and support staff race against the clock and the elements to unlock some of our planet's deepest and most important scientific mysteries.

In a nutshell, the trans-Antarctic Mountains are the only major mountain range in the world not caused by the collision of two plates, and the question is: why? We intend to find out, in part by laying an array of 42 seismometers in the mountains and on the polar plateau. By interpreting the seismic waves that these sensors detect, we hope to better understand how these mountains formed, and why the tectonic plate here—punctuated by the mountains—appears to be stretching.

These may seem like big questions to be asking in the midst of a howling blizzard, but that's the nature of fieldwork in Antarctica. So out at the Ice Runway, we hunker down in our relatively cozy Jamesway—a fabric Quonset hut with a plywood floor—and prepare our equipment for deployment. This involves calibrating the seismometers, programming the computers that monitor and record data, and assembling the solar panels that will power them in the field during the fleeting Austral summer.

The days are long and the workload heavy, but there is a spirit of camaraderie among us, as 40-knot gusts—racing off glaciers and across miles of unobstructed sea ice—thump the Jamesway like a drum and blow fine, powdery snow through every crack. This is an adventure, and we all feel fortunate to be here, even if the Jamesway is a little drafty.

Like every other structure out at the Ice Runway, our canvas workshop is temporary, and looks it. Come December, before the ice starts to break up underfoot, our Jamesway and the industrial trailers that flank it will be hauled to safety on thicker, more permanent ice. Nearly every trailer at the runway, even the fire station and the two-story control tower, rests on giant skids. And the planes? They will shift operations to Willy Field, up on the Ross Ice Shelf.

There is a sense of urgency on the team. Not because we feel any danger—the ice beneath us is 15 feet thick—but because time is short, and we cannot afford equipment failure in the field. Every electrical splice, every bolt, every battery, every circuit board and solar panel must be checked and rechecked before we head into the field. Antarctica—where even summer temperatures can drop to 40 below—is an unforgiving place. It sometimes gets so cold that even plastic Frisbees shatter on impact.

Members of our team can attest to such rigors of the field. A few years ago, Penn State Senior Research Assistant Don Voigt was dropped off on the polar plateau by a ski-equipped C-130. Like the castaways on Gilligan's Island who had set sail aboard the S.S. Minnow expecting a three-hour tour, Voigt (although considerably more intelligent) also expected to be away for an afternoon.

snow covered mountain range
Don Voigt

Webb Icefall at McSaveney Spur, taken from a Twin Otter.

But suddenly, the weather started getting rough. Despite Voigt's valiant efforts with a radio, the plane's pilot couldn't find the field party in the blowing snow, and was forced back to base. Stranded, Voigt and a partner unpacked the survival gear that every field party carries. They set up their tent, cooked some food and crawled into sleeping bags for the night. "They were survival bags, designed to keep you alive, not comfortable," he said. "We were there for five days."

And that's not so unusual. If you talk with some of the old hands in the dining hall—known here as the Galley, from the days when the Navy ran McMurdo—they'll tell you of fierce blizzards that confined them to tents for 10 days at a time, and think nothing of it. In fact, during Condition 1 blizzards, when visibility is zero, ropes are sometimes strung between the major buildings at McMurdo so that essential staff (the rest are confined to quarters) can feel their way to safety.

Such unpredictable weather is the reason why all new arrivals scheduled to work in the field must first attend a two-day "Snow School," up on the Ross Ice Shelf. Many graduates describe it as the highlight of their trip to the ice. Instead of taking a yellow school bus to class, students pile into a Nodwell—a leviathan orange truck with twin tank treads that rumbles across the snow with little grace but certain authority.

During this cold weather camping trip, instructors teach students basic polar survival skills, including how to dress properly for extreme conditions, how to set up tents in heavy wind, how to cut blocks of snow for constructing emergency shelters, how to search for teammates lost in a blizzard, and how to operate the small stoves that are essential for hot food, and potentially life itself.

For Rigobert Tibi, a post-Doc at Washington University in St. Louis and a native of Cameroon, snow camping was a radical experience. "I learned that you can sleep on ice, and actually be hot," he said, praising the hefty sleeping bag he was issued. "I never thought this possible. It was great."

Such extremes also constitute the sort of challenge that has been drawing explorers and adventurers to Antarctica for more than a century now. More than 70 years ago, Dr. Laurence Gould—a pioneer of the U.S. Antarctic Program and second-in-command of Admiral Richard Byrd's 1929 South Pole expedition—embarked on a 1500 mile dogsled journey from Little America, on the Ross Sea, to the Queen Maud Mountains and back.

"Anybody who doesn't think this is hard work is mistaken," Gould said, describing months of travel across snowfields, glaciers and crevasses. "But anybody who doesn't love to do it shouldn't go on an expedition."

Last Updated May 01, 2002