CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — We’ve left “the Ice” — as the locals call Antarctica — but before we head back to the States I wanted to mention some things we didn’t get around to writing about, share some reader experiences and, yes, reflect on our experience.
So I’ll get the last out of the way first: A question that kept popping up in my mind while there was whether we, or anyone, should be on the continent that’s least impacted by humans.
A part of me, especially when noticing the human infrastructure and even the tourism, said we should leave it alone.
But a bigger part of me is now convinced that some presence is needed. For example, Antarctica is by far the best place on Earth for finding meteorites. And its winter darkness offers a long season for astronomers and their telescopes to learn about the origin of the universe.
It’s not cheap. The National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program budget is $330 million a year. But seeking Martian rocks and dark energy from here is a lot cheaper than doing it in space.
More important, at least in my mind, is that what happens in Antarctica is critical to what happens along every coastline of every other continent.
Think about it: Antarctica is larger than the United States, and 98 percent of it is covered in frozen water, some of it 3 miles thick! Melt it all (not likely) and sea levels rise more than 200 feet! Melt even a bit (quite possible in centuries, possibly decades), and you’ve still got 1, 2 or more feet of rising oceans – more than enough to swamp coastal areas like Florida and New Orleans, just to mention some U.S. locations.
It’s proven that the continent has gone through melting periods before (and 65 million years ago it was subtropical!), but scientists are concerned that humans might be accelerating the natural cycle with our fossil fuel emissions.
Oh, yeah, a major melt could also impact marine life and the ocean currents and conveyor belt system that drives weather conditions around the world.
We'll report back in mid-January with more about the ice and global warming. Thanks for reading the dispatches!
• Odds and ends
- Airfields on ice. McMurdo has three airfields, all of which are on ice floating on water. Most structures are on sledges for easy moving. Williams Field is the busiest on the continent, as it services the South Pole and construction there. Instead of terminals it has “Willy Town,” a few rows of containers for workers, as well as a food galley and chef. Williams sits on 285 feet of snow and ice, below which is 1,800 feet of water.
- Cell phones. Besides the lack of any children on Antarctica, the other obvious “missing link” to civilization is the cell phone. They don’t work out here, so instead pagers are issued to key staff. McMurdo also has a landline phone system, and anyone with a calling card (inexpensive) can dial out. Incoming calls, on the other hand, are restricted to business and emergency use.
- ATMs. McMurdo has two, and they’re “no fee” regardless of your bank! One was down the week we were there, but I used the other one just fine — only to see the “out of operation” warning come up afterwards! Sorry…
- Jacket jam. Folks often wear NSF-issued red jackets, and mealtime is no exception. Three rooms with hooks offer a place to hang them, but it’s easy to lose your jacket, even with your name on it, among the sea of red. By the way, the heavier red parka costs the NSF about $190 each, and a dozen or so vanish each year – presumably taken by souvenir hunters. Everyone is issued jackets as well as other cold gear valued at $900 — and all of which is supposed to be returned on leaving. The jackets and “bunny boots” — ugly, white rubber boots valued at $136 — were our favorites in the coldest weather.
- R&R perks. Videos, musical instruments, skis, snowboards, bikes, other rec gear and even party costumes can be borrowed — for free.
- Freezer architecture. Given the need for tight insulation, most structures have freezer doors — and the types represent the technological evolution of six decades.
- Winter season. While the summer season is the busiest, with up to 1,400 at McMurdo and South Pole (not to mention smaller bases run by the U.S. and others), there is a winter season. During the coming winter McMurdo will house around 150, and the South Pole around three dozen or four dozen.
- Ice mirages. You might have heard that Antarctica is actually a desert — well, it also has mirages! We first noticed when driving on an open ice shelf and saw mountains in the distance with their base somewhat disjointed.
• Readers’ recollections
Finally, a few words from some of our readers. No rants or raves here (we got plenty, but I’m sure folks can divine what they’d sound like!). Instead click for some observations as well as personal experiences of others who have spent time on "the Ice."
• MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica
Dec. 7, 2006 | 5:30 a.m. ET
OK, everyone who wants to work here raise your hand! I can already tell that some hands shoot straight up, while others are a bit hesitant — so lemme give you the lowdown.
Scientists get to Antarctica via the U.S. National Science Foundation or other governments and their bases, while Air Force and Air Guard servicemen fly in on supply missions.
But for most people, the best chance to spend some quality time in Antarctica is to work in support, from cleaning toilets to flying helicopters.
How stiff is the competition? The kitchen staff alone includes several Ph.D.s.
“We have the most educated dining staff in the world,” says Cori Manka, a human resources specialist.
That is not to say these are Ph.D.s in their 50s. For the most part the staff is young, and turnover is high from one summer season to the next.
One should also realize that almost all support jobs are at McMurdo Station — and you won’t get much past the base. No trips to the South Pole or science expeditions on snowmobiles.
And these are seasonal jobs, typically running from August to February, or a bit shorter in some cases.
The biggest chunk of jobs are in the kitchen or in janitorial.
Expect to work 54-hour weeks with no overtime pay — yup, that’s in the contract.
Human Resources supervisor Gregg Blake won’t get specific on pay, but says it is “competitive” with jobs on the mainland. I had a hard time prying out numbers from folks, but my sense was that pay runs from $300 to $1,500 a week.
Yeah, it’s not great, but work here does include room and board. The latter’s pretty good and all you can eat, the former could use improvement.
The benefits include being flown here via New Zealand, an otherwise0expensive destination from which to begin a travel journey.
That is what drew people like Sant Mukhh Khalsa and Avi Edelson. Both are 25 and college-educated dishwashers.
The pair applied together and got the sense that couples are encouraged since it provides some stable relationships in a community of many single adults. (By the way, you won’t see any children here).
Couples get their own room, whereas singles might have to share with three others. Because of that, Avi says of Sant, “she’s my best-ever roommate.”
The downside is that couples’ rooms are the smallest. “We can’t put our coats on at the same time,” Sant says.
Sant will not come back next year, and Avi is on the fence.
They say they will stick through the summer, but every year a few can’t take it and quit.
Health issues can also be a factor. One employee e-mailed me with a complaint that he’s in limbo, not allowed to work or receive pay while doctors at Raytheon, the NSF’s contractor, decide if he can return to work. Who pays for his treatment has also become an issue.
“I had hoped to become a dedicated Raytheon employee and return for many years to come, but I have discovered I am just a disposable cog in the big bureaucratic wheel,” he writes. “All I wanted to do was work and support my children, now it looks like all I have gained is more debt and unemployment.”
A few continue to come back, though nostalgia for “the old days” is strong.
Kevin Fields is a veteran, first coming to McMurdo in 1980. He describes the station then as “much more out there … off the face of the Earth” since communication with the States was difficult.
Now, he says, “people can manage the place from 10,000 miles away.”
So, still interested in a job? If so, head over to Raytheon:
• MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica
Dec. 6, 2006 | 4:30 a.m. ET
We didn’t make it to a penguin colony as hoped, but we did make like penguins and head to the ice-covered sound just off McMurdo Station. How could we pass up an offer to watch divers slip down a 17-foot ice hole and into the 28-degree-Fahrenheit seawater? Their mission: scoop up Gromia, the largest single-cell organisms in the ocean.
“These are the elephants of the single-cell world,” project leader Sam Bowser says at the surface as two divers use a small vacuum on the sea floor about 65 feet below the ice.
He’s been studying these and related organisms for 20 years, and laments that even so, very little is still known about them — including who in the food chain eats them.
His fellow divers — Henry Kaiser, David Hung and Sean Harper — signed up for the summer dive season because of the views below: octopus, sea spiders, starfish, scallops, shrimp and plenty of small fish.
The sea ice is thick, blocking light, so the divers use flashlights to see 200 to 300 feet ahead. “Better than my swimming pool, that’s for sure,” Bowser says of the visibility.
Kaiser, who’s been diving around the world, says Antarctica is his favorite spot. Harper, a marine biology grad student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, has seen more diversity here than in Alaska’s arctic waters.
Bowser says ice diving has gotten a lot safer in 20 years. Breathing regulators worn by ice divers had a 30 percent failure rate back then, he says, but now it’s less than 1 percent.
Other under-the-ice projects at McMurdo include a remote-controlled video camera built by high school students Ryan Garner and Amanda Wilson for the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Bowser’s two-year, $360,000 project is funded by the National Science Foundation, and while Bowser jokes about how little is known, like many others here he has plenty of passion.
A researcher with the Wadsworth Center at the New York State Department of Health, he likes to impress schoolchildren back home with how large these single-cell organisms are.
“If your body cells are the size of that,” he says of Gromia, “ho, ho, ho, you’re the Jolly Green Giant.”
Exactly how big would that human blob be? He has the answer: “The size of Montana.”
Some reader clarification/corrections regarding Monday’s waste dispatch:
- I stated the power plant has “new equipment” when I should have said newer. The “–er” error prompted this e-mail: “What new equipment? The diesel engines that are online in the power plant have been in service since the early 80s. One of them burns 16-20 gallons of oil in a 24-hour period.”
- Re: Recycling. I stated it made an $80,000 profit, when I should have said savings. Waste operations manager Mark Furnish writes: “We do not make a profit on our waste, we defer some $80,000 from disposal costs through recycling. We still spend over $800,000 on waste disposal (hazardous and solid).” He adds: “We do not thaw the food waste in Port Hueneme (Calif.), it goes straight to an incinerator, kept frozen in refrigerated cargo units.”
• SOUTH POLE, Antarctica
Dec. 5, 2006 | 2:30 p.m. ET
Santa might want to pack his bags and switch poles. A very cozy science colony is rising on this enormous desert of ice. It lacks a fireplace, but it does have great food, an impressive gym and indoor basketball court, and about 250 helpers — though the ones here are scientists, staff and construction crews, working two shifts 24 hours a day to maximize the short but sunset-free summer season.
What’s most remarkable about the project is just how remote it is. Our three-hour flight from McMurdo Station took us over the Ross Ice Shelf — which is the size of Texas — and along part of the Transantarctic Mountains, which stretch along 2,500 miles. (Both the shelf and the mountains are key players when it comes to sea levels; more about that in January, when we present our global warming package.)
Photojournalist John Brecher and I flew in on one of the 372 flights planned for this three-month season. Landing on skis instead of wheels, Air Force LC-130 transport planes bring in pieces of the puzzle on several flights a day — ranging from the steel beams for a $25 million, 600,000-pound telescope, to the staple foods that keep people fueled.
Colony construction started in 1997 and won’t finish until 2009 or 2010, says Jerry Marty, the station manager and an employee of the National Science Foundation, the U.S. government agency that runs the place.
The buildings are all atop the vast ice sheet covering Antarctica, and that’s moving — about 30 feet a year. So the colony is built to go with the flow, literally, and not collapse or get buried by snowdrifts in the process.
Its current estimated cost is $160 million, Marty says, but that could change, given how long and hard the work is.
Andy Martinez, one of the engineers putting the colony together, calls it “a logistics nightmare,” in part because ordering pieces can be a four-year process. The plant runs on jet fuel since it has to be brought in via the LC-130s, and that costs about $15 a gallon, Martinez adds.
Other issues include the fact that the pole is at 9,300 feet above sea level, which means it's easy to to lose your energy and your breath quickly.
Weather is obviously also a factor, but on this day we had it relatively easy. Some summer days are 50 below zero Fahrenheit, but today was sunny and only 25 below, with a wind chill factor of 44 below. Even so, that wind chill made for frosty ears (mine) and fingers (John) when we spent a half-hour outside taping video for the warming project!
The South Pole’s science sectors
Our goal here was to visit the lab that maintains the world’s longest continuous record of emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas tied to global warming. Lab staff members Andrew Seaman and Emrys Hall say they get to work amid the cleanest air in the world — kept that way by the fact the lab is located upwind from the rest of the colony and its carbon emissions. That also means no barbecues on the deck of their two-story pad.
This area is known as the “clean air sector.” The colony also has a “quiet” sector for seismology studies and a “dark” sector for astronomy. That last sector includes the site for the $25 million telescope, which by February should be ready to begin its investigation into the nature of dark energy, which scientists feel is behind the accelerating expansion of the universe.
The project sounds expensive, but it turns out to be a whole lot cheaper than launching a space telescope to get what should be similar results.
All this construction, from the planes to the tractors, certainly has an environmental impact. Occasional diesel and jet fuel plumes make that clear. The scientists here — and at McMurdo, for that matter — see it as well, but they note that most of Antarctica really is a desert, with no known life forms at the pole.
They say the research is justified in the name of understanding and protecting the wider planet. Whether that’s the right call is something society at large decides via its representatives in government. And Marty does say that solar and wind power projects are being considered.
So far, U.S. government funding has favored expansion of the South Pole Station, which Marty estimates will have a $5 million annual budget to start its 40-year lifespan.
Past bases fade away
Times have certainly changed. The first shack built 50 years ago is now lost under the snow. The famous silver Dome will be torn down and shipped out, replaced by the main two-story building, whose footprint is about the size of a large supermarket.
Marty and Martinez are veterans, both having lived in the austere and rather gloomy Dome, which is an unheated bubble structure that protected dorms, labs, a dining hall and a power plant for 30 years.
Some vets who have spent winters here are part of a culture that includes “The 300 Club” — basically sitting in a sauna at 200 degrees F and then running a quarter-mile to the geographic South Pole when it’s 100 below zero. Oh yeah, you have to be naked (except for boots and face mask), and you have to roll around in the snow.
Martinez joined in 2002, when the run was still done from the Dome and up what’s known as “Heart Attack Hill,” a short but steep incline. “You could hear your skin crack when you bent your joints afterwards,” he recalls.
The South Pole diet
Life here also means eating lots to keep up energy levels. One worker talked about consuming three times more here than back in the States, and yet having lost 5 pounds in the process this summer. It helps that the food, given where it’s prepared, is incredible.
And as big as it is, the colony does have a crowded feel, especially at mealtime. A “summer camp” houses 100 people in tents originally used as MASH medical units. Once construction is over, the population should settle down to 150 — with 60 of those being scientists and the rest support staff.
But even when the colony's workforce declines, there is another population wrinkle: tourists. Yup, they do show up every so often by skis, small planes and even diesel vans as part of $30,000 adventure travel trips.
While tourists do get a tour and can shop at the station store (and use the toilets, if they're polite!), they are not allowed to sleep inside or shower, and they must pitch a tent if they intend to stay over.
The station has enough to deal with, Marty emphasizes. “We’re not supporting them as well.”
• MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica
Dec. 4, 2006 | 5:35 a.m. ET
Since we arrived here in Antarctica, I’ve been hearing a bit of good-natured crap from some of the locals — and now I can say we have also seen it! In our quest to find out what really makes McMurdo Station run, photojournalist John Brecher and I took a tour of the waste water treatment plant, a building situated below the rest of the U.S. station (yes, the stuff really does flow downhill here).
Until 2003, when the $5 million plant was built, “sewage went right into the bay,” says Cindy Dean, the environmental and compliance coordinator here. Divers who have been below the frozen ice have seen and videotaped sewage and other debris, vehicles included, that were dumped there for years.
All the toilet, kitchen and shower liquids now snake through McMurdo in above ground pipes and are greeted at the plant by two “muffin monsters” — think chocolate muffins — that tenderize thicker objects.
Manager Rick Moore single-handedly — OK, not with his hands but with lots of machines — treats the waste water.
He is hoping that we will dispel the myth that the plant stinks — and he is right: While it has a scent, it is more like a garden nursery. He also likes to look on the bright side of his job, such as the fact that corn passes right through the body and into his ponds. “It makes for a colorful day,” he says.
Other environmental practices include strict procedures at sensitive sites off station: Pee bottles (users are reminded not to abandon them in sleeping kits after the season or they might leak over time) as well as poop bags that go into drums.
It is all part of “managing your personal wastes,” Cindy tells a group about to go out into the field. There is a loophole, however. If waste cannot be contained, one may fill out a “record of practicality.”
McMurdo is also big on recycling. If you think sorting at home can be tricky, add these bins to the mix: “burnables” and food waste. Those make you wonder where to put tea bags, among other things. (The tea bag answer: Either bin works).
James VanMatre, whose e-mail motto is “waste time, all the time,” runs that end of the waste business with a staff of 14. They are inside an old Navy building dubbed “The Rusty Elephant” because of its wrinkly (and moldy) outside shell.
Each week, they process 78,000 pounds of waste — two-thirds of which is recycled, including 100 percent of all plastic. Most is from McMurdo, the rest from the U.S. station at the South Pole.
‘Smells like hot dogs’
For some unknown reason, the South Pole waste “smells like hot dogs,” says James, who adds that he made his way up after starting years ago as janitor. “They groomed me,” he says of his bosses.
All the waste is sorted, stored and eventually fills 400 containers on the one ship sent at the end of each summer season. The food waste is shipped as frozen storage for health reasons, and then thawed at a warehouse when the ship arrives in California. That part gets expensive, but overall the recyclables are sold and net an $80,000 profit.
I would have to say the highlight of our day was visiting the “Cake Room” at the water treatment plant. That is where the end product, a.k.a. human fertilizer, is boxed and stored. Who would have thought that something so bowel could be beautiful? Little plants were literally growing in the compost. Rick knew exactly the source: the seeds from the tomatoes and cucumbers served in The Galley dining hall.
As entertaining as that was, this story does have an unhappy ending: All that human waste — packed in several dozen 3,000-pound boxes — is shipped at the end of each southern summer back to the States.
That’s a good thing, better there than on Antarctica. But the final destination, Washington state, happens to be where we live. Yup, all the crap we’ve seen here is gonna follow us back home.
- While 98 percent of Antarctica is covered in ice, McMurdo is actually pretty dusty this time of year. The relatively warm summer weather exposes rock, some of which gets ground up in the maintenance of roads and then kicked around by the wind.
- Genders are not in balance (two guys for every gal), but it is a heck of a lot closer to parity than 40 years ago when it was hundreds of Navy sailors and a handful of women.
- The Navy operated a nuclear power plant here from 1962 to 1972. Power is now generated by diesel — not the cleanest fuel, but new equipment has improved emissions.
• MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica
Dec. 3, 2006 | 4:15 a.m. ET
Men in skirts and rugby on ice — granted, not your run-of-the-mill activities. But here at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. base on Antarctica, those are part of the master plan to recreate — as in kick back after a long day or week using whatever you’ve got.
Other opportunities for the 1,100 people here this summer include yoga (sometimes in the chapel), indoor rock climbing, cross-country skiing on part of the Ross Ice Shelf, snowboarding (after first trudging up a hill), the “gerbil gym,” and the southernmost bowling alley in the world — dating from 1961, no less.
McMurdo has built this recreational infrastructure out of necessity: While scientists have access to parts of the wider continent, the support staff who spend months at a time here are not allowed to wander far — just a bit along the coast and ice shelf, and to the store and bar at nearby Scott Base, run by New Zealand.
McMurdo’s seven-person rec office (which, by the way, also runs the three bars here) plans free activities for each day. Sunday is the busiest day, as it is the one where most folks have a full day off.
Choices range from movies to scientific lectures to live music and local outings; the latter is a crowd pleaser.
“Everyone loves to get out of town and see what Antarctica’s about,” says staffer Erin Popelka, adding that a favorite organized outing is to a hut built in 1910 by explorer Robert F. Scott and his expedition.
There is also some delicate timing. Fridays are big party days among individual groups, says Sean Corkery, another rec staffer. But Saturdays are about structured events so as to keep the individual partying from getting out of hand.
On this Saturday, McMurdo helped organize a “skirt party” at Scott Base, requiring all men to dress appropriately for the occasion — echoing the days when all-male exploration teams would entertain themselves by cross-dressing and dancing.
Scientists and support staff, men and women, bounced to hip-hop and pop — interrupted only by a very hairy, scary beauty pageant.
The U.S.-New Zealand ties go beyond partying and include rugby games on the ice and a championship toward the end of each summer season. New Zealand almost always wins, but that doesn’t stop 20 or so Americans training hard — even when the wind picks up, sending temperatures plummeting.
The oldest, organized recreation at McMurdo appears to be the bowling alley, which some call Flintstone Lanes due to the rickety, warped, wood floors. All two lanes are hand operated — that means two people behind the pins manually reset them.
The alley is a popular place to rent for parties, and there’s even a bowling league. But don’t expect to have improved your game once you leave Antarctica, says Kevin Field, a regular who helps out behind the pins occasionally. “Once you’ve bowled here,” he says of the wacky lanes and leaky roof, “it’s hard to go back to the real world.”
• MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica
Dec. 2, 2006 | 3:10 a.m. ET
The hearts, souls and stomachs of the 1,100 scientists and support staff here get their fill at each meal at The Galley, the only dining hall at McMurdo.
Not that competition is needed — the food is great, catering to carnivores and vegetarians alike, and tempting all with incredible bread and desserts.
On top of that, there’s no cashier — it’s all included in the price of admission to the U.S. station, a cost covered by the National Science Foundation.
But it’s not just the food that brings people together. This is also the main social hub, where folks plan their day or catch up. Long shifts are the norm at McMurdo, and so too is a break to recharge over vital vittles.
It’s always all-you-can-eat, and tonight is the weekly Italian buffet, which includes beef, chicken and cheese pasta dishes as well as focaccia bread. For Italian night, you’re even allowed to bring in your own wine and/or beer. That you have to pay for yourself, but the general store around the corner has a sizable supply of both, and the cost isn’t outrageous.
Grilled cheese sandwiches and hamburgers are also regular menu items, part of the strategy for keeping spirits up.
“Morale is big around here,” says executive chef Sally Ayotte, “and of course food is morale.”
Thanksgivings and Christmases are especially sensitive times here — “people definitely get a little on edge,” says Ayotte — so The Galley puts on big dinners then. This Thanksgiving, the staff welcomed anyone who wanted to help prepare the feast, which included 1,200 pounds of turkey and 400 pounds of roast beef. Christmas will feature duck, lobster, tenderloin and white linens.
Produce is flown in weekly from New Zealand, but all the frozen, dried and canned goods come in the single supply ship that arrives before the start of each season. That includes 70,000 pounds of beef and 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of poultry gobbled up in the main summer season and during a winter season housing 100 to 200 people.
Considering the logistics of bringing food in, it’s all done on the cheap: $7.90 per person each day. Compare that, Ayotte says, to the $12 cost at the private oil fields in Alaska’s Arctic.
Ayotte, who’s in her 11th season here, would love to have a bigger budget, but for now she makes do with a special ingredient. “There’s love in the food here,” she says of the passion she and her staff put into each meal.
• Greenhouse on the hill
That dedication extends to McMurdo’s greenhouse on the hill — an unsightly, boarded-up shack that magically turns into a feast for the eyes on entering. Started by volunteers in the 1980s, the greenhouse is now funded by The Galley, which pays for “production chef” Brent Salazar — who’s normally a University of Arizona student of controlled environmental agriculture — to tend the rows of tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, lettuce and other veggies.
At one time, the greenhouse was sunlit, but it was so energy-inefficient in winter that it was sealed in and now operates under lights. In addition, the international Antarctica Treaty bars soil from being brought to the continent, so all plants are grown in trays and fed mineral nutrients.
Given its small size, the greenhouse can only supply a fraction of what’s consumed here, but its value is far beyond pure consumption. Ayotte sees it when folks organizing special events specifically ask for the colorful chard, lettuce and edible flowers to cheer things up.
Salazar sees it in the visits to his refuge — from scientists longing for herb smells after days on the ice, to support staff hanging out in the hammocks here and surrounded by the only green for hundreds of miles.
People even bring their meals and a bottle of wine. “I love it,” Salazar says, “It tells me I’m doing a good job.”
• Winding down on the whine
I didn’t get to my reader feedback mailbox until this morning and, while I’d hoped to move beyond the hassles described in our first dispatch, I figured I’d better deal with this one more time, given e-mails like these:
“Do we need to call a WAAAHmbulance for you? … We all go through the same thing to come down here every season.” “Your eyelids will freeze shut with all this crying.” “What did you expect, a first-class ride on Virgin Antarctic?” “You have an opportunity to travel to one of the last truly adventurous places on Earth and all you can do is complain.” “I have worked here in the Antarctic for 14 years now. I leave behind this season a 3-year-old son and my lovely wife. Your article is a smack in the face of everyone of use that serves this nation in our capacities here. You do not deserve to be here!!! … There are many whom suffer through much more than your minor inconveniences.”
So it’s either elaborate here, wear a disguise around McMurdo for my own protection, or possibly face exile on the Ross Ice Shelf!
To those readers pointing out the suffering that real explorers have gone through here, all I can say is that I’d never compare my experience to theirs.
To all who felt I was dissing their work and the enormous logistical effort to make Antarctic research happen, I’m sorry. And, honestly, I was kidding about the lack of videoscreens on the C-17!
The point of that dispatch was to show readers that getting here is no easy task, i.e., hardly a junket, which is what I often hear when I’m off on a working trip. (By the way, these daily dispatches are not the core of our reporting. They’re just reflections as we gather information and interview scientists for our larger climate change package in January.)
I’ll admit I didn’t stress that the bureaucracy — from the tests to the clothing — is for one’s own safety and that the computer screening is to protect vital research from viruses and hacking. But consider the fact that I was writing late at night, just after completing the journey to get here. Would the tone have been different if I’d been writing the next day after a night’s sleep? Probably.
So can we let bygones be bygones and just get along????? If not, anyone have a disguise I can borrow? I forgot to bring one with me.
And by the way, this will be the last post on this. Enough about me ... I’d rather spend my limited time here getting to know folks than being enclosed in a room responding to e-mails.
• ATOP THE ROSS ICE SHELF, Antarctica
Dec. 1, 2006 | 4:30 a.m. ET
It took a six-mile drive from McMurdo Station, the largest of any research base on the white continent, for my senses to really key in on how cool, massive and globally important the white continent is.
There we were, standing atop the Ross Ice Shelf — an area of solid ice as big as Texas. The ice at this spot is 250 feet thick, or almost as long as a football field, followed by 3,000 feet of ocean and then the sea floor.
Next to us was a huge rig that’s been pulling sediment cores from the sea floor for what’s known as the ANDRILL program.
The goal is to go back 7 million years in time, using indicators in the sediment to see what’s happened to the ice shelf over that period. Next year, coring at another site on the shelf should take the record back to 17 million years — and together the core results will fill a hole in the sediment record.
Already, the evidence points to a Ross Ice Shelf that forms and then disappears repeatedly over time. And because it’s so vast, the shelf and its swings are able to impact not only ocean currents but also sea levels, since the shelf holds back the ice that’s actually on top of Antarctica’s land mass.
Over the next few days, and for a more in-depth package in January, we’ll be interviewing some of the dozens of ANDRILL scientists here from four countries – Germany, Italy, New Zealand, and the United States. Stay tuned!
• Blowback from the ‘meltdown’
A few words about my first-day “meltdown”: As I finished my first dispatch yesterday, it did occur to me that colleagues back home would give me a hard time. But I had no idea that it would become a topic of conversation – and ribbing – at McMurdo Station.
The fun started when photojournalist John Brecher and I handed over our laptops in order to set them up for wireless Internet access. Ten minutes later, lab techs Matt Charnetski and Craige Mazure returned them wrapped in cellophane and marked with an X made out of warning tape, on top of which was written: “Failure to comply” and “Quarantined.”
During dinner, I was asked if I’d like a hug – apparently to help me survive here.
That’s where I also learned of an infamous Nicholas Johnson and his all-about-Antarctica Web site, which now includes a “Llanos-watch” section.
With all that attention, I’m thinking about trying to extend my stay here and become Antarctica’s unofficial whiner. Anyone willing to sponsor me?
• MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica
Nov. 30, 2006 | 6 a.m. ET
I'm grouchy. There, I said it. I’d also rather just go to bed and forget about the last 60 hours it took us to get here, but we promised a first dispatch shortly after arriving and here it is. I'm sorry it doesn't start with — "It's great to be here!" — but I've got reasons for that.
Let’s start with the bureaucracy. Uncle Sam requires that everyone traveling to its bases on Antarctica go through a barrage of medical and dental tests, and undergo procedures if required, so as to minimize the risk of someone falling ill while so far away.
Photojournalist John Brecher and I thought we had our bureaucratic ducks in a row, but we each got calls the day of our deployment. John’s dentist would need to send a higher-resolution X-ray that morning. I needed an X-ray of a root canal done the week earlier as part of the testing. My dentist wasn’t open that day, so with just four hours to go before our flight, I rushed to John’s dentist for an X-ray, then had them e-mail the image while we rushed to the airport. We still didn’t know if we’d get clearance as we walked towards check-in with 90 minutes to departure. That’s when we got calls on our cell phones: We’d just been “PQ'd” — bureaucratese for physically qualified.
'Lost in transition'
We beat the bureaucracy, but our journey was only just starting. Our Seattle-Los Angeles flight was delayed, forcing us to sprint between terminals to make the main leg: Los Angeles to Christchurch, New Zealand, from which U.S. military flights to the white continent operate. We made it, but our check-in luggage didn’t.
As soon as we landed in Christchurch, we launched Operation Bare Minimum. John rushed to a nearby mall to get us some boxers so that we’d be presentable for our next stage: trying on all the Extreme Cold Gear that we and others deploying to Antarctica would be borrowing from Uncle Sam at his Clothing Distribution Center.
It was not a pretty sight: Some 50 men in close quarters (women went through the same in their dressing area), each with two government-issued orange duffel bags full of clothing that we had to try on and exchange if something didn’t fit. Let’s just say those weren’t our finest moments.
Once that fashion disaster was over, we all had to have our laptops scanned for viruses and software that might damage the U.S. network on Antarctica. “We’re not Net Nazis,” an official insisted, just before the laptops went through testing.
After those lessons in humility, we did get a good night’s sleep at a hotel, albeit still without our “lost in transition” luggage.
We got a 5 a.m. wake-up call so as to make the 6 a.m. check-in for the flight to Antarctica. But at 5:15 we got a second call: Bad weather had delayed departure until 9 a.m.
A taste of Antarctica
Around 8:30 we headed over for check-in, where we were finally reunited with our lost luggage. Things were looking up — until we heard from Peter West, our liaison from the National Science Foundation, that he was just told he couldn’t deploy today because his dental X-rays show he needed a filling. So much for having someone to help us through any other bureaucratic hurdles.
After another delay, this one about an hour, we finally boarded a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo jet. No in-flight video on this five-hour flight, just large paper bags for each of us with sandwiches and snacks, and an 11-man crew that included a serviceman who donned a flotation device to show us what to do in case of emergency.
Dressed in heavy parkas and thick rubber boots, we were all pretty cooped up inside what looked like a cargo hangar. Exposed wiring and signs like “Warning Explosive Device” didn’t help establish a comfort zone.
About four hours into the flight, three windows the size of grapefruits allowed a peek at coastline where the sea and sea ice meet. It was our first taste of Antarctica, but it only left me wanting to bust out.
Meeting ‘Ivan the Terra Bus’
I told myself, “It’ll all be good when we land and you’re on the ground.” When we did land, an hour later, that was hardly the feeling I got since we were quickly corralled into Ivan the Terra Bus, a huge snow machine, for a half-hour drive to McMurdo Base.
By this time the parkas and boots felt like a full-body straightjacket, and the temperature inside the bus was warming up from all the trapped body heat.
McMurdo finally came into view and a few minutes later it was time to disembark — only to be told to go to a briefing about housing and travel arrangements. It was the last thing we wanted to do, but what could we do? It’s not like we could check into another hotel.
Besides, things couldn’t get worse, right? They didn’t, until I was given the wrong dorm key (to a woman’s room, no less). When I did get my correct key, it opened the door to my randomly assigned roommate — who was snoring so loud I know it’s gonna be a painful week.
So that’s where we are. It’s midnight on Thursday here, or 3 a.m. Wednesday in Seattle. It’s also still daylight out, and it won’t get much dimmer than now.
We were told that long exposure to daylight can cause dizziness, and I’m already feeling it. I’ll sign off for now (John hopes to finish his photo editing in an hour), and we both promise to have a better attitude tomorrow when we finally get “on the ice,” as they say here.