Changing Planet

Expedition Antarctica: Arriving in McMurdo

By Christine Dell’Amore

Christine Dell’Amore is participating in a National Science Foundation media trip to report on scientists conducting polar research near McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

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I made it to McMurdo Station this morning, thanks to clear skies and the smooth sailing of our C-17. When I first climbed into the plane last night, I was surprised to see its exposed, wire-riddled roof, which reminded me of some sort of trendy urban restaurant. Of course, the C-17’s design isn’t putting on airs–it’s meant to provide the most room for cargo and people.


Rows of seats on the plane–suffice it to say there were no flight attendants

An Air Force official seated me in the front row in front of the bathroom, which bore a sign reminding people not to flush the toilet during the first hour. I didn’t mind–the seat was strategically near the cockpit, which I knew I wanted to see.

About three hours into the flight, as our plane hurtled from darkness into nonstop daylight, I finagled a visit into the cockpit with a fellow journalist. One of the Air Force officials seemed delighted to have a visitor aloft, and he pulled out a map to point out the Victoria mountain chain that jutted from the massive, cake-icing white ice sheet spread out before us.


Front row seat of the C-17’s cockpit

Before long we’d landed, and easily. The hatch opened and I stumbled outside alongside all the other red coats, marveling all at once at the impressive size of the plane, the distant Transantarctic Mountains (just slivers of black in the cloudy horizon), and the sheer scale of it all.


The C-17 took off again almost as soon as we’d landed


me-on-the-ice.jpgMe on the ice (photo courtesy Eric Niiler)

McMurdo Station is technically not on the Antarctic continent, sitting instead on the tip of Ross Island. The island is surrounded by the Ross Sea and the Ross ice shelf, which are nearly impossible to discern with the untrained eye. Because the sea ice can be unstable near McMurdo, our plane landed farther out and we had to take a roundabout, hour-long trip on a vehicle called a Delta (below)–picture an airport shuttle but much bumpier.


Eric Niiler about to board the delta 

On the Delta I sat next to a seasoned airfield engineer, Toby Travelstead, who plied me with stories about emperor penguins taking up residence alongside the McMurdo road and superlative-crazed tourists who traverse Antarctica solo in hopes of becoming the fastest or the first in something.

Once in town we had a series of safety briefings (including a warning to watch out for the “crud,” a McMurdo cold virus) and then embarked on a “windshield tour” of McMurdo, which immediately struck me as a frontier boomtown. Everywhere we went, construction equipment was at work, taking advantage of the relatively ice-free landscape, which looked almost otherworldly with the volcanic soil and barren, empty hills. At lunch I discovered the town’s buildings and dormitories have a college feel, with ads for yoga classes and marathons (yes, people run marathons on the ice), a proper store where you can send postcards, and a mammoth dining hall with exotic offerings like BBQ tofu.


Overall view of McMurdo

We also paid visits to the people who keep McMurdo running, especially during summer, when the population swells to more than a thousand people. We heard a presentation from the Department of Defense’s Antarctic commander, who coordinates planes for the U.S. Antarctic Program, to the people who watch the weather and flights to make sure everyone arrives safely.

A big storm is in the forecast for tomorrow night, so it’s possible we could get stuck at the geographic South Pole after our day trip–possibly a new adventure!


Photos by Christine Dell’Amore

Christine Dell’Amore is the environment writer/editor for National Geographic News.

Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.
  • Dave s

    Trade you places!

  • John White

    In 1948 I spent the last year of a three year enlistment in the US Air Force as a weather equipment technician based in northern Quebec. I was wondering if there were weather associated people at McMurdo.

  • Fred

    I lived in McMurdo from October 1967-April 1968 when each function was in separate igloo hut buildings; i. e., library building, sleep building based on you occupation, mess hall, admin building, restroom , et cetera. At the time construction was underway to combine many such functions into one or fewer buildings to eliminate continual outdoor travel to each function. This was especially noted when one time we were all stranded wherever we were by an hours long whiteout. After that many visited the main restroom. Sojourns of group travel in downtime was occasionally allowed onto the ise sea nearby to be up close withnthe penguins for photo opts and wart nearness to walrus basking in the sunlight. That experience was also the first time private citizens by ice boats – who paid $3,000 each – visited briefly as tourists. A few of those were spouses of winter over military personnel, allowing family time for men away for a year there.

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