Rediscovering Ross Island: Our Arrival In Antarctica

Written by Erin Phillips Writer

Yesterday our team arrived at McMurdo station, Antarctica.  After a 24-hour weather delay Monday morning, we flew from Christchurch, New Zealand to Antarctica on a C-17 military cargo plane.  Flying in a C-17 is very different from flying in a commercial jet.  The aircraft is loud and cavernous, with the hydraulic and electronic systems in clear view on the interior and our bags wrapped on pallets in the back of the plane (Plate 1).  After a five hour flight we were all a bit nervous as the plane circled for about an hour above the airfield at McMurdo.  The bad weather conditions threatened to force our return to Christchurch on what is known as a “boomerang” flight.  Eventually, the crew from McChord Air Force base in Washington treated us to a smooth landing on the sea ice runway (Plate 2).

Plate 1: Interior of the C-17 Globemaster III Cargo Plane. These planes are an essential part of Operation Deep Freeze run by the Air Force Reserve Command out of McChord Air Force base in Washington. Photo by Paul Wallace.

As a first-time visitor to Antarctica, I was ecstatic to set foot on the ice and take in the white and the bitter cold.  This is also the first trip to Antarctica for team members Paul Wallace, Glenn Gaetani, and Dan Rasmussen.  The others are seasoned veterans; Philip Kyle is celebrating his fortieth field season and Ken Sims has spent ten seasons here.  As a neophyte to “the ice”, I had much to learn when I arrived.  It felt much like the first day of college as I searched maps for buildings, organized my dorm room, and ate in the cafeteria here at McMurdo Station.  We will now attend numerous training sessions to prepare for our fieldwork in Antarctica.  The harsh conditions in Antarctica make this training an important necessity, but I am eager to embark on our fieldwork investigating the origin of the volcanoes on Ross Island.  The work will be exciting, with helicopters and snowmobiles to transport us to our field sites, high altitude camping on Mt Erebus, and penguins to welcome us at our campsite on Mt Bird.


A Professor at the University of Wyoming and a former tenured Research Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Dr. Kenneth W.W. Sims uses isotopic and chemical tracers to study geologic processes in the earth and other planetary bodies. Ken has over fifty peer-reviewed scientific publications focusing on the study of mantle melting, oceanic and continental crustal genesis, volcanology, hydrology, planetary core-formation, climate change and oceanography. Dr. Sims earned his BA in Geology from Colorado College, his MSc from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico; and his PhD in Geochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. Ken’s field experience ranges from ocean floor geology, using submersibles and remote sensing techniques to geological studies of active volcanoes at high altitudes in technical terrain. Academic awards include: the Estwing Outstanding Senior Award at Colorado College, an Outstanding Student Instructor Award from the UC, Berkeley, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Postdoctoral Scholar Fellowship, three Mellon Awards for innovative exploratory research and the Kincaid School 2012 Papadopoulos Fellowship. In addition to his academic career, Ken is an avid climber and has been an alpine guide for over three decades with extensive experience in technical, high altitude and cold weather mountaineering in Antarctica, the Alaska Range, and the Andes of Peru. These technical climbing skills have enabled him to collect young lavas and gather volcanic gas data inside active, remote volcanoes across the globe, including Erebus Volcano in Antarctica; Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua; and Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo Volcanoes in DR Congo. Using isotopic and geochemical data measured in these hard-to-get-samples Professor Sims’ ultimate goal is to better understand the genesis and evolution of Earth’s volcanoes, with an eye toward predicting future eruptions. Sims’ research and scientific expeditions have been featured in National Geographic Magazine; Oceanus; Popular Mechanics; New Scientist; several children’s books and magazines; NHK Japanese Public Television (Miracle Continent Antarctica- Mt Erebus), National Geographic Television (Man versus Volcano); and, the Discovery Channel (Against the Elements). Professor Sims is a featured scientist on National Geographic Explorer Site http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/kenneth-sims/ For Professor Sims’ complete Curriculum Vitae, Publication List and Mountaineering Resume see http://geology.uwyo.edu/kenwwsims.
  • Ashley Graves/6-9 Classroom

    The lower elementary class of Laramie Montessori is glad that you arrived safetly!
    We have one question for you:
    What things are you organzing before you go out into the field and how long will it take you to organize your things?


    Ashley & Peggy’s Class

  • Ashley and Peggy’s Class (and everyone else following our expedition):

    Great question! Thanks for your well wishes and interest in our expedition.

    There are many things we are doing to prepare for this expedition. But before I discuss these preparations it is important to point out that none of this would be possible without the support of all the people in the US Antarctica Programs, both here in McMurdo station and back in the United States. They are amazingly helpful, very efficient and always extremely pleasant to deal with. My hat goes off to them for all they are doing to make our expedition successful. I really can’t thank them enough!

    So, here is what we are and have been doing to get ready:

    1) Getting the right clothing for the harsh Antarctic conditions. It is extremely cold here, so when we got to Christchurch, New Zealand we were entirely outfitted with our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing. This ECW clothing is essential as the temperatures here are brutally cold (even colder than Laramie, Wyoming in the winter if you can believe that). Right now it is 11 PM at night, the sun is shinning brightly (it is light 24 hours a day), the wind is blowing lightly and it is 20 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). And that is warm!

    2) Training. This is essential to survive in the extreme cold and also to protect the Antarctic environment. Phil Kyle and I have been here many times before so we do not need to do as much of this as the others in my group that haven’t been here before. In fact, my group just came back from an overnight training course where they were learning about camping and surviving in the harsh Antarctic environment. There is also lots of training that focuses on preserving the fragile and pristine Antarctic environment. Everyone has to take this training no matter how many times you have been here. I believe that this is essential as this is one of the most pristine, unique and beautiful places in the world

    3) Arranging all the logistics. As the Principle Investigator I am in charge of this expedition and so while my group has been in training I have been doing lots of behind the scenes work making sure the helicopter schedules are arranged, our snowmobiles are all in order and that we are all completely ready for going into the field to sample lavas from the different volcanoes of Ross Island. Ultimately, it is up to me to make sure that everything is in perfect order to have a successful expedition.

    4) Checking Equipment: When we get dropped off somewhere by a helicopter or when we get on a snowmobile and drive away from McMurdo Station it is essential that we have all the necessary equipment and that it is working properly. You certainly don’t want to forget your sleeping bag or find out that your stove does not work when you are in “the middle of nowhere”

    Hope that answers your question to your satisfaction.

    Again thanks for your interest.

    All the best,
    Ken Sims

  • Ashley and Peggy’s Class Laramie Montessori

    Thank you for answering our question so thoroughly.
    We have a question for you:
    What happens when the lava hits the snow? Does the snow melt or does the lava turn to rock?


    Ashley and Peggy’s Class

  • Ashley and Peggy’s Class (and everyone else):

    Another excellent question.

    When the snow is not very deep like we get in the winter in Wyoming and Colorado the lava will melt the snow and then flow down the volcano’s slopes unabated. However, when there is a glacier and the snow and ice is hundreds of feet thick like we have in Antarctica then the answer is both. When the lava erupts through the glacier the magma melts the snow, and the snow and ice quenches the magma.

    This “quenching” fragments the magma into small glassy pieces that we call “hyaloclastites”. Of course the lava keeps erupting and eventually melts its way through the glacier. We see ice-covered volcanoes, or “glaciovolcanoes” as some scientists call them in many other places around the world including Iceland, Ecuador and even in the Cascades in the US.

    An excellent example of a recent glaciovolcanic eruption was Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010. This was not a large eruption, but because the ice above the volcano fragmented the lava, volcanic ash was erupted high into the atmosphere impacting airplane travel across Europe for weeks.

    The melting glaciers can also cause large floods and mudflows that flow down the volcanoes, and unfortunately these mudflows have been quite devastating sometimes. But volcano scientists are working hard to predict and mitigate future catastrophes.

    We (myself, Erin, Paul and Dan) are flying up to Mt Terror in 1 hour to sample on the East Ridge. It is cold and windy out there today.

  • Rick Kamichis

    I have spent over ten years working in the arctic regions of Alaska and wondered if there were any opportunities to work in Antarctica in non-science capacities? I am just beginning my doctorate in another discipline but would love to gain some Antarctic experience.

  • Rick,

    I did not know the answer to your question, but I asked around the station and here is a link that may lead you to a job working for the support group down here. They are fantastic people and provide so much support and help to make the scientific missions successful.

    Good luck and good skill.

    All the best,


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