Landing on Thin Ice: Arriving in McMurdo Station, Antarctica

The sea ice around McMurdo Station, Antarctica has been especially soft this year with devastating consequences for those who live there. There have been no fresh fruits or vegetables delivered since Christmas. Rumors are flying that the McMurdo store has almost sold out of beer and wine. Shampoo rations might be in everyone’s future.

McMurdo Station is by far the largest Antarctic base, supporting more than one thousand scientists and staff at the height of the austral summer season. A facility of this magnitude requires a steady supply of food, gear, and other resources, which are normally supplied via a huge C17 military plane. But this year, the sea ice runway where the planes land has been far too soft to support a C17 landing.

Our team boarding the LC130 (left) and inside of the aircraft (right).

While waiting in Christchurch, New Zealand, we heard rumors of McMurdo’s supply shortages and proceeded to stock up on two month’s supplies of toiletries, extra lab gear and creature comforts (for me, that meant 6 pounds of chocolate). We packed up and then boarded a LC130 – a much smaller plane equipped with landing skis that can safely touch down on the sea ice runway outside McMurdo.

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Arrived on the ice! Note the skis on the bottom of the LC130 (left). Ivan the Terra Bus takes us from the sea ice runway to McMurdo (right; photos by Christina Reisselman).

While many of McMurdo’s summer residents have finished their season and headed home, we traveled with a handful of support staff that are coming down to “winter over.” During the cold and dark Antarctic winter, the station’s population drops to about 150 people, all of whom must pass a thorough physical and psychological evaluation (the psych exam includes questions like: Do you like your mother? Has anyone suggested that you stop drinking?). When the final flight leaves McMurdo at the end of the austral summer, these winter residents are stuck on the ice until flights resume again the following season. Despite the lack of sunshine and fresh food, winter residents celebrate amazing moonlit nights and southern lights.

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Church in McMurdo in the midnight twilight (left). Stained glass window inside the church (right; photos by Cassandra Brooks).

Despite being at the bottom of the world and having the raw look and feel of a mountain mining town, McMurdo has remarkable infrastructure. Upon arriving, I spent an afternoon getting physical therapy at their well-equipped hospital. My team set up shop in their expansive top-notch science facility. I toured the grounds, checking out the fire station, church, and post office. Some of our team went to yoga class while others hung out in one of McMurdo’s two bars.

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Around McMurdo. Lots of great hiking trails (left) and a view outside the hospital (right; photos by Cassandra Brooks).

The most surreal aspect of being down here is the 24-hour daylight. As I write this post, its 1:34 am and the sun is circling low on the horizon and will soon begin to rise again. The low light turns the surrounding sea ice a milky blue while bathing the mountain top glaciers in soft orange hues. The landscape is memorizing, making sleep all the more difficult.

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McMurdo Station (photo by Cassandra Brooks).

Tonight my team rests on the boat. Within a day, our research will finally begin.

Wildlife

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Cassandra Brooks is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder studying international ocean policy, particularly focusing on marine protection in the Antarctic.