Heading North

February 15, 2010


Unobstructed wind

Blowing over snow and ice

Cold, matchless beauty

This blog started as a suggestion from my wife and kids as a way to keep friends and family apprised of my Antarctic adventure.  Hopefully, I accomplished that objective.  I hope you found some of the subjects as interesting as I did.  I thought many of the Sunday Evening Science Lectures were very interesting and was sorry to miss a few at the end of the season. (I have been working on Sunday evenings).

Like much of life’s experiences, my time here started out fresh and adventuresome and slowly evolved into a ho-hum routine.  I remember the first weeks that I worked in the tower; I spent the entire shift looking at the unbelievable view through the binoculars.  Everyday I would see something new, or a change in lighting would make everything appear different.

Fata Morgana  (a type of mirage) could change the view on an hourly basis.  The most common form of Fata is the illusion of a cliff where the land and ice meet.  A smooth slope down to the ice on one day would appear as a large cliff the next.

My first walk to Hut Point seemed like a hazardous trip.  Even though it is only about a mile round trip, the frigid temperatures and glacial winds made it a brutal walk.  With the nicer weather, I now take the same walk on a daily basis.

Antarctica is the highest, (South Pole is near 10,000 feet because of all the ice it sits on) driest, (one large desert), and windiest (180 mph winds recorded at Commonwealth Bay) continent on earth.  But Ross Island, where McMurdo Station sits at sea level has a mild summertime climate.  I’m very thankful for the opportunity to spend some time here, but I’m more than ready to return home.  Barring a delay, I will leave McMurdo for New Zealand on Friday, February 19th.

Above:  Mirage of a cliff (Fata Morgana)

The panoramic views will be missed.



February 4, 2010

I don’t have much to write about, but I thought I would post a bunch of pictures Mike & I have taken recently.  Our time on the ice is running short – we are scheduled to depart for New Zealand in 2 weeks on February 19th.

Above & below:  Emperor penguin on the Ross Ice Shelf.  White Island behind.

Above: 6 LC-130 Hercules       Below:  4 twin otters and 1 DC-3

Above:  The container ship  American Tern arriving at McMurdo.  Notice the blow spout from a whale in the foreground.  Mt. Lister in background.

Below:  Unloading containers.

Above:  The ice edge about 6 miles from McMurdo Station

Below:  Ice chunk off Hut Point

Above:  The bearded brother with Mt. Erebus in the background.

Below:  Just another beautiful day in paradise.

The Paul Buck

January 27, 2010

The tanker, Paul Buck, arrived last week.  The Paul Buck is a Navy vessel that is contracted out.  So, the 26 sailors on the ship are not U.S. Navy personnel.  They left Washington state in November with a full load of fuel, unloaded it somewhere along the way, then filled up again in Australia, before heading to McMurdo.

The tanker brought 3 different types of fuel to McMurdo – JP8 for the airplanes, diesel, and gasoline.

A tanker only shows up once a year so they have to bring an enough fuel to last an entire year.  In the pictures below, notice the difference of how high the tanker sits in the water – when empty versus when full.  Before leaving McMurdo, the tanker will be filled with water to lower and stabilize the vessel.

Paul Buck before unloading the fuel.  Below – after the offload.

Tanker and icebreaker, side by side.

Minke Whales

January 26, 2010

Although the ice hasn’t moved completely out, we do have quite a bit of open water around McMurdo Station.  Arriving with the open water were some minke whales.  The minke whale is the smallest of the baleen whales.  They grow between 20 and 30 feet and typically weigh between 6 and 9 tons.

Orcas, or killer whales, are the other whale species that are common to the area.  Apparently, there are orcas by the ice edge.  At this point, they have not been spotted from town.  The minke whales have much smaller dorsal fins than the orcas.  So it should be easy to tell the difference, even from a distance.

Minke whale with the small dorsal fin.


January 13, 2010


by William Jay Smith

I think it must be very nice
To stroll about upon the ice,
Night and day, day and night,
Wearing only black and white,
Always in your Sunday best—
Black tailcoat and pearl-white vest.
To stroll about so pleasantly
Beside the cold and silent sea
Would really suit me to a T!
I think it must be very nice
To stroll with Penguins on the ice.

Until recently, penguin sightings in the McMurdo area were pretty scarce.  That has all changed.  We now have daily viewings of these funny birds.  There are two types of penguins in the area:  adelie and emperor.  Adelie penguins are fairly numerous and travel in groups.  The only emperor penguins I’ve seen are a group of four adjacent to the road on the way to the airport.

The first few penguins I saw were the adelie.  Until recently, I had only seen them alone, not in a group.  Last week there were a group of about 25 near some open water by hut point.  The same area is a popular spot with the seals, also.  A few days ago there was a group of over 50 adelie that waddled off the sea ice onto the dry ground below the helicopter pad.  They are really fun to watch when they are on the move across the snow and ice.  They waddle for a minute then plop on their belly and slide, propelling themselves with their feet and wings.  After a short period of sliding, they hop back up on their feet and repeat the process.  The adelie penguins are smaller than the emperor.  An average size for the adelie is 30 inches and 10 pounds.  As far as I can tell they are totally black & white, except for their eyes might be a little blue.  Their tails are longer than most penguin tails.  Life span of an adelie is 20 years in ideal circumstances, but closer to 10 to 15 in the wild.

You may have seen a documentary that was out a few years ago about the emperor penguins.  It was called March of the Penguin. The four emperor penguins that are out by the airport appear to be molting.  The shedding of the old feathers and replacement with the new takes 34 days.  In the mean time they just are hanging out, hardly moving at all.  The emperor are the tallest and heaviest of all penguins.  The average size is four feet tall and between 50 and 100 pounds.  Emperor penguins have a pale yellow patch on their breast and a brighter yellow or orange area near their ears.  Lifespan for an emperor is about 20 years.

Above & below:  Group of adelie off hut point.

Above & below:  Emperors on the way to Pegasus Field


January 11, 2010

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Swedish icebreaker, Oden, made it into McMurdo today.  They have spent the last few days working their way through the sea ice from the ice edge – about 17 miles from town.  The Oden isn’t shaped as I envisioned it.  I expected a V hull, but it has a flat, sloping prow.  The captain gets up a little speed and momentum that propels the front of the ship onto the ice.  Then, the weight of the ship breaks up the ice it is resting on.  The break-up is aided by constantly pumping water onto the ice in front of the ship.  I’m not sure how or why this works, but a large volume of water shot onto the ice. The Oden progresses through the ice by going back & forth, back & forth, slowly advancing.

A nice ice-free channel is what I pictured, but that is not the case.  The channel behind the icebreaker is packed full of broken ice.  Eventually the ice will move out with the help of the currents and wind.

The Oden is over 100 meters long and 30 meters wide.  It is operated by the Swedish Maritime Administration and is also used as a research vessel.

The Oden in McMurdo Sound.

Just beyond Hut Point.  Discovery Hut in the foreground.

The Oden, next to the local pier.  The pier is actually sea ice covered with gravel and strengthened with cables.  The cables are frozen in the ice.

The channel of broken ice behind the icebreaker.

Awhile ago I wrote a blog on the South Pole Traverse.  They had some difficulties and delays, but did make it to the pole a while ago.  If you are interested it their adventure, the following website has the story and some great photos:



January 5, 2010

There seems to be a misconception about the amount of Antarctica we are exposed to.  We are seeing and experiencing only a miniscule amount of the continent.  Before actually getting here, I had visions of going to the South Pole, visiting different penguin rookeries, climbing Mount Erebus, seeing Mount Vinson (Antarctica’s highest peak) exploring glaciers, taking helicopter rides, and the like.  But, life here is much different than I imagined.  Those types of experiences are not afforded to those of us in the working class, especially a first timer, like myself.  It is highly unlikely I will make it to the South Pole or Mount Erebus. I can forget about a helicopter ride.

Finances are probably the major reason for this, although other factors include safety, environmental impact, and logistics.  The NSF has a budget and can’t really afford to send all the employees at McMurdo on sightseeing trips, especially via airplane and helicopter.  They are also trying to limit the “environmental footprint” that we humans leave on the continent.

Mike and I have both inquired about obtaining rides to the South Pole with the air national guard folks (they fly the LC-130’s around the continent).  We have not had any success, or even any encouragement.  The same is true with a helicopter ride.  There are too many people here who would like these experiences and not enough resources to accommodate all of us.  We have heard that a limited number of rides to the South Pole are offered near the end of the season.  So, we still have a chance, albeit a small one.

The size of Antarctica is similar to the size of the United States.  Ross Island, where McMurdo Station is located, is shaped like a T and is roughly 45 miles long and 45 miles wide.  McMurdo Station and Scott Base are located on the southern tip of Ross Island.  Our “free movement” area is approximately a 5 mile radius of McMurdo.  I can say I have been to Antarctica, but I can’t claim I have seen or experienced very much of what the continent has to offer.  Imagine having to stay in a 5 mile radius of your home, when the enormity of the United States and the diversity it has to offer is out there begging for exploration.

Below is a map of Antarctica, with an arrow pointing towards Ross Island.

Below that is a map of Ross Island, with an arrow pointing to McMurdo Station.


January 3, 2010

As long as humans have been coming to this area, they have been artistically inspired by its unique beauty.  It all started with Herbert Ponting’s photos and Dr. Edward Wilson’s sketches & paintings from the early 1900’s.

Ponting was a professional photographer who came to Antarctica with R.F. Scott 100 years ago.  He took both still photos and movies.  He even built a dark room in Scott’s hut.  (Where the explorers stayed in at Cape Evans.)

Wilson (who died next to Scott in a tent during their trek back from the pole) was also inspired by the local landscape.  His sketches and paintings are supposedly quite remarkable.  Works of these two artists are available for viewing at the Scott Polar Institute, located at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Music was part of the early Ross Island residents lives, also.  They had a pianola (player piano) in the hut to help entertain everyone during the long winter darkness.  They frequently gathered around the pianola to sing popular songs.

Today’s residents have numerous outlets to express their creativity.  Before Christmas an arts & crafts fair was held by local artisans.  I went to it expecting to see a lot of “crafts” and very little “art.”  But, I was pleasantly surprised by the creativity and quality of the goods.  Some of the products: handmade jewelry, knitted hats & mittens, photographs, wood bowls, and hand-sewn bags.

Musicians have numerous venues to share their talents.  Every few weeks, the Coffee House hosts an open mike night.  The admittedly small venue is usually packed and SRO.  Musicians also gather at the Coffee House for a weekly acoustic jam session.

But, the big music event of the season is “Icestock” which is held during the annual New Year’s Holiday.  This year featured 12 acts.  The concert was outside and lasted from noon until almost 7:00 p.m.  We were blessed with beautiful weather this year – sunny, temps in the high 30’s & calm.  The music didn’t stop there.  Musicians continued playing inside at the local clubs until around midnight.

Local actors have an outlet for their talents, also.  A production of “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” was performed before Christmas.  Someone is currently looking for actors to help put on a stage production of “The Princess Bride.”

And finally, following Herbert Ponting’s lead, local filmmakers can display their short-films (5 minute or less) at the McMurdo Film Festival.  Coming soon, exclusively at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

This year’s stage.  Unsorted Trash is performing.

Above:  Hand knitted hats & scarves.  Below:  Earrings

Below are 3 sculptures found around McMurdo.


December 19, 2009

December 19, 2009


I think I mentioned the windmills that were installed in an earlier post.  Here is a little more information:

The Ross Island Wind Project was initiated by New Zealand and supported by the National Science Foundation.

When all three windmills are operational and running at full capacity – all of the power for Scott Base and half the power for McMurdo can be generated by the wind.  (I believe those are optimum numbers of good winds and low power usage)   The prediction is that on an annual basis, 22% of the power needed will be generated by the windmills.

These turbines on Ross Island are small compared to the huge turbines you see in Colorado and Wyoming.

They are variable speed.  Each blade can adjust its own pitch automatically.

They turn into the wind automatically.

They start producing power at winds of 7 mph.

They produce max power at winds of 20 mph.

They shut down with winds of 50 mph and greater (to prevent damage).


The summer solstice is only a couple days away and the sun is not where I thought it would be.  I know I’m not at the South Pole, but I envisioned the sun being higher in the sky.  If the horizon is 0 degrees and straight up is 90 degrees, I would say the sun averages about 45 degrees for the day.  It probably gets a little higher than that at times and a little lower at times.  The sun is definitely lower in the sky at “night.”  I notice this mostly because the amount of melting that occurs.  Often, in the morning, we have a thin layer of ice on standing water.  Whereas, around noon and in the afternoon we will have streams of melted snow flowing through town.


Mike and I walked/hiked a 7+  mile trek called the Castle Rock Loop on Saturday.  The weather was close to perfect for us until the last hour or so.  Temperatures were in the mid 30’s and the wind was very light or nonexistent (until the end).

Mike, with Castle Rock in the background.  Castle Rock is bigger than it looks in this picture.

Me, with the frozen McMurdo Sound and the Royal Society Range in the background

One of the emergency shelters along the trail, in case a storm moves in quickly.


December 12, 2009

When Mike and I first saw McMurdo Station we both thought it resembled an old Colorado mining town.  There a numerous barracks style buildings, piles of rocks, and large equipment laying around.  The station was opened by the U.S. Government in the 1950’s. I believe the navy and army were the primary operators back then.

McMurdo’s current overseer is the United States Antarctic Program (USAP).   The USAP is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  The USAP is in charge of all U.S. funded research in Antarctica, not just here at McMurdo.  Most of the employees at McMurdo are employed by contractors.  Raytheon is the largest contractor at this time.

A map of McMurdo Station in the McMurdo Station Guide lists over 100 buildings in the area.  All the buildings are numbered.  I sleep in 207, work in 165 and eat in 155.

We have 3 gyms here (aerobics – Bldg 78,  basketball – Bldg 75, weights – 155).

3 clubs or bars (Southern Exposure – 107, Gallagher’s – 108,  Coffee House – 78)

We have a Chapel, Clinic, Post Office, Store, Galley, Power Plant, Water Plant, Waste Water Treatment Plant, and a Library.

There are numerous warehouses, storage buildings, and workshops.  McMurdo has a Fire Station, Helicopter Hanger, Barber Shop, Radio Station, and Weather Office. We have a taxi service and ATM’s.  Anyone can checkout musical instruments, recreation equipment, and costumes.  Numerous bikes are available for all to use.

We have fields to play baseball or rugby.  The bowling alley is no longer open because it partially collapsed.

The galley serves breakfast, lunch & dinner (plus a midnight meal for mid-workers) 7 days a week.

The population of McMurdo during the austral summer is around 1100.  The population is not stable.  Scientists, and contractors alike, are constantly rotating in and out of town. In the winter the population is about 250.  Those 250 are stuck for the duration, because, no flights are made into or out of McMurdo for the 6 months between March and August.

View of McMurdo Station from the air.

Viewed from the Southeast, looking Northwest

The red roofed building is the clinic.  Frozen McMurdo Sound in the background.
Viewed from the North, looking South.  Observation Hill in the background.

The partially viewed large building on the left is 155.  This the heart of the station.  Inside is the galley, computer kiosk, library, store, recreation & housing offices, along with some sleeping quarters.  I was told that the buildings up on the hill is where the nuclear power plant was located.

Buildings 15, 20, 11 and 18.  You often see these moveable huts in different places out on the ice sheet.

The Chalet. (NSF headquarters)