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Antarctica Oct 2009-Feb 2010


I have been lucky enough to be hired as a driver for the US Antarctic Program.  I deploy from Indiana to Denver Colorado, Sydney Australia, Christchurch New Zealand and will wind up at McMurdo Station Antarctica.  I will be working "on the ice" until late Feb. 2010.

 

My big adventure is about to begin!  I fly to Denver Colorado Wednesday Sept. 30, I will be there 1 1/2 days for orientation.  Friday afternoon I leave Denver for Los Angeles arriving Friday evening for a 5 hour layover.  At 10:30 pm I board an Airbus A380 for Sydney, Australia which well be a sixteen hour flight.  I arrice in Sydney at 7:15 AM on Sunday (Saturday afternoon in the U.S.) I loose a day crossing the International Date Line.  Arriving in Sydney I only have an hour layover and then make a 2 1/2 hour flight to Christchurch, New Zealand.  I will be in Christchurch a day and a half.  This is where I will receive all my extreme cold weather wear that I will need in Antarctica.  Then it is on to the "ice" in a U.S. Air Force C-17!  I am very excited and nervous too.  I will update along the way.

Arriving on Pegasus Ice Runway Antarctica

Monday, Oct. 5, 2009

I arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand yesterday after 22 hours of flying.  The Airbus 380 is a great flying machine that really spoils you.  Christchurch is a beautiful city just going into Spring, all the tulips, azaleas and daffodils are at their peak.  It seems really strange leaving Indiana where the leaves were turning and the smell of fall was in the air and two days later being in early Spring and tomorrow I should be in the grips of the deep freeze.  Christchurch has beautiful architecture and a very strong European feel.  I went to the Clothing Distribution Center today and was issued all my cold weather gear and lots of it.  The Air Force has had a few delays trying to fly everyone to Antarctica.  The 5th flight should be flying tomorrow and instead it will just be on the third.  The first was delayed several days due to mechanical problems with the C-17 and the 3rd flight today was grounded due to bad weather in Antractica.  The next time I update this hopefully it will be from the "ice" as I am scheduled for the 5 hour flight early tomorrow morning.  The shuttle will be here at 5:15 to take me to the airfield, I have a 3:30 wakeup call so will close for now and get some sleep.  Talk to you from the "ice"!


Sunday Oct. 11, 2009
I arrived in Antarctica on Tuesday to a sunny -20 degree day!  This is my first day that I've had time to take a breather.  I have been training everyday in some awesome vehicles on ice roads that are 250 feet thick floating on 1800 feet of ocean.  My training will be complete on Tuesday which makes me very happy!  Being in the transportation department is a great place to see McMurdo, I have driven to places that are off limits to most.  The wind here is brutal, the first thing I do in the morning is look to see how straight the flags are flying, most mornings they are being blown straight out.  That means I have to dress very very warm.  I'm still trying to adjust to living in a dorm with roommates, eating in a cafeteria and sharing bathrooms.  I have talked to seveal people who have been here many seasons and the adjustment is hard for everyone!


Sunday Oct. 11, 2009
I arrived in Antarctica on Tuesday to a sunny -20 degree day!  This is my first day that I've had time to take a breather.  I have been training everyday in some awesome vehicles on ice roads that are 250 feet thick floating on 1800 feet of ocean.  My training will be complete on Tuesday which makes me very happy!  Being in the transportation department is a great place to see McMurdo, I have driven to places that are off limits to most.  The wind here is brutal, the first thing I do in the morning is look to see how straight the flags are flying, most mornings they are being blown straight out.  That means I have to dress very very warm.  I'm still trying to adjust to living in a dorm with roommates, eating in a cafeteria and sharing bathrooms.  I have talked to seveal people who have been here many seasons and the adjustment is hard for everyone!


 November 2009

I can't tell you how frustrated I have been the last month with website problems and I apologize to everyone that has been checking and seeing no updates.  I hope we have the problem solved and I am anxious to start updating regularly.  Thank you for your patience!  Janet

 Nov. 2, 2009
      I want to say Hi to Mrs. Callis'  4th grade class at South School in my hometown of Martinsville, Indiana, Hello 
to you all from the bottom of the world!  I am really happy to have you all following my adventure in Antarctica.  It is an amazing place and please ask me any questions you think of.  I hope that  it will peak your interest and you will learn more about this amazing continent.  
Who knows maybe someday you will come here too!

     The weather here has been calm. Today and yesterday things have warmed up,  we had a low of -12 with a high of 14.   I would welcome the warmth but that causes bigger problems for driving.  As the temperatures warm up it will cause the sea ice to start melting especially at the transition where  the ice meets the land.  This causes big problems with ruts and holes in the ice.  I am told that I will be driving through 4 feet of water but the ice under the water will be thick enough to hold the weight of the vehicles we drive......so they tell me!

     I have transitioned to nights. I was working 10 hours a day with only 1 day a week off now I work 12 hours a night from 5:30 pm to 5:30 am.   I get 2 days off, not consecutive days but I really like knowing I work 3 days and get 1 off then work 2 days and get another day off.  Even though I am working nights you would never know it by looking at the sky as we have full sun 24 hours a day.

     The “McMurdo Crud” is a name used for the flu and colds that get passed around here.  The “Crud” is traveling through the dorms like wild fire.  We wash our hands all the time and sanitize like crazy but it’s there and it will get you.  It seems as new people arrive they bring new germs with them and share them with the rest of us.   I was so hopeful I would avoid it as I never get sick at home  but OH NO it found me and now I am experiencing the “McMurdo Crud”.  I know I said I wanted to experience everything Antarctica had to offer but I did not have this in mind! 

      Antarctic is the driest place on earth. Some parts of Antarctica have had no precipitation for over 1 million years. The humidity in McMurdo is often less than 10%. This picture will let you see what happens to a piece of fruit that is left to sit out about 1 week.  Things don’t mold as there is no mold spores .   With such low humidity the juice in the orange  totally evaporates , the orange  becomes  hollow  and the peel is hard as the shell of an egg.  When I take my sweater out of the washing machine  and hang it to dry , it is dry in an hour.  At home it would take that sweater over night to dry.

     Here is a photo of pressure ridges located near Scott Base the New Zealand research center. The pressure ridges are formed by tidal forces — there is a thick sheet of sea ice which meets the land, and the forces of the two meeting causes the ice to buckle. These pressure ridges are 20-30 feet tall. Quite an amazing sight.

     As extremely cold and windy as Antarctica is, in a months time I have become very fond of this place and am enjoying everything about it.


Nov. 23, 2009

     Winter is not ready to loosen it's grip on Antarctica.  We have had several storms in the last 3 weeks and today is no exceptions it started snowing yesterday and is just now winding down.  Thankfully we have had very little wind with this last storm unlike the previous 2 that packed high winds and closed everything down including the runways and all the roads, that would be all 2 roads in and out of McMurdo.  Luckily there were no medical emergencies needing to leave as it would have been impossible.  It can be an unnerving thought knowing no matter what the emergency there is no way to get help but I guess that's why we all have to have such extensive medical and dental examines before being approved to come here.

     We had planned a trip for yesterday to the Ice Caves and Cape Evans, we made it to the Ice Caves but due to the storm we did not make it to the Cape Evans which was a big disappointment.  Cape Evans is one of the huts used by Robert Falcon Scott in his quest to reach the South Pole.  Everything in the hut is just as they left it including all their supplies, clothes and even a dead seal.   We did get some great pictures of the Ice Caves and what an amazing place it was.  The big red Vehicle in the picture is one of the vehicles I drive it's a Delta and obviously belonged to the U.S. Navy many years ago as the Navy's insignia is still stenciled on it.  The sled behind the Delta was caring our survival gear, tents, food, etc. thankfully we didn't need to use them although we did get stuck several times and all did their share of shoveling to get us going again. The Ice Caves were gorgeous we slid down through a small opening in the snow and when we reached the inside it was like being in a fairy tale everything sparkled and glistened a really amazing place.


Nov. 27th, 2009

It has been a great week and I have been able to see a lot of really wonderful things including this little Weddell Seal.

Here's a few interesting facts regarding the Weddell seals.  The mother arrives pregnant and with enough resources of blubber and protein to double the 25kg (55lb) birth weight of a pup in 10 days. She doesn't feed for about the first month and goes from an extremely plump barrel shape just before she gives birth - to a skinny shadow of her former self with ribs visible while the pup reverses the process.  

Weddell seal milk is one of the richest produced by any mammal. It contains about 60% fat (go and compare that to the label on the milk carton in the fridge) and it is this that is responsible for the rapid weight gain made by pups shortly after birth.   The pups are weaned (stop drinking milk and begin eating normal seal food, i.e. fish) at around 7 weeks when they should have reached about 242 pounds as an adult they will weigh up to 880 pounds and be up to 10 feet long. Unusually, the males are slightly smaller than the females.  Pups are encouraged into the water very early on by their mothers, perhaps only a week or so after birth. The water is their natural habitat and with their thick protection of blubber is a more comfortable place to be most of the time for these seals than out on the ice where the temperature can be -40° C or less with winds frequently of gale force or greater.  

Weddell seals prefer to live on ice that is broken up somewhat, in this way there are often natural cracks and holes through the ice that they can use to get in and out of the sea. There are also holes and cracks around ice bergs that are trapped in sea-ice and often "tide-cracks" appear near when near land, all of these help.

These holes are fine to begin with, but when temperatures are well below freezing, they begin to freeze up - quickly. The seals keep the holes open by rasping them with their teeth. They open their mouths wide and move their heads back and forward in a wide arc attacking the ice that is building up around the sides of the hole. This is a very fast and vigorous process that takes a lot of energy and a toll on the seals teeth.

  As you can see this one has already been tagged and will be monitored.  It sure is a tough environment for these little guys but they seem to be doing well.


Dec. 4, 2009

Things are starting to really warm up here!  We have been having highs of 32 degrees and the big thaw is under way.  What little snow we had left is shrinking rapidly and it's amazing to see how fast the ground dries out due to such low humidity and intense sun.  I know you must be thinking what great news that should be but it's not!  With temperatures  above freezing and the warmth of the sun it can only mean trouble for our ice roads and runways.  Due to the thaw this is will be the last 2 days for the ice runway we have used for the last 6 weeks. It has some substantial cracks forming and the ice is deteriorating rapidly, water is starting to pond on the surface and they are having to continually move the aircrafts location due to divots and cracks forming.  During this weekend the entire airport facility is being moved to a runway called Pegasus.  All the buildings at the runway are on extremely large steel sleds and they will be pulled 12 miles to their new home at Pegasus further out on the ice.  This move will be an huge adjustment for all......what is normally a 8 minute commute to the Ice Runway  will now turn into at least an hour commute to Pegasus Runway and that is in best of conditions.  As the roads deteriorate the commute will only get worse.  Our 12 hour days are about to turn into 14 hour days with a whole lot of driving.  It should be really interesting and will add to my adventure!  I thought I would include pictures of some of the awesome aircraft I work around. Notice the landing skis on the C-130.


The Lockheed C-130 Hercules is a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft built by Lockheed. Capable of takeoffs and landings from unprepared runways, the C-130 was originally designed as a troop, medical evacuation, and cargo transport aircraft. The versatile airframe has found uses in a variety of other roles, including as a gunship, for airborne assault, search and rescue, scientific research support, weather reconnaissance, aerial refueling, maritime patrol and aerial firefighting. It is the main tactical airlifter for many military forces worldwide. Over 40 models and variants of the Hercules serve with more than 50 nations.

During its years of service the Hercules family has participated in countless military, civilian and humanitarian aid operations. The family has the longest continuous production run of any military aircraft in history. In 2007, the C-130 became the fifth aircraft—after the English Electric Canberra, B-52 Stratofortress, Tupolev Tu-95, and KC-135 Stratotanker—to mark 50 years of continuous use with its original primary customer, in this case, the United States Air Force. The C-130 is also the only military aircraft to remain in continuous production for 50 years with its original customer, as the updated C-130J Super Hercules.

The C-17 departs Ice Runway, below are all the huts, jamesways and buildings that are going to be pulled to Pegasus Runway.


January 2010

 

Jan. 31, 2010

 

I have to share with you the most adorable penguins.  The Adelie Penguin is the most whimsical little creature I have ever seen.  They make me laugh just looking at them.  I was at Pegusus Airfield last week when three came marching right across the runway.  Imagine seeing a C-130 taxiing for take-off and in the foreground are three little Adelies on the march.  As they were waddling in a row the little guy in back wasn't keeping up with the other two and as you can see he received quite a scolding.


Jan. 24, 2010

 

Thought you might like to see some of the vehicles I drive on the ice roads.  This is "Ivan" the Terra Bus.  It is built in Canada and is 47.5 feet long weighing in at 57,000 pounds empty.  Ivan is a pleasure to drive as long as it doesn't break down and that happens frequently.  It is the smoothest riding vehicle we have.  Turning corners in Ivan can be a real challenge especially on the narrow roads in McMurdo Station.

Here are some of the other vehicles I drive.  The Ford van is 4 wheel drive with oversized low pressure tires.  These tires allow us to drive on soft snow without sinking in "most of the time".  We still manage to get stuck. 

The other vehicle in the picture is a passenger Delta. They were built the 1970's.  The U.S. Navy was the original owners.  The Deltas are no ones favorite vehicle to ride in.  Fifteen to nineteen passengers ride in the box in the back with only radio contact with the driver. Getting to the airfield in a Delta can take over an hour.  It is an extremely bumpy ride for driver and passengers.  The Deltas have balloon tires.  They don't do well in deep snow as their tires have little tread on them.  They don't dig into the snow, their tires ride on top and push the snow.  When the snow is deep it is slow going and sometimes no going.


As I was driving to the airfield the other day I came upon three Emporer Penguins right in the middle of the road.  Two of them seemed to be having a squabble and were engaged in a stand-off.  They could have cared less that they were going to make me late. They each had a point to make and no one was budging.  They seemed to be establishing dominance.  The pengiun on the left would puff up, stand on his toes and stretch his neck to tower over the other.  The third one stood on the sidelines viewing the escapade.  This went on for at least 5 minutes when in defeat the one on the right turned and walked away as if nothing had happened.  The victor took a couple  laps in the middle of the road and the three waddled off into the frozen tundra. I sat there in total amazement at what I had just witnessed.

 

 

 

 

"I guess you showed him."


Jan. 17, 2010

A few days ago I walked down to Hut Point. This is where Robert Falcon Scott built his hut for his Discovery Expedition in 1901.  It left me in total awe as everything is just as they left it including a dead seal, the bales of hay for his ponies, wooden crates of dog biscuits and clothes drying.  You would think they had just went for a walk and will return shortly.

Scott's Hut was prefabricated in England brought here by ship and constructed on the point.  It was designed after an Australian Outback hut but was not suitable for the cold and wind of Antarctica.  They had real difficulty heating it.


It was from this point that Scott, Schackleton and Evans attempted to reach the South Pole.  Just short of the pole Schackleton came down with Scurvy and they had to turn around and return to the hut.  Scott later made another attempt for the South Pole but meet his death. 

I can't tell you how awesome it was to be in the hut built by these great explorers.  To be surrounded by all their personal items and to stand on the same floor where I'm sure many heated discussions were held and many life threating decisions were made brought tears to my eyes.

 Many of you are probably still asking yourself why I came here and I hope it's things like this that will help you understand!  Janet


Jan. 10, 2010

Here's hoping you all had wonderful holidays and may 2010 be filled with much happiness.  Christmas in Antarctica leaves a little to be desired but we were served a delicious Christmas dinner.  We all worked New Years Eve and day but had Jan. 2 & 3 off. 

Here is a picture of the transition from Ross Island to the ice road to Pegasus Airfield.  Yes I do get the feeling like I'm driving off into the wild blue yonder.  It's about 18 miles to the airfield and it takes an hour to drive it in our big red Delta's.  With our warmer temperatures the packed snow on top of the ice has become very soft and creates major headaches for us trying to get the big vechiles from one point to another.  For those of you that think I'm freezing down here I hate to break the news to all of you but it has been warmer here than it has at home.  We have temps in the mid 30's during the day and the upper teens at night.  That will soon change but I am enjoying it while it lasts. 

I had some excitement this week as I was driving to Pegasus Runway.  On the drive to the runway it is nothing but white for as far as you can see so when you see something black off the side of the road you perk up as you know it's something that is not normally there.  Well what to my wondrous eyes did appear but a very fat Emperor Penguin!  He was just scooting along as if he hadn't a care in the world.  He was there for a couple of days all by his lonesome and then............................. 


Three of his friends came to visit and he welcomed them with opened wings.  They have all been together for days now as they are moulting and will stay put until their feathers have been replaced.  They can not enter the water during this process due to the cold temps but not to worry as you can see they have plenty of fat.

Just to let you know these guys stood in the same spot for over 4 weeks while they were moulting.


February 2010

February 25, 2010

I did a couple of really neat things while I was on the ice the first being "Happy Camper".  I'm not sure where they came up with that title but I have a couple other adjectives I would have prefered to use but I will let those slide and keep my site family friendly.  There were about 10 of us and we met at 9:30 in the morning dressed in all our extreme cold weather gear as we were going extreme weather camping in Antarctica for the next 36 hours.  We had an hour of class room instruction before we drove out to the special place where they take all the "happy" campers, unloaded all the gear including tents, sleeping bags, food, tools and much more then started setting up camp.  We had two choices of tents, one they call a Scott tent and the other was a mountaineer tent another shuttle driver and I chose the tall teepee type Scott tent.  I figured if it was good enough for Robert Falcon Scott is was good enough for me that was until 3 a.m. when I woke up freezing and remembered that Robert Falcon Scott's frozen body is still inside his tent  in Antarctica, O K maybe this would be a good time to put more layers on and totally zip up my sleeping bag. With the tent being yellow and the sun shining 24 hours a day it felt like our tent was glowing.   I just wanted it to be 6 a.m. as we were getting up then to cook breakfast and start tearing down our camp.  I know you must be thinking well go warm up by the campfire please keep in mind there are no trees on Ross Island or vegetation of any kind for that matter so there are no campfires.  I passed on the clumps of oatmeal for breakfast and went for the cup of steaming hot chocolate, steaming for 30 seconds when it became half frozen chocolate milk.  We then proceeded to tear down our camp and I couldn't get it torn down fast enough as we were headed inside for more instructions this was the only time in my life I couldn't wait to go for classroom time.  All in all it was a really great experience and I did learn a lot, if we are ever together and marooned on an island be it frozen tundra or a tropical paradise I would like to think I could help keep us alive. 
As you can see in the picture we had some artistic talent in our group.


The other activity I was able to do was take a snow machine for a days journey across the frozen landscape and was able to get closer to Mt. Erebus (behind me) than I had ever been.  It was an awesome experience to ride the snow machine miles into Antarctica and look out across the vast wilderness.  It brought shivers to my spine and it wasn't from the Antarctic temps.  I stood there in awe at the great expanse knowing no one had ever stepped foot there.


Ships play a big part in the operation of McMurdo from late January to early  February.  The first ship that arrived was the Swedish ice breaker "The Oden".  It worked day and night cutting a channel for the fuel ship and cargo ship to travel through.  When the Oden had cut a large enough channel to the open water a tanker "The Paul Buck" came in and for several days huge pumps brought the fuel from the ship into large holding tanks on McMurdo.Enough fuel for all of  next season. The last ship to enter was the U.S. Navy cargo ship "The American Tern". The sailors worked and the trucks ran 24 hours a day unloading the cargo.    Watching this all take place was pretty amazing. The American Tern brought in cargo too large to fly  on the C-17.


February became a really busy month on the ice.  The scientists and the rest of us geared up for a mass exodus.  There was a lot more driving to do to get everything and everyone off the ice.  The shuttle drivers are some of the last people off the ice as they are needed to get everyone else to the airfield.  At this point the anxiety is building and everyone is anxious to leave.  For the shuttle drivers it gets hard taking everyone to their flight  knowing we will have to wait another day. What a day of mixed emotions you have when you wake  the morning of your flight out.  Before you even open your eyes your stomach does a flip knowing today is the day then you open your eyes and peek outside  hoping with all your might that the weather is perfect for flying only to see a thick layer of clouds with ground fog on the ice, your heart begins to sink and then you scan the landscape in front of you looking for a flag and hoping to see it hanging lifeless but that rarely happens in Antarctica and sure enough today is no exception the flag you spot is whipping in the wind and your heart sinks even lower.  The next thing you do is turn on your television and go to the channel that keeps you updated on flight departures and arrivals you scan the screen hoping to see that the C-17 has left Christchurch, New Zealand and is headed your way for your flight to freedom. At this point your heart just bottomed out as you read the screen and in red letters it says WX-Delay which means weather delay. Yes your worst thought have come to pass and now you flip to the channel that forecast the weather  and it says it should clear by mid-morning the winds should decrease and the fog will lift giving way to blue sky and calm winds.  There is hope again.  You only hope  that the C-17 crew sees the same forecast.  You sit on needles and pins for the next 3 hours checking the television screen every 3 minutes hoping for a change in the status of your flight when finally it changes and yes there it is the C-17 has left Christchurch and is headed in your direction!

I am now back home in Indiana.  In a few days when the jetlag wears off I will post my final thoughts on this amazing adventure that I was so lucky to have.


Final Thoughts:

     I am finally getting settled back in my routine and giving thought to the last 4 1/2 months in Antarctica.  To my surprise my time on the ice went exceptionally fast.  The question I have been asked the most is "what did you miss the most?"  Since the sun shines 24 hours a day I really missed darkness, I also missed not seeing cats and dogs.  Another question I have been asked is "what didn't you take that you wish you had?"  That's  pretty easy to answer I would take a lot more cold/flu medicine, chicken cup a soup and many boxes of really soft Kleenex. Living in close quarters with so many peoplr it is impossible to avoid beign sick and Antarctica is a bad place to be sick without being prepared. This experience was the most extreme thing I have ever done and after going through a rough couple of weeks of adjustment I can say I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of my adventure.  Yes it was very cold.  So cold it would take your breath away and leave you gasping for a breath.  The wind, wow the wind blows continually and  keeps everything coated in volcanic dust including your hair and skin. Sunglasses are worn 24 hours a day not just because the sun is always out but you also have to protect your eyes from the volcanic ash that is being driven by the wind.  The lack of humidity is shocking no really it's shocking, you are shocked every time you touch something and it's a good little jolt.  So about now I'll bet you are saying to yourself "why in the heck would you want to go there?"  Maybe I can answer that for you.  When you stand in McMurdo and look across the sound at the Royal Society Mountains ,the most majestic mountains I have ever seen, and in between the huge peaks are gorgeous glaciers that wind their way into the vast interior of Antarctica , it truly leaves you in awe.  Seeing Weddel seal pups and parents sunning themselves on the ice not 10 feet from where I'm driving is awesome.  Watching the Emporor Penguins standing on the ice in one spot for 4 weeks while they go through the moulting process is unbelievable.  Seeing the little Adelie Penguins march across the runway....How could I not want to go back ?