Wednesday, December 8, 2010 — In the hut, McMurdo Station, 7:15 a.m.
Wed, 12/08/2010 - 7:15am
I woke up about 3:30 a.m. and it is still daylight outside—really odd. Breakfast was scheduled for 5:30 this morning, and we were supposed to be packed and ready to leave for our trip to the South Pole Station. The plane was scheduled to leave at 7:15 a.m. and it is a two-and-a-half-hour flight, due south. A little before we were scheduled to go to breakfast our host came in and informed us that the Pole was snowed in and the “weather was declining.” Our host is trying to rearrange the schedule so that we can go to the Dry Valleys today and perhaps the Pole tomorrow. The saying here is that “man makes the plans and God controls the weather.”
We are now scheduled to leave at around 9 a.m. and to travel by helicopter to fly over and then stop and visit several “camps” – outposts of scientists who are conducting research at remote locations. We are all sitting in the hut trying to catch up on things and waiting. Our “hut” consists of eight very small bedrooms (each one 7-foot by 10-foot), each with a bed, closet desk and chair, a small kitchen and living area, and two small bathrooms. It’s more like a doublewide trailer than a residence.
Outside it is completely light – very sunny, which makes it seem hard to believe that the Pole is completely socked in. The constant daylight really throws off your body’s natural rhythms and makes you very much aware of why it is such a challenge to stay here in the winter when it is always dark.
The pattern of the sun is very interesting. It sits about 25 degrees off the horizon 24/7 this time of year and then just rotates around the horizon in a circle. The elevation changes slightly by a few degrees because we are still 800 miles north of the Pole, which causes some asymmetry, but it never goes overhead – you could draw a clock in the dirt on the ground and tell exactly what time it is by where the sun is. Last night we were sitting up working in the living area and one of our team members suggested that we close the drapes and turn on the lights so that our bodies would think it was nighttime. I noticed a physiological change in a very short time. I’m thinking that if we had not closed the drapes, I would still be sitting in the same place, wide-awake.
The five of us and our guide and the pilot all boarded the helicopter, a Bell 212, that holds eight. We are limited to what we can carry by weight, but are required to carry our ECW emergency bag in case the helicopter goes down – one did a couple of months ago. With all these bags full of clothes and heavy coats, there is absolutely no room and we are packed in like sardines. No need to worry about a crash, there is so much padding with all the coats it would cushion even the most severe landing!
The McMurdo Dry Valleys were discovered in 1903 by Robert Scott and are very unusual in Antarctica. Most of the continent is covered with thick layers of ice. The “Dry Valleys” are divided into three fairly distinct environmental zones. Near the coast and in the valley floors, the soil is wet and constantly freezes and thaws depending on the storms and temperature: in clear weather the 24/7 sunlight heats up the dark earth and then during storms it refreezes. Moving inland and up in altitude, it gets much dryer and you see very little sign of moisture. Moving still further inland —westward and higher — there are massive glaciers that are scraping away the land, etching out valleys and lakes.
Much of the land between the glaciers is free of ice and is just barren soil and rocks. You wonder how it can be so dry with so much ice around. The climate is affected by the mile-high Transantarctic Mountains, which block the valleys from the eastern glaciers. Some of the glaciers in the dry valley have crept through the low spots in the mountains, creating five lakes and a few smaller surrounding glaciers.
The Dry Valley region is absolutely spectacular. The temperature is around minus-15 degrees Celsius, but varies considerably, but the real issue is the wind. There are mummified carcasses of Weddell and crabeater seals that are between 2,500 and 3,200 years old – the dry cold preserves them quite well. No one seems to be able to figure out how or why they travelled so far inland and you can actually still see the tracks of some of the seals. The climate here is like another planet. In fact, some think it is actually in some ways quite similar to that of Mars and in many ways looks much like the images we have seen of Mars. Geologically, nothing much has happened here for 20 or 30 million years. There are many places where the ground is “patterned” typically in polygons caused by the freeze-thaw cycles and the repeated expansion and contraction.
We visited several camps, work stations where the folks are living and working in pretty severe conditions, sleeping in tents. The common spaces are very small, but warm. Lots of very interesting work is going on: investigating the life in the ocean, ice cores, the Dry Valleys, biological eco-structure, searching for fossils to see how things live in these harsh climates, and going places where no one has ever gone before. Our first stop was Lake Fryxell, where there are about 15 people living and working. Most stay for three to five months. From there on to Lake Hoare, which is a little smaller but has a little better facilities (an actual indoor toilet – no running water in it, but it is heated). From there we flew along the Ice Edge, a cliff of ice that is almost perfectly vertical and up to 200 feet high. Out in the middle of the bay not far from the Ice Edge, we saw pieces of the glaciers that have broken off and drifted out into the ocean and are then floating and become frozen in the ice floe, again, straight vertical ice cliffs hundreds of feet high. On the surface of the ice sheet, it is absolutely breathtaking. Some of the ice is blue due to the pressures caused by compaction.
From there we went to the hut that was constructed by Shackleton for his 1903 expedition. They sailed there and were dropped off in summer, building a hut that was about 20 feet by 30 feet to house 27 men. They wintered there along with horses and dogs for the six-month winter and explored Antarctica. Finally we stopped at Scott’s Hut, which was only slightly bigger and housed nearly 30 men for the winter just before his fatal journey to the South Pole and the return trip where he and four others froze to death.
We finally landed at around 7 p.m. and then went over to dinner and are now back in our hut. I am not sending many pictures because they don’t like us to use the bandwidth, which is very limited. We are getting ready for another try for the South Pole tomorrow.
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