Welcome to Antarctica

After 4 days of travel, I finally arrived in Antarctica on Friday afternoon. Antarctica is 21 hours ahead of Arizona time (it is on New Zealand time) so it was Thursday evening back in the states.

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Sea-ice as seen from the plane down from Christchurch

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View of the continent from Ross Island. The Ross Ice Shelf is in the foreground.

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Me at LDB with Mt Erebus in the background.

We left from Phoenix at 6 PM on Monday afternoon. We had a fairly long layover in LAX, and then had a 15 hour flight to Sydney. We had a pretty quick turnaround in Sydney and then flew to Christchurch, NZ. T All said and done, we spent 29 hours in planes or airports, and it because of the 12 hour dateline crossing, we didn’t land until Wednesday afternoon.

The following morning, we checked into the Clothing Distribution Center for orientation. We all got a final flu shot since they are very concerned with people getting sick out “on the ice”. We also had a computer screening and several safety briefs. After those were done, we went to get our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear issued to us. We tried everything on and packed our bags into bright orange duffels. The ECW gear is a parka nicknamed ‘Big Red’, a pair of snowpants, waterproof boots called ‘bunny boots’, a lighter jacket, a hat and balaclava, goggles, liner gloves and outer gloves, and a fleece pullover and pants. Depending on what your job is, you might not need ALL of that gear, but Bog Red is a must for the cold!

Friday morning we had to check into the CDC at 5:30 AM, so we caught our shuttle at 4:45 AM. We had another round of safety briefs, and had all of our luggage and ourselves weighed (fun). Then we took a shuttle out to the Spirit of the Medal of Honor, the C-17 taking us down to Antarctica. The C-17 is the second largest US Air Force plane, and is mostly used for cargo. There are only small portals to look out of the plane. The seats are fold-down seats mounted to the sides of the aircraft and face the other side of the plane, not forward. It turns out that the C-17 is such a large aircraft that the ride was actually very smooth. I did get to go up to the cockpit of the plane and take some pictures out of the front windows.

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Arriving in Antarctica. Everybody must wear their outer layers of ECW gear during the plane ride and landing. You can see the white ‘bunny boots’. Most of the plane holds cargo, and there were only ~15 people on our flight, which is small for this time of year.

The flight takes 5 hours to reach Antarctica. McMurdo station is not actually located on the continent, but is on Ross Island which is the furthest point south accessible by sea. Ross Island is surrounded by a permanent ice shelf (Ross Ice Shelf), which is where the Long Duration Balloon (LDB) hangars are.The plane lands on the ice shelf on regular tires, not on skis. McMurdo has ~1000 people in the summer and ~200 people in the winter. It is the largest of any base in Antarctica. It is 77 degrees south, almost directly underneath New Zealand (2500 miles to the north). It is still another 900 miles down to the South Pole. There is a smaller American base at the Pole, and one on the Antarctic Peninsula underneath Chile/Argentina. The average summer temperature is between 0-25 F, but the wind chill often makes it feel much colder. The South Pole is approximately 10,000 ft in elevation, and so there are gravitationally-driven winds coming off the continent making it very windy most of the time. It will still snow in the summer, although it is much colder, stormier, and snowier in the winter.

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McMurdo station as seen from the tip of Observation Hill. You can see that a lot of the snow melts in the summer. Ross Island is volcanic, ansd so the rocks and dirt are all very dark and absorb heat easily. By the end of January, a lot of the sea ice will melt as well.

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Boarding the Kress transport vehicle after we landed. We take the Kress to the LDB balloon hangar every day as well.

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Glacier on the continent of Antarctica. It was beautifully lit from a part in the clouds.

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Helicopter about to land at McMurdo.

After we had settled into our rooms, Chris and I took a hike up Observation Hill, which was used by Scott and his crew began their voyage in 1911. There is a cross at the top as a monument to those who perished returning from the south pole during the expedition.

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Panoramic view from on top of Observation Hill.

The ballooning facility is located ~10 miles from the McMurdo base on the Ross Ice Shelf. It is called LDB for Long Duration Ballooning facility. There are two hangars, each with a different balloon project. There are several other supporting buildings and offices at the camp. The launch pad is behind the hangars and stretches in a circular pattern with a diameter of 2000 ft along the ice shelf. The ice is about 30 yards thick here and is permanent year round, unlike sea ice which is much thinner and recedes throughout the summer. The exact location of the LDB changes slightly each ear as the ice shifts. The buses must traverse a crevasse field on their way to and from base.

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Welcome flags at LDB field location.

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The LDB balloon station. STO-2 is in the right hangar this year. The launch area is behind everything.

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Mt. Erebus as seen from LDB. It is an active volcano, and sometimes you can see ash coming out of the top. While it looks close, it takes nearly a day to reach the base by snowmobile.

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Weddell seal basking in the midnight sun. There is 24 hours of daylight at this time of year in McMurdo. This picture was taken at ~8 PM.

I am still getting settled into life on the base and preparing for launch. I will post again soon about the progress of the pre-flight assembly.

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