I have spent the past three days at McMurdo Station, waiting for the weather to clear enough for my flight to the South Pole to leave. The first day I didn’t do much other than explore the central buildings in town, because in order to go beyond that you have to complete a required outdoor safety training lecture. I already talked a little bit about McMurdo itself in my last post, so here I’ll just talk about the fun things I’ve done since getting clearance to venture beyond the town limits.
Long Duration Balloon Facility (LDB)
On the afternoon of my first full day at McMurdo, I went out to visit the Long Duration Balloon facility. This is where experiments that are going to be flown on high altitude balloons are assembled and tested. The balloons are huge — as big as a football field when fully inflated — and they fly right at the edge of space, three times higher than a commercial jet. One of the scientists working out there, Abby Vieregg, used to be a postdoc in my group, so she gave me a tour of her experiment (ANITA). She also introduced me to the team working on a second experiment (SPIDER), so I got a tour of that too. ANITA is looking for high-energy neutrinos and SPIDER is a competing experiment to the telescope I’m going down to work on — it looks at the CMB at the same two frequencies that our Keck Array can currently observe. Abby will be coming down to Pole in a couple of weeks to help out with our experiment after ANITA launches, so she and I will be spending lots of time together assembling Keck Array telescope receivers. It was fun to see what she is up to now, and to get out of town a bit. Driving out there was also a bit of an adventure — it’s out on the Ross Ice Sheet several miles from town and the wind was blowing like crazy, so the horizon was completely lost in blowing white snow and there were drifts across the road that dashed snow into the windshield every time the shuttle hit a bump. All roads and walking trails here are marked by a line of flags, so you don’t lose your way when visibility is low. I can see why you have to go through special drivers’ training to operate a vehicle in Antarctica!
As I mentioned, McMurdo is on the Antarctic coast. This time of year, it is still locked in by seasonal sea ice. Later in the season, the ice melts and more wildlife is spotted in town — last year there were lots of penguins and even whales! The ice probably won’t have melted enough for me to go whale watching on my way back north, but I’m hoping to see some penguins. Right now the open water can’t be seen from town unless you climb the highest hill around — from the top of ob hill, you can see a line of open water in the far distance.
Even when the coastline is still frozen solid, there is a whole other world under the ice. To access it, the people at McMurdo have lowered a metal tube through the ice sheet near shore. The observation tube (or “ob tube”) has an open area with thick glass windows at the bottom. So after a short climb down, you get a 360 degree view of the world under the ice.
The underside of the sea ice looks very different from the top. The top is smooth, but from the ob tube you can see that the bottom is covered in ice crystals! There are also giant underwater icicles extending downwards, which are also covered in ice crystals. Apparently sometimes you can spot seals and penguins, but at first I only saw lots of small fish. Most of them were smaller than my thumb and they seemed to travel in groups, sometimes swimming near the undersurface of the ice, sometimes just floating. The star of the show was a giant jellyfish that swam right up to us! Its main body was about the size of a dessert plate, but it had amazing tentacles that must have been at least six feet long. I had no idea jellyfish got so big here! We also heard seals — their calls sound oddly electronic underwater, with a repeatedly falling pitch that cuts off sharply.
Hut Point and Hut Point Ridge
On my second day here, the weather remained poor but I decided to go for a hike anyway. I think I’m adjusting to the weather here — it was 20 degrees and snowing and windy, but in my Extreme Cold Weather gear I stayed nice and toasty warm and I found myself thinking things like “Ah, what a day!” None of the surrounding mountains were visible due to the snow, so I decided to skip the scenic overlook and instead hiked out to Hut Point, and then back into town via the Hut Point Ridge Trail (about 4 miles round trip). Hut Point contains the historic Discovery Hut, where the British explorer Robert Scott and his team spent two winters during a failed attempt to reach the South Pole. (His later more famous attempt, during which he reached the Pole but didn’t survive the return journey, was several years later on a different trip.) The hut is still standing, as is a wooden cross at the end of the point of land that was erected by Scott’s team in memory of a team member who fell to his death off the ice near the spot. The hut is currently undergoing conservation work, but you can still get a pretty close view of the outside. Possibly the most exciting part of the hike was the moment when I first reached the point where I could see across to the far side of the peninsula — and discovered a family of eight seals resting on the ice! They were very cute, but not very energetic — in the time that I watched them one of them rolled over and flapped a flipper at me, but all of the others seemed completely asleep. Later on I also saw several skua (brown Antarctic gulls) — one of them was right next to the trail and I passed within a few feet of it, but it ignored me entirely. The trail climbed a ridge before eventually curving around to intersect a road leading back into town.
Today was my third full day in McMurdo and the clouds and snow of yesterday finally lifted, so I decided to take advantage of the better visibility to climb observation hill, or ob hill as it is known in town. Ob hill is the tallest point in the immediate vicinity of McMurdo, with an elevation of 750 feet. It is quite a scramble to climb up, but at the top climbers are rewarded with a 360 degree panorama of McMurdo and the surrounding area. The view from the top was beautiful — I could see all of the surrounding mountains and all the way out to the edge of the sea ice. I could see a bunch of black spots near the water’s edge, so it is possible that I have now seen penguins (at a very great distance)! Definitely too far away to say for sure though. I ran into a couple of other scientists on the way down. One girl was a grad student at the University of Kansas doing paleobiology and the other guy was a geochemist on her team. They are looking for fossils at a field camp near the edge of the ice cap, and are also stuck in town waiting for better weather.
So that’s pretty much what I’ve been up to for the past several days! At the time of this posting, my flight to the South Pole is scheduled for 10am tomorrow. Hopefully this time the weather will hold — and my next post will be from my new home at 90 degrees South!