It snowed all day yesterday, and although the weather was still Condition 3 (the highest level), it was decided that we wouldn’t see well enough on the sea ice for our field training. So we had to rework the schedule, which we’re used to at this point, and instead do all the possible indoor training: sea ice “theory”, GPS, and ice edge operations.
To get to many of our field sites on the sea ice, we’re going to drive. Drive what? Vehicles like PistenBullys, snowmobiles, and Hägglunds. Some are quite modern, some might date back to the Korean war (a few years before Mc Murdo was built). All are quite heavy. Can they make it without breaching through the ice and sinking all passengers? The good news is that if there is any ice at all, it’s a couple of meters (6 ft) thick. Even when the ice is warmest, as is the case this month, it will break up instead of thinning (unlike on freshwater lakes). What we have to watch for, then, is cracks. Each vehicle can cross cracks no larger than 1/3 of the length of its “wheels” (tracks). That’s up to 90 cm (3 ft)-wide cracks, not bad! If the crack is wider, we have to measure the ice depth at various places through the crack. There are minimum thickness requirements for each vehicle (around 30-50 cm / 12-18 in) that depend on the ice temperature. With all these guidelines in hand, we should be able to travel safely. If a vehicle breaches (it’s happened once so far this year), we can still escape by a roof hatch and get the crack named after us, a guarantee to be infamously remembered for years to come.
We’re supposed to use good judgement when navigating from the base to the field sites, and two tools are guiding us: flag routes laid out by the amazing science support staff who’s been training us, and a GPS. These become especially useful if the visibility decreases to the point where we can’t see landmarks. We got acquainted with the GPS units and demoed them by walking around the base along a pre-programmed route. We have to be careful that the batteries don’t die in the cold and carry spares. Finally, when working at the sea ice edge to collect water, starfish, etc., the goal is to not fall in the water, so we’re tied into a rope. This is much like rock climbing, except in addition to a harness we’re wearing a deflated (and inflatable) life jacket that’s also tied in. All this is anchored into an extra strong V-shaped double hole in the ice. Two field staff members will assist us and lift us out if we fall, and we’re carrying a full supply of extra dry clothes, survival gear, and hypothermia wraps.
That still made for a relatively light day, which left us time to explore some of Mc Murdo’s indoor amenities. After dinner, we attended a new “Science Coffee” event to foster conversations between scientists and staff. This took place at the Coffee House, which looks like an abandoned silo when you walk past it but inside is a fully equipped café, bar and lounge. The same goes with each of Mc Murdo’s three gyms: the “gerbil” gym full of treadmills, a yoga/weights room behind the galley, and a basketball/indoor team sports gym by the helipad. After Science Coffee, we went to play ping-pong and basketball, probably on one of the southernmost courts on the planet.
Today the weather has improved, so we’re preparing for a reboot of the sea ice training: ECW bag, packed lunch, snacks, water, no cotton clothing, spare socks and hat, goggles, pee bottle (yes, we care about the environment, what did you think?) and make sure we don’t forget anything. This should be fun!