On To a Quick Start

Without much time to get settled in and recover from the week-long travel, our Antarctic Biology Training Course started on Sunday from 8 am to 6:30 pm, with a brief break for lunch. So much effort has been put in to arrange our limited time here that we better make the most of it. Although the course seems to have been offered a dozen or so times since the early 1993, this particular offering has taken 6 years to implement. The funding was granted in 2012 for deployment in late 2013, but at the last minute the US government shut down (don’t get me started) and the course was called off. It took 4 years to make it happen again, although an austral winter course took place at Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula south of Chile in 2016. I’m really glad that another shutdown was avoided this year. Yet one more reason that makes this trip improbable.

Yesterday was spent listening to short conference-style presentations by each of the Course’s participants about their research. I gave mine on modeling ocean worlds and measuring the chemistry of Yellowstone extreme microbial communities. Only a handful of us here are astrobiologists, and instead we got to learn a lot about microbial physiology, evolutionary biology, or strategies for adaptation to the cold by tardigrades, birds, fish, and even squirrels (yay). The onus of the Course is on “integrative biology”, integrating molecular biology, microbiology, physiology, ecology, etc. from molecules to ecosystems. It’s meant for people who normally work in different university departments to talk with each other and break artificial boundaries between these branches of biology. We astrobiologists bring in an extra “interdisciplinary” dimension of cross-talk between biology and other disciplines such as geology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy (planetary science). Paying close attention to 20 presentations on such seemingly disparate topics and making connections between them was draining, but after dinner and a short refreshing walk around the base, we attended yet one more science lecture in the dining hall. These take place twice a week and anyone on the base can attend, from lab techs to cooks to mechanics.

We also started to learn a lot more about the schedule for our time here. The plan is to attend two science lectures each day at 8 am and 8 pm, and do research in the field or lab in between. Starting next Thursday (weather and logistics permitting), we’ll begin to conduct field work on the sea ice, provided it’s not too inaccessible. Apparently, the weather has been mostly sunny and near 0ºC for the past two weeks, and the sea ice is partially melted, which is not unusual at this time of year. Weddell seals are coming out through cracks in the ice and dotting the sound. And in a couple of weeks, the massive icebreaker Polar Star is scheduled to make its yearly resupply to the station, which will further fracture the ice. So, we’ll see what we can do! For now, it’s fantastic enough to discover the base and contemplate the stunning Transantarctic mountain range across Mc Murdo sound during every minute of free time.

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First Contact

“It doesn’t feel real until you touch the ice.”  The saying among those privileged to have traveled here before is a practical one: much like a space launch, so much can go wrong with flight preparations to the Antarctic that there is no way to tell if you’re going to go until the moment you do. But for me, it also takes the sensory input to realize that I am actually in freaking Antarctica, right now.

We awoke in Christchurch to a much nicer weather (albeit windier), which held promise as to our chances of flying out today, on the fifth try. My excitement of the initial attempt had worn off. I was ready to spend another day in New Zealand if need be, but tried to remain focused despite the early hour and short night so as not to forget or mess up any step of Thursday’s briefing. We donned our thermal underwear and ECW clothes, checked our bags, and headed to a solid breakfast (in case we boomerang, since we only get one brown bag lunch onboard). Still no contrary order came in, and I started to realize that this time might be it. We came back to the terminal for a couple of flight safety briefings. Not much differs from a commercial flight, except if the cabin loses pressure, we don’t get the dangling masks but some sort of autonomous inflatable fish bowl with an oxygen cartridge that we have to swap out every 10 minutes. We were also explained where to use the “bathroom”. As it is more like a corner hidden by a curtain, and requires acrobatics while fighting 4 layers of leg clothing, there was a strong incentive to make the most of our short post-briefing break.

Through customs formalities, security (no sharps, but liquids of any size allowed), and onboard the bus, off we went to the tarmac and the LC-130. Space aboard is larger than I thought: there is enough legroom to extend your legs horizontally, and the fishnets, padded by the parka, are actually quite comfy. The cabin is heated by the engines, so we got to smell jet fuel for 8 hours and experience pretty strong temperature swings. Earplugs are mandatory once the propeller engines are on. But on the whole, this was almost cushier than my flight to Auckland. And as a would-be astronaut hopeful, I couldn’t help but find similarities with a space station module, with uncovered pipes and items fastened and dangling everywhere you look.

1 pm came, 4 hours into the flight, and we didn’t turn back. Soon after, we began spotting broken sea ice through the clouds, and around 2:30 pm, mountains. The continent! Everyone jumped out of their seats to peek through the tiny windows. Some vistas were spectacular: smooth crests undulating on mountainsides (a skier’s dream), pockets of cracks, vertical drop-offs into the sea, reflections of the sun making icebergs float on gold water… Eventually we flew over Mc Murdo sound and strapped for landing, which was so smooth that I didn’t immediately realize we had touched down. I felt a little bit like Neil Armstrong stepping on the ice shelf, and true to the above saying, took off my glove to feel the ice. Already, the bus driver ushers us in. We quickly snap a few photos with the plane and Mts Erebus and Terror in the backdrop (first sighted during Cook’s expedition and summited by Shackleton’s party), just to be able to say we were there in case the continent suddenly magically vanishes.

This is not your city bus: the “Ivan” shuttles passengers on the snow routes and steep slopes that link the airfield, New Zealand’s Scott base, and Mc Murdo (all a few km apart). We first stop at Scott base to let off the 8 Kiwis who were on the flight. We’ll probably see them again during one of the nights open to Mc Murdo residents. The base is on land (Ross Island), but walking distance on the sea ice is a seal colony. A couple dozen leopard seals are sunbathing lazily this afternoon. Further out are the plane we took and a couple of others, with the Transantarctic mountains on the horizon. Quickly, we lose sight of Scott base, steeply climbing a hill behind which is Mc Murdo. We’ve arrived!

One more welcome briefing, after which we receive our room keys and a number of training assignments, and we’re off to dinner. The living and dining arrangements seem great, more on that later. At 8 pm, we meet again, this time in the science lab for a 2-hour intro to the course itself (more later as well). We then pick up our checked bags and move into our rooms. Tomorrow, we’re each giving a 20-min research talk. Since there are 20 of us, that’s the whole day. So much for the annual marathon that starts at 9 am… For now, time to acclimate physically and mentally to being in this extraordinary place.

I woke up this morning and we’re still in Antarctica. It’s real!!!

Hot Spring Delay

Well, we’re not there yet. This morning we woke up and after breakfast headed over to the Antarctic terminal. But we found out around 10:30 am, less than 3 hours before our scheduled departure, that the flight was postponed for 11 hours because of inclement weather. We don’t know if the weather issue is at McMurdo, on the way, or here in Christchurch (it’s raining today), but does it matter?

With 11 hours to kill, some chose to chill at the hotel, but the rain didn’t deter a few of us from getting crammed into a rental car headed to the Hanmer hot springs, 2 hours north of Christchurch. I was expecting hot springs in the wild (although we knew we could bathe in them and took a swimsuit accordingly), but the village turned out to be pretty touristy and the “springs” an aquapark with hot water. Still, it was pretty cool to duck the rain immersed in a warm sulfur-smelling bath surrounded by trees that look decidedly unlike anything we can see in the northern hemisphere. We also got to see impressive landscapes that must be stunning when not obscured by low clouds, drive through wine country, and see a plethora of sheep and cows along the way.

Once back in Christchurch, we learned that the flight was postponed one more hour, until 2 pm, which is just about hours away. Our group is getting ready for a night flight during which the sun will rise just because we’re going south (there is no night in Antarctica at the moment, it’s the middle of austral summer). Let’s see if we make it this time!

Edit: Never mind, new reporting time: 6:30 am tomorrow, likely for a 9 am take-off.

Hover over the pictures for captions, and click to enlarge.

 

Christchurch, Gateway to the Ice

Christchurch, New Zealand, is our last stop before getting to the Antarctic (“the ice”, as those who go there call it). We are spending a minimum of a couple of days here to ensure anyone or anything (checked bags) that got delayed on the way still has enough margin to catch the flight to McMurdo.

This is an opportunity to get a tiny glimpse of New Zealand. Although we are staying at an airport hotel, I went downtown with a few others from our group, a 40-min ride using the hotel’s free bicycles. In 2011, a strong earthquake hit Christchurch. The downtown area, which rests on soft ground, was most heavily damaged, and the death toll was above 100. The result is that the town seems to comprise 1/3 brand new buildings, 1/3 temporary-looking constructs, and 1/3 older edifices half-destroyed and supported by shipping containers. All streets were redone beautifully, in such a way that I got a weird vibe of 21st-century hip artsy development amidst a disaster relief area. Ultimately, if no further destruction occurs in the next few decades, Christchurch might become famed for being a snapshot of architecture in the 2010s.

Our short stay is also an opportunity to get briefed for our flight and equipped for our stay at the airport’s Antarctic terminal. The briefing videos warned us right away: Your are about to travel to Antarctica. Your natural and societal environments are about to change. Radically.” We were explained how to avoid disturbing the continent’s environment. For example, there is a sophisticated recycling system. All trash from all of McMurdo’s 850 or so temporary residents is reused or shipped back from Antarctica. In short: Be a steward of this extraordinary place. This stewardship is your present to those who will follow“, wise words that I wish would translate into action everywhere else on the planet.

The logistics of our flight are complex. We are flying on a C-130 Hercules, a relatively small and slow military plane. Each passenger can bring a carry-on bag and up to 85 lbs / 39 kg of checked luggage (mine is 26 lbs / 12 kg). One of the checked bags is called a “boomerang bag”, which will be returned to us if it turns out that we can’t make it to McMurdo and remain stuck in Christchurch. That happens pretty often: even after the flight has left New Zealand, conditions in McMurdo’s ice runway can become unsuitable for landing and the plane has to turn back. Given that the flight is 8 hours one way sitting in fishnets, that’s not great news. “Luckily” for us, the C-130 can’t carry enough fuel for a round-trip. A weather call will be made in the morning to decide whether to fly at all. If we take off, the crew will make another weather call 4 hours into the flight. Past that point, we’re committed to landing in McMurdo, no matter the conditions there.

We’re also not sure if everyone will be able to make it on the flight: the expectation is that for typical passenger and luggage weight, the plane will fit about 37 or 38 people. Less weight means more people, more weight means less will fly tomorrow. Everything is always up in the air (no pun intended), and apparently that’s one of the things we have to get used to when working in the Antarctic.

During the flight and when we deplane at McMurdo, we’ll have to wear our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. This means we got to try it on today to make sure everything fits. We were each given two orange bags with a parka, snow pants, fleece jacket, fleece pants, wind jacket, mitts, gloves, glove liners, snow goggles, snow “bunny” boots, winter hat, bataclava, and a neck gaiter. We need to be ready for any temperature between -40ºF/C and +40ºF/5ºC, so the key is layering. Putting everything on was fun but felt like being in a sauna. Meanwhile, my computer was being scanned for viruses, a prerequisite to allow connection to McMurdo’s internet. Understandably, they don’t want it to go down because of a newcomer’s infected computer. I was scanned for viruses too: a nurse took my temperature, and will do so again tomorrow before boarding.

With all these potential caveats, we’ll be lucky to make it according to plan! Our flight is scheduled at 2 pm (changed twice today from 10 am, then 1 pm), which means we should arrive by 10 pm New Zealand time. If all goes well, the next post will be from the white continent.

Hover over the pictures for captions.

 

Past Antarctic Exploration

The intense preparations for deployment in McMurdo didn’t leave much time, but I couldn’t resist reading about the thrill, triumph, and tragedies of Antarctic exploration. In brief, the existence of a “Terra Australis” was postulated a few centuries ago, mostly on the grounds that it would compensate for the relative lack of known land in the Southern Hemisphere compared to the North. In the 18th century, James Cook led expeditions that ventured into the Southern Ocean in search of a continent, but repeatedly had to turn back without being able to go far enough south. Antarctica was first sighted in the early 19th century, and (presumably) the first humans to step on it landed in the Antarctic peninsula south of Patagonia around 1820. In the 20 or so years that followed, expeditions by ship performed the reconnaissance of much of Antarctica’s coast. This included the discovery by Ross of the eponymous bay and ice shelf south of New Zealand, where the coast is as far south as 77º latitude (much of Antarctica’s coast is nearer 70º S). Ross discouraged further exploration of Antarctica, as I believe he thought it was not worth the effort. But when expeditions resumed at the turn of the century, they would strategically land as far south as possible in the Ross sea area.

Interest for terrestrial magnetism and the drive to reach the South pole spurred renewed efforts to explore the Antarctic, starting in the closing years of the 19th century. This “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration lasted until the early 1920s, when mechanical exploration (by airplane, etc.) ensued. I was particularly impressed reading the accounts of the expeditions led by Shackleton (UK), Scott (UK), and Amundsen (Norway). Each of these expeditions lasted 3 to 4 years. In the first year, the parties would sail down from Europe, resupply the ships at a couple of stops on the way, and set up a hut on the coast of Antarctica (in these cases the Ross ice shelf, close to where McMurdo Station is today) by mid-austral fall. A small party would spend the winter (“winter-over”) at the hut while the ship would sail back north to Australia or New Zealand in order to avoid being crushed by the pressures of the sea ice. During winter-over, preparations would be made to launch explorations on land the following summer (Year 2). Some of these included attempts for a party of a few to reach the South Pole, roughly a 2000-mile (3000-km) round-trip journey on sleigh pulled by dogs, ponies, or men. In Year 3 (or 4, if the parties didn’t come back to the coast in time by mid-fall), the ships would sail back to Europe.

Around 1902, the “Discovery” expedition (they are named after the ship used to travel to Antarctica), led by Robert Scott, was well on its way to reaching the South Pole, but one of the party members, Ernest Shackleton, fell sick (scurvy, I think) and they had to turn back. Scott made it clear that Shackleton was to blame for their failure to achieve one the expedition’s key goals. This soured the relationship between them. Back in England, Shackleton sought to outdo Scott and planned his own expedition, which left around 1907 aboard the Nimrod. Unlike Scott, Shackleton did not have the support of the Royal Geographical Society, and as a result had to pull together the expedition from scraps. Amazingly, his party almost reached the South Pole, turning back only 97 miles away short of food. This prompted Scott to launch his second expedition aboard the Terra Nova in 1909. On their way, his party learned that a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, had left Europe aboard the Fram to do just the same. Back then, you had to announce your plans ahead of time, and the fact that Amundsen didn’t was a no-no in explorers’ circles. In fact, Amundsen’s initial intent was to shoot for the North Pole, but it turned out that the Pole had been reached for the first time the previous year, by two different parties. (Back then the news of an expedition’s outcome had to await the return of the party, so it always took a few months.) It seemed like Scott and Amundsen would be down at the same time, racing to the Pole.

Indeed, shortly after setting up their hut on the Ross ice shelf, the Terra Nova went on a short trip along the shelf coast and stumbled upon Amundsen’s group. Exchanges were civil, the teams inviting each other for meals aboard the ship and on land. But when Scott, who had stayed behind, got the news, he was not happy. The teams wintered over at their respective locations and did not further communicate. When the sun rose for the first time in late August, Amundsen asked his party of 5 men to hasten preparations and get on their way asap, if they were to beat Scott. They left early in the austral spring, but had to turn around as the weather was still too cold. A second start a few weeks later went much better, but they would have to open their own route to the pole, traveling by sleigh pulled by 58 dogs. Scott’s party, in contrast, would follow the route opened by Shackleton two years earlier. Their methodical, military-style plan involved a comparatively larger party with more supplies traveling by sleigh pulled by dogs and ponies. Much of the crew would turn back along the way, and only 5 men ended up on the last segment to the pole, pulling sleighs themselves. For both expeditions, the plan was to kill and eat dogs (Amundsen; only 11 dogs made it back) and ponies (Scott, as the British refused to eat dogs) on the way, burying extra food in caches for the way back. This way, they carried only the minimum.

Scott’s party reached the pole in January of 1912. A few kilometers away from their goal, they spotted a Norwegian flag and found Amundsen’s tent, raised a few weeks earlier, with a message asking Scott to bring the news of Amundsen’s success to the king of Norway. Amundsen’s lightweight party pulled by sleigh dogs had travelled fast and had had no major difficulty opening their new route. The return was similarly quick, and they were able to sail north, avoiding being trapped for an extra winter-over on the continent. Scott’s party did not fare so well. On the return journey, his party was plagued by frostbite and some men got sick. They had trouble finding their food caches. One man died, then another. Eventually, Scott and his last two crewmates died of cold and starvation just about 15 miles / km short of a large food depot, having almost made it back to the coast. They knew they were this close, and yet could do nothing about it. Their bodies were found by other expedition members who went to look for them after winter had passed. Scott’s diary and expedition photos told their story.

If you’re interested in more details, I’d recommend reading the Wikipedia articles linked above about these various expeditions. They link to accounts by expedition members themselves (books, photos), which are in the public domain. I’ve just had somewhat of an expedition of my own, having rung the New Year in New Orleans, jumped on a plane in the middle of the night to DC, switched luggage, and flown to Houston, then Auckland (a 15-hour flight), and finally Christchurch where I’m awaiting briefings and extreme cold weather gear. Still, this is much more comfortable than a 1-year journey on a small ship. I’ve met much of my group, this is going to be a fun bunch.

 

Left: the Terra Nova viewed from a cave in an iceberg. Scott hired a professional photographer to document the expedition. Top right: Amundsen’s party, victorious at the South Pole. Bottom right: the modern-times 787 ship that took me to Auckland.

Final Preparations

Nine months ago, I received news in a planetary science newsletter about a biology-oriented training program for early-career scientists in McMurdo Station, Antarctica. The focus was on biological adaptations to short-term environmental change. As an astrobiologist used to doing computer models of ocean worlds beyond Earth, I thought this was a long shot. The only organisms I’ve looked at live in much hotter places (the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park). But hey, I wasn’t going to pass a chance to go to Antarctica. I was supposed to hear back in June about the outcome of my application, but as I’d find out later, the logistics of coordinating the travel, accommodation, and activities of a group of people on the white continent are pretty daunting. So, I was told to wait. By early September, I thought there was no way that the organizers would be able to put together the program in just 3 months until the austral summer, when the Antarctic is most accessible. I had mostly given up on the idea. The next week, I received the “congratulations” email: I had the chance to head to McMurdo between Jan. 1 and Feb. 5, give or take a few days depending on weather and logistics.

Since, every day has felt like sprinting through a marathon: talking to the powers that be (at work and at home) to let me go away for a month, changing New Year plans with family, passing physical qualification medical exams (goodbye wisdom teeth!), making travel arrangements, but most importantly, learning a ton about living in and packing for Antarctica. Because several of these steps can go wrong, the whole endeavor has felt weirdly uncertain, and still does: I am right now in southern Louisiana, where I’ve been since mid-December and the American Geophysical Union meeting in New Orleans. After ringing the New Year there with family, I plan to catch a flight in the middle of the night back to Washington DC where I have a 5-hour window to go home, drop off the Louisiana bags, grab the Antarctica bags, and head back to the airport. Assuming there are no delays in DC (looking at you, freezing weather) and I don’t forget to repack essentials, I should make it to Houston, Auckland and Christchurch in New Zealand by Jan. 3. There, I’ll meet the rest of the group and we’ll receive Extreme Cold Weather clothing. If I’m not sick (they’ll check one last time) and the weather in McMurdo obliges, we’ll fly south on Jan. 5, an 8-hour trip on a military Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which hopefully won’t turn into a 16-hour round-trip so long as the conditions are good enough for us to land on the ice…

In the meantime I’ll be enjoying this last day with family. I plan to post updates every couple days or so, as the schedule and web bandwidth permit. Happy New Year!

 

Southern Louisiana is pretty much the opposite of a frozen desert… It’s going to be quite the change!