McMurdo in November

Friday, 1 November 1996
Winter has ended at the South Pole. The mini-WinFly, "double shuttle" has been down and back, bringing with it mail, freshies, and new faces. Originally, today's flights were scheduled for Monday, but the weather down there has been particularly antarctic this week - ambient temperatures of -48°F (-43°C) and a multi-day storm that obliterated the skiway have kept the planes here. The delays have pushed back the official station opening until Wednesday, at least. I don't know when my trip will be.

In the meantime, the week has gone by pretty fast.

Monday, 4 November 1996
We've gotten more snow today in an hour than in all of the past three weeks combined. The yellow light on the weather tower isn't on, but according to Weather, it's Condition 2 in town and Condition 1 on the ice shelf. Flights are being cancelled left and right. We haven't had a plane in from Chch, in days. The camp put-in at Siple Dome still hasn't flown. It's no surprise, considering we can't see the runway from town. In fact, we can't see anything from town; there's just a white wall that starts as soon as you step off the island.

Tuesday, 5 November 1996
Snow, snow and more snow. It was snowing when I went to breakfast, it was snowing at lunch and it was snowing when I went to bed. When the coffee house closed, a bunch of us ran around out front, trying to have a snowball fight, but as warm as it was (+16°F (-9°C)), the snow was too cold and dry to stick together and the snowballs crumbled instantly. Huge flakes fell thick and slow, like the classic Christmas snow at home. If it had been dark out, the only thing missing would have been the smell of wood-burning fireplaces.

This morning was a blast. The guys from S-328 - "Live from Antarctica" - wanted the kids at home to see how computers support science, and asked me to show them a few of the things I've done down here. I talked about the digitized map of Ross Island I scanned for Jocelyn Turnbull of S-005, (Art DeVries' group that studies antarctic fish), penguin rookery sunrise/sunset charts I made for Anika Dayton of S-026 (Gerry Kooyman's group that studies penguin behavior), and my home page with all the cool pictures. LFA airs next January, live from Palmer Station.

Wednesday, 6 November 1996
My day got off to an early start when the phone rang at 06:45. I answered it, but nobody was there, just a radio playing in the background. After shouting, "hello" several times, I unplugged the phone and tried to catch another few winks before it was time to go to work. No dice. My roommate's pager went off not two minutes later. I called the number back, just to get them to stop calling, and found that James, my roommate, had missed the transportation time for his flight to Pole. His stuff was all here, packed and ready to go, but he was at breakfast. He ran in, breathless, about ten minutes later, grabbed his gear and ran. I haven't seen him tonight, which means he must have made it.

Once I was actually awake and moving, it was gorgeous outside, like when you're a kid, and it's the morning after a big snowstorm, and school is cancelled, and it's all white and sunny with blue skies, and it's a perfect day to play in the snow, except we didn't get to, because it was a work day like any other, and our pre-planned trip to Cape Evans was postponed because the wind kicked up and cut visibility on the flagged route down to three flags. It was all the more frustrating that by 23:00, the winds died down and the sun was out and it was as nice as it's been all season.

Despite the afternoon winds driving two days of snow onto the sea ice, we got our first '141 in almost a week. Vis was so bad that departure was delayed to give the ground blizzard time to clear. I think this plane was almost all beakers. Now that Pole is open, scientists are flooding in for that; plus, the Nathaniel B. Palmer is pulling up to the ice edge on Saturday and switching crew and science events; and, we got seven new McMurdo science groups, just on this one flight. I wonder if there was room for any mail.

After a pretty lame and forgettable dinner, I went to the coffee house to play darts. I won at 501 and lost at cricket, then threw practice throws 'til closing time. It wasn't ever very crowded, probably due to the bingo game over at the Southern Exposure. I had a much more relaxing evening where I was.

Thursday, 7 November 1996
After dinner, Cape Evans trip.

Saturday, 6 November 1996
Record warm - 29F (by 3F). Helped LFA

Monday, 11 November 1996
Tonight at the greenhouse was anything but ordinary. I went in, as usual, to fill the humidifiers, jot down the environmental statistics (temperature, humidity, water pH, and water conductivity), add chemicals and give the place the once-over. My routine inspection turned up somthing that wasn't routine. I had been wondering, in past weeks, why there always seemed to be a puddle of water under the #1 System, the lettuce rack furthest from the front door. I finally discovered the cause: this system circulates its water from top to bottom through a system of PVC pipes to a pump that is attached to the hard lines with rubber hose. I could see the algae stains through the translucent wall of the hose, and I could see the cracks in its surface. I merely touched it, just to see how brittle it was. I was rewarded with a face full of water. I quickly shut off the pump, but because it was an impeller type, the water kept flowing, albeit much less forcefully. The lifebood of half our fresh lettuce was literally spilling out onto the ground. I found a cut-off valve on the wall and spent the next hour searching the greenhouse for a similar-sized hose to repair the breach. Unsucessful, I called down to the Galley, for Lenore Hinson, the greenhouse manager. She found some thick-walled, clear tubing from I don't know where, and between the two of us, we had the water back in circulation with only a gallon or two on the floor. If this had happened on its own with no one around, we would have lost the upper racks for sure (over 50 lettuce plants), an inconvenience in the summer, but a catastrophe in the depths of winter.

Wednesday, 13 November 1996
The weather at Pole this week has been singularly bad. Flights are backed up for days. Nobody is going anywhere. Even flights to Siple Dome camp on the other edge of the Ross Ice shelf are being cancelled, one after the other.

Friday, 15 November 1996
We've had two mail flights this week (with 7000 lbs. of package mail still waiting to come down) and I finally got my WinFly pictures back. The aurora shots from September 19th were absolutely stunning. The twilight shot of town from Hut Point was pretty special, too.

Saturday, 16 November 1996
Finished moving. Party at Scott Base. Missed first shuttle, caught second shuttle. Outrageous costumes, came right back and went to dance party at Southern. Ducked out. Went to coffee house. Went back. finished out night at Erebus. Early evening.

Sunday, 17 November 1996
As usual for a Sunday, the first order of business was brunch, which was, unlike so many meals recently, merely unremarkable. Afterwards, I caught the first shuttle of the day over to Scott Base to pick up a few items at their canteen. I hurried back so I could catch the open house at the Fire House. It was mostly a tour of the facility and the myriad of acoutrements, but we did get to don proper coats and gloves and put out a small gasoline fire with a "BC" dry chem extunguisher. From there, went straight to the coffee house to show this week's installment of Babylon 5, followed by dinner.

On my way back to my room from dinner, Jocelyn (S-005) mentioned to me that her group's annual sushi dinner was going on right at that moment. I dropped by the dorm 208 lounge, but most of the food was already gone. There was only a little grilled antarctic cod (Dissostichus Mawsoni) and just a taste of sashimi left. It wasn't the first time I've had the local cod (which is a byproduct of the search for answers in the fish's blood), but it was the first time I've managed to catch the sushi party and taste it raw. It was incredible. The meat was absolutely white, firm and had no fishy taste. It was like a firmer, paler version of maguro tuna. I haven't had Japanese food since I left the States; it's one of the things that's lacking down here.

I wouldn't have missed the science lecture tonight for anything. Dr. Zaire (S-058?) gave his take on the search for life in martian metorites. He doesn't seem to be as enthusiastic that the data support the claims made in the media of proof of primitive extra-terrestrial life, but does believe that we need to gather more rocks and establish that what was found is not an isolated occurrence.

Rather than go back to the coffee house, I stayed in, watching tapes in my room of The Simpsons and Dr. Who.

Tuesday, 19 November 1996
I got the e-mail today; my trip to Pole has been cancelled indefinitely, probably the worst news I've received all season. I've been looking forward to this trip for nine months, and now I don't know when or if I'm going back.

Wednesday, 20 November 1996
It was another warm and sunny day today: +29°F (-2°C). The "streets" are grooved by the melt-runoff from the uphill side of town. I think the things were more impassable last year, but that's no surprise, there was more snow on the ground a year ago. The roads between the dorms and MWR, between the Galley and Medical, and between Crary and the Chalet were especially bad. Some of the ruts are four to six inches deep.

Today brought us the first mail flight in many days; we even got package mail. At half-past nine, I spotted the mail flag (up at MCC) from my room. My roommate, Chris, and I, wandered up the hill and both struck paydirt! He got a videotape from home, and I got the latest Babylon 5 from my friend, George. I stayed up 'til 02:00 to watch it.

Tuesday, 26 November 1996
Snow. Flights cancelled from Chch and to Pole. Several inches and still falling. While preparing for another Thai dinner at Hut 10, got a call about boondoggle on Friday to Cape Royds.

Power outage at lunch. Down to two engines. Brownouts in some buildings, blackouts in others.

Stopped by Greenhouse and B-133 at lunch. Just a shell with some studs.

Wednesday, 27 November 1996
Last night, I cooked Thai food in Hut 10. It was a simple, yet fiery meal, Thom Yum Goong soup, vegetable green curry, chicken yellow curry, and a nearly hot enough red beef curry. There haven't been any freshies in days; there were no cucumbers to be had in town, except the one I picked at the greenhouse a couple of weeks ago. I was glad to have it for the vinegared cucumber salad.

Just for kicks, once we'd mostly finished the food, I brought out a bottle of the hottest hot sauce I've ever had - "Endorphine Rush". To demonstrate it's potency for my guests, I teased a bit of sauce on a tine of my fork, no larger than a grain of rice. I ate it with a bite of chicken and waited for the kick; I was not disappointed. Thai dinner. Really, really hot. Hung out in Hut 10 'til midnight. The curried chicken at lunch today was dismal by comparison. We just couldn't bring ourselves to eat.

11" of snow! Snowed all night and all morning. No flights in or out. 56 folks on next flight north, including several for NBP port call.

Thursday, 28 November 1996
The weather finally broke and we got planes from both directions. Russians came in on their way to Vostok and the first flight from Pole in several days brought out the last few of their winter-overs. The Galley was crowded, even at 18:30 when I went.

Friday, 29 November 1996
This morning is my boondoggle to Royds, maybe. The winds are over 20 knots, the windchill is -29°F (-33°C), and Brooks Montgomery, our instructor, says that the fresh snow is covering over any new cracks and blanketing the trail. We may only get as far as the Barne Glacier. Hauling all my ECW gear up to B-138 into the teeth of the wind was certainly ugly. Tacking on another 35 knots from the motion of the skidoo will make it excruciating.

At quarter past nine, eight of us plus Brooks piled into the Hägglund, bound for the VXE-6 transition where the skidoos are parked. Unlike the Nansen sleds we use on the ice shelf, on the sea ice, we have box trailers on skis, large enough for a person and a couple of survival bags. Brooks gave us a quick lesson in skidoo operation (prime before a cold start, lean in on slow turns, don't ram the skidoo in front of you), and we were on our way. I drove on the first leg.

On the way out to Cape Royds, I wished for better weather. I got my wish. For the first half-hour, it didn't look good. There was a stiff offshore crosswind blowing snowsnakes across our path and the sun was hiding behind patchy clouds. At one point, Brooks stopped to take a GPS waypoint and to ask us if we wanted to keep going and see how far we could go. We all wanted to press on. The weather got worse before it got better, but it did finally get better, about the time we passed Little Razorback island. The clouds broke up, the sun peeked out and the wind shifted to our backs.

When we got to the Barne glacier, we turned left off the flagged route to locate a crossing point over a two foot crack in the sea ice that appears every year at just about the same point. Because it is caused, in part, by the sea ice trying to flow around the point of the Barne Glacier, it has been dubbed the Barne Crack, and is what stopped yesterday's trip from proceeding. One extra day of sun and wind was enough, however, to cause the snow to sag a sufficient amount to reveal the crack. Brooks drilled two holes, one on each side, to verify that the ice was at least 30" thick, proving that it was safe to cross. Our next stop was Cape Royds.

By the time we got there, it was lunchtime. We parked the skidoos just off shore and walked to the rocks overlooking the penguin rookery to eat our sandwiches. The last time I was here, there wasn't a single penguin to be found. This time, there were thousands, covering the rocks like fleas on a mangy dog. I'd been warned about the stench, which was objectionable, but not as bad as some of the stories I'd heard. I think perhaps the 20 knot offshore breeze drove most of the smell out to sea. There we sat, having our PB&J, watching penguins fight over rocks and check their eggs while we were just a few dozen yards away. It is strictly forbidden to enter the rookery; there are yellow signs delimiting the "SSSI", Site of Special Scientific Interest. I spent the trip home as ballast in the trailer; the only excitement was when our empty fuel cans flew out of the skidoo while we were vaulting sastrugi.

On the "Antarctica in the popular media" front, while watching _Alien_ tonight, I caught a detail I hadn't noticed before: at the beginning of the movie, when the crew is trying to figure out where they are, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) tries to establish contact with "Antarctica Traffic Control". I guess the idea is that it's better to monitor space traffic from a place that always has the same arc of the sky in view than from someplace on Earth that can sweep the sky like a beacon.

Saturday, 30 November 1996 (McMurdo Thanksgiving)
The people who rented skis and made plans to go out today, picked the best day in two weeks. It's sunny with just enough clouds for some texture in the sky, it's warm (+27°F (-3°C)) and relatively calm. If I hadn't been out yesterday, I'd be out today.

With all the preparations for our Thanksgiving meal, lunch was a little sparse. I arrived as the galley staff was cleaning up and was only able to put together a tuna sandwich before they kicked us all out. On the way in, I did see some of the preparations out in the foyer: table after table of fruit, breads and other appetizers, just like last year.

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