Letters from Antarctica
McMurdo Station is Antarctica's first city. Founded in 1956, it has grown from an outpost of a few buildings to a complex staging facility of more than one hundred structures. Winter-over population is typically ninety to 130 persons while in the Austral summer there may be ten times that many scientists and support personnel, journalists and visitors of one kind or another.
Greater McMurdo includes a seawater distillation plant (80,000 gallons/day), radio and television station (call sign KICE), airport (Williams Field, out on the ice) fire department, telephone exchange, post office, medical facility, a galley/dining hall that can serve literally thousands of meals a day, and one stop sign. Two miles away, on the road to Williams Field is the neighboring New Zealand research facility of Scott Base. Like most major cities, McMurdo serves as an international center where people of different cultural backgrounds meet and exchange ideas.
The entire community is built on an old and crumbling lava flow which extends, like a peninsular, south from the active volcano Mount Erebus. Erebus, at 3796 metres, towers above the station even though it is 18 miles away. Nothing grows here, no trees, no grass, no insects, no dandelions. The only animals are penguins, seals, skuas, and whales; penguins have the right of way at all crossings.
It may interest you to know that the Masons have been here. Admiral Byrd was the founding member of the Antarctic Circle Lodge Number One and there is a plaque here, placed by that lodge in 1985, attached to a monument to Byrd that was placed by the National Geographic Society.
My room is pleasant enough. Beige walls dominated by a large print of Autumn coloured maple leaves on one side and a sprinkler head on the other, just above my bed. All the furniture, bed, desk, dresser, chair, is made of wood. The bed is comfortable enough but I am still not sleeping well; between the cold, which is most over and the incredible dryness of the air, the conditions are difficult at best. "Its a harsh continent" as they say down at the bus stop. And not only that but the coffee is lousy and the milk is powdered. Bleechqt!!
Magnetic declination is about 145 degrees East but the lines of force are so near vertical that my compass drags its needle. Not to worry though, all the hiking trails we are permitted to use are flagged. Red flags on the right mean your returning to base. Today I went on a hike to Castle Rock, three and a half miles away on the road to the volcano and about 1400 feet above sea level. Of course with the sun up all night there is no problem about getting a late start. Castle Rock is at the north end of a somewhat wedge shaped ridge. From a distance it looks like a volcanic plug not unlike Devil's Tower in Wyoming but when you get up close you see that it is made of multiple layers of sandstone more like the red-rock formations of the American Southwest. In amongst the layers of sandstone are layers of a looser conglomerate of volcanic cinders. Overall this makes for an unstable condition and the mass weathering which takes place in the Austral summer produces considerable loose rock on the trail which circles up the steep north approach. Going up is no problem, it is sort of like climbing a rickety rocky ladder, trying to get past several cats or kids on their way down, whilst keeping track of the several other unmarked paths coming in from both sides. The view from the top is grand. Erebus to the north is in and out of the clouds and venting a wisp of steam of its own; to the south, out of sight below and beyond the dump is MacTown with Observation Hill to the left and way beyond that is Mount Discovery whose summit is 10,000 feet above sea level. Snow and ice cover the valley all round but Castle rock sticks up bare and warm in the midnight sun. Going down is scary to say the least. Akin to walking on the down escalator as the loose debris underfoot carries you along past your exit to a dead-end of shear drops on all sides. Awesome!
My work here primarily involves the maintenance of several communications systems using various satellites for both voice and data back to CONUS—That’s milspeak for Continental United States. The Earth Station for one of these links is on Black Island, west of McMurdo, across the bay and it is to there we journey next. But first a closer look at this end.
The Navy operates most of the communications, COMS for short here. Using such frequencies as 4770 kHz for the nearby Beaker Teams (Beaker is a sort of affectionate term for any scientist), 8990 kHz for aircraft operations, and 11553 kHz for COMS with Siple, South Pole, Downstream Bravo, and Catchment Basin. Tall towers, large rhombic antennae, several 10 kW transmitters and various remote receiver sites, not to mention the HAM shack, keep the Navy ETs busy. Several of these frequencies in the HF band are used for teletype messages as well as voice for Stateside traffic however most such traffic goes by satellite via ATS-3 or INMARSAT.
ATS-3, put up by NASA a long time ago, is a sort of free use satellite. Working long past its expected lifetime and wobbling out of orbit, it is useful only about five hours a day. ATS-3 is used for data by the cosmic ray lab here and may be used for both data and phone patch by Siple and Pole. INMARSAT provides high quality data and telephone service on a continuous basis but costs ten dollars per minute. The SATTRAK project runs up a bill of some $15,000 a month on it. The Earth station on Black Island consists of two terminals for INMARSAT, a microwave link to McMurdo, several other receivers, power sources and batteries and buildings and towers.
The ride over the ice shelf to Black Island in a Bell Jet Ranger takes about twenty minutes. We fly along the boundary between the annual sea ice and the Ross Ice Shelf. Seals are visible as well as the wreckage of a crashed airplane. Maintenance is done on the windmill, the Ormat and INMARSAT and the towers and antennae are inspected. Three other technicians and myself live in a Jamesway for the four days we are there. A Jamesway is a portable, wood framed double walled tent. This one has a gas stove and two kerosene heaters. It is well stocked with all sorts of canned and dried foods but we must bring water from McMurdo. We ate mostly canned food. The only fresh was some chicken left from an earlier trip that hadn't gone bad yet. Food lasts a long time here, there are no germs, no flies, no mice; actually I guess I miss the mice, they would help keep the place clean. The skua, sort of like a seagull, is the local scavenger; we put out a lot of bad meat but they are more discriminating about what they eat than the raven of Mount Washington. Skua ate the smelly steak but left the scallops (imported all the way from Maine by the way) and the shrimp.
I found it interesting that after several hours of working in a small shack with no windows and without looking at a clock my body would know it was supper time (not that I was hungry or anything...), my head would know it was dark outside. Then I would go out to go to the Jamesway and find some supper; the sun would be still up, way past west headed south, my clock would say "half-past-evening-no-wonder-your-starving-stupid" and my head would be going round in circles following the sun.
On the flight back we stop at another small island and pick up two Kiwi researchers and drop them off at Scott base before returning to MacTown. Later, when the helos are put away for the long winter, a traverse by tracked vehicle will take most of a day in the dark.
Today is New Years Eve, and snowing. You may not find that unusual but its mid-summer here!
Now we are a few days later; the sky is clear and the temperature above freezing again. The ice in the bay is melting and I have seen my first penguin close-up. They are very pretty birds. Their feathers shine in the sun and they use their stubby wings for balance as they run about the ice and jump from floe to floe. There were two of them in close and twelve people stood along the shore taking pictures and laughing at the one which danced around and fell in the water and jumped out again and again. The other stood in one place turning this way and that making a clucking sound or a raspy throaty caw. In the distance, a few miles away, the Coast Guard ice breaker is steaming in, cutting a channel through the sea ice for the resupply cargo ship which is due here in a week.
This letter is COPYRIGHT by Alfred J. Oxton, 1988-2009, McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica.
No portion may be reproduced by any means without my express written permission.
A.J.Oxton, OA, OO, OAE, k1oIq
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Copyright © 2009, A.J.Oxton, The Cat Drag'd Inn , 03813-0144.