You Know You’re An Antarctican When…

You know you’ve lived in Antarctica for 13 months when, after wrapping another work week, you decide to walk back up the hill to the store in your pajamas, bedroom slippers and no socks to buy a bottle of wine… and you then continue on from the store the three-quarters of a mile to Hut Point, reasoning that wandering around outside for a while is the fastest way to chill your Sauvignon Blanc.

Yeah. Guilty.

(Full disclosure: yes, I was wearing my pajamas–flannel bottoms and a t-shirt–though I put my wind pants and Big Red over them. But I did, in fact, go wearing only my FitFlop Mukluks on my feet, with no socks. If you have any plans to spend a considerable amount of time somewhere very cold, I highly recommend the FitFlop Mukluks, which I bought on sale at My thighs and nose got cold during my impromptu hike, despite both being bundled in layers, but my feet were warm. And, after my little expedition, my Sauvignon Blanc was perfectly chilled. Outside temperature was minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit. Tolerable even for mere mortals.)

The views both in town and at Hut Point were spectacular and all the more enjoyable with toasty toes.

Nacreous cloud, more technically known as a polar stratospheric cloud, over town.

Yes, light, real, honest-to-goodness daylight, is returning to McMurdo. The first sunrise was August 19 and already it’s light from about 0700 till 1800. We’re gaining 16-20 minutes of light a day. Summer is coming.

Hut Point, with a view across the Ross Ice Shelf to Mount Discovery and low-lying morning fog

The calm and mostly clear skies were particularly enjoyable this morning after nearly a week of constant storms. It never got quite to Con1, the worst weather rating, but it definitely flirted with it. We had four straight days of sustained winds around 40 knots, gusting to 55 knots, though sometimes it felt like more. (For layfolk, 55 knots is “blow the weatherman covering the hurricane down”). One early morning, as I walked back from work, it felt like the wind grabbed hold of me around the shoulders, picked me up and threw me back. I kept my feet, but for a second there I was definitely not at the steering wheel, so to speak. On another walk home, the angle of the wind was just right to leave me with bloodshot eyes and an ice cream headache all over my head.

The winds were south-southeasterly as well, screaming toward us across the Ross Ice Shelf. My dorm happens to be on the south-southeasterly edge of the station. My room is on the second floor, in the south-southeasterly corner and yes, my bed is in the south-southeasterly corner of my room. Which meant the first thing the ferocious winds hit coming off the ice was, essentially, the walls around my bed. For three days (remember, I’m a night worker so I sleep during the day), my bed was vibrating like the old Magic Fingers motel beds and it sounded like there was an F16 buzzing my room.

Even in the thick of the nasty weather, however, they were building the gallows.

Wait, let me explain.

The runway on the Ross Ice Shelf, called Pegasus (after a plane that crashed nearby… oops), is used only for the August WinFly flights and then again from some time in December till the last flight in early March. From October till December-ish, they build a completely different runway, much closer to town, on the sea ice.

Yes, on the sea ice. As in the thin crust of ice that forms annually over the deep, cold, black, squid-infested sea water. And yes, they land C17s on it.

Last year, the Ice Runway ran sort of nearer to Hut Point, on the opposite side of town from me. This year, however, they’re building it near Scott Base, the Kiwi base a couple miles south of us. The road they’re building to the Ice Runway starts just below my dorm and skirts the coast past Ob Hill.

The start of the new road to the Ice Runway, visible beginning just to right of building and snaking around it towards the left, from my dorm.

A brief aside that will make this all make sense. Or, if not, is just a damn interesting tidbit. One of my neighbors is the guy in charge of the team building both the runway and the road to it and it is fascinating to hear him talk about it. For starters, the sea ice in that area is only six feet thick, and they like to have eight feet of ice to land a fully-loaded C17. I personally like to have a hundred feet of ice, with ground underneath rather than black, squid-infested water, but anyway…

They are growing ice.

You may think that Antarctica is the last place in the world one would have to make an effort to grow ice, but there you have it. Here’s how it works. Sea water stays liquid as cold as about 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow acts as an insulator, so they have to wait for the right conditions (cold and not too windy, or at least winds coming from the right direction), then go out and scrape all the snow off the ice so that it can get cold enough to freeze the sea water beneath it, layer by wafer-thin layer. He said they grew six inches of ice under the runway last week, which was apparently very good.

In addition to growing the ice, they have to cure it, making sure it’s exposed to wind and cold air temperatures but not direct sunlight so that the ice they have grown matures to be strong enough to take a C17 plopping down on it.

If you are wondering, as I did, aloud, to him at 5 a.m. when he came down to the lounge to get milk for his coffee and I began pestering him with questions, why on earth bother with all this growing ice and curing ice and building a runway on top of black, squid-infested waters when there’s a perfectly good runway 12 miles away built on a permanent ice shelf that is hundreds of feet thick, well, now I know that, too.

Turns out, Pegasus being on a lovely flat stretch of ice shelf with nothing around it, once the sun comes up it hits at the perfect angle and causes degradation on a cellular level of the ice subsurface. The direct sun, combined with the frequent pounding of aircraft landing gear, results in squishy ice. Large, heavy planes laden with cargo and scientists do not enjoy landing on squishy ice. To avoid Pegasus turning into a giant mush-field (not actual technical term), they give it a rest for a couple months by covering it with snow, which protects it from the damaging sunlight.

If you’re wondering why bother at all with Pegasus, why not just use the Ice Runway, well, there comes a point in December when the ice is a lot less than six feet. And then there comes a point in January when it would be the Water Runway, and C17s do not enjoy landing on that, either.

In any case, the new road leading to the new Ice Runway, both of them getting cured and groomed and fussed over, have vehicle traffic 24/7 now as they rush to get ready for the first flight of MainBody on 3 October. Day and night, three or four pieces of heavy equipment ply the two miles between town and the new runway, all visible from the windows of my room and dorm lounge. Even in the thick of night, I’ll look out and see a couple tiny headlights twinkling out on the sea ice like misplaced stars.

Ice farmers at work... you can see three vehicles, two by their headlights, grooming the road to the Ice Runway.

And I cannot help but think of those movies where the condemned prisoner watches from his cell as his jailors build the gallows where he will meet his doom. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but my feeling is at least in the same vein. With the completion of the Ice Runway, the MainBody flights begin. Including mine. Very soon, it will be time for me to leave this place. As much as I crave a mango and want to walk barefoot on grass–or barefoot anywhere–I dread departing this crazy, surreal and very, very special home.

Home, 0750 local, 15 September 2011


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