In The Field

Antarctica 2010: Made it to McMurdo!

Posted on behalf of Chaz Firestone

It took three nights, two delays and one boomerang, but we’ve finally reached Antarctica. Touching down on the ice runway at Pegasus Field was the smoothest landing I’ve experienced, but that should come as no surprise: Once the doors opened and we stepped outside, we could see flat ice for miles in every direction. chazplane.JPG

It takes only a few hours on the continent to understand how strange and beautiful a place this is. The sun never sets here, but just spins around the sky, casting gorgeous shadows on the distant mountains. I’ve taken many photographs already, but there is something odd going on here visually that the lens can’t seem to capture. The horizon appears to wrap 360 degrees around you, the way it might if you were on a small island and saw ocean in every direction. And the landscape is so uniform and textureless for miles on end that it is difficult to estimate distances. On the way from the airfield to McMurdo Station, our home for the next two days, we spotted what seemed like a small foothill, until we saw an ant-sized climber on the summit. It became clear that the hill, which seemed near and petite, was actually much farther and taller than we had thought. <img alt=“view.JPG” src=“http://blogs.nature.com/news/blog/view.JPG” width=320" height=“214” border=“0” align=“right” hspace=“10px”/>

Mactown, as some of the veterans call McMurdo, has the feel of a small mining village, but the insides of buildings look like they might be on a college or high school campus. It has a fire department, a medical facility and a large cafeteria with buffet-style dining (though dinner tonight was steak and cod, a step up from dorm food at my college). The quaintness of the community disappears, though, when one beholds the vast vista of ice stretching out for miles from the base, which might as well be the set of some science-fiction film on a frozen alien world. mcmurdo.JPG

But we have little time to get used to life here. Though many people spend most of the summer season on the base, we have only two days, one of which will be spent in an intensive field training course to prepare for our journey to the West Antarctica Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide. If weather keeps us stuck there, we’ll have to camp out in tents in a cold, snowy, windy area that is remote even by Antarctic standards. After spending another day at McMurdo (Sunday is the one-day weekend here), we’ll take a trip to the South Pole station, and then after that we’ll hop on helicopters to the Dry Valleys, which, said one passenger on our flight down here, “make the Grand Canyon look like a ditch.” Last is the trip to the WAIS Divide, and then, weather permitting, back to New Zealand.

It’s a whirlwind tour of the continent, but I’ll make sure to stop every now and then to take it all in — and of course share whatever I can.

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