31 October, 1998
October 31, 1998
Another crystal clear day here at McMurdo Base on Ross Island in the middle of the frozen Ross Sea of Antarctica. The view from Crary Lab of the mountains on the mainland are spectacular. If you are interested in up-to-date info on the weather here at McMurdo check out the McMurdo website at http://www.mcmurdo.gov
Since I last wrote to you a few days ago I have been to Happy Camper School and Helicopter Training School. I haven't been trained to fly helicopters but rather how to get in and out, how to load equipment, how to behave around them so I wouldn't damage them or myself, and what to do in case of an emergency. I expect I will be riding in helicopters a few times in order to go fishing in some of our more remote fish huts out on the ice.
Of course the highlight so far has been the Happy Camper School, formerly known as Snow Survival School. The instructors changed the name because of the more positive connotations and despite the cold it was a very happy time. It was quite a shock to the system to jump straight from a cozy hotel room in spring in Christchurch to camping in the snow of Antarctica. The weather on Friday, the first day of the camp was crystal clear and there wasn't much breeze but it was COLD! (-8 F with a wind chill of -30.) We couldn't have had better weather. The 19 of us with our 2 instructors were out on the ice on the other side of Hut Point peninsula from McMurdo base. We were camped on the permanent covering of ice here called the Ross Ice Shelf which joins Ross Island to mainland Antarctica. Here it is about 100 meters thick but it gets as thick as 600 meters further towards the south. We could see the kiwi (New Zealander) base from our campsite but my attention was continuously drawn in the opposite direction to the incredible views of the snowy flanks and peak of Mt. Erebus. The view of Mt Erebus was constantly changing because of the movement of the sun across the sky changing the patterns of light and shadow on its textured surface. Sometimes it looked bluish and flat like a cardboard cut-out; other times it gleamed a brilliant white. Sometimes a cloud of vapor would erupt from the 13,000 foot summit of this active volcano. I brought my camera with me but had to keep it under my heavy red parka so the batteries wouldn't freeze-up. Taking pictures I had to protect my hands from the cold metal of the camera so under my bulky warm mittens which I removed every time I took a picture I wore thin polypropylene liner gloves that allowed my fingers to manipulate the camera. Then I quickly zipped my camera back up into my warm coat and stuffed my hands into my warm mittens.
Despite the cold weather, the ECW (extreme cold-weather) gear we were issued really worked at keeping us warm. I wore wool socks inside thick rubber "bunny boots", expedition weight polypropylene long-johns, heavy fleece bibbed overalls, wind-breaker bibbed overalls, a fleece neck warmer, a fleece hat, and a hooded down parka. The gear worked so well that in order to keep from sweating (which would make our polypropylene underwear wet and destroy some of its ability to insulate) we had to remove layers while we shovelled snow or cut snow-blocks to build our snow caves. There were 21 of us but we had only 3 two-man tents and 2 four-man tents. That's not enough for 21 people to sleep in so we had to build some snow shelters. The first one we built was what is called a quincy. We piled up our sleeping bags and dufflebags into a big dome-shaped pile. Then we shovelled 2 feet of snow all over this pile of gear and beat on it with our shovels to pack it together. Then we let it sit for about an hour for the snow to freeze into this shape. (In Virginia this wouldn't hold together as well because it is not cold enough to freeze it as soldily.) Then we shovelled out an entrance to drag out the sleeping bags and gear and dug a pit in the snow inside the shelter on one side for cold air to settle in. (Question #1 to think about: Why does cold air sink?)It was all ready for people to sleep on the remaining shelf above the colder air on the bottom. (Question #2 to think about: Why is snow such a good insulator?)
We also dug a snow-trench shelter. This is a much simpler and quicker process. The pit was about 3 feet wide by 8 feet long and 2-3 feet deep, just big enough for one person to sleep in. Then blocks of snow were quarried out of the ground nearby and leaned against each other to form a peaked roof over the trench which gave enough room to sit up in. More snow was shovelled on top and on the sides for more insulation. I slept inside this shelter. It was nice and cozy, sort of like a big coffin. It was tough to move around inside but a larger trench would have been harder for one person to keep warm with his body heat. After I got in for the night someone else covered the entrance most of the way with a tarp and snow to keep cold air from sinking into the trench by my feet. I brought a shovel in with me just in case a snowstorm came up in the middle of the night and buried me. I slept pretty well in my down sleeping bag with a fleece liner on two insulite ground pads, but I had to better insulate myself against the cold floor by putting clothes underneath me. I changed my socks since they were sweaty from a long hike I had before bed because my feet would have gotten too cold if I left them on. Still, by morning my toes felt like ice. I slept pretty well considering the circumstances--for 2 hours and for 3 hours, and a few shorter spells. It was nice not to have to listen to someone snoring while I tried to sleep. Burrowed down inside my sleeping bag it was dark so the daylight outside didn't bother me.
Supper was cocoa, candybars, gorp, and some sort of freeze-dried chicken-noodle concoction. It was so cold that my chicken noodle goulash, which started out very hot, froze to slush before I could finish eating it. But it tasted good and I needed its nutrients.
It was a bright day/night so in order to prevent snow-blindness from the sunlight reflecting off the snow we wore heavy-duty snow-goggles that totally block harmful ultraviolet light waves. Also we had to protect any visible skin (just my nose and cheek bones in my case) with #30 sunblock. Remember that the ozone hole is very large here in the polar regions. Without that ozone layer in the upper atmosphere to block ultraviolet rays the sun can be very damaging in just a few minutes.
One of the things that amazed me during my time in the snow was
all the different sounds that snow makes when it is frozen. The snow in Virginia really makes a squeaky noise, but every step here squeaks or crunches with a variety of different tones and pitches. While cutting it with a snow saw and moving the resulting blocks it sounded a lot like styrofoam.
Before bed I went for a walk with another member of the group. Because of the danger of storms coming up all of a sudden and the potential of hypothermia and frostbite we are never allowed to go off by ourselves and without checking out with the rest of the group. We also have to stick to the trails (marked by flags spaced just far enough to normally be visible in a snowstorm) so that we don't get lost or fall into an unseen crevasse (crack in the ice) that is covered with a bridge of snow. The light shining on Mt Erebus was fantastic and the sun was low enough in the sky to give a wonderful texture to the snow, every little wind-sculpted ripple casting a blue shadow. We wanted to hike out onto the ridge by Castle Rock to get a clearer view of Mt Erebus and of the face of a small glacier that was nearby. Distances here are deceiving; something that looks close is really quite far away. What looked like a 30-40 minute round trip was actually a 2 hour hike but it was beautiful!!!
The next day was a bit warmer because it was overcast. (Question
#3 to think about: Why would an overcast sky make the temperaure a few degrees warmer?) It took several minutes of activity for my icy feet to warm up themselves and their very cold bunny boots. After breakfast we had classes in radio use and role-played how we would survive various scenarios such as if our plane crashed (but we all were ok) or if a member of our team was lost between camp and the outhouse in a blizzard. I met many interesting people on this experience. One was Ben Hasse, an eagle scout from the upper peninsula of Michigan. He is a junior at Purdue U but has taken a semester off to spend 2 1/2 months visiting various research projects here in Antarctica, funded by the Boy Scouts. He was the one person selected out of 100 applicants for this honor and I can see why he was
selected. His enthusiasm, outgoing and friendly personality, energy, group-centered (as opposed to self-centered) activities, leadership ability, and gung-ho attitude were all very evident in Happy Camper School. If any of you are eagle scouts (or planning to become eagle scouts) you might want to consider applying for this program. Ben is keeping a journal on his webpage at http://expert.cc.purdue.edu/~bjhasse He has some really good pictures from our happy camper school as well as from our plane flight if you want to look at them.
When I got back to McMurdo I took a much-needed shower, washed my clothes, played some pool, and ate a good hearty meal. Before going to bed (before 9)I watched and helped with the launch of a meteorological balloon which was sent up with some equipment to sample the ozone layer. This October the hole in the ozone layer reached an all time minimum level of ozone. Now, however, because of more hours of light converting oxygen into ozone there is more ozone present than two weeks ago; this is part of a normal annual cycle, but the ozone hole is still a major environmental concern. Before the 1970s there was no annual hole in the protective ozone layer. The destruction of the ozone is apparently caused by aerosol propellants, the manufacture of some types of styrofoam, and the leakage of gases used as refrigerants in air-conditioners and freezers. Ozone normally blocks ultraviolet light which can cause skin damage, cancer, and other health problems. EPA has an excellent website about the ozone layer.
Also in the evening yesterday I saw 3 Antarctic Skuas, my first Antarctic birds. They look a lot like brown sea gulls and were just flying over the base. Probably I will see more today. Today might also be my first chance to see Adelie Penguins at Cape Royds, another dream come true, if all goes as planned. Well, I'd better don my ECW gear and gather up my camera equipment for this exciting excursion.
I hope you have good day and do something good for someone. Seeya!
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