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15 December, 2001

In the early morning hours of December 12th, the approaching storm was on its way into McMurdo. It was at this point that I knew that my flight home (scheduled for 1 a.m. on December 13th) would not take place as scheduled. The band of clouds looked like a fast stream rapidly moving across the sky. It was hard to tear myself away from the window. Three low-pressure fronts were moving in off the sea ice. I would later learn that the storm that hit the McMurdo area was about the size of France. The blizzard from beginning to end was an impressive sight! This blizzard, considered the worst summer storm in the past nine years, had up to 60 mph winds at the McMurdo station. It rarely snows in Antarctica, so what a wonder to have this opportunity to see snow falling! Antarctica is a "polar" desert, due to little precipitation. (The tilt of the Earth plays a role in keeping Antarctica cold, which keeps the ice and snow on the ground throughout the year.) The wind swirling around buildings was blowing the snow into drifts. This made it difficult to determine how much snow actually fell and how much was blown from another area.

What a wonder to see snow falling in this "polar" desert called Antarctica!

It was exhilarating to feel the blowing wind as it swept around the buildings. This was just the beginning. At this point, I was still able to walk. (We had not reached "condition 2" in town, yet). Before the end of the blizzard, McMurdo would feel 60 mph wind forcefully blowing the residents at this complex around the snow-covered roads. During this condition, it is wise to go with others when venturing from one building to the next. The conditions outside of town ("condition one") halted all travel. These whiteout conditions (with no visibility) make any type of travel treacherous.

The roads and buildings (and even the stop sign) are being dusted with snow.

It didn't take long before everything was covered with the blowing snow.

McMurdo General Hospital dressed in snow:

I ate dinner in the dining room one night with some of the medical staff at McMurdo. This gave me the opportunity to learn more about the medical facility at this research station. McMurdo, the largest research station in Antarctica, can accommodate up to 1200 people. During the austral spring and summer seasons, the McMurdo General Hospital has three doctors (two civilians/ one Airforce) and two nurses on staff. A physician's assistant, x-ray technician, lab technician, physical therapist, and dentist also make up the medical team. Although, the hospital's hours are 7:30 a.m. 1:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.- 7:00 p.m., six days a week, someone is on call 24-hours a day. This three-bed hospital has a pharmacy and a sonogram machine. The sonogram machine hooks up to a tele-med line with direct access for consultation in Denver, Colorado. This machine may also transmit x-rays to a medical facility in Denver. The medical staff treats cases, such as "on-sight" work injuries or flu-like symptoms (new flights bring in new germs), but surgery must be done in Christchurch, New Zealand. This facility also outfits field camps with medical packs.

Although, the snow and the blustery winds kept many people inside, the steps leading into the infirmary were cleared for possible emergencies. It was quite a wonderful experience to see this storm rage outside, as well as to see the commitment of the firefighters working to shovel a safe pathway into the hospital. I caught a glimpse of one of the doctors shoveling the steps. Later when the storm ended, I stopped by to see him still shoveling snow. The snowdrifts against the building were three to four feet high. I felt very fortunate to experience a rare summer blizzard before leaving Antarctica.

The blowing snow at the hospital, as well as the people working to clear the snow, were good indicators of the intensity of the storm.

During the blizzard, it became hard to see people in the poor visibility. I found it quite amazing to watch people from the galley windows as they struggled to make their way from one building to the next.

After the storm ended, I stopped by to talk with one of the doctors who was out shoveling snow from the hospital steps. The snowdrifts were three to four feet high.

This snow drift blocked the door as it climbed along the walls of the building.

As soon as the storm ended, equipment was quickly put to use to clear the snow drifts blocking roads and buildings.

The roads were scraped and cleared to get everything up and going again. It was wonderful to see how quickly the heavy equipment operators, electricians, and the many others who support science in Antarctica responded to the aftermath of the storm. Not only were the roads in town cleared, but now major work was needed in order to restore the runways, as well as the roads leading out to the runways.

The vehicles near the Crary Lab were covered with snow drifts. Vehicles in Antarctica are "plugged in" to keep fluids from freezing. Anyone who drives in Antarctica must get a special license to operate the vehicles. Levers instead of a steering wheel are used to turn the tracked vehicle called a Spryte. When parking all vehicles, including trucks and vans, they must be scotched to keep them from rolling or sliding back.

I love the unusual tracked vehicles in Antarctica, especially in contrast to the snow. Regular trucks and vans cannot make it through the snow after a blizzard, so these tracked vehicles are essential in providing transportation. They are also wonderful vehicles for transport on the sea ice.

The massive fuel storage tanks and barrels were highlighted by snow. A fresh cover of snow seemed to brighten McMurdo and the surrounding area. Although my flight home was delayed for days, viewing this blizzard was a gift. It was a spectacular sight! It made me realize once more that Antarctica was in control. The weather determines what can or can't be done, what works or doesn't work, and what you can or can't have. The one thing it doesn't control is one's attitude, or how one deals with a situation.

This blizzard was small in comparison to the hardships faced by Shackleton and other early Antarctic explorers. It gave me a greater appreciation for their expeditions and their courage to face such extreme conditions in an unknown land. I marvel at their accomplishments despite their limited food, shelter, supplies, transportation, communication, and fuel. The "human spirit" is inside each of us, but it takes courage and hard work to persevere. It also means having the courage to make mistakes without viewing it as a failure, as well as keeping a positive attitude and in view of your goal. The goals may have to change with the circumstances, but success or new goals are determined by the way you view the mountain. Do you see it as an obstacle, or do you try to find another way around or over it? This is the first step in learning. It takes courage to try.

While in Antarctica, I have come to realize that science, much like learning, is constantly changing. We only limit ourselves when we fail to change. Our minds must be open to change. Science is not about finding "the" answer, it is about constantly making discoveries and being open to new technology or investigations, which may disprove earlier "answers". We live in a changing world, and what may be true today, may not be true in the future. It's not that we must all be scientists, but we must teach children at an early age to find the scientists within themselves. The scientific method reinforces and teaches the skills needed to observe, predict, investigate, and understand our world. Science teaches children how to think, and how to apply their knowledge to find solutions. I view learning, much like packing a suitcase. A suitcase can be packed full, but if we don't have the key, what is the use of carrying around all that baggage. Learning begins with teaching children how to think. I have found science to be a blueprint on how to learn. As my field experience comes to a close, I have found Antarctica (and my team members) to be a great teacher.

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