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1 December, 2000

Antarctic Research, Step 1: Getting There

Before any research in the Antarctic can be carried out, the researchers must get to the continent. Even if all of their preparations are meticulous in design and impeccably carried out, it all comes down to one thing- the weather. Antarctica is known as being the highest, driest and coldest of the continents, and infamous for the changes in weather that can come suddenly. This can affect people on the continent, and as I have learned in the last week, people trying to get there.

I left the United States Thursday, November 23, arriving in Christchurch New Zealand, the gateway to Antarctica, on Saturday, November 25. I spent the next five days in Christchurch waiting for the plane to McMurdo, on the coast of Antarctica.

The flight to McMurdo is about 8 hours in a C-130 cargo plane. People going to Antarctica are seated along the side of the plane in long rows of webbed seating with palates of cargo loaded through the middle. During the 8 hour flight, there is a point called the “point of safe return”; once past this point, the plane will land at McMurdo. Before this point, if the weather turns bad, the flight has the opportunity to turn back and return to Christchurch. Such a flight is called a boomerang. Each morning, the people scheduled to fly to McMurdo arrive at the CDC and put on their ECW. Ideally, within a few hours, the plane is loaded and on its way south. However, the weather in McMurdo, Christchurch, or somewhere in between can be bad enough that the plane won’t fly. Then the flight is canceled, and everyone comes back the next day to try again. By the time I arrived in Christchurch, there had been no flights to McMurdo in about a week, due to abnormally bad weather for McMurdo this time of year. The first day that I was scheduled to fly out of Christchurch, the flight was canceled for a unique reason- there had been huge solar flares, that would disrupt the radio contact between McMurdo and the plane. The following day we were canceled due to weather in McMurdo. The third day, the flight was delayed four hours due to weather in McMurdo. The flight was delayed for an hour a few more times that day, until the early afternoon when we were loading the plane, and then the flight was canceled, and we were to come back in the morning to try again. The following day, Thursday, everything seemed to be moving along quite nicely. Everyone got to the CDC early as usual, put on their ECW, and was checked in and the plane loaded like clockwork, and we took off around 9am. About an hour and a half into the flight, an announcement was made that the weather in McMurdo had taken a turn for the worse, and we were headed back to Christchurch. After we landed in Christchurch, we were told that we would make another attempt later in the afternoon. We loaded up the plane again around 2pm, and took off, this time making it all the way to McMurdo, landing around 10pm. For many of the 60 people on the flight, this was their final destination by plane. Many of them would stay in McMurdo, a few would be heading off to smaller camps near McMurdo, and 6 of us would fly to the south pole the next afternoon.

The flight to the south pole from McMurdo is three hours, again in a cargo plane. Whereas the flight from Christchurch was mostly over ocean, this flight is entirely over land. The route takes you over the transantarctic mountains, a volcanic chain of mountains that separates East Antarctica from West Antarctica, and if you can find a window to peek out of in the cargo plane, the view of the mountains are well worth it. The glaciers surrounding the mountains are slowly slipping down towards the ocean, and produce stunning formations around large rock poking up from under the ice. This is the last terrain other than the polar plateau that inhabitants of South Pole Station will see until they leave the station.

The time to get to the south pole can vary greatly, depending on what the weather is like on any parcticular day. I arrived at the pole exactly one week and six hours after I left my home in Connecticut (not counting the time change); some lucky individuals can make the the trip in as few as three or four days, others will take up to a month to finally make the final leg to Antarctica. Doing scientific research in Antarctica is more than just doing great science- it also involves dealing with living in, surviving in, and getting to the highest, dryest and coldest continent on earth.

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