McMurdo Area Geography and History

I have been here for 7 days and it has taken me a while to get my bearings and figure out whether I was looking out over sea ice or the ice shelf.  So I thought a bit of geography and history of the area would be good to share with you.

Ross Sea Map from: New Age control on a mid-shelf grounding event in the Eastern Basin Ross Sea

McMurdo Station is located on Hut Point Peninsula on the southernmost end of Ross Island. Sea ice, which can be seasonally open, is on one side of the island, and the ice shelf is on the other. From McMurdo, I look out over the sea ice covered McMurdo Sound. It is the largest base in Antarctica with ~1000 people in summer months and 250 that winter over. New Zealand’s Scott Base (much smaller than Mcmurdo) is also located Ross Island just 1.9 miles away from McMurdo.

Ross Island is made up of four volcanoes, the two largest are the active Mt. Erebus (12,448 ft ) and dormant Mt Terror ( 10,597 ft). James Clark Ross discovered this region in 1839-1843 and these two landmarks were named after his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror. McMurdo Sound, which is the area to the west of Ross Island and from which McMurdo Station gets its name, is named after Lieutenant Archibald McMurdo of HMS Terror, who first charted this area.

Mt. Erebus

The area where McMurdo Station is located, specifically Hut Point Peninsula, has a rich history in Antarctic exploration and scientific discovery. The hut located here was build in 1902 by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and used as either a main base or staging point by two of Scott’s expeditions, Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition, and the Ross Sea Party of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Discovery Hut, Hut point Built by Captain Scott in 1902.
Discovery Hut, Hut point

There are currently two airfields on the Ice shelf that provide support for McMurdo: Pheonix Airfield, where the large C-17 land, and Williams Airfield (Willy field), where the smaller LC-130s land. Both are located on the Ice shelf east of Ross Island. My work will take me past Scott Base, out onto the ice shelf, and out to Willy field everyday.

LC-130 at Williams Airfield.

Shuttles transport people from the base to the airfields, or we can borrow trucks to transport people and equipment as well. Roads lead from the land areas of McMurdo and Scott base onto the ice shelf. Roads are groomed to make it easy to drive, and roads are marked with flags. The marked routes are checked to make sure there are no crevasses in the ice shelf.  It is important, therefore, to stay in the marked areas since they are known to be safe.

Ice shelf road marked with flags.

The trip from McMurdo to Willy Field takes about 30 minutes in a shuttle, and the scenery is amazing. Not a bad place to have to commute to everyday!


Settling in at McMurdo

After a few days, I am getting used to life in McMurdo. It is a small village built on land but surrounded by sea ice and the ice shelf. There are quite a variety of buildings around the town, each with a specific purpose. There are field supply buildings, offices, cargo storage, carpentry buildings, gyms, a medical building, and fuel pump houses to name a few. So far, I have spent most of my time in the dormitories, galley, and in the Crary Science and Engineering Center where we have a work space. I have also been to several of the other buildings for training and to start to gather supplies for our work out at the airfield.

The dorm rooms here are comfortable. They have everything we need (bed, dressers, desk, and even a fridge). We share with one other person (happily, we sorted it out so it’s another member of our team).

And our team is all on the same floor, which makes it nice for gathering and communicating necessary information to each other. And, as far as dorms go, I probably have one of the most spectacular views possible out my dorm window, so I really can’t complain!

These first few days here have mainly been packed with training classes and getting to know our way around as we prepare to get to work. The environment here is very harsh AND we have to be very careful of our footprint here as we live and work in Antarctica. So, there is a lot to learn about! We have had briefings on fire safety, waste management, spill cleanup, outdoor recreation safety, IT setup, and the “Environmental Awareness, Field and Dry Valley Safety Briefing”. We have also had to take driver training classes so we can drive the big tire F350 trucks here on the ice, and snowmobile training – and then a safety training on driving both of those near the airfield. And, tomorrow, we have our last one: the “Antarctic Field Safety” class. All of these classes help us work and live safely around here and minimize our impact on the environment, in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty.

Other than that, I am just trying to get used to the cold (which isn’t too bad on a calm sunny day but can be wicked when it’s windy!!) and the constant daylight. We got here the day after the last sunset! The monitors where they list current weather conditions tell me that the next sunset is on Feb 20, 2018! Luckily our rooms have black-out shades, and I brought an eye mask, which helps a lot when trying to sleep. As for the cold, I always have my wool base layers on underneath my clothing and have been wearing my “Big Red” (the red parka they issue us) with hat, gloves, and neck warmer whenever I am outside.

Our next big step is to get our work tent setup at Williams Airfield so we can start our flights out to map the Ross Ice shelf. Weather has been causing some delays, but they are predicting better weather tomorrow! So, with some luck, we will get our tent set up and fly our first check-flight on Monday.

Flight to the Ice


It has been a busy couple of days, but I am getting settled in and have a network connection, so I wanted to write about what has been happening.

After a few delays, our flight left Christchurch on Tuesday, October 24th around noon (only a day after I was originally scheduled to leave, but 4 days late for many people there).

They loaded us all (111 people) into a C-17, which is one of the largest military transport planes. It was a pretty fun flight. There are seats all along the sides of the plane and they added additional seats in the middle. They often put cargo there, but on this flight, they needed to get a lot of people down to the Ice so they crammed as many people in as possible. But, I had more room on this flight than on the commercial flight I took down to New Zealand from the States. The only downside was that the plane was really loud, so wearing earplugs or headphones was important.

When we boarded the airplane, we are given a sack lunch and a water bottle to last us through the trip, plus some extra food in case we have to “boomerang” and turn around before we make it down there. The flight on the C-17 is only 5 hrs from Christchurch to McMurdo, and happily we made it down there with no other issues.

As we neared the continent, we could see sea ice out the windows. And the pilots let us go up in pairs to look out the cockpit windows. Antarctica from the air was beautiful.

We landed on the ice runway at Phoenix airfield on a beautiful sunny day. Phoenix is a new airfield on the ice shelf that opened last year.

We exited the airplane right onto the ice. We all gathered around and got a few photos before getting on buses and heading to McMurdo where we had more briefings, dinner, got our rooms, and settled in.


Christchurch and Deployment Preparations

Today is my scheduled Ice Flight to McMurdo Station.  I woke up at 4 am to get ready to leave and received phone call at 4:40 notifying me that the ice flight was delayed for 4 hrs.  So, I took a nap, had a good breakfast, and now have time to write this post!

I arrived here on Saturday after about 30 hrs of traveling (my house – to the hotel here in Christchurch).  New Zealand is a day ahead and 4 hrs behind Seattle time, so I skipped Friday!

On my flights here, I met quite a few people traveling to McMurdo as well. Some are grantees (people working on the science projects) working on the ice for a month or 2, and some are support people who will be here for the entire field season (4 months).  There are people studying neutrinos, and doing research in the dry valleys.  And there are people with firefighting jobs, and heavy equipment operators. I even met a nurse who loved spending the summer season here doing all sorts of jobs.  This year, she is a janitor. Some have been here for 16 seasons.  And, for some of us (like me), it is our first season at McMurdo.

On Sunday, shuttles picked us up from several different hotels and took us to the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) Clothing Distribution Center.  This is also the terminal where we will board our planes from.   We had briefings there, had our laptops screened for viruses, got flu shots, and were issued our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) Gear.

Examples of the Clothing we were issued.

Today, we have to wear our core gear (parka, pants, boots, balaclava, gloves) on the the flight that takes us to the Ice.

Core gear that that we must have with us on the plane.


While I was here in Christchurch, I also able to meet up with the rest of my team.  They arrived 3 days before me and were supposed to already be on the ice when I arrived.  But poor weather conditions at McMurdo have caused delays for several days and they haven’t been able to send their flight to McMurdo yet.  So, the new plan is to get all of us (from both flights) out today on a C-17,  which is a large military transport plane (much larger than the C-130s).  There are 111 of us total for the flight scheduled today, plus all of our gear and I am sure cargo.

So far, I haven’t received any new updates!  So, hopefully, the next time I write, it will be from McMurdo!

UPDATE:  About an hour after I wrote this, while I was taking my bags to the front desk to check out, I received a message that we had a 24 hr fly delay.  So, we will try again tomorrow!


ROSETTA-ICE team heads back to Antarctica

The ROSETTA-ICE team is once again heading back to Antarctica to map the Ross Ice shelf.  And this year, I will be joining them!  When I am down there, I will be posting about what it is like to work in Antarctica and more about the ROSETTA-ICE project.

I want to say a special hello to Ms. Ishii’s 5th grade class at Henry David Thoreau Elementary School in Kirkland, WA!  They will be following along and I am sure they will be asking great questions.

I leave on Oct 19th, and will make my way to McMurdo Station in the Ross Sea area, where I will meet the rest of the team.

My route to get to McMurdo is shown above.   I go from Seattle to San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand to Christchurch, New Zealand  to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.   I take regular, commercial flights down to Christchurch, where I get to spend two nights, before taking a military flight down to Antarctica.  On the full day that I am in Christchurch, I will get issued my polar gear that is required when traveling and working there.

If you want to know about who I am, please visit my staff page (Susan L. Howard).