Questions from Thoreau Elementary

Ms. Ishii’s 5th grade class at Thoreau Elementary in Kirkland, WA have been following me and sent me some great questions.  It is another condition 2 day at the airfield, so I wanted to take a moment and answer some of their questions while I had the time.


How did the plane break? -Annie

The plane had mechanical problems on two occasions.  The first time, it had a problem with one of the skis that the plane uses to land.  I am not sure exactly went wrong with it but the engineer that works on the team thought it could be a hydraulics problem.  The airplane mechanics were able to fix that here at the airfield.

The second problem was a problem with the fuel gauge.   It was not registering the correct amount of fuel.  To fix that, they had to fly it back to Christchurch.

How long was the delay? – Jackson

The mechanical issues have usually just caused small, 24-hr delays.  But the weather delays have been more of a problem.  We haven’t flown in over a week now– and that has mainly been due to the weather.

How many people are with you? – Kierra

There are 14 people members of the ROSETTA-Ice team in Antarctica.  We are divided into a day and night shift so we can run flights both day and night when we have good weather (and process data both day and night as well).

And, for a fun fact, as of Nov 19th, there are 833 people in McMurdo.

What is the most wonderful thing you have seen so far? – Katie

Oh that’s a tough question to answer!  There are so many wonderful things.  But I think one of the greatest moments was when I drove out onto the ice shelf first the first time.  I saw Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, covered in ice, rising up next to the flat expanse of the Ross Ice shelf.  Mount Erebus, an active volcano, was puffing steam out.  It was a sunny day, and everything was clear and beautiful.  It was a pretty awe inspiring site!  And probably a moment that was made even more special because of the months of preparation, and to know I finally was here and part of this project.

Mt. Erebus (left) and Mt. Terror (right). Steam rises out of Mt Erebus and drifts in a stream across the sky.

Of course, so many other things were wonderful too: looking underwater in the “ob-tube”, watching seals near the pressure ridges, flying over the Transantarctic Mountains and Ross Ice shelf, and going inside of Scott’s hut at Discovery Point.

How much does the LC-130 weigh? – Rayan

An empty LC-130 weighs approximately 75,840 lbs.  It is designed to carry a maximum load of 155,000 lbs -that includes cargo and people, and fuel.

How would you find your way back if you get lost? – Ben

If you were out in condition 2 with low visibility, and got lost, the best thing to do would be to stay where you are – if you are venturing anywhere on foot off the base, you have a radio, so you can call in.  And, if you are going off the base, you have to write down where you are going and the number of people in your party, and when you expect to return. If you are late at all, they start up rescue operations.  They take these safety precautions seriously.  If you are in a vehicle and you are going out in condition 2, you also have to radio in to check in and out.  You have to list “number of souls on board” which sounds rather creepy, but it is important for them to know who is going out and if they all return.  A shuttle driver would say something like:  “Firehouse, Firehouse, this is shuttle 210, departing for Willie field with 6 souls on board”.  But the best thing to do is to keep and eye on the weather, and know when it is safe to be out.

What foods did you eat there? – Shayla & Will

The have a great galley that serves us breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  And a fridge where you can get snacks in between if you are hungry.

The McMurdo galley has many food options. You go through and serve yourself. And the great galley staff keeps food fresh, and refills things as needed.
A view of the galley eating area.

It is a basic cafeteria line that has a couple of main options, plus sides (vegetables, and potatoes), and a salad area that has cold salads of some sort. It could be green salad (if the fresh food has come in), but could also be pasta salads or coleslaw, and jello with fruit.

Today’s featured meals.

There is always pizza, and sometimes a special burrito or burger or stir fry line.  For breakfast, there is always an egg dish, and a meat, and potatoes, and you can always get cereal and granola.  And they even have homemade yogurt.  And there is also a deli section if you just want a sandwich.

The galley is where we often cross over with the night shift and have our meetings. It is a great place to hang out and talk (and eat).

Does it snow really hard at McMurdo? – Adam

In general, we don’t get a lot of snow here.  There are been a lot of really clear sunny days.   Sometimes it flurries, or there are some fine snow flakes blowing around.  But this past storm was an exception!

I found this chart on Wikipedia:

The data is supposed to be from NOAA but I haven’t verified it.   But on this chart, it shows you how little snow they generally get.

How deep did the snow get? – Olivia

We got 9.5 inches of snow last Wed-Friday.  It was beautiful but not good for getting our work done.  And some of the drifts of snow were pretty deep (several feet).

How do you get water in Antarctica? – Quincy

Water in McMurdo Station is made from seawater using reverse osmosis.  This is a very energy intensive process, so water conservation is encouraged here. We are encourged to shower no more than 4 times a week, don’t leave the water on when you are brushing your teeth, etc.  But, we need to drink lot of water – because it is so dry here.  So, we don’t limit that at all.  And the water tastes great!

How expensive is a RAC -TENT ? – Erik

I don’t know the answer to this yet – but will try to find the answer!

What do you do for fun? – Will

There are quite a few things we can do around here for fun.  There are several outdoor activities we can do:  there are hikes we can go on, or outings to cool sites like the pressure ridges or the observation tube, and bikes with big tires for snow biking we can borrow.

Observation Hill hike.

And there are plenty of indoor activities as well.  There is a craft room, library, and several gyms for different activities (basketball court, or cardio gym with treadmills and stationary bicycles, or rooms for yoga classes).  There are also science lectures.  And our dorm and the “coffee house” have lounges and where people watch movies, play games, knit, or read.

The coffee house with bikes parked outside in the snow.

Have you seen any animals/what animals have you seen? – Isabela, Olivia, Shayla, and Maya

So far, I have seen some Weddell Seals (including some seal pups).  They were very cool to see.   I have also seen some Skua (birds that are often seen here) and some fish when I went into the ob tube and looked under water.  I haven’t seen any penguins yet!

Mother seal and pup near the pressure ridges.

And, as an aside, there is a noticeable lack of bugs around here. There are definitely no spiders or things lurking in corners or moths fluttering in when you open a door.

What is the worst condition you’ve been in? – Annie

I have been in Condition 2. Once it gets to condition 2, they tend to close the airfield and evacuate people from there. They don’t want people to be trapped down there in condition 1 conditions or to have to travel between places as it gets bad.  Our group has been forced to evacuate 3 times from the airfield.   When the big storm hit this week, they were prepared and closed things early.  It got to condition 1 down on the ice shelf.  But, up at the McMurdo, it was only condition 2.  We are sheltered behind a hill and that tends to help protect us from the full force of the storms that they experience down on the ice shelf.

Did the weather cause a problem? – Kierra

The weather has caused delays in flights (both our research flights, and delays in flights from Christchurch), but it hasn’t caused any damage.  The rac-tent held up well under the wind and snow from the last storm (when it got to condition 1).   We got to the tent on friday night and sat, and had to dig the snow away from it, but it was all dry inside.  And we didn’t have any power problems.

During one of the evacuations we did have members of the night shift get stuck on a delta (which is a big vehicle that they use to transport people).  The visibility was poor and it got off the main road and got stuck.  A few of our team members were in it and were stuck in the back of it  (without heat) until the someone came and pulled them out. Luckily all of our team had their ECW gear on them and were able to bundle up.  Some people had toe and hand warmers that they shared as well, which were a big help in the cold.  This is an example of one reason why they close the airfield early before things get too bad.  They want people safely up in McMurdo.

Were you ever in danger? – Will

No, I feel fairly safe.  There are people around that are looking out for my safety, which makes me feel more secure.  When a storm is coming and we are forced to leave the airfield, we get phone calls to warn us. And they make sure they have space for the whole team on shuttles back to the base.

Was it scary? – Kierra

It was a bit unnerving to be in the rac-tent when the first storm hit.  When the wind picks up it makes a lot of noise and I was a little unsure of how much the tent could take.  But now, after knowing what the tent can withstand, it is not scary.  But I am still glad to not be down there when it is condition 1!

What do you think you will discover/find in Antarctica? – Amy

We are discovering that the east and west part of the seafloor under the ice shelf has a different geologic structure.  This discovery changes the geologists’ understanding of the history and formation of this region.   We also are seeing that the histories of the ice shelf can be seen in the radar images.  We can track how certain features move from line to line, and estimate how much snow accumulated on top, and how much it is melting from below.    And from this work, we will have a better knowledge of the general structure both the ice shelf and sea floor underneath which will help us better predict what will happen to it in a warming climate.

How warm is you room, did it have heating or did you wear a lot of layers? -Jackson

The rac-tent room is generally quite warm (sometimes too warm).  The heaters put out a lot of heat.  When it is cold outside, that is great.  However on a mild day (20o F) with no wind, it can be too much.  I am always wearing layers, so sometimes I have to take off a few in the tent.

The room that is sleep in is generally comfortable. We have an individual thermostat that we can set, but I don’t turn it up too high.  I generally sleep in wool base layers under my pajamas.   And there is a wool blanket on the bed and a thin comforter.   There is a window in the room, and it you can feel the cold air near it (and my bed is beside it).  So it gets a little drafty.  But I am generally warm.

Have you ever been lost before? – Ella

So far, I have not been lost here.  And hope that it stays that way!

What is the most dangerous animal in Antarctica? – Katie

The most dangerous animal in Antarctica is probably the leopard seal.  Leopard seals are fierce predators and top of the food chain in Antarctica.  You can read more about them below:

Why do they call it McMurdo? – Micah

McMurdo gets its name from its location on McMurdo Sound.  And McMurdo Sound was named after Lieutenant Archibald McMurdo of the HMS Terror.  Under the command of James Clark Ross,  Lt. McMurdo first charted the area in 1841.

It is the largest Antarctic station and is built on bare volcanic rock on Ross Island.  This area is the farthest south solid ground that is accessible by ship.

How many pounds of cargo can go on a C-130?

The plane has a cargo area of 12 by 3 by 3 meters. It can handle a payload of about 45,000 lbs (people or cargo).  But, it is generally less, due to the need to balance weight, fuel usage, and flight times.  For a trip to the South Pole, it can carry about 28,000 lbs and make it to the South Pole and back from McMurdo without refueling.

Do you think that there will be level 2 severe conditions on the trip? – Jackson

Yes! We have been in some already.  But I was surprised by that it has gotten down to “Condition 1”.  I wasn’t expecting it to get down to that level on this trip.  And I have even been surprised at how many “Condition 2” days we have been getting down at the airfield.  It is closed again today.

What’s the coldest it’s been? How cold is it in Antarctica? – Maya & Quincy

The coldest that it has been, since I have been here, is around -7oF (with a -30o F windchill).   And it felt very cold.   But most time is warmer.  Today, it is 16oF, which is a fairly average daytime temperature for this time f year (Spring here).  It is MUCH colder if you go into the interior of the continent.  It is -35oF at the South Pole Station right now, with a -53oF wind chill. That makes McMurdo weather seem rather pleasant.

This link:

has a graph that shows you the annual cycle of temperatures.

How did they fix the ski? – Ben

There are mechanics who work down at the airfield to fix any problems that arise and to keep the airplane in good shape.  I am not exactly sure what was wrong with the ski so I am not sure how they fixed it.  But they worked on it out on the ramp.

What are flight instruments? – Annie

Our group uses a variety of instruments that we put on board the plane when we fly:

We have a huge pallet of Gravimeters that measure gravity anomalies.  And we have an icepod unit, that is attached to the side of the plane, that houses other instruments.  It contains ice radars (Shallow, Deep, and Lidar), cameras, positioning equipment so we know exactly where we are, cameras, and magnetometers.

Do you get your information from the ice shelf yet? / Did you get any Samples? – Rayan & Isabela

We have gotten some measurements of the ice shelf, but we still need to get more. We are flying lines at different locations across the ice shelf.  We have flown 5 flights this year and need to get 13 more done to complete the survey grid. Although we are happy to get any data, it is really important to get the completed grid so we have a complete picture of the ice shelf.  And we haven’t fully processed and looked closely at the data yet.  That will happen when we go home and put together everything that we have learned.

Do RAC tents have heaters in their installation? – Peter

Yes – we have a heater in both sections of our tent.  They burn fuel that is contained in a tank on the outside (a truck comes around and fills it for us).  It keeps us warm in the tent.  When the temperature drops, it can get cool in the tent, but for the most part, it is quite comfortable inside (and even too warm at times).  We had to put a fan on our computer server in the tent to keep it cool.

Have you watched a movie yet in the theater? – Katie

Not yet – but I hope to soon.  It is really just a room with couches in it and a big screen TV, as I discovered after getting here.  But it is dark and a comfortable spot to put a movie on with a big group of people.

Do you get your information from the ice shelf yet? – Rayan

We have gotten some measurements, but we still want to get more.  We have flown 5 flights and would like to get 13 more in to complete the survey grid.  The weather has been really bad these past couple of weeks.  We are hoping it clears up soon, so we can continue with our work.

Why is it so Foggy? – Ben

The fog was caused by a sudden change in temperature (and no wind).

Is there a condition 4? – Rayan

No, just 3 “condition” levels.

Why are there only 3 conditions for ice shelf? – Adam

I am not sure who decided on the “condition” categories, but there are designed to inform people at McMurdo what type of activity is advisable.  Condition 3 – no restrictions, Condition 2- it is bad and you need to check in and out before you go anywhere off base, and condition 1 – stay where to you are – no movement between buildings.