It’s A Wrap!

Well, our field season is over and we left McMurdo on Dec 8th.  We were able to get a few more flights in during our last week at McMurdo.  We flew a total of 14 flights this season – not as many as we had hoped, but enough to feel great about the grid we accomplished.   After the flights, we worked quickly to get everything wrapped up:  this included packing up, getting containers ready to ship home, getting our gear we use in the field returned, and getting ourselves packed up as well.

In the last week, the highlight for me was getting to go out on our 12th and final icepod flight (the final two flights were gravitimeter only).  It was a long flight, on a beautiful clear day.  We flew two east/west lines across the ice shelf, turning over the Transantarctic mountains, and a north/south line that went across the front of the Ross Ice Shelf.

The view of the Ross Ice shelf front was truly spectacular.  It is great to get to “see” an area that I have been working on with models for so many years.

The end of this field season ends the 3 year fieldwork portion of this project, but there is a ton of data to analyze and papers to write next.  So, the project isn’t “over”.   With this project, we have increased our understanding of the geologic and glaciological structure of the region, and can now do a better job of modeling and understanding past cycles of it, and predict future changes to it.   This is the largest of the Antarctic ice shelves, and an important region for understanding the process that affect the ice shelf.   This project will provide a solid foundation for future work and other studies as we seek to understand the stability of the ice shelves in a changing climate.

And, as I end, I wanted to post a few more pictures of some of the amazing things I saw while at Mcmurdo:

Scott’s Hut at Discovery Point:  The hut Scott built for the Discovery Expedition in 1902.  The original supplies left in the hut are still there.  I was lucky enough to get a chance to see inside the hut.

Pressure Ridge Tour: A walk near Scott base where the ice converges and is forced upward as it is pushed toward the coast, creating huge ridges.

Seals: A favorite outing of our group was to walk out to hut point where we often would see seals and their pups on the ice.  Seals were out near the pressure ridges as well.

Observation Hill Hike:  A hill adjacent to McMurdo.  It is a bit of a climb and scramble over rocks to get to the top, but it offers of beautiful 360 degree view of the area. A memorial cross for Scott and his party was erected on top of the hill in 1913.

The Final Countdown

…….or 11 flights down and 1 week to go!

We have had a busy week and a half.  We flew a few times last week before the weather shut us down again, and then things wrapped for Thanksgiving weekend (things closed on Friday night instead of Saturday night).  But we hit the ground running Monday morning! We were able to get three flights completed by Tues night.  But mechanical issues continue to plague us.  The plane is having engine and propeller issues and so our flight last night and today were cancelled. But the weather is good, and the mechanics are working on the plane.  We hope to start resuming flights tonight.  And we are hoping to get several more in this week.  Our last flight opportunity is during the day on Friday, and then we start packing up Friday night.

On the LC-130 for Monday’s day flight over the Ross Ice Shelf.

Our team is separated into 2 shifts so we can fly both day and night (I am on the day shift).  When one flight is in the air, the rest of the team in the tent are checking the data from the previous flight.  Each person has a specific task, either on the plane or on the ground.

Kirsty Tinto is the PI.  She leads the operations here: determining what lines on the ice shelf we are going to flying, meeting with the operations people to check on weather conditions, keeping the whole team on track and doing what we need to be doing, and doing a million other things that keep us able to do our jobs.

Kirsty’s book of flight plans and Thoreau Elementary’s 5th grade class frog, traveling with us on the plane.


On the plane, we always fly with a flight operator and the gravimeter operators.

Chris is one of the flight operators and oversees the ICEPOD instruments during a flight.  He also helps run the computers and software that keeps everything running in the tent.
Two of our gravimeter operators, Grant and Martin, busy working during a flight.

The tent team includes the archivist (my job), and the QC-ers: the people checking the quality of the data coming in so we know if the instruments on the plane are working or need to be fixed before we do the following flight.   And, occasionally, when flight before didn’t go, and we are all caught up on the QC-ing and archiving, the rest of the team gets to go out on the flight as well!

From left to right: Chris working on the computer servers, Isabel qc-ing dice, sir, and mag data, Maya qc-ing PNT and Lidar data, and Alec and Martin qc-ing the gravity data.

My job, as archivist, requires me to go to the plane at the end of a flight to carry off the full data disks (in an orange case) and bring clean ones on (in a black case) for the flight operator.  My job at the tent is to take the data, make sure it is all there, copy it all (we make 3 copies of everything), decide on segments to check, and give them to the QC-ers, and, at the end, bring all the QC logs back into a summary and make sure everything has been done.  We get several Terabytes of data per flight so this is all a fairly long process.  I also make sure we have a set of clean flight disks and operator logs ready for the next flight.

My archiving area.   The orange case contains data from the plane.  I have two computers and work over at the servers and cloners to the left as well.  

My typical day shift starts with a cross over meeting with the night shift at the galley early in the morning.  My days goes something like this

4:30 am :  Cross-over meeting at the galley to discuss what happened on night shift, what needs to be done, and the plans for the day (and breakfast!)

6:00 am:  Shuttle to Willy field

6:45 am:  Settle in at the rac-tent at Willy field.  The fliers prepare for their flight and the rest of us start our data work on the data from the night flight.

~12 lunch at Willy field galley

5:30 pm cross-over at tent with night shift

6:00 pm shuttle back to McMurdo

6:45 pm Dinner at McMurdo Galley

8:30 SLEEP!


Sometimes our days and times get shifted. Flights sometimes get scheduled for an hour later in the morning.  Sometimes we get up to a 4-hr delay or a cancelled flight.  But, If the flight went the night before, we still need to go archive and QC, even if a new flight is not going out yet.

So, we all remain flexible, get up when we need to, and be prepared to go whenever a new time is posted.

It can be really busy, but it is a lot of fun too.   The people I work with are great, and we all love what we are doing.  The days fly by here.

I have only 1 week to go, before I leave McMurdo.  Our last flight is scheduled for the day on Friday.  So fingers crossed for a few more flights.

The view of the Ross Ice Shelf from the plane on Monday.

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.

Snow, Wind, and Not Much Else

We have had a pretty slow week down here, at McMurdo.  We competed our 5th flight  last Friday, and were able to get some time at the tent on Sat. and Tues., in between minor weather events, to archive and QC the data, and do some tidying up.  But, we couldn’t get any more flights off.  The flights were delayed due to weather plus the lack of a day flight crew (the original crew returned to Christchurch and we are awaiting their replacements).

And then, “the big storm” moved in on Wednesday bringing lots of snow and wind, and bringing everything to a halt.   It has been Condition 1 at the airfield and 2 up at McMurdo.

Everyone on the Rosetta team, as well as many other researchers, are all stuck in McMurdo station, wishing we were out at our tents or workplaces getting our flights done or collecting data.    All the flights coming in from Christchurch have continued to be delayed– that means the fresh food, the new Air National Guard crew replacements (who will fly our day flights), and researchers on various projects are all stuck there as well.

Oct 27 condition 3 (left) vs Nov 16 condition 2 (right)

But the weather is supposed to clear up tonight (Friday night)! So, hopefully, we can get to the tent soon and start cleaning up (dig out around some equipment and tent doors, make sure everything inside of it is okay, etc.), get our day flight crew in, and be ready to fly Monday morning.

In the meantime, we are all trying to keep busy in a variety of ways: catching up on some work back home, reading books, watching movies in the dorm lounge, going to the gym, typing emails, knitting, visiting the dorm library, catching up on sleep, and having fun over long meals with each other in the galley.

The busy Crary Libary. A common hangout of the Rosetta-ice team.
Isabel and Grant in the dorm lounge trying to connect to the internet.  Another favorite Rosetta-ice team hangout.
Chris, me, Alec, Maya, and Grant on “hwy 1” outside the galley after lunch.

Sundays at McMurdo

Throughout the week, we generally have very long days, 6 days a week.  Sunday, however, is our day off.  It is a day to have some fun and explore the surroundings (and also get in some much needed rest).

On this Sunday, Martin, Maya, Isabel, Alec, and I (all part of the Rosetta-Ice team) decided to use some of our free time to visit the observation tube (or “ob tube” for short), which was just recently set up in the sea ice.  After a quick breakfast, we set off at 9 am to the firehouse to “check out”.  Checking out consists of making a list who is in your party, picking up a radio to call back to the firehouse if needed, getting a safety briefing, and stating when we will return (so they can initiate rescue procedures if we aren’t back by that time and don’t call in).  After that, we take a short walk out onto the sea ice where the ob tube is located.

The observation tube installed in the sea ice. It will remain here until early December when the sea ice weakens as summer approaches.

The ob tube is installed into a hole drilled into the sea ice near dive huts that biologists use for their research while the sea ice is thick enough to support the weight of the huts.  The tube extends below the sea ice (which is ~ 2 m thick) and ends in a round viewing area that is only big enough for 1 person. To get to the viewing area, you must climb down the very narrow tube and then a small ladder at the end.  The tube is so narrow that you need to take your parka off before you descend to make it easier to climb down.

I climb down the ob tube while Martin prepares to place the lid back on when I reach the observation area.
Maya climbing down the Tube.  This show you just how much of a tight squeeze it is.

Once you make it down there, the people up top close the lid to block out the light from above.   You are left alone to sit quietly and watch the ocean under the sea ice.    The ice is beautiful from below.  You can see the algae, which marine creatures use as a food source, growing on the underside of the ice. Tiny fish swim by.  And, if you a lucky, you can see a jellyfish or seal. I didn’t see either, but I heard the seals, and the sounds were beautiful.  It is not deep here  (~8 or 9 m)  – so you can see the bottom.

The underside of the sea ice is covered in algae.
Tiny fish swim around – hanging out near the underside of the sea ice.

We sat down in the tube for about 10 min each, so we could all get through.  The rest of us were waiting on the surface, trying to stay out of the wind and stay warm.  It was a very cold day, so we tried to be good about limiting our times.

Maya, Martin, Alec, and Isabel try to stay warm and out of the wind near the diving huts.

At the end of the adventure, we checked back in at the firehouse and went to the galley to warm up and eat a late Sunday brunch (another highlight of Sundays!).  The rest of the afternoon was spent hanging out in the lounge, watching movies or reading.



4 Flights Completed

It has been a busy week down here. We got our first flight (the check flight) off on Sat, and we managed another 3 flights this week as well.

We are flying a grid pattern over the Ross Ice Shelf to try and gather a fairly complete dataset on the ice shelf and the geologic structure beneath it using a a variety of instruments: Shallow Ice Radar (SIR), Deep Ice Radar (Dice), Gravimeters, Magnetometers, Lidar, Cameras, and Positioning systems. The combined data also gives us an improved ocean bathymetry dataset under the ice shelf.

The grid pattern we fly has fairly good resolution. We fly on “lines” across the shelf. The horizontal lines are about ~10 km apart, and the vertical lines are ~55 km apart. This is the third and final year of the program and we are hoping to complete the grid. We need to get 18 flights done in order to complete it! Our flights are generally 6-8 hrs, and we usually get two lines done per flight ( one line out, and a different line back).

All the instruments except the gravitmeters are combined in a unit called the ICEPOD. The ICEPOD is an Integrated Ice Imaging System for the LC-130s. It is installed on the outside of the LC-130s.

ICEPOD on sled – ready to be moved to plane to be re-installed

Our first flight was a check flight, and a repeat of a previous line. This helps us check out systems and make sure everything is working properly. I got to go out on the first flight and it was AMAZING! We started the flight with a fly over McMurdo and then traveled south over the Transantarctic Mountains before flying out on the line over the ice shelf. There is a “bubble door” that is a rounded clear door that is situated right above where the the icepod is located that lets you get a great view of the icepod (and everything else).

View of ICEPOD from bubble door
McMurdo flyover from bubble door.
Transantarctic Mountains view from the plane

The next 3 flights were new lines. After each flight, we have to archive all the data (3 copies of everything) and then certain segments are pulled out and various people work on QC-ing ( Quality Checking) the data. There is a constant stream of logs to fill out and archive as well. And all this is done in our rac-tent. It is a busy place after a flight. We all work on 12 hr shifts, and we easily spend more than that on our work in a day. And we always cross over with the next shift to make sure we know what is happening and help each other. Even on a no fly day there are plenty of tasks to finish to keep things running smoothly.

We have had a temporary delay in flights the last day and a half, and have had some time to regroup. The plane that our equipment was on had to go back to Christchurch for maintenance, so we had to uninstall the ICEPOD and reinstall it on a new plane.

And last night a storm came through as well. The storm closed down the airfield and our team had to evacuate for a “Condition 2” – Lots of wind and blowing snow. Happily, I got out of there at 7 pm before it got too severe. The night shift were called, and told to evacuate from there at 8:45pm.

Our next flight is scheduled for tonight, and everything is back to condition 3 around here (although still really cold and windy), so we will head back to the tent soon and get the snow drifts shoveled away from the tent and start working again.

View from the first flight.






Weather and “Conditions”

The weather in the area is monitored closely, and posted for us in buildings and on the intranet here at McMurdo. We always need to check conditions before we go outside or plan a trip down to the airfield.


They use a “condition” rating system where “condition 3” is good, and “condition 2” is severe (take precautions), and “condition 1” is severe (don’t leave your building). Happily, it is generally condition 3 around here.

I have been in a couple of condition 2 days down at the airfield.  Both of those condition 2 days were for visibility.  One was a very cold windy day with blowing snow, and one was a foggy day.








Last Friday, the weather at Willy Field was listed as condition 2 (visibility was less that 1/4 mile), even though it was a gorgeous day (condition 3) at Mcmurdo, which is up on a hill above the ice shelf.  So conditions can vary depending on where you are.  The weather on the ice shelf is often much harsher.

Low visibilty could be a huge problem when you are in an all white environment.  We are pretty isolated out here at the airfield, so if you went the wrong way jsut walking from your tent to the galley building, or lose the flag marker on the road on the way to the airfield, you could easily get lose your sense of direction.   Once you are off of the path, and away from the few sparsely place airfield buildings, there is nothing.  So, we heed the warnings!

The temperatures around here right now are not that bad (if it isn’t windy).  It is about 7o F right now, with a low of  1o F overnight.  We have had a few below zero days, but it generally is above 0oF.   On a sunny, windless day, I am generally quite comfortable (of course, I have wool layers, hat, gloves,  and a big red parka on! ) .   However, when it is windy, it does get really cold.   We often have a wind chill of less than  -20oF .  Another reason to pay attention to conditions and be where you are supposed to be.

Ready to Fly

We are ready to fly! Everything is set in the tent to process the data and the instruments we use to collect data are either on the plane or on a pallet and ready to be loaded onto the plane right before the flight. And now we just wait….

We were set to fly our first flight yesterday morning, but were delayed due to mechanical problems. The LC-130, a modified version of the C-130, has skis on the bottom of the plane instead of wheels. One of these had a problem, so we had to wait to fly until they fixed the ski.

The LC-130 we will use for our flights.  

Today, we were prepared to fly again but this time the weather got in our way. Up in McMurdo, it is a beautiful sunny day, but down on the ice shelf, the entire area is covered in a thick fog. Visibility was terrible so all flights were grounded.

There was another potential oportunity to fly this evening if the weather cleared but a flight crew member got sick so that flight got cancelled anyway.

As you can see, all lot of things have to come together to get our plane in the air. Weather, mechanical problems, and health issues all have the potential to throw us and other plane missions off track. And then, the back-log of flights due to all the delays can delay us even more. Supply flights to other stations are critical and can therefore a higher priority than our science flights.

So we wait, and keep busy with instrument checks and procedure practice and documentation edits, so that when the times comes to fly, everything ticks along perfectly.

Setting up our work tent

Over the past couple of days we have been getting our work tent at Willy Field ready.

Our work space is a RAC-tent. And you can read about them here:  But, they are basically modular tents made for scientific work in polar environments.

Rac-tent for ROSETTA-Ice project at Williams Airfield

It sits at the edge of the airfield apron, and has doors at either end. Ours has two main areas: the front area where we will process our flight data and do other work, and the back area for our flight instruments and extra gear. The back doors are big double doors to easily load and unload our instruments.

The first task was just to get all the cargo that was shipped down here into the tent. Once it arrived from the plane (the same C-17 we were on), it was held in the Cargo area. Some equipment is temperature sensitive, so certain cargo is marked “DO NOT FREEZE”, and held in appropriate areas until it was ready to be moved to our tent (and our tent was ready for it). Once we had electricity and heat, we were ready to move in.

The next step was to unpack everything and set up our computers and instruments and make sure everything was working.

Computer network has been set up and is being tested by Isabel and Alec.
Chris and Grant working on Gravimeter racks in back room.

The tents are nice and cozy. We have two stoves that warm the place (one in each section). The air is really dry down here, so we put a pot of water on top of the stoves so that when it heats up, and simmers, it adds moisture to the air. We just add snow when the water gets low.

Heating stove with water pot on top used to add moisture to air.

And we also have a tea and coffee area, along with water and snacks. We will be spending ~11 hrs here when we are on shift, so we need to be a bit self-contained. There is a small galley at the airfield where we can get food, so we are not totally isolated out here (but it is a bit of a walk away in sometimes bitterly cold conditions). We also have to be prepared to be stuck in the tent in case the weather deteriorates suddenly, so we have sleeping kits and always have our extreme cold weather gear with us.

Our rac-tent “kitchen” area.

So, we are close to being ready to fly!  We are installing the icepod on the LC-130 today and finding any last minute problems and working on our procedures.  We might fly our check flight tonight or tomorrow.  The check flight will be a short flight where we check that all the instruments are working correctly.  After that, we fly our grid pattern as weather and plane availability permits.

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!