I’m writing this from a quiet cubicle in Crary Lab in McMurdo Station on Ross Island in Antarctica. It is a quiet morning because last night McMurdo threw its annual Halloween and costume party and I suspect many people are sleeping in. Today is Sunday here—the one official day off each week in McMurdo. Most people, scientists and contractors alike, work 6 days and up to 10 hours a day.
I think there are about 850 people at the station currently (max capacity is around 1000). It is the beginning of summer, when most of the research happens. During the austral winter (our summer months in the US), the station population shrinks to around 200 and the sun does not rise.
This is an industrious place. So much is happening right now—a NOVA 10 episode documentary series is being filmed, UV and ozone monitoring, LiDAR investigation, the study of gravity waves, glaciology, neutrino-related research, Weddell seals and Adélie penguin monitoring and filming, etc—it is hard to wrap my mind around it. There are many researchers working on very specific and separate projects. And a large network of labors and contractors (carpenters, cargo people, waste management team, the 24-hour food and cafeteria staff, janitors, etc) working to support them. It is a complex network.
Despite the fact that its early summer, It is cold here. Even after my time in Alaska, I’ve never experienced this kind of cold. I was lucky enough to visit the Arrival Heights site (where the US and New Zealand are conducting atmospheric research) and the wind took the breath out of my lungs before I could exhale.
Jesus, I thought, this is the kind of cold that kills.
That being said, we’re all issued Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing including bunny boots, googles, and the heavy parkas you can see in the photo above (affectionately referred to as “Big Red” around the station). We all have the gear and training to stay safe here (I think I’ve been through 6+ trainings in a few days) and most people who come here don’t ever leave McMurdo station.
But it is important to remember where we are and all the ways this environment is not one we can survive in. Like most histories of human exploration, it is laden with bodies. This creates a strange tension in the mind of someone here now, someone sitting in a warm cubicle of an advanced research lab using wifi and sipping fresh coffee.
This place is full of ambiguities and paradoxes. As someone I spoke to said about Antarctica, “It’s difficult to know her.”
I’ll do what I can to try. For the next month, I’ll be based in McMurdo, with day trips into the field. I’ll continue posting and hopefully improve my photography skills along the way. :)
I’ll close with better photos from below the ice here. These are from a diver and musician I met, Henry Kaiser.