I carried my bright-orange duffel through the last of the crisp 60 degree new Zealand air and onto the C-17, which – unlike last Friday – took off and headed for Antarctica at 300 knots. One of the most comfortable flights ever, despite the reputation, owing to unlimited legroom and even more elbow room than you get on commercial flights. The C-17 is cavernous. We sit backs to the fuselage, facing monstrous shipping containers – one holds an ice-coring drill that aims to go back 150,000 years in time through the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Coming out of the dim recesses of the plane and into Antarctic whiteness was breathtaking. The horizon opened up and hulking black mountains appeared as little chevrons in the distance. It felt vast. Looking out the door I had guessed at our orientation from the shadows, and I immediately started piecing together the sights. This must be White Island, where the Polar parties made a dogleg before heading straight to the pole. There’s the Royal Society Range, with the broad Koettlitz glacier running at its feet. Behind me, I realized, was McMurdo, huge brown dorms stacked on the hillside, crosses to fallen explorers standing on windy ridgetops, the geodesic instrument dome I had seen in so many pictures in full view. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, it has a familiarity, but also surprise as the pieces come together slightly differently than you’d imagined.
We had landed on the thick blue ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. It wasn’t until 15 minutes later that we touched the gray-brown volcanic rock of Antarctica. It was 20 degrees outside and cooling off.
So where exactly am I, you ask? Somewhere down in Antarctica, but I have realized in recent conversations that not everyone has been reading quite so much on the subject, nor do they have quite such a grasp on the geography of the place. So let’s start at the beginning:
Antarctica is big: 40 percent again larger than the U.S., and that’s not counting the tremendous ice sheets or the pack ice that forms each winter. It looks a little like a rubber ducky with a very long beak (just tilt your head to the left). That beak is the Antarctic Peninsula, which is technically part of the Andes and juts up toward South America.
We’re going to the other side, down behind the neck of the ducky. That curve between neck and back is the Ross Sea, the place where ships can get their farthest south, all the way to about 78 degrees south latitude, or a bit more than 1,320 miles from the pole.
If the Ross Sea doesn’t look like much on the map, then McMurdo Sound is nothing, just a little comma at the southwest edge. Pretty hard to pick out without zooming in.
Guarding the eastern edge is Ross Island, a speck wedged up against the Ross Ice Shelf that nevertheless contains a 13,000 foot active volcano and 450,000 adelie penguins (if you count the youngsters). Not to mention McMurdo Station, our home base for the next month.
McMurdo Station is on Hut Point peninsula, where Scott made his Discovery expedition camp in 1902. To the north is Cape Evans, where the Terra Nova expedition stayed, and 20 miles from McMurdo is Cape Royds, our first camp, with David Ainley and about 4,000 pairs of penguins. We’re hoping to be there by Saturday.
Jump across McMurdo Sound – that comma that you couldn’t even see from the Ross Sea map. About 50 miles from McMurdo is Mt. Morning, where we’ll spend the middle of December with Woods Hole geologists Mark Kurz, Adam Soule, and grad student Andrea Burke.
After a scheduled laundry day at McMurdo, we’ll head back out to Cape Crozier, of Worst Journey fame, for Christmas with Grant Ballard and some 300,000 penguins (adults and young). Here we’ll hope to investigate Igloo Spur as well as make the trek over to the Emperor penguins huddled on the sea ice south of the Adelies.
(I love the little penguin icons on the map.)
And that’s our month in Antarctica – now you’re situated. So far it’s been great, but it’s been nine hours of mostly indoor heat and cafeteria food. We’ll see how melting ice for water – not to mention sleeping on it – work out. Hope you stay tuned.