McMurdo Station is the largest research station in Antarctica and will serve as home port for our IVARS cruise to the Ross Sea.
Flights to McMurdo land on a runway atop the seasonal sea ice, or when summer's relative warmth renders that unstable, on the permanent ice shelf. Because our flight is arriving near the end of the austral summer, we land on the shelf.
We step from the plane onto a vast, featureless sheet of white beneath a gray sky. Ice-draped mountains ring the horizon, including a glimmer of 12,444-foot Mt. Erebus, the continent's most active volcano. The temperature is 28 degrees, a warm summer day on the Antarctic coast, but the wind is biting. The view, summer chill, and chapped lips of our welcoming party confirm that Antarctica is indeed the world's coldest, driest, windiest, highest, and iciest place.
We are immediately herded into yet another strange-looking vehicle called "Ivan the Terra Bus," which drives off across the snow atop its four head-high rubber wheels. It follows a "road" that is marked by earlier tracks and a string of bamboo poles sporting red and green flags. The ice-shelf runway lies 15 kilometers from McMurdo, and it takes about 45 minutes to reach the station. Our first stop, though, is at New Zealand's Scott Base, where we unload a contingent of Kiwis.
We then drive onto Ross Island and climb across the Hut Point Peninsula for our first glimpse of McMurdo. At first impression, "Mactown" looks like an all-night interstate truck stop near a military base or oil-field complex on the high plains of Wyoming. All of the normally buried or hidden infrastructure and goods that keep a city running—the sewer, fuel, and electrical lines; building supplies; shipping crates; etc.—are here exposed to view. The architecture runs the gamut from metal-sided warehouses to Quonset huts, with a few wooden chalets mixed in. The landscape is a series of barren reddish-brown volcanic cones and lava flows sloping down to the flat whiteness of the sea ice.
On arrival, we file into the "Chalet" for an introductory briefing (the front porch of the Chalet features a bust of Virginia native and polar explorer Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd [of Byrd Hall fame at VIMS]). We then collect our bags and head to "Building 155," which turns out to be a combination dormitory, mess hall, and student union.
The exotic nature of this place becomes even more apparent after engaging in conversations and people-watching during dinner. The mess hall is a wild mix of geologists, oceanographers, astronomers, ecologists, biologists, meteorologists, seismologists, iron workers, welders, electricians, plumbers, computer jockeys, truck drivers, backhoe operators, cooks, janitors, pilots (helicopter and C-130 and C-141), ship captains, and cross-country skiers. In fact some of the people seem to dabble in several of these professions at once. There are people from all over the world, and because it's summer and the sun won't set for another few months, they seem to be operating on many different time zones. Some folks look like they just got up, others look like they should go to bed, and many of the recent arrivals look too jet-lagged to know the difference. For new arrivals, the combination of perpetual daylight and jet lag can produce a surrealistic brain haze in which time, hunger, and wakefulness seem to shift and shimmer in new and very odd patterns.
Today's first bit of IVARS business is to move the gear from December's cruise aboard the Coast Guard cutter Polar Star onto the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer, which will be our ship for the upcoming cruise. Walker Smith's graduate students Sasha Tozzi and Amy Shields (who have remained at McMurdo since the Polar Star's arrival in late December) have already done much of the leg work, and today the rest of the science crew joins in to transfer the few remaining pieces of equipment and some personal gear onto the Palmer, which is berthed at McMurdo's ice pier. We transfer the gear and baggage into a large mesh net, which is lifted aboard by a ship-mounted crane. About half the IVARS team then boards the Palmer, which quickly moves away from the ice pier into a large patch of open water called the Turning Basin. The move is to make room for the fuel ship, whose arrival is anxiously awaited by everyone in McMurdo, especially those who will spend the winter. This will be the fuel ship's last visit before the sea ice reforms this fall.
The team members aboard the Palmer will remain with the ship at sea for the next few days to organize the science gear in the shipboard laboratories. The rest of us will stay onshore to finish some last-minute experiments and help tie up any loose ends. The current plan has us boarding the Palmer and setting sail for the Ross Sea on Friday the 28th. Of course, those plans could change. That's the first lesson of Antarctic travel.