There is so much to fill you in on! The last week and some odd days have been incredibly busy preparing for the science aspect of the test coming up in mid-December on the Ross Ice Shelf; this is where we will be testing the hot water drill and science instruments for the first time in this kind of environment. We have also done training and training preparing us for the harsh environments that Antarctica offers.
Survival training, formally called Happy Camper School, was absolutely incredible. We spent approximately two days out on the ice completely away from McMurdo Station, and all semblances of human life. We met with our trainers at the Science Support Center in McMurdo where we sat in a lecture for approximately two hours going over some of the basic survival training skills that we would need to learn. For example, any metal that has been exposed to freezing temperatures can immediately give you frost bite from only a half second of contact. Gloves are not only nice to have but they are absolutely required for this reason. During Happy Camper we were taught how to put up Mountain tents and Scott’s tents, and the majority of them have metal poles that make up the framework. So putting up metal poles with thick leather gloves on is a difficult task, and can get a bit frustrating! We also learned how to build wind walls that would shield the camp from high winds that would threaten to carry away tents and equipment and also serve as a barrier to snow drifts. The walls were built out of blocks of snow that you cut out of the ground with a saw! It was pretty interesting to see how a block of snow could be perfectly rectangular when cut from the snow and ice. The wind wall that our camp built was about 4 feet tall and 60 feet long. Our group also built a makeshift kitchen out of these snow blocks where we rehydrated our freeze-dried dinners and made hot chocolate! One of my favorite things we did was the building of a snow trench. So a snow trench is exactly what it sounds like, it is a hole in the ground that you can dig to get out of the harsh winds and snow if you were not to have any tents or other forms of shelter. My snow trench was about four feet deep, two feet wide at the top, five feet wide at the bottom, and 7 feet long to give me adequate space to sleep in and store any equipment and jackets. The reason the opening of the snow trench is narrower than the bottom is to minimize the amount of snow and wind that can make its way inside. Also an A-frame type roofing was made to cover up the majority of the trench, so in actuality it was a pretty enclosed space. I also decided to build an entryway and arch to my trench, just for fun and because I could!
The night spent in the trench was actually quite warm. Between my thermal underwear and the heavy-duty mummy style sleeping bags with a fleece lining I was quite content! The only thing I would recommend if you ever find yourself sleeping outside anywhere below the Antarctic Circle is to have a sleep mask. It was quite difficult sleeping when the sun is always in the sky. By morning time it had gotten quite cold and I found that my boots issued by the program had frozen in half meaning that I spent quite a bit of time trying to pry them open with my hands…. it wasn’t exactly the best wake up call! Right after I finally got them on I bundled up in all of my gear the group melted snow down to make hot water and people had powdered coffee and hot chocolate to warm up!
We spent the rest of the second day doing different scenario type training. For example, how do we find someone that has gone missing during a whiteout? A whiteout is when the conditions deteriorate so much that between the wind and snow you cannot see past your own extended hand. To simulate this experience they placed white buckets on our hands and had us communicate and coordinate a rescue attempt on a “missing” person. It was quite comical but humbling all at the same time. When you have been robbed of almost all of your senses can be terrifying, especially when you are freezing and lost.
Another thing that I enjoyed was learning how to use an HF radio. These are High Frequency radios that can be used to communicate around the world. They operate by sending waves that are bounced off the Earth’s ionosphere and sent around the world. These are the radios that you see in old war movies where the radio technician is running around with a huge radio on his back with this antenna sticking out of it.
I was able to call down to the South Pole! I said, “South Pole, South Pole, South Pole this is Happy Camper, how do you read?” The technician at the South Pole answered back, “Happy Camper this is South Pole, you are coming in garbled,” and that was the extent of our conversation! We tried different frequencies to get a better connection but we were running out of time on that portion of the training so we had to move on.
The day was later rounded out with learning helicopter safety and how to correctly operate around them when they are active.
Earlier this week we were trained on snowmobiles! We spent about an hour learning about how to operate them and how to trouble shoot if we were to have problems. The last two hours of the course was spent out on the ice riding them! That was an absolute blast! I, being from the south and all, have never been on or driven a snowmobile, just jet skis which seem like they would be similar, but are actually night and day different. Experiencing all of the new things has been a whirlwind of an adventure and I couldn’t be happier to have this opportunity.
Just yesterday we took a tour of Discovery Hut, which is located about a ten-minute walk from McMurdo Station. English explorer Robert Falcon Scott built this hut during the Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904 in 1902. The hut was pre-fabricated in Australia and the pieces were brought by ship and assembled where it still stands today on Ross Island. One of the facts that I found humorous and interesting is the fact that the hut was actually quite colder inside than it was outside. The hut was designed for the temperature and climates of the Australian outback. Meaning that it was designed to keep heat out and the cool air in. So in all actuality the hut was quite chillier than it was outside, which Scott and various other parties that used it for shelter noted. It sent chills down my spine thinking that only a hundred years ago a group of men came to one of the last unexplored places on Earth and slept and ate and explored the very spot in which I stood. Many artifacts from their expedition still remain and are preserved and protected today.
Although it may seem like we have been playing more than we have been working, this is quite the contrary. Working almost seven days a week, our team is working tirelessly to bring together scientific plans together along with that of the operations team and the drill team. This is such a large and interdisciplinary project that the logistics and communications are quite astounding. Every morning we have an all-hands meeting where we discuss new directives and give updates on our current progress. We spend the days in the Crary Lab, which is the science center in McMurdo, preparing our experiments and hashing out the finer details. Preparing reagents and solutions for this type of project can be a tedious and long project. Fortunately we are working with a fantastic group of people making the long days and hard work much more bearable.
As we get closer to time I will fill you in on more of the science aspect of what we are doing, and give you in depth detail of how we are going to be sampling the subglacial lakes and analyzing samples. We expect to test the hot water drill and sampling retinue on the 12th of December through the 22nd of December. Then the entire drill and science labs will be traversed to Lake Whillans, our official drilling site. The traverse will take about two weeks to cross the 450 miles of land.
Please feel free to ask any questions that you would like answered! Whether it is about the daily life in McMurdo or questions surrounding the science, which we are exploring.
Talk to you all soon!