McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. research base in the Antarctic, is located at ~78° south on Ross Island, which is made up of three volcanoes. The largest of these volcanoes—Mt. Erebus—towers ~12,500 feet above McMurdo. Mt. Erebus is still active: on many clear days you can see a ribbon of smoke streaming off the summit.
McMurdo itself is an impressively self-sufficient town (Antarctic regulars endearingly refer to the station as “Mactown”). During the summer, which is when we perform our research (remember, seasons are opposite in the southern hemisphere), there are usually between 500 and 1,000 people in McMurdo. Most of these people are the staff who live in town and make the day to day operations in the Antarctic a reality. The jobs in McMurdo include things like food services, vehicle maintenance, helicopter pilot, shuttle drivers, science support logistics, and many, many more. While some scientists are based out of McMurdo for their entire field season, many are like us, spending about a week readying our equipment before shipping out to a remote field camp with just our small team (in our case, we spent 5 weeks with just the four of us!). In this sense, the scientists are just transient residents of McMurdo, while the staff actually live there for the entire season. As you can see from the photo below, it really looks like a small town, with dorm buildings, a cafeteria, a small hospital, a communications center, etc etc.
We arrived in McMurdo on December 23rd, just before the holidays. There is a slight aura of sadness around the holidays – I met one woman who woke up at 3 am on Christmas morning so that she could be on the phone her kids while they opened their Christmas presents. It’s hard to be away from family during that time, but we try to make up for it in McMurdo. On Christmas eve, there’s a banquet, followed by a large buffet brunch on Christmas morning. On New Year’s, McMurdo hosts its very own music festival called Ice Stock. With these events, McMurdo buzzes with excitement, and you really feel a sense of community on station.
We were also able to get some exploring in. There are several trails around McMurdo, which make for good hiking and running. We also had the chance to tour Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Hut, where some of the first Antarctic explorers lived for over 2 years in the early 1900s! Many of the items they used – like pans for cooking and their clothing – are still staged in the hut.
Of course, while the holidays and exploring are fun, we were in McMurdo with a job to do. Brenda, our professor and fearless leader, was actually doing fieldwork with another group in the southern Transantarctic Mountains when Laura, Tyler, and I arrived in Antarctica. Here’s the link to my friend Jill’s blog where she documents her experiences doing that work with Brenda. Brenda met us back in McMurdo around New Year’s. In the week before Brenda arrived, Laura, Tyler, and I had to test all of our issued gear (like tents and stoves), pack the gear, order and pack our food for the season, pick up important communication equipment like our satellite phones and radios, weigh all of our gear (1,200 lbs in all!), and do a whole bunch of trainings. It was a busy week running around Mactown, but we were able to get most everything done before Brenda’s return.
The whole time that we had been in McMurdo, we could see the Royal Society Range across McMurdo Sound, and could actually point to each of the 3 places we’d be camping. On January 2nd, we were all ready to begin our field season in a valley called Pyramid Trough in the southern Royal Society Range. Laura, Tyler, and I had never been in a helicopter before, so we especially were excited for the 30-minute ride over to our field site. And with that, we launched our 5-week field season! More on that to come…