« MacTown! | Main | Bombs and Three Sisters »

January 7, 2003

McMurdo and the field

McMurdo. After coming down from the volcano, the rest of my group was done with field work. The weather had denied us several task that will have to wait until next season, including the installation of another major monitoring site on the crater rim, but we finished the season with everything else operational. Five new GPS sites, three new seismographs, two new cameras on the rim, three microphones, several anemometers (measuring wind speed and direction), new power supplies including wind generators, CO2 measurements from ice towers, and several suites of campaign GPS measurements.

I still had a round of GPS measurements to make, and one permanent GPS site to install. I decided while still up at the hut that I would stay behind in McMurdo while the others went on north to New Zealand. This allowed me to stay up at the hut with them to the end, rather coming down a few days early, and also allowed me to check out a little bit of McMurdo life. After Erebus, it's like coming to the big city.

Actually, it's a lot more like coming to my dear alma mater: Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington. (Say it out loud if you haven't already--it's fun.) A small place with good people, who you meet one day and are almost guaranteed to run into the next. I love it. But this entry is supposed to be about the field work.

Today was the day to do what Nelia and I had been trying to do via helo from the hut for over the past week. Mission: Install the last round of GPS sites. ARR6, in McMurdo (we were originally going to have Chuck Kurnik do this for us, when we'd planned the field work from the hut); ROY0, on Cape Royds; and SISZ, on Three Sisters.

The field work started with a trip with Chuck to the scenic Hut Point, on the outskirts of McMurdo. Chuck works for UNAVCO, the group I worked with in Boulder, CO, before coming down south, doing GPS. Chuck and I go way back. He even used to give me rides to work when we both lived in Longmont, CO.

But we're not in Boulder, or in Longmont. We're in Antractica.

ARR6 was probably my most difficult installation. Instead of being transported via helo or skidoo, we drove to the site. Not only is this much less glamorous than helo or skidoo, but it also left us farther from the site than we can usually get. We had to carry the equipment all the way over two small hills. Sigh.

[Chuck programs the receiver.]

Luckily, the other two sites I needed to occupy were a little farther away. Nelia and I cruised out in the zippy AStar with pilot Barry. First stop: Cape Royds.

Cape Royds is a little ways out from McMurdo, and hosts a penguin rookery. Finally, we get to see the penguies!

But just from a distance.

Our set-up took a little longer than I'd anticipated... which may have something to do with the fact that we first started setting up over the wrong benchmark (good thing they label those things)... so we didn't get to wander over towards the rookery. We did, however, have some close encounters with skuas (very large sea birds), who seemed quite anxious for us to leave so they could check out the shiny new addition to their environment, and probably poop on it.

I resolved to leaving myself more time at take-down to go see the penguins.

We flew from there to Three Sisters, a lovely location on the flanks of Erebus. Fortunately, the Three Sisters were clear. Clear enough for us to see the snow snakes whipping through between them.... So we didn't land. Also, we didn't actually know which Sister the benchmark was on. After all, there are three to choose from. Opinions varied, and even folks who had been there before couldn't remember for sure. We brought the GPS coordinates, but couldn't narrow it down with the helo's computer. Instead, we flew over the Sisters a few times, squinting down to try to pick out the marker. The marker which consists of a stainless steel post about 2 cm in diameter, maybe with a ~6 cm-diameter orange skirt. After a fresh snow. I didn't really figure we'd see the marker from the air. We didn't. Instead, because of the wind, we headed back to McMurdo.

In McMurdo, there were many errands to run, what with returning equipment we had borrowed from the station and getting other equipment ready to be shipped back to the States.

One such errand took us to Building 71, up on a hill overlooking McMurdo, to tidy up the radios which receive the data from Erebus.

[Radio tower at Building 71.]

[Dome at Building 71. Not used for our data.]

[McMurdo, from Building 71.]

From above, McMurdo struck me as an 11-yr-old boy's dream town. Heavy machinery, lots of big orange trucks, lots of dirt. It's a Tonka town.

From Building 71, we went to a hill on the other side of the town. I think we had some particular purpose for going there, but mostly we sat in the sun and watched the icebreaker making its way towards McMurdo.

[Nelia relaxes.]

The icebreaker comes in every year right around New Years, making the long trek down from Seattle via Hawaii and Austrailia. The trip takes two months. The ship and its crew (Coast Guard) spend another two months in McMurdo sound, breaking up the ice for the shipping vessel that comes in to bring in supplies for the winter and to carry out the cargo from the entire summer season, including science cargo such as GPS equipment and rock samples and the season's worth of waste. After two months of sticking around the Sound, the icebreaker turns north for the two-month journey back to Seattle.


We spent a little while watching the ship laboriously break ice. It backs up in the channel it has recently created, to gain momentum, and then surges forward, with its rounded hull reaching up over the ice. If the ice isn't thin enough to break by merely getting rammed, it is crushed unter the weight of the ship.

Earlier in the day, Barry had flown us over the icebreaker to get a good view of the ship and its broken trail. Often, whales follow the ship in its trail, and seals take advantage of the new opening in the ice. Unfortunately, we didn't see any whales, but we did see some seals.

[Icebreaker from the air.]

The weather was sunny and warm and nice. Like summer.

After dinner, I went climbing with Power Plant Dave and friends. Dave and I go way back to the Cape Evans field trip in November. Little did I know this climbing thing was to become a ritual. We met his friends Matt and Tad in the climbing cave, and were later joined by another climber named George. Dave and Matt and Tad had mustaches. Dave warned me of this via e-mail before I came back down the mountain. They had joined the mustache club. Eighteen or so men decided to shave their nice beards and leave their mustaches, each contributing $5 to a pot. Whoever is left at the end of January takes the dough. This first night in the climbing cave, Matt still had some nice chops going. The following day, those had to go. The idea was to worsen the mustache as time went on, to make the situation more painful. At first, chops and curling mustaches were fine. Then, mustaches had to be neatly trimmed. Now, at the time of this writing (January 28), they're down to Charlie Chaplins.

I digress. Look forward to photos of mustached men in future entries.

An important part of the climbing ritual is lounging. In fact, climbing is not an important part of the climbing ritual at all, and sometimes we don't even do it. The small room is covered with climbing holds, walls and ceiling, and the floor is lined with mattresses. Nice, comfy mattresses. So we climb a little, and then we lounge. We talk about life, the pursuit of happiness, past exploits, future plans. Dave, Tad, and Matt are all wintering over. They're in for the long haul. They have no future plans.

After climbing, we went to the CoffeeHouse, the wine bar in town. I met up with the Erebus group there, and proceeded to laugh and drink wine and have a good time. After all, I could sleep in--we weren't scheduled to fly again until the following afternoon.

Posted by beth at January 7, 2003 5:53 PM