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Month: January 2020

This is a seriously huge continent

It’s hard to appreciate the size of a place without experiencing it first hand but I’ll do my best to convey the enormity of Antarctica.

At the end of a hectic week in McMurdo, it was time for our next travel leg: A flight on an LC 130 to WAIS Divide Camp. This flight took 5 hours and the distance we travelled was equivalent to flying from San Antonio, Texas to Eastern Nevada.

Antarctica is much bigger than the USA. Here you can see the USA outline for scale. (original image from NASA)

It’s also worth pointing out that these aren’t normal commercial flights. Instead we fly on ski equipped Air Force planes. Passengers sit in slings against the walls while cargo is piled down the middle. The skis make it possible for the plane to land on the ice instead of a normal runway.

Boarding our flight to WAIS Divide camp
Just after landing at WAIS Divide
Inside an LC 130

You might think that a 5 hr flight over Antarctica would be very scenic but mine wasn’t. Remember that most of the continent is buried under miles of ice. I kept glancing out the window hoping to catch a glimpse of something. Maybe a mountain or some crevassing or a research station. Instead I found that I couldn’t even tell where the ice covered ground met the gray sky. A vast barren white world stretched out in all directions. The view never changed. 

Looking out the window of the plane, I couldn't tell where the ice stopped and the clouds started

While the view was far from captivating, I still found my mind wandering back to scientific papers I’d read over the last few months. I realized that the figures in those papers illustrating ice sheet retreat had taken on a new meaning for me. Instead of just a plot with squiggly lines showing projected sea level rise I was actually looking at the massive glaciers that could melt in my lifetime. Picturing all of this ice melting was hard to comprehend but the massive impact that would have on sea level rise globally was all too real. 

As I stepped off the plane at WAIS Divide I was met by my first real blast of Antarctic cold. I distinctly remember that first stinging breath of air and then my alarm when I realized that my face was completely numb after only a half hour outside. I wasn’t even to our first research site but I think that’s when a realization first hit me and I began to comprehend what I’d really signed on for.

Arriving at WAIS Divide Camp
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Antarctica, an otherworldly journey

I’m back — just done with my long journey from Antarctica back to California — and already my time in Antarctic feels otherworldly. There’s a giant two month gap in my normal life going back to mid November when I departed, but now the pause button has suddenly switched off and normal life resumed. I’m left with the strange feeling that December and January were just erased while simultaneously my head is spinning through recollections of some of the greatest adventures I’ve ever had.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to go to Antarctica for glaciology research, this blog (and the following ones) are for you.

First real life view of McMurdo Station
My previous knowledge of McMurdo Station

Let’s rewind the clock to December 16th, the day after I posted my last blog from McMurdo Station. As I mentioned in that blog, starting the moment you arrive at McMurdo Station you have to go through a huge amount of training. This ranges from information on how the station operates and your role as part of the community to field trainings to prepare you to survive some of the coldest and harshest conditions anywhere on the planet. On top of the crammed training schedules, my field team also had a heap of cargo — both science and camp gear — to organize and pack for the upcoming flights out to our field sites.

This time in McMurdo was also our last days of enjoying actual beds, showers, and indoor heating. Here’s some pictures from my week in McMurdo.

In McMurdo looking out at the sea ice
Looking up at Observation Hill from McMurdo
A view of McMurdo from Hut Point
Another view of the sea ice from Hut Point. Those blobs in the foreground are seals.
One training was a "happy camper" session out on Willy field where we had a mock field camp to prepared for our month at the field site. This was my first night camping in Antarctica.
This is a Scott tent. I slept in this same type of tent for the next month at our field site!
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