Friday, October 5, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: Diary from Antarctica

Our guest today is Adam Lutchansky. Adam lived in Juneau, Alaska, from birth until age 17, when he traded rifles and skiffs for palm trees and a NASA project at Harvey Mudd College in California.  After graduating with an engineering degree, Adam did research for a startup in Anchorage, turned wrenches on small cruise ships in Baja, helped construct a marine research lab in Juneau, and supervised maintenance of part of the oil spill response fleet in Valdez.  His willingness to work with his hands and take project-duration employment allowed him by the age of 25 to have visited all seven continents and to have lived and worked on four of them.  He'll be returning to Antarctica this austral summer for a four-month contract. The following is excerpted from his blog of his first experiences on the southernmost continent, Adam Down South.

Flight to the South Pole
30 Aug., 2007
Ten days on the ice so far. Already I've lost a linear conception of time - some of the days have slid by without interest; some were so intense as to warrant memorization. The best measure of time passed is the length of the days. The last time I checked, we were gaining half an hour of visible light every day. McMurdo Station is at about 78 degrees latitude, and at such extreme positions the winters and summers are exaggerated and the spring and fall are abbreviated. This is because the poles are usually either constantly exposed to the sun or constantly exposed to darkness. Each season is a study in a particular part of the day: summers, with the sun circling constantly overhead, are daytime. Winters, night. It is coming into spring now, and although the sun spends a minority of time above the horizon, every minute of daylight is a sunrise or sunset. The sun moves low, horizontally, heavily. The effect is ridiculously beautiful…

Work buildings at the South Pole station, which Adam visited

12 Sep., 2007

Nine hours, 46 minutes of sunlight. We're gaining only 15 minutes a day now, but the sky is clear and the sun is slanting through the shutters of the power plant and lighting the generator motors with a wide-spectrum glow, vibrant under the large sodium lights that otherwise illuminate the generator room with a tranquilizing orange.

Despite my temperature gauge hitting -20F, the sun is inescapable this afternoon, and for the first time the impossible legend of continuous summer sunlight hammering UV-saturated rays on the dry snow has gained some feasibility. It is piercingly dry here, and the sterility of the surroundings often feels absurd for such an exotic place. There won't be above-ground life anywhere near McMurdo Station for a couple of months, and never will there be the huddled lichens, gnarled trees, and anemic, short-lived flowers one associates with summer in a desolate place. There is nothing now but ice and sky, rocks and wind, and the Station.

The weather has been hit-and-miss here. When I arrived on August 20, we stepped out of the cargo plane, windowless but for a couple iced-up portholes, onto grainy, plastic snow, and choked on air measuring -33F. The sky was clear though, and with the sun only a couple degrees above the horizon we had a moment to take in the vivid majesty around us - the surrounding plain of snow that covers the sea, and the pink and purple mountain ranges that circled the distant horizon, clearly visible to 50 miles. The next day visibility was only a few hundred feet as a small blizzard moved in, and the day after that was once again clear. There is nothing here to impede the weather, and it changes fast. When we landed, our plane never shut down its engines, anxious to regain the security of altitude.

August and September are considered the coldest parts of the year at McMurdo…
Adam at the South Pole

…with 350 people now at McMurdo Station, the population seems slightly higher than the perfect amount. The dining hall is just slightly too crowded for a quiet meal, the video selection is often thinned out, and I've met far more people than I can recall having met. I spent my first couple weeks just smiling and saying hello to everyone I saw, abandoning any effort to figure out who I was supposed to know.

Despite living with 350 people now and preparing to live with 1000+, the people living here want to be here, and everyone makes sacrifices for the opportunity, so the social atmosphere is very friendly. Mainbody [busy season] takes a bit of getting used to I'm told, but once one gets into the proactive mood, it's supposed to be a damn good time. For now, however, the idea of more people arriving inspires in most of us WinFly personnel [workers who came earlier] feelings of apprehension and xenophobia.

Even before I secured a job at McMurdo, I'd heard a lot about the place, mostly people who had passed through the station. The few people I'd met who actually lived at McMurdo described it as a bustling, interesting, and crowded outpost, whereas the people who were here as transients painted a grim picture of dust storms, decrepit buildings, alcoholic inhabitants, and a lack of activities. The fact of the matter however, is that this is not a place to be a visitor. To minimize the environmental impact, there's a limited amount of turf at McMurdo, so rooms are fairly small, the gyms and bars are crowded during peak hours, and the recreational resources are hidden away in whatever space could be spared. During the summer season (a.k.a. mainbody), this place gets crowded, and the male to female ratio is about 2:1, causing all the men to develop an instinctual frustration with the arrival of any additional men. So when any people at all show up at McMurdo for a few days complaining about conditions which are further aggravated by their own arrival, I can understand that no residents are keen to share with transients the best hours for certain activities, the word-of-mouth opportunities, and the hidden gems that make this a great place to live. Transients are left with nothing to do but to mull over reasons to leave town…

Transport between stations
22 Dec., 2007

The tilt of the earth's axis has reached a fully reclined position, summer has swept south to McMurdo, and life is easy. Today is the austral summer solstice, and for the past few days the sun has been rotating around us at a nearly constant angle, never dipping or rising, just spinning around us at a lazy glancing angle, while all the shadows pace around in circles. Daytime temperatures were recently staying above 40F and people were walking and working outside in t-shirts. Anyone showing bare skin outside must regularly baste themselves in suntan lotion to avoid frying their skin under the rotisserie of the infinite daylight, burning raw with UV rays spilling through the ozone hole above.

Activity at McMurdo is at its peak, and the station is fulfilling its role as the continent's premium logistical, scientific, and transport center. We host 20 or so airplane flights a day but our runway on the sea ice immediately adjacent to the station has melted away, the ice too thin to handle any traffic, and all airplane operations have moved to our two more distant fields. Fifteen or so miles out of town, Pegasus Field has reopened and hosts heavy wheeled aircraft such as the C-17 turbofan transports, each C-17 being almost the exact size of Scott's ship HMS Discovery, arriving now three times weekly from New Zealand…

…The weather for weeks has been warm enough to enjoy a beer outside and to go running with bare arms, but yesterday we got our first snow and cloud cover in weeks, and it was a beautiful relief from the oppressive regularity of blue skies. The temperature of the air and snow was too high for the snow to stick to the ground, but the thick assault of flakes came down as large wet wads, falling white but smashing transparent against the earth. I wandered into this assault with several friends and a haphazard nonchalance, catching the flakes on our tongues and giving refuge to the flakes on our shoulders.

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