Ice and Medicine at the end of the earth

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Life In South Pole Station

Landing at McMurdo is inspiring with the mountains rising up all around and the knowledge that you have finally arrived in Antarctica. Arriving at South Pole is alien. You have just been whisked from sea level to 9300 ft in two hours and dropped off on the Antarctic plateau at temperatures of -30C (-20F). In every direction stretches white snow.

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Fortunately, South Pole station is only a few (although very difficult in the altitude) steps away.

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The station is quite comfortable and is similar to dorms being built on college campuses – except that there is a 100F temperature difference between outside and inside. Everyone gets a single room, unless they request a double room with someone. I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable my room was.

The rooms are simple but have plenty of storage and even a desk so there is no excuse to not be productive. The windows are smaller than a typical building so that less heat is lost. But during the summer, the window shades are mostly kept down so that it feels like night when you are trying to sleep.

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The station holds 150 people, although in busy times (like now) people sometimes stay in temporary units located a short walk away. The galley, or dining hall, fits everyone pretty well.

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The food is pretty good – better than my high school, not as good as my college (go Bowdoin! #1 in college food). There’s lots of proteins and dessert and not many fresh vegetables. I was surprised to find a greenhouse in the station though.

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There is also a lot of recreation space, including a gym where I just did yoga for the first time (or attempted to do yoga may be more accurate).

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The yoga class was taught by Lindsay, one of the station staff. The recreation on the station is all self-created, so you have to come ready to make your own fun. I was a little surprised at the amount of space dedicated to recreation, but after being here a while, it makes sense. Getting outside for exercise is hard and you need to have an outlet to keep your sanity. And I’m saying this in the summer, you can image what the 8 months of winter, when no flights can come or go, feels like.

The South Pole Ceremony

After arriving in McMurdo, I immediately went and checked the flight information for the following day to see if there was a flight to South Pole scheduled. If I didn’t fly, I would have to wait at least an addition 2 days because of the New Year’s holiday.

I was excited to see that we were a backup flight, so there was a chance to reach the South Pole on New Year’s Day. But for us to fly, a flight to WAIS Divide, the ice-core site that I have spent much of the last 5 years working on, had to be canceled. Two friends had been waiting over 2 weeks for a flight to WAIS Divide and the camp could use a resupply. Could I really root for the WAIS Divide flight to get cancelled?

I heard that the weather was dicey at WAIS Divide, so it was likely we would fly to Pole. When I woke up in the morning, the WAIS Divide flight had been cancelled due to weather, but the South Pole flight had good weather in both locations. So three of us made our way back to the airfield about 16 hours after we had arrived. Things were looking good, but as with all flights in Antarctica, you keep your fingers crossed until you land at your destination.

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Landing at South Pole was awesome. Three friends met me at the plane and walked me over to the station. I felt like a pre-teen walking up to Hogwarts Castle for the first time. I had arrived at the geographic South Pole, in many ways, the end of the Earth. And even better, I had arrived in time for the South Pole Ceremony, by a mere two hours.

The South Pole sits on top of 2800 m (9000 ft) of ice which is flowing at 10 m per year (33 feet per year). So each year, the marker for the geographic South Pole has to be moved and this is done on New Years Day.

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The marker is designed and crafted by the winter-over crew each year. Much of the station assembled outside for the ceremony.

spc_3The station manager said a few short words, and then asked us to form a semicircle from the previous marker to the new one. We passed the American Flag around the semi-circle, planting it just downstream of the new marker

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The new marker was then unveiled

There is a great tradition of markers at South Pole and I was honored to be a part of it. For a glaciologist who measures ice-flow rates, it was particularly fun to be involved. In the station, there is a display case with all of the markers. It looks like the first one was crafted in 1984 and it became an annual tradition in 1987.

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Arrival In Antarctica: 2014, my first bipolar year

Arriving in Antarctica is always amazing. This is my third time touching down on the continent, and I gladly take the same photos every time. Just like I never tire of looking out at Mt. Rainier, looking up at Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world, is always a treat.
aia_1I arrived on New Year’s Eve, making 2014 the first year that I had been both above the arctic circle and below the Antarctic circle in the same year. One more day of a flight delay and I wouldn’t have made it.

Landing in Antarctica feels other-worldly as you are dressed in ECW and step off the plane onto snow. But the beautiful weather – just below freezing with little wind – made if feel like an après-ski afternoon on a Spring ski day.

Many of the vehicles don’t look that different.aia_2

But some remind you of the snow-dominated environment you will be working in.

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To my surprise, we loaded onto Ivan the Terra Bus, which I thought had been retired.  This is Ivan when Jessie was here.

Ice Transportation

And we bounced our way for 45 minutes to McMurdo station on a combination of snow and dirt roads. It was good to be back in McMurdo, but I hoped my stay would be short and I would get to South Pole the next day.

What to wear?

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Deciding what clothes to bring with you to Antarctica is the biggest challenge in packing. The US Antarctic Program provides all of the essential layers for survival, but not necessarily comfort. So that means bringing down a lot of clothes of your own – but fortunately, the really, really warm gear, called ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear is supplied by the USAP.

 

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The previous photo is of all the warm clothes I am bringing. In general, the USAP clothing is on the left and my own clothing in on the right. I will be working in -25˚C (-15˚F) conditions. We have a warming hut at the drill sites, but most of the time we will be in the cold. So I have a lot of clothes with me. Exactly what I will wear is still undecided. At the WAIS Divide drill site, my typical choice of clothing was:

  • Two Pairs wool socks
  • Boot liners
  • FDX boots (the big blue ones
  • Lightweight long underwear bottoms
  • Heavyweight long underwear bottoms
  • Fleece pants
  • Carhart bibs
  • Lightweight long underwear top
  • Heavyweight long underwear top
  • Fleece jacket
  • Big Red
  • Neck gator
  • Two ski hats
  • Glove liners
  • Work gloves

So as you can see in the pile, I have a couple sets of everything. Things are a little more complicated this year as the drilling fluid being used is smellier. So I will be changing my outer layers before heading back to South Pole station. You might notice that I also have what looks like regular ski clothing on the far right. I’m bringing these so I have clothes to exercise in outside. Not sure if I’ll be able to too, but I’d rather have the option than not.

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In the last photo, I have my station clothes. Since WAIS Divide wasn’t a full station, I’m not quite sure what I will be wearing inside. But I have some normal clothes as well as a pair of workout clothes – I hear there is a gym at South Pole.

In all, it’s about 75 pounds of clothing. I’m sure I’ve brought some clothes that I won’t use, and wish I had brought something I didn’t. But as you can see, I should have enough warm layers not to freeze.

You can see current weather and forecasts for South Pole Station here.

Find more about Weather in Amundsen-Scott, AA
Click for weather forecast

Christchurch, NZ

Christchurch, New Zealand is the logistical hub for McMurdo station in Antarctica. Jessie and I were last in Christchurch in February of 2011, just before the major Christchurch earthquake. In fact, Jessie was in the air between Christchurch and Auckland when the earthquake struck. The earthquake caused lots of damage, particularly to the bigger buildings in the center of town.  You can see some images before the large earthquake in a prior post.

Yesterday, I walked the couple of miles from my hotel to the center of town. I noticed more construction than usual on my walk in, but nothing striking. I then went to the botanical gardens, which had the same lovely feel as before. Adrian’s olinguito enjoyed the gardens quite a bit.

After the botanical gardens, I walked into the city. I headed to Cathedral Square, the heart of Christchurch, knowing that the Cathedral had suffered some significant damage. Indeed it had, with one end more or less gone.

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For comparison from 2011:

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More striking were the large buildings still fenced off. The signs of the businesses still in sight chc_4But most striking, was simply the lack of buildings at all. This photo is looking up the main street from Cathedral Square.

chc_5The city center was simply nothing like what I had seen nearly 4 years ago. It was disorienting – landmarks no longer existed. They had been torn down. The river was still the same, but without the restaurants, shops, and buildings I didn’t really know where I was in the city.

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There is a lot of building activity and I’m sure Christchurch will emerge from this with a new downtown core. I look forward to seeing the changes in the coming years.

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We are back!

 

Get ready for the next Antarctic Adventure! T.J. is heading back to the ice next week and we will be providing regular updates and photos. There have been a lot of changes since we last posted.  We are now Dr. and Dr. Fudge.  T.J. has completed his PhD and is now a post-doc at the University of Washington.  Jessie completed her Sports Medicine Fellowship at the University of Washington and is working in a sports practice in Everett, WA.  We have also added a member to the Fudge clan.  Adrian was born on October 12, 2013.  He seems to love snow, and is looking forward to some more “sled skiing” this winter.

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DSC04346 T.J.’s last project was at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide.  He published his findings in Nature.  You can link to the article here.  His new project will bring him to the South Pole where they are drilling another ice core.  Since, I am a bit jealous that he is returning to Antarctica without me, I like to remind him that I was the first Fudge to stand at the South Pole. Geographic South Pole We look forward to having you follow along on T.J.’s South Pole adventure.  Look for new posts starting early January.

First Sunset and Final Goodbye

It seems like just yesterday that I left Seattle for the adventure of a lifetime.  The plane returns tomorrow (hopefully) to bring me back to the land of color, smells, good food and family!  I had an amazing experience, learned a lot and met great friends.  It will be hard to leave, but I am ready for the next adventure!

The first sunset early this morning was a good way to wrap up the incredible season.  It was awesome to experience the final sunset earlier in the season and the first sunset at the end.  Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate to make the sunset this morning epic, but a hike after dinner proved beautiful.

Tomorrow, I say goodbye to great friends, incredible views and penguins.  Antarctica and the people of antarctica will always hold a special place in my heart.  I am so lucky to be able to share this incredible experience with T.J — it is one we will never forget.