September In Antarctica / by Alasdair Turner

I arrived here in Antarctica four weeks ago leaving the northern hemisphere summer to return to winter early.  Over the past two seasons of working here on the ice, my first between October and February and my second August to December I realized that without a doubt the most incredible time of they year is late August.  So I am back again this season for the end of winter, watching the sun slowly rise over the Ross Sea to the north and bring in the Antarctic summer, where soon the sun will not dip below the horizon at all.  

As a sign of the weather to come once I finally arrived, we spent almost a week in Christchurch New Zealand waiting for the weather to clear long enough for our flight to be able to land.  Once here the weather promptly returned to what has been the norm for the last four weeks. High winds and low visibility have been constant, and although many think that this should be normal for Antarctica, it is not for this part of the continent.  It is warm this year, very warm.  Most days have been considerably above normal.  As much as 20 degrees C above normal.  Although I understand that these high temps are just localized weather, it is hard not to think about climate change with such extremes (and no climate change is not a theory, it is scientifically proven fact).  

Our flight down was on a USAF C-17 based out of JB Fort Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, WA.  This is also the plane I flew to NZ on.  Flying a C-17 is an amazing experience once, I would much rather fly on an aircraft with windows and comfy seats however.  

My job during this time of year is working on the frozen surface of the McMurdo Sound (the most southern bay of the Ross Sea, and also the most southern navigable water on the planet). The ice here breaks up each season and floats north into the Ross Sea and the Indian Ocean where it eventually melts.  I spend most of my time finding the location for a sea ice road that will run 22 km to the north where much of the scientific research we support here is done.  Sea ice moves, so we are constantly measuring and monitoring the conditions of the ice and the width of the cracks in addition to overall thickness of the ice (about 175cm as of yesterday).  We do this to ensure the safety of the vehicles that will be driving up and down this road with scientific equipment and other supplies.  We drive huge bulldozers and tractors on the ice so this is not as strait forward as it may seem at first.  This year there is a huge amount of icebergs frozen in place, which although sounds amazing and makes for great photos, creates very difficult ice conditions due to cracks in the ice that radiate in all directions from the bergs.  

As I already mentioned, the weather has been uncooperative.  it has been windy and warm.  I am sure there is a relation there somehow but I am not qualified to speak on this.  I will have to ask our weather forecaster who may have the most difficult job in Antarctica.  Even on a nice day if the winds are blowing it is not safe to be on the ice.  High winds pick up ice and snow and blow it around so that it is impossible to see the features on the ground.  When traveling on sea ice you must be able to see the ground or run the risk of putting a vehicle into a crack in the ice.  


We have had some good weather days, but I can count them on one hand.  The days we have had have been incredible.  The main vehicle I use on the sea ice is a Hagglunds.  This is a swedish military vehicle that is theoretically amphibious.  Theoretically because chances are it would only float long enough for us to get out through the hatches on the roof if it did go in the water.  Our vehicles are getting old, and with all the budget cuts in the US government buying new Hagglunds is not high on the priority list.  

The main road ends at Cape Evans.  This is where Captan Scott built the second of his two huts here on Ross Island.  This is also the hut that Shackleton's Ross Sea Party used several years after Scott failed to return from the south pole.  The broken anchor of their ship the Aurora is still embedded into the beach were it broke free in a storm leaving the crew to spend two winters without their needed provisions which were still on the boat.  

The road continues north of Cape Evans to Cape Royds, but on much less of a scale (picture a one lane dirt road vs. highway).  Cape Royds is the location of Shackelton's 1907 hut where he got very close to the pole but turned around stating the now most famous of quotes  "a live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn't it?"

Back at McMurdo Station we are still having some dark at night, but as the sun gets lower in the northern hemisphere here the opposite happens.  The sun soon will not set at all making photos like this impossible for another five months.