Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher, Part 1

Although long overdue, I have finally finished my blog about my trip to Antarctica. It’s impossible to accurately describe the incredible things that I experienced and the powerful lessons that I learned in the world’s coldest, highest, driest, and windiest desert, so I have instead opted to provide a day-by-day synopsis of my expedition with Professor David Marchant and graduate student Andrew Christ.
In the future I will write more about particular experiences, but for now, here is the first entry in a 4 part “Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher” series.

I left Boston University's campus at 9am with Professor Marchant to Logan International Airport. There we departed on separate trips to Christchurch, New Zealand—me via New York, Los Angeles, and Sydney, him via Dallas and Sydney. I flew out of Boston at 2:30pm to New York’s JFK Airport, where I learned that my flight to Los Angeles had been delayed. After sitting in the crowded terminal for several hours, though, I was back in the air. When I landed in Los Angeles I had to immediately board my continuing flight to Sydney. About 15 hours later I stepped foot on the continent of Australia for the first time. Because of the initial delay in New York, though, I arrived later to Sydney than originally anticipated and missed my connecting flight to Christchurch. Thankfully, the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) was aware of the predicament (about 6 other Antarctica-bound passengers were on my flight from Los Angeles as well), and booked me on a China Airlines flight to New Zealand. I arrived in Christchurch around 6:30pm local time, 1:30am Boston time. Unfortunately, my bags did not. After over 33 hours of travel, I arrived in New Zealand without any of the clothing that I would need for Antarctica 2 days later. But I had made it safely to the other side of the world on my own, so I really couldn't be too upset!
Flight path to Antarctica. Image Credit: USAP.
I spent the entire morning with about 30 other USAP participants (with whom I would be travelling to Antarctica the next morning) preparing for our expedition. I got my Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear! Jackets, gloves, pants, hats, goggles, and boots are among the many items USAP provides (and mandates) for all participants. (Nevertheless, my luggage containing all of my base layers still had not shown up.) We also watched several informational videos about what our flight to Antarctica would be like, and what we should expect when we landed. 
After our morning of preparation, Professor Marchant and I visited the city of Christchurch. Sadly, due to the devastating earthquakes of recent years, most of the city was either ravaged or under construction. The beautiful public Christchurch Botanic Gardens were a lovely exception. Filled with enormous trees from around the world, a large rose garden, a green house, and much more, these gardens reminded me that Christchurch, unlike Boston, was in the peak of summer. I had left a cold, grey city and arrived in a hot, lavishly green one. But that would soon change.

The rose garden in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

The Spirit of Glenville
Inside The Spirit of Glennville
I woke up early, and arrived at the Antarctic Centre at about 7:15am. Thanks to a lot of hard work (and close ties to the Christchurch airport), USAP had managed to retrieve my luggage with almost no time to spare! After a quick breakfast and debriefing, the other passengers and I boarded The Spirit of Glenville, a military aircraft from my home state of New York. It was a very noisy and rather uncomfortable flight, but 8 hours and 2400 miles later, I stepped foot on the Ross Ice Shelf for the first time. After months of preparation and excitement, I had finally arrived in Antarctica.

When I first stepped off the plane, I was surprised by how warm it was; Professor Marchant said it was as warm as he’d ever experienced upon arrival. From the air field, we were transported to McMurdo on the oversized transportation vehicle ‘Ivan the Terra Bus’. Once there, we sat through a quick debriefing and were then able to go to dinner.
Our landing field-- the location of my first step in Antarctica.

After dinner, Dave and I visited BURECS Antarctic Ambassadors Emma Chamberlain and Natalie Robinson along with graduate student Andrew Christ. Emma and Natalie were getting ready to return from their month-long expedition, while Drew was staying with me and Dave to continue his field season. I went to bed around 11pm, but it felt very strange as the sun was still shining brightly overhead. We had arrived close to the summer solstice; the sun would not set for our entire trip. It was a very bizarre feeling the first night.

My first full day in McMurdo was spent preparing for the field. I had to attend an information session wherein I learned how to light a propane or white gas stove, how to pitch a tent, how to avoid hypothermia, and many other important skills for living in the Antarctic Dry Valleys.
Later, Natalie, Emma, Drew, Professor Marchant, and I discussed our situation, and decided that our first day trip would be to Black Island on 12/19, and we would set up our longer duration camp on 12/21 at Mackay Glacier. For the day trip, we would be taken out by a helicopter to nearby Black Island in the morning and brought back by helicopter later that afternoon. Our goal would be to collect samples that Drew, Emma, and Natalie hadn’t had enough time to retrieve during their time at Black Island.
At night, Drew, Natalie, Emma, and I attended one of McMurdo’s weekly Wednesday night science talks where we learned about the atmosphere above the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Afterwards I went to bed early since I had a long month ahead of me and only 4 nights left with a real bed.

The morning started with another information session, this one about waste disposal in McMurdo. A former military base, McMurdo requires strict upkeep and attentiveness from all participants to minimize damage to Antarctica’s pure environment and ensure the comfort and safety of all its inhabitants (about 820 people were living there at the time).
A Scott Tent
A Scott tent, similar to the one I set
up with Professor Marchant at our
Dry Valleys Shakedown.
Image Credit: PolarTREC
Later, Professor Marchant and I went to our “Dry Valley Shakedown”—a primer on living in the Dry Valleys. We wore our ECW gear and brought backpacks and other equipment. After a short drive to a slightly colder, windier location, we set up a Scott tent, lit our propane stoves, made radio contact, and practiced other essential skills for living in the Dry Valleys. Professor Marchant had done this over 25 times before, but I found the shakedown to be a very useful introduction to tent life in Antarctica. We had to be self-sufficient, so it was important that I knew exactly how to manage our equipment. This was also the first time in Antarctica that I really got cold. McMurdo is nearer the coast than the Dry Valleys, we visited during the warmest part of the year, and most of our time was spent indoors. But the shakedown was the first time I experienced Antarctic winds to any significant degree, and even the ECW wasn’t enough to keep me fully warm. I would of course experience much more of the cold later, and eventually even get used to it, but I remember this distinctly as being my first notable feeling of the bone-chilling Antarctic winds.
At night, I went to see some live music with Natalie, Emma, and Drew. McMurdo has its share of musicians, artists, and people of all different backgrounds. It was Emma and Natalie’s second-to-last night on the continent, so they and Drew were able to give me some advice about living in the frigid cold without most of the amenities people take for granted.

I spent most of the day at the Berg Field Center (BFC) where all of our equipment was stored. We tested some equipment, organized our gear, and packed for both our day trip on the 19th and our camp put-in on the 21st. We set up our tents to ensure their quality and to give me more practice before actually having to set them up in the field. We packed our food, sleep kits, tools, scientific instruments, and more. We then delivered everything to the helicopter pad so it would be ready to depart with us on either the 19th or 21st.
Some of our gear stored in the BFC.
At night, Drew and I helped Emma and Natalie pack and prepare for their early departure to Christchurch the next morning. They were both sad to be leaving, but they were also happy to be going home to see their friends and families.
I went to sleep early since the next day would be our first day trip. We would have to be up early to get dressed in all of our ECW gear and walk down to the helicopter pad. I fell asleep with high anticipations for my first day of Antarctic geological field work the next morning!

-Daniel Rybarczyk

Click here for Part 2: Entering the Field
Click here for Part 3: The Intense Life in Tents
Click here for Part 4: Thriving, Moving, and Leaving

No comments:

Post a Comment