McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica
McMurdo Station in Antarctica gives one the impression of an impermanent, transient establishment nestled at the base of volcanic cinder cones, an isolated ice civilization at the edge of the unknown. On the horizon is an unbelievable landscape composed of the peaks and glacial valleys of the Transantarctic Mountains rising up from across the frozen ocean of McMurdo Sound. Diesel smell from generators drifts through the air and rusty-red volcanic rocks mixed with snow crunch under your feet. The metallic shipping-container-like buildings are numbered, but they all look the same if you are new here. As you fly over in a helicopter, you can see what these buildings look as shown in the postcard above. The science building, the Crary Lab, is absolutely gorgeous and consists of research labs and a basement full of sea-water aquaria that contain strange, seemingly extraterrestrial, organisms: giant sea spiders, sputnik-like sponges, and fish with “antifreeze” in their blood.
MacTown, as McMurdo is called by the inhabitants, was established in 1956 by the United States Antarctic Program and is run by the National Science Foundation to investigate a wide range of science in extreme conditions, from physics to biology. About 1300 people are here in the Austral Summer (October-January), with the majority of residents comprising carpenters, food service professionals, technical engineers, helicopter aviation experts, and other highly trained support individuals that are essential to achieve high-quality science. Without them, there would be no science. Everyone works like a tightly interwoven civilization despite the extreme weather conditions, cramped dormitories, and lack of privacy. It is awe inspiring to watch and to participate in such an endeavor.
Environmental resources are highly protected here under the auspices of the Antarctic Treaty, and MacTown boasts one of the most amazing recycling systems I have ever seen. Approximately 65% of the 3.5 million pounds of waste is recycled every year. Water and everything else is intensely conserved. You become very aware of not wasting anything, including dental floss! Sorting centers exist in all labs and dormitories, and strict allegiance to recycling is followed. Large cardboard containers (called “triwalls”) exist outside most buildings where recyclable materials or wastes are packed for shipment (see postcard). Everyone takes mandatory environmental safety and awareness training. I have my work cut out for me, as after the enviro-training, I have to be trained to survive in snow and ice conditions! I am not sure how I will respond to such conditions, because I have only experienced working in hot tropical locales!
U.S. Antarctic Program
Underwater guide to Ross Island and McMurdo Sound
Go to the next postcard
Postcards from the Field: Polar Fossil Mysteries