Beautiful Clouds of Pollution
Greetings from Antarctica!
The last several weeks have been a bit quiet, but enjoyable just the same. Most of the talk on station revolves around Winfly and the coming of the sun. The people who are leaving at Winfly are all talking excitedly about their travel plans in the warmer regions of the world. Those of us who are staying are looking forward to the coming of the sun and all of the new energy that the planes will be bringing to McMurdo in the next few weeks. The sky is getting brighter on a daily basis, shedding the shroud of darkness that has hidden the beautiful scenery surrounding McMurdo Sound – The Royal Society Range and Mt. Discovery are bathed in reddish-purple light during the midday hours, Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror are now easily seen from certain vantage points around town and the Ross Ice Shelf stretches across the southern horizon, broken only by White Island and Black Island. The new light has sparked a lot more outdoor activity around the station – I am no longer alone when I climb up Ob Hill and we actually passed another group out on the Castle Rock loop this weekend. The midwinter run went off with out a hitch (though no records were set!) and our focus on the sky has shifted from auroras to nacreous clouds. We have made excellent progress on the water plant construction, as well, now that we have cleared up some issues that had stalled progress.
The midwinter run gathered more than 40 people together for a cold, dark run through the snow. The race followed a route that started at the Coffee House and went through town and down the road to Discovery Hut, around the hut and back to the Coffee House. The route was mostly covered in ice and snow, deep and fluffy in places, but traction was surprisingly good. There was a Condition-2 blizzard blowing through town for several hours preceding the race, but, as race time arrived, the weather cleared and we ran under a star-filled sky with just a hint of light on the horizon. I left the starting line with the fastest runners on station and I managed to stay just a few seconds behind them for nearly half the race, but, realizing that my endurance was fading, I had to slow down a little if I wanted to finish the race. The light snow that the recent storm had left on the track was nice to run through, but down by Scott’s Hut the snow deepened and the going got tough. There was a van stationed down by the hut just incase someone needed to warm up (we were all running in less than adequate clothing) and we all ran in the ruts it left through the deep snow – Running in the ruts was difficult, so most of us had to slow down just to keep our balance. I still felt pretty good as I rounded the hut, so I decided to keep running – My original goal was to run to the hut and walk back, since I have a hard time running in the cold normally. The crux of the race was the hill that leads back up into town. I had to slow my pace down a bit more at the hill, but I kept on running as I watched the people I was running with slowly pull away. I reached the top of the hill and picked up my pace again and as I rounded the last corner I took off in a sprint, trying to catch my nearest competitor, my friend Jason, who was already halfway down the last stretch of track. My whole body protested and my lungs burned as I threw all caution to the wind, running as fast as I possibly could down the icy track. I started getting excited as I told myself, “I may be able to pass him before we reach the finish line!” It took every ounce of energy I had left, but I did pass him. However, just before the finish line, a blurred streak went by me like a rocket and Jason crossed the finish line first! I ended up finishing either 16th or 18th, depending on which list you looked at, but I was happy that I managed to run the whole race and I couldn’t have asked for a better finish. I know, a lot of you reading this probably think it a bit strange to run a foot race outside in the middle of winter in Antarctica, but, as I have said before, that is how we do things down here! Now if I ever get the aspirations to run a race on every continent, Antarctica is already covered!
The new light in the sky has brought with it a new celestial phenomenon to look for – Nacreous clouds. Nacreous clouds, which are also known as Polar Stratospheric Clouds, are actually clouds of either nitric acid or sulfuric acid (Type 1) or clouds of water ice crystals (Type 2), which are rare, that form in the stratosphere during the extreme cold of the polar winter. Nacreous clouds are considered to be responsible for creating the ozone hole that opens up above us this time of year, but, ecological plague or not, they are beautiful. They are wispy clouds that have a luminescent, mother of pearl look to them – This is caused by light refracting through the ice crystals in the clouds. We have had several great examples of nacreous clouds already and the sun has not yet come above the horizon, so they may get even better. I hope the auroras haven’t left us yet, but the window of darkness is getting smaller every night.
I have been doing several hikes lately including another trip around the Castle Rock Loop and a few trips up Ob hill. When I did the loop it was very cold and the sky was bright for most of the six hours we were out there. We passed another group on the way to Castle Rock who had climbed to the top and said the route was in good shape, so we decided to make the ascent as well. The snow was firm, but fluffy enough to get good foot holds as we progressed upward. We quickly found the fixed ropes and used them to cross the exposed snow slopes. We did some easy, but exposed scrambling over a few more rocks and then walked up an icy ramp to the top. The view from the top was great and there was surprisingly little wind, which made our time on top quite comfortable despite the cold temperatures. We spent several minutes on top, but the two people in our group who had on regular boots were starting to get cold and we had to move on. The climb down was uneventful and, after I took a few more pictures, we were on our way down the hill towards the crevasses. We passed by the crevasse that was opened up a few weeks ago, but the snow had nearly filled in the hole. Down on the ice shelf we crossed over several inch-wide crevasse-like cracks that crossed the trail and slowly made our way across the monotonous, flat expanses of the ice shelf towards LDB and town. The sky started getting darker and more and more stars came out. A large, cloud-like fog bank started flowing over Mt. Erebus from the sea ice on the other side of the peninsula like a blanket and then it got dark. We stopped at LDB for some hot coco and the temperature read -46° F there. While we were there we threw a cup of boiling water into the air and it instantly vaporized – None of it hit the ground! We walked up the hill past Scott Base and back into town. Along the way we saw the runway lights at Pegasus Airfield clearly glowing in the dark as the last vestiges of light in the sky disappeared behind the Royal Society Range. We were on the trail for nearly six hours that day and we made it back in time for dinner.
I celebrated my birthday with a few friends at the end of July, which was a lot of fun, and now, as the season comes to an end, those of us who are staying are moving in with our new roommates, saying our good-byes to everyone leaving and preparing for the population in town to double. We had our last winter trivia night at Scott Base and we were served a delicious dessert there to celebrate – To hold with tradition we finished second again (we may hold the record for most second place finishes in winter trivia, but Gingko Biloba was always near the top!) This coming weekend will be the ‘End of Winter Party’ at Scott Base and we will get the opportunity to jump into the ocean one last time. Also, on Sunday, there is a Hagglunds ride over to the crevasse field with the SAR team and then next week will bring the awards ceremony and the start of Winfly – It should be action packed over the next few weeks!
To answer a question from one of the comments on the last blog: Yes, there is a lot of refrigeration here. One of the refrigeration technicians has told me he enjoys seeing the reaction on people’s faces when he tells them that he is in charge of refrigeration in Antarctica. A lot of the science and food require controlled temperatures, so refrigeration is required even down here.