January 6-January 9
Antarctica Journal
©Copyright, 2002, 2003, Joan Myers

"Why does Antarctica matter? Why go there? Why have men and women risked life and limb in such a hostile environment? Why do we still spend money for research there? This photographic project, with its resulting exhibitions and book, will suggest answers to these questions by linking the past years of exploration visible in historic huts with the ongoing research at McMurdo, field stations, and the South Pole, as seen in the structures that cling to the Antarctic ice and in the faces and stances of those who work there."
-Joan Myers

Select the Red Inset to See Map Detail
and Facts about the Antarctic

January 6, 2003. McMurdo. 27 deg. F., 27 deg. F with wind chill, cloudy.

Dr. Barth Netterfield, a cosmologist with the Long Duration Balloon Boomerang project gave last nights lecture on the universe, the beginning of time, where we’re headed, and things everyone wishes they knew but don't. Our universe, he said, went from a singularity (which we don’t understand) to a beginning (which our physics won’t explain) to plasma, hot and dense. It is composed now of normal matter (about 5%), dark matter/particles (about 35%), and something they are calling dark energy because they don’t know what it is (65%). The dark energy is forcing it to expand, and it is cooling as it expands. That expansion is accelerating and will continue to do so forever until it approaches a state empty of matter. It is a Euclidian universe, not curved or bent or closed, and now some 14 billion years old. It was cosmology for the novice, told with such graphic examples that I didn’t glaze over in frustration at the abstract mathematics of it all. When someone asked him to give us perspective on how much we know about the universe in comparison to Galileo, he said it was like an onion. You keep peeling layers off but the onion keeps growing larger. "The more we learn the more there is to know."  Which is why we are here in Antarctica.

News for the day: The salt water intake pipe for the water plant has frozen up, leaving the station with a three-day supply of fresh water.

Before the lecture last night, I went out with several friends who wanted to do a Polar Plunge. This is not a sanctioned activity by the NSF but the powers-that-be prefer to turn their heads the other way rather than to forbid it. To do the Polar Plunge, you have to take off your clothes and completely submerge in the below-freezing salt water of McMurdo Sound. My friends were younger than I and more open to new experiences; I made it clear that I was along to document, not participate.

We walked out a short distance on the sea ice to a small unheated hut with a dive hole used occasionally by the Kiwis. Allen brought with him an ice axe to enlarge the opening and a long-handled net to scoop out the several inches of brash ice that covered the top of the water in the hole. Barbara, who had decided to go in, had come prepared with a bathing suit (claiming modesty) and socks. Allen attached a large rope to her waist just in case she didn’t surface immediately (the heart can stop with the shock of the sudden cold). She hesitated only a moment on the edge of the hole and then jumped in. After she was helped out, her hair covered in brash ice, her teeth chattering, Judy came next. She was less determined and a moment of panic set in as she sat on the hole edge and realized what she was about to do. Allen encouraged her. Finally, she held herself up by her arms over the hole until her arms gave way and she fell into the water, emerging with a cry a second later. Everyone left satisfied, either by the spectacle or the experience….ready for a drink at the Coffee House.

January 7, 2003 McMurdo. 29 deg. F, no wind chill. Partly cloudy.

For the last couple of days, I have been photographing some of the activity of the Raytheon support staff around the station. After all, the scientists are outnumbered several times by the support staff here. You wouldn’t think it would take so many people to keep the station in operation, but the longer I am here the more I understand why the support system is so large. When you only have twenty scientists you can get by with a minimal support crew, but by the time you have 150 scientists, you not only need a support crew, but you need a support staff for them. By the time you get this many people, you need administrative help for planning the logistics, staff to help move everything around, and supervisors. At Scott Base, everyone helps wash the dishes; here, we need a dishwashing crew. Over the time I’ve been here, I’ve come to know many of these people who work on station. When I mention at lunch that I want to photograph people working at their jobs, I quickly get invitations.

Yesterday, I hiked up to the top of McMurdo (which is built on quite a hill) to Fortress Rocks and photographed part of the waste recycling system. Anne invited me to come up and see the strange machinery since she was working with the wood chipper and the light metal baler. When I got there, the chipper had suffered mechanical problems, but the baler was munching up large metal conduit and squashing it into rectangular cubes. While I was photographing there, several folks came up behind me and said they thought it was the coolest machine on station. Everyone likes to operate it. It has great pincer jaws that grab the metal and dump it into the hopper, the cruncher squashes it, and then the pincers lift the cube out. Like much of the heavy equipment here, it was being operated by Denise, who was happy to lean out her window and smile at me. I don’t know why so many dozers and forklifts are operated by women here, but I’ve also seen women mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and just about any other trade occupation you can think of. 40% of the work force here is female, but the percentage is higher in the heavy equipment operation.

Today, I walked down to the new Waste Water Treatment Plant, which is under construction and due to be finished in about a month. For the first time ever, McMurdo will not be dumping raw sewage into the ocean. It’s a giant building with enormous tanks and lots of outside plumbing that requires heat tape and thick insulation so that it doesn’t freeze. I photographed plumbers, electricians, welders, pipe fitters, and carpenters.

In the evening several of us walked down to Hut Point to look out at the icebreaker. The Polar Sea has been making better time over the last twenty-four hours and is now approaching McMurdo and only about 3 miles away. The weather has improved somewhat as well, but we haven’t seen the unfettered sun in weeks.

Forty-seven years ago today, John Williams broke through the sea ice north of McMurdo in his bulldozer and drowned. In January of 1956, the Navy had begun Operation Deep Freeze to build US stations on Ross Island and at the South Pole in Antarctica. The icebreaker got stuck in the sea ice, some 40 miles from where McMurdo is today and made slow progress. The ninety-three men began to worry that they wouldn’t have time to build shelter before the coming winter. None of them had any experience on the sea ice but they set out on foot and by tractor to reach Hut Point. The ice was rotten in many places. When they reached an especially bad three-foot open water crack, they put down large timbers and started across. First Class Petty Officer Bevilacqua, then 25, walked and driver U.S. Navy Petty Officer Richard Williams drove a tractor. In an instant, the tractor broke through the ice, and Bevilacqua and the driver went down. The driver and Bevilacqua hollered to each other: "Jump." Bevilacqua came to the surface and then dove repeatedly in the icy water to look for Williams, but no trace of him was ever found. Willy Field, where the large Hercules planes now land and where the balloon launch took place, is named after him.

January 8, 2003. McMurdo. 33 deg. F., 10 deg F with wind chill. Partly cloudy.

John Behrendt gave a lecture with slides from his work in Antarctica over six decades. He first came down with the IGY on the Ronne expedition to the Weddell Sea and then visited McMurdo a few years later. Not a single building remains from that early period on station, he said. What are the biggest changes since that time? The presence of women (which made the place more civilized and pleasant), the advances in telecommunications (which made it considerably less isolated), and the civilian administration (the NSF rather than the Navy). What does he see as likely changes in the next few years? More tourists.

People are willing to pay lots of money to get to Antarctica, especially the South Pole, to the considerable amusement of the working folks of McMurdo and Pole who are getting paid to be here. A pair of Irishmen just gave up at an attempt to get to the pole with sledges pulled by very large kites. Last year five people ran a marathon at the South Pole at a trip cost of $25,000 each. The NSF frowns on all these endeavors and refuses to provide support for them. A recent group of wealthy independent travelers, who flew into the South Pole and got stranded due to poor weather, were refused the comforts of the Dome and had to spend several days in tents out on the polar plateau. Since the temperature on a good day at the South Pole reaches a –20 degrees, they must have had enough unpleasantness to make a juicy adventure story when they got safely home.

My roommate came back from a week at Odell Glacier near the Allan Hills. She brought back a beautiful piece of petrified wood that she found hiking in that area for me to photograph. It’s hard to imagine forests in this icy world. However, during the late Paleozoic age, from about 310 to 275 million years ago, all the continents were connected in a single land mass, called Pangea. What would eventually become Antarctica was situated in the south polar portion of the Pangea super continent, but it looked much different. Glaciers lined the edge of a huge lake with submarine slumps and slides along the lake bottom and icebergs floating on the surface. The lake was gradually filled by large deltas and braided rivers. As the climate warmed, plants took root. Forests grew near the Pole with ferns growing beneath them. Dinosaurs roamed about. This rock came from the Triassic Lashley Formation, a sequence of sandstones deposited in a braided stream and flood plain environment 225-190 million years ago. The rock is heavy. When I photograph it, I hold the history of the planet in my palm.

One group of scientists that has an office and lab near mine in Crary is Dr. Laurie Connell’s group studying yeast. We’ve become good friends, and I stop in every so often to chat and see how their cultures are doing. They have a good balance between work and play, and we occasionally hang out together in the Coffee House in the evenings. The soil community of the Antarctic polar desert out in the Dry Valleys contains few endemic species of bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates. The yeasts are an important part of the ecology of the polar food web and are probably the primary organisms that synthesize the sterols required by soil invertebrates. This group has done lengthy transects across several of the Dry Valleys and then brings back soil samples to the lab and cultures the yeast. The last time they brought samples back, they had a factory operation going, preparing some 5000 samples in petri dishes. I photographed them hard at work and some of their cultures.

January 9, 2002. Onset D, 15 deg. F, -20 deg. F with wind chill. Clear.

25 knot winds pushed me and my cameras along as I walked from the shuttle to the Twin Otter at Willy Field. Snow began to blow across the runway. I wondered if I had made the right decision to leave behind my comfy and busy life in McMurdo to fly six hours in a small plane across the ice shelf to the remote field camp of Onset D. The offer to go on the flight had come with little notice and offered an opportunity to photograph a deep field camp. I am not a good adventurer. I’m a coward and a wimp. I don’t like cold. I don’t like sleeping in a sleeping bag in freezing weather in a tent. Each time an “opportunity” like this comes along, I inwardly moan. Unlike many folks here, I don’t get high on unexpected hardship. But, I’m here to take pictures and I won’t turn down adventures just because of anxiety and discomfort.

Once airborne, we quickly rose above the clouds and wind. I was the only passenger and rode in the back seat. The center of the plane was piled to the ceiling with lashed cargo pallets, leaving me a tiny compartment from which I could not see the three crew members. After passing White Island, we traveled across an area of Antarctica where there are no mountains, only the flat ice shelf as far as the eye can see. No rocks or mountain formations, just hundreds of feet of ice. The surface of the snow and ice varies; it’s not featureless. In some areas it is composed of endless ripples, sastrugi they are called, waves of snow and ice blown into waves like sand dunes in the desert. Sometimes, the patterns appear more curved and random, like hand-troweled plaster.

]You don’t get a sense of scale of Antarctica from living on its edge in McMurdo. You can travel a ways and it looks just the same. You go further and it still looks just the same. You go further, and there’s still more, as far as the eye can see in all directions. From McMurdo to Siple Dome, where we set down for fuel some 3 _ hours into the flight, there is no human structure or activity. No remnant even exists of former human activity. Nor is there any non-microscopic life form. What an empty place! I could see a horizon that separated white ice from blue sky; otherwise I would have believed it a void, a place empty of even our projections It isn’t really a landscape at all since nobody has had much luck encompassing it in literature or art.

Siple Dome is a small field camp of three people who have had the job this season of removing what remains of a site where much of the early ice coring was done in years past. I would have loved to photograph that process. The cores are a way of seeing time. But, nothing is left to photograph from that operation since all the machinery has been taken away. What remains of the old camp is now crated and ready for aircraft removal in a few weeks. My friend Alice works here and was driving the fork lift when we unloaded some of the pallets in the plane cargo. She and I met on a walk to Hut Point in October and she told me she was going to work four months with two men she didn’t know at this isolated station. A day later, her mother died and she flew home for several weeks. But she returned and was clearly enjoying herself and proud of what their little group had accomplished.

The sky was a perfectly even blue that bears down heavily on you rather than rising in a dome overhead. “We live in the Banana Belt here, one of the workers told me. “You folks in McMurdo should be so lucky as to have this kind of sunshine!” The pallets sit on a slight ridge at 2200 feet elevation. No outcropping or distant telephone wires mar the view. 360 degrees of white. As he told me, “When I climb up on that big box over there I can see to the end of the world in every direction.”

Another hour and a half of flat white, and the plane landed at Onset D, the largest of the field camps this season. Out here on the West Antarctic ice sheet, the camp is dwarfed by the white expanse that surrounds it further than the eye can see in all directions. Flora, the cook, is the only woman with fifteen men. She told me she lives along the Yukon in Alaska, and this is her first time in Antarctica. She got the job by simply applying on the Raytheon website. She has enjoyed it, she said, though she wishes there was another woman or two for company. She is hoping to cook next summer at Palmer Station on the Peninsula. The men love her cooking. No wonder; we had roast beef, lobster tails and crab legs for dinner last night, and a wonderful vegetable frittata for breakfast with several kinds of homemade breads and muffins.

Sridhar Anandakrishnan, the primary investigator on this project, is studying the topography beneath the ice sheet some mile and a quarter below us by blasting and doing detailed seismic readings. In particular, he is studying the ice streams, the sections of the ice sheet that move much faster than the surrounding ice, to understand what is happening on the bedrock below. Much of their work is being done by skidoo. They often commute 20-30 minutes each day to their work site, do their blasting, and then return at night. As we flew in, we could see where the ice streams meet the regular ice because there is a shear zone, an area of fractures and crevasses.

I photographed the camp—the Jamesways, the tents, and flagpole. The large Jamesway is the center of camp life. Inside are the kitchen and dining areas, a cold pantry, and an entry area with a place for coats and the radio and computer links. Communication is more primitive out here, but satellite does provide an Internet connection for several hours a day and radio gives a scratchy link with McMurdo and the South Pole. Along one side of the main area are two sinks with cold running water and drains; all water is frugally used, however, since it all comes from the usual pot on the stove of melting snow. Chunks of ice are placed on a sled, dragged to an open window, and shoveled into a melt drum.

At meal time everyone grabs a plate and cup and helps themselves to the food from the large pots and casseroles. Nobody ever goes hungry in a field camp, and the food is delicious. At Onset D, where the temperature is 20 degrees colder than at McMurdo (about 10-15 deg. F. while I was there), you burn calories so quickly that you eat more than usual and probably still lose weight. Even at McMurdo I seem to eat about 30% more than I do at home and don’t seem to gain weight even when I do little more than work at my computer much of some days. At Onset D, I heap my plate with food and then come back for a large piece of fruit tart.

I slept alone in a Scott tent that had been set up in the tenting area to one side of camp. I’ve never seen this sort of tent elsewhere, but it is very functional in the Antarctic; as long as there are a couple of people to put it up, it erects quickly and comes down easily. You sort of roll in and out of a Scott tent since it has a double set of drawstring circles for the opening. It’s not a graceful exit but the double drawstring is very effective at keeping out the wind. Despite my apprehensions about the cold, I slept deeply and well and was toasty warm in my sleeping bag.

At one side of camp on a slight berm is Al’s castle, a snow-block creation with turrets and a curved wall. Al, the mechanic on station, was elusive, and I never managed to meet him. When I said I wanted to meet him, excuses would be made: “Al’s an early-morning person” or “That’s him way over there on the storage berm, can’t you see him?” A smile would follow. I did photograph his construction and was amused that when I walked behind the blocks, I could see his small yellow tent sheltered by a front and side wall. He had built a Hollywood façade, not a solid structure.

Before we flew back, Spore, the camp manager from Bozeman, Montana, drove me out on the ice sheet in the Tucker. The Tucker is like a tractor and was so high from the ground that I had a hard time reaching the hand holds to pull myself up in it. It is another one of the strange tracked vehicles that abound on the Ice from bygone eras. The Tucker dates from the 80s and can travel through either soft snow or over ridged ice with east at the robust speed of 10 mph. We drove away from camp in a straight line toward Siple Dome for about half an hour. To my surprise, the flat white wasn’t really flat at all but composed of long rises and valleys. We would see camp for a while, then lose sight while we descended, then see it on the next rise. Ahead of us, there were no tracks, nothing but ice and sky. It was eerie to believe that we could drive all the way to McMurdo (given a large supply of fuel) without seeing another trace of human life.

The flight back was long but uneventful. A couple of the guys from camp returned on the flight, exuding a powerful aroma from weeks of camp life into the plane’s cabin. We landed in a blizzard at McMurdo. The snow was blowing so thickly across the runway that we couldn’t see the runway lights until the last minute or so. My pager rang as I landed: the Polar Sea had just docked at McMurdo.