Antarctica in October
After 24 days I finally stepped onto the ice shelf outside of Ross Island and McMurdo Research Station.
It is never an easy process or short process to get to Antarctica but this journey was particularly lengthy. We spent those 24 days in a hotel practicing what is called ‘managed isolation’. This is different than quarantine because in quarantine people isolate because they have COVID or are concerned about potential exposure. In managed isolation, we stayed in hotel rooms despite negative COVID tests to isolate ourselves from everyone else. After weeks of isolation and 3 negative COVID tests, we were clear for travel to Antarctica. The only hurdle left was the weather, thankfully it only delayed us 2 days.
I have to be honest. I was really worried about the extended time in a hotel room. In fact, I began to refer to it as the metamorphosis (thinking of Kafka in my high school English class). But, like so many things in life, the fear of the event was far worse than the actual experience. The fear made me prepare more. If anything, I almost wished it had been longer because I still had so many things I wanted to accomplish.
I arrived on a Sunday which made for a busy and long work week. My primary role this season is to be the sea ice Point of Contact (POC). I oversee evaluating and opening the sea ice.
So, what exactly is evaluating the sea ice anyway? It’s a good question and one I am continuing to learn to answer better and better.
The sea ice is one of the most dynamic terrains we have in Antarctica. For the most part sea ice in the McMurdo Sound forms each season and also breaks apart and floats away each season. People on the station watch the sea ice go from holding massive tractors to open water. Over winter people get to watch as the sea ice begins to slowly freeze over many months. Early ice formation can easily break apart or be blown away by large winter storms. This is a dangerous time and no one goes onto the sea ice while it’s forming. But at some point, the ice begins to thicken and become more stable and someone needs to evaluated for access and next seasons science travel. That is where I come in.
The preferred technique for the first few times on the ice is to go by foot and Hagglund.
By foot gives you the clearest view of the ice surface. If lighting is good, then this can be done from the Hagglund. The Hagglund is a vehicle that is designed to float. It also has articulating cabs and bilge pumps. This means if the front end starts to dip into the water the back end ideally is still on solid ice. I’ve never had to test the water features of this particular vehicle! Thank goodness.
I don’t just look for cracks when I am on the sea ice, I also measure for thickness.
We have specific guidelines we must adhere to for ice thickness, temperature, and vehicle travel. To get an ice thickness I drill down until open water and drop a measuring tape into the hole (it’s designed to catch the bottom of the ice).
Right now, our sea ice is 2 meters thick in front of the station! Which is great. I’ve spent the better part of the last 2 weeks continue to venture onto the sea ice establishing a route to a landmark called Turtle Rock. When I haven’t been on the sea ice, I’ve been attending the training. Things as basic as being approved for driving vehicles, to how to rig sling loads for helicopters. I also have to write an official sea ice report for the NSF. Lastly, my job description includes search and rescue(SAR). I train 1-2 days a week with my teammates for SAR.
It’s been darn busy for me! My work and the entire experience down here is incredibly dynamic and diverse.
Taking on so many different things can be challenging but I feel that it helps keep my brain more elastic. There have been so many things I have learned in my years of coming to Antarctica that has been a great help back home. I also continue to bring new skills to Antarctica, such as providing more up to date medical training for the SAR team and improving educational materials for our classes. Things I spend a lot of time doing in the US.
I’ll continue to send an update on my BLOG about work down here. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to sign up for my newsletter. You will get a review of my recent updates and class schedules. You can get more frequent peeks by following my Instagram @natalies_gutzjourney.
You can check out a webcam of the station HERE