This is the fourteenth entry in the Armed with Science series, Dispatches from Antarctica. The series features Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan’s first-hand experiences on OPERATION: DEEP FREEZE, the Defense Department’s support of National Science Foundation research in Antarctica.
10 October 2010, McMurdo Station, Antarctica: Unnatural Espresso Island
The personnel of an expedition of the character I proposed is a factor on which success depends to a very large extent. The men selected must be qualified for the work, and they must also have the special qualifications required to meet polar conditions. They must be able to live together in harmony for a long period without outside communication, and it must be remembered that the men whose desires lead them to the untrodden paths of the world have generally marked individuality.
— Sir Ernest Shackleton, CVO, OBE (1874-1922), Antarctic Explorer
To the casual observer, our living quarters might seem a lot like college dorms. Except that they are nothing like college dorms. The buildings and rooms are arranged in dormitory fashion, but the people are not. Living and working here requires seamless teamwork from people who’ve often spent their careers carving out fiercely individual identities. I’ve learned to accept this and other daily contradictions which define living at McMurdo Station.
I’ve also learned to live with a certain level of dirt. Not pathogenic, agricultural, or obscene dirt, but a relentless, systematic encroachment of the natural world into our constructed containers of human existence, which are merely human encroachments in this place to begin with. More contradiction. The natural world travels indoors on our boots, under our fingernails, through infinitesimal cracks in window panes and doors. The assault is a steady reminder that this unforgiving place we occupy in the name of science might choose not to be occupied.
I try to wipe if off. Stained sheets. Discoloring on wall paint. Vacuum-resistant accumulation in every nook and cranny. My fingertips darken on contact. The mess gets messier. Many of my fellow residents don’t even notice it blending into everything. This is one of the hazards of living on the tip of the narrow Hut Point Peninsula extending off an island formed thousands of years ago by a lava flow in the middle of the Ross Sea (see maps). The steam issuing from the summit of Erebus is a constant reminder that Ross Island, and thus McMurdo, still sit within reach of an active volcano.
The mess on my window sill looks and feels like finely-ground espresso you might buy by the pound in any hip coffee house. The ever present sooty dust is a by product of freeze-dried volcanic rock hunks powdered by the constant force of boots, tires, tracks, and geologic action. This uncoffee can temporarily blind unprotected eyes when strong winds loft it with sharp, tiny ice crystals.
In its slightly larger, gravel-like state called “fines”, McMurdo Station’s road crews spread it like rock salt to roughen sheer ice and permit better traction. Each dark molecule absorbs more sunlight that the white snow and ice around it, creating knobby discontinuities in the slick surface that work both mechanically and thermally.
The most prominent feature of Ross Island, Mount Erebus, is named for one of the ships Royal Navy explorer James C. Ross sailed to that location in 1841. Mount Terror, sister peak to Erebus, was named for Ross’s other ship in the expedition. Many of the place names here have their origins in the first wave of expeditions before and during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. My view of these majestic peaks from MacTown is blocked by Arrival Heights. Instead of Erebus and Terror, I can see antennas, large Kiwi wind turbines, fuel tanks, and an assortment of small buildings dotting the espresso with milk ridges.
McMurdo looks unnatural. Most of the blue, brown, and pale yellow buildings feel like temporary structures built to last a few months many decades ago. The combination of superior maintenance and frozen time preserves them. There are a few impressively modern structures like the Crary Labs (A. P. Crary Science and Engineering Center) and the Science Support Building, but there are also a fair sprinkling of Quonset huts and government issue warehouses, often retrofitted for warmth and safety.
Visually speaking, imagine the progeny of a small New England college transplanted to the north slope of Alaska and mated with a gold rush mining town of centuries past. Now remove all the guns and fighting, while blending the populations. Steely eyes, bushy snowy beards, and dirty Carhart overalls meet dreadlocks, facial-piercings, and beatnik goatees. Throw in some cutting edge scientists to add purpose and you get a sense of what McMurdo looks and feels like. Remember, it is an unnatural contradiction by design.
As the heroic age of exploration gave way to Antarctica’s Age of Science, beginning with the International Geophysical Year (IGY), long-standing colonies like McMurdo began to grow and take hold. Through words, images, videos, and links I’ll attempt to share my perspective on living and working at McMurdo with you. However, many historians describe this evolution into the Science mission of today better than I. Please take a look at the book referenced below, which comes highly recommended by my dear friend and polar colleague, Jerry Marty.
FOR CLASSROOM DISCUSSION: Dian Olson Belanger explores the history of the transformation of Antarctica’s human activity from remote exploration to expeditionary science in her well-researched book DEEP FREEZE, The United States, the International Geophysical Year, and the Origins of Antarctica’s Age of Science, 2006, University Press of Colorado.