The definitive Antarctic experience of Brendan Roberts, replete with photos, in all its excruciating detail.
I left Christchurch for Antarctica on December 1st, 2011. The shuttle bus pulled onto the tarmac and right up to the giant grey C-17. I was the first off the shuttle bus and the first to the steps into the airplane. I was a rookie, so visions of hitting my head on the grey metal door or falling back down the stairs flitted across my mind. I had never been in a military airplane, so everything was new. I was already in a new world. We were on our way out, but they still had us in full gear; bunny boots, big red parka and wind pants, all while carrying a rather large carry-on bag. The jump seats were an ominous sign that this would be an uncomfortable 5 to 10 hour flight. I settled in and studied my fellow travelers. I saw advanced C-17 seat preparations and copied the best. I tucked my jacket into the strap at the top of the seat, creating a parka seat back cushion. I prepped my camera and made sure my laptop was accessible at the top of the carry-on from a buckled in seating position. As I got over the initial awe, I noticed the leg room. We were sitting along the wall of the airplane in paratrooper seats. I could touch the rail that held the cargo down, but only if I reached my foot all the way out. The flight wasn’t bad, a few hours of open water, then fellow rookies hanging out by the window gasped when they saw the first ice of Antarctica. It became real and the shutters were snapping. We still had a while until McMurdo so the excitement of ice waned a little by the time we had to strap in for descent. Once they open that door and you step on to the blindingly white ice, it takes a moment to get your bearings and realize you are walking on sea ice. We were herded to a bus, with a limited opportunity to get some pictures, and off we went to tour the countryside for the first time.
In town I was greeted by a tired post-doc who had just put in 30 straight hours of data collection without sleep. He showed me around and got me settled before resting. My room was surprisingly small for 3 people and I got the top bunk. The first roommate I met was a little gruff and immediately bolted from the room. I realized that I had little space and tried to Ikea my stuff into the oddest of spaces. My roommate returned soon after and through his continued grumbling, I realized that he thought my placement was a mistake and he had gone to housing to check or complain. The three roommate situation only lasted a week or two and after the transient bottom bunk scientist vacated, I felt like a grown man again. McMurdo in summer packs people in and is not about creature comforts or personal space. Other people’s habits and schedules start to grate on you if you can’t find any alone space or time. I noticed it in myself and I see it in others when we transition or when new people come into awkward roommate situations. In the acclimation phase I focused on work and I had a lot to do when I first got here. On day 2, Wentao the post-doc had gotten some rest and we had a partially cloudy sky so we went for a hike up observation hill. The hill is a quick 800ft climb out of town and is a dominant feature of the McMurdo skyline. It was a fun hike and some great pictures and scenery for my second day. Mt. Erabus was smoking more than I have seen it since and I got to put my camera through some paces. Standing on the hill, you can see the Ross ice shelf extend 80 miles across to the opposite shore and South as far as you can see. On the Northern horizon you can catch the faintest hint of open ocean as icebergs rise up above the sheet. I had prepared for the trip for quite some time. I read the manuals multiple times. I practiced on similar equipment, but we could never really replicate the actual laser system. We used similar fiber couplers and beam alignment of other lasers on similar mirrors, but could not get a cavity analog to adjust. Some of the exercises were a mental walk through, which is fine for minimal system interaction, but not extensive enough for solo operation of a system this complex. I needed field training with the actual hardware and was excited to get my hands on the actual lasers.
Three months were planned with joint operation and upgrades. The schedule and personnel on ice allowed for many upgrades of the system over this time frame. Each upgrade was an exploration into the depths of the function and execution of the component. Each component was necessary for a fully functioning system and to operate solo for 6 months required a comprehensive knowledge of function. The ability to video chat with other students in the lab and our Principal Investigator meant that I didn’t have to know and practice every solution, but troubleshooting and ability to replace were key. Knowledge of the goals and expectations of scope were key going in. In December we were focused on operation of the system and took many hours of data. It was my first month on ice and I knew from my time operating the STAR lidar that the skies in Colorado were never clear for near a week at a time. I found it a little unsettling, but the whole experience of walking out my door and looking at the ice sheet was strange. It was very exciting because I knew the volume of data that we were collecting was impressive. The sky stayed exceptionally clear through early January. In January and February we shifted the focus from pure data collection to system upgrades. Through this process we increased the efficiency of the lasers, replacing many parts and setting me up for a problem free winter through preparation.
As January ended, I couldn’t put off my field survival training any longer and had to attend the last ‘Happy Camper.’ I was nervous going in, but we had a relatively warm day at about 20°F and some brisk but not crazy winds, which is pretty good for out of town conditions. We put up tents, cut out ice blocks, built a wind break, formed a kitchen, dug sleeping trenches and one industrious night shift worker built a whole igloo. Despite the initial apprehension and intermittently chilly sleep, it was one of the best experiences I had on ice.
We headed back on day 2 after some survival drills and condition 1 education. It was a great time but the warmth of town was a welcome sight to a tired camper. I still can’t imagine Scott’s trek to the South Pole as two days and one night was exhausting enough.
Socially I hit the McMurdo housing lottery when my roommate injured his shoulder working on equipment. It was hard for me to see reduced function and I was surprised when he told me, but he tore a tendon and was sent home. I had my own room, which was odd. I almost didn’t know how to feel. Personal space was a constant struggle until then and now it was mine. I immediately set to work making it my own as my care package with posters and food arrived from home. Every day I came back to the room expecting a sleeping head on the bunk bed as housing has been known to place roommates with no notice. For all of January and February I had no roommate. I even offered a few times to take in someone from a three person dorm, but was turned down every time. The Antarctic veterans say I won the housing lottery that summer.
As I got back to work we knew that Dr. Chu was leaving soon so we had to make the most of our remaining time. The diode laser had been acting up and a proposed replacement of the diode was on the table. Xinzhao successfully replaced the very old diode and immediately we saw elimination on the constant drift to multimode. After this procedure I knew Zhibin and I had just a few weeks left together before I was left on my own to run solo through the darkness. We took data on a regular schedule trying to simulate winter conditions of solo starts and stops. We went over the possible errors and what to expect. I had run the system for many hours at this point but had never flown solo. In the middle of February I went on a Rest and Relaxation trip to Christchurch. My wife was able to fly down and we had a great time touring around New Zealand, something I wasn’t able to do on my first brief stop on the way down. It rained most of that trip, which was great. The first month or two of being on ice you don’t really notice the lack of vegetation or rain because the experiences are so new and amazing. Once you equilibrate it hits you, the smell of rain, the feel and smell of vegetation, and the background noise of life are all absent. I was at 2.5 months and had just had that, ah ha moment of realization that there was something missing so it was nice to get a break and get back to typical Earthly conditions. Little did I know that after a winter and eight straight months on ice, I would miss those sensory experiences so much.
We had a small ceremony as the last flight left. The plane was about an hour late to takeoff which left us all standing outside on the chalet deck in suspense while our champagne froze. The plane didn’t do the usual low pass over town, but just flew straight out towards New Zealand over the ice. It was a little disappointing, but the station manager gave a talk and the realization that we were alone and there was no way out really set in. It is odd how you know exactly what is coming and until it is real and there are no flights on the board do you really feel that isolation.
I moved my stuff into my winter room which was a 5 person setup in building 155. It took me a while to figure out the beds and how to arrange my room. My setup was simple but some winter overs that had been down before had some incredible rooms. As the sun was going down further each day, I made friends all over the place. Winter is a much different experience from summer. The halls are empty and you can find friends at meal time easily. For as hectic and random as summer is, winter is an equally slow paced and mellow community. We knew we were in it together and our social activities were much the same way. You were a winter and we were all family.
The data came steady and normal through May. I didn’t have any major setbacks. One day I turned on a multi-channel scaler and got no response. I tried restarting and checked power lines and fuses. I turned it on one last time to skype the team and left the power on to the unit. It slowly came to life after about 3 minutes of black screen. All in all I was careful and lucky. I made sure to double check every step on startup and shut down. If it was something new, I really thought about the steps to take before I embarked on any changes. The system was running fine at the end of summer and my job was to keep it that way through as little change as possible.
The sun left us the first week of May and it didn’t seem like that big of a deal at first as we still had a gradient of blue and orange to the horizon. The gradient quickly faded and soon it was dark for the vast majority of the day. I would take data at all hours and a goal was to get a full coverage of all hours in a day per month. So I found myself switching schedules around all the time. My circadian rhythm was hard to maintain and often I found my sleeping schedule rotating and insomnia kicking in. I resorted to mild sleeping pills (Benadryl) and the solar spectrum light room, but it only seemed to manage the issue. In July it got worse and I would stay up then sleep excessive amounts. As a solo operator, I endeavored to watch the sky for clouds as often as possible, but it seemed a futile endeavor some days. As dark as it was, as cold as it was, it was an amazing experience with a tight knit community and gorgeous vistas. One night I opened the door to walk out of the building at Arrival Heights to be smacked in the face by the depth of the star field overhead. So I felt a little blurry from the odd sleep schedule and the lack of sun, but clarity in the stars, and took a very apropos picture in July.
August is the coldest month, and we felt it. I was told the winter was generally pretty mild, but August was still cold as we regularly saw ambient mid -30 degrees F with wind chills easily at -60. If there is any question, Antarcticans will tell you the wind matters. What I found funny, and I come from a cold state, is that every surface sparkles here in winter. I told this to Phil and he was shocked, responding only ‘yeah it is frozen’. Despite this ‘duh’ moment, I still find it extraordinary and beautiful. It is something that you can think is obvious, but it is every surface and all the time, something that is rare in the states and I have never seen it before.
It might not be exactly as much as the number suggests, but a calm night is much warmer in most any temperature down here. August also brought a new hope in that Weichun arrived and I had some backup and room for error. Not that I intended to error, but if something did break, I had more resources and ability to fix any problems that came along. The new people that showed up at winfly were a shock. You get used to the feeling of calm and the empty hallways over winter. This changes sharply at winfly and is like living on your own and then picking up 4 roommates who like to stay up late. I hear that some winters get angry with the new people, but I didn’t resent, I welcomed. It was a negative change for sure, but signaled how far I had come and how close I was to returning home. I had made it through the toughest times, the T3, the dark, the cold, and I did ok. It was a signpost on my journey, but I do look back on winter with a fondness. We knew everyone, we were all locked in a town together for months and grew close. Even at social events today, with a thousand people in town, we find ourselves gravitating toward each other.
So I survived a winter and am headed home just a few days after my first anniversary, it was a good season and I am proud of what my contribution to atmospheric science has been down here. Looking at the whole picture from down here, the juxtaposition of basic survival in the harshest of lands that is completely offset by the discovery on the bleeding edge of science is as interesting as it is surreal. The ability to veer from the sheltered path and quickly not have the ability to sustain life, stares you in the face every time you commute over the hill and away from the lights of town. Then you enter a world where something that was unknown to humans is being discovered. The knowledge base of humanity is virtually expanding before your eyes. The infrastructure required to be interested in such things. The whole of human society has come to a point where our baser needs are so met that we push for discovery and advancement. This advanced culture pushes us towards these discoveries, towards running this lidar. If we did not have such a comfortable life at home, people would most likely not be braving this world. This juxtaposition, living on the opposite ends of civilization, is something few will experience and it makes me proud of where we have come. At the same time, I become sad that many will not accept the writing on the wall. So many have comfortable lives, an embarrassment of riches, and choose to believe that their way of life is not wrong over blatant evidence. Even if you thought that it was not conclusive, the consequences of being wrong are utter destruction, while the actions needed to fix the problem are within a concerted reach. How is this a choice? Regardless of society, I am excited to see trees and grass and bugs again. Something odd that you take for granted, but it is the fabric of je ne sais quoi, that ineffable feeling of a rainy night on the porch that you miss so much over a winter, but appreciate it that much more. It was a great journey and I hope atmospheric science will be better for it!