It has been just over 6 months since I got back from my last Antarctic trip and once again I am heading to Antarctica. It is the end of winter in the Southern Hemisphere so the weather waiting for us in Antarctica will be quite a bit colder than on my last trip.
I’ve been to Antarctica once before at this time of year, in 2009, and saw temperatures as cold as -54 F then. On that trip I spent about 6 weeks in Antarctica and every day had a low temperature less than 0 F. The warmest temperature we experienced in those 6 weeks was 19 F. In case you think I’m complaining about these temperatures I’m not. For those of you that know me you know that I have an unnatural love of cold weather. Regardless of my love of cold weather these temperatures are quite a change from what I just left at home. As usual we had a hot summer in Colorado with highs in the 90s F many days and tied our all time record high (105 F) several times this summer.
I started the long trip south on Sunday (August 19th) flying from Denver to Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand to Christchurch, New Zealand. It took about 27 hours door to door for this part of the trip. The weather in Christchurch has been cool (highs in the 50s F) and mostly cloudy so it has helped ease the transition from Colorado summer to Antarctica winter.
We were supposed to be flying to Antarctica today (August 23rd) but the weather in Antarctica has not been cooperative. The United States Antarctic Program typically tries to have 5 or 6 flights to Antarctica in late August once the sun starts to rise after the long, dark winter. This group of flights is known as WinFly and are the first flights to McMurdo Station since February. (Everything in Antarctica has a specific name attached to it that usually means very little to anyone other than those directly involved with the program – in this case WinFly is short for Winter Fly In.) These flights bring in scientists that need to do research during the end of winter, but aren’t willing to spend all winter in Antarctica, and also bring in a large number of support staff to get the base ready for the busy summer field season.
Our team was scheduled to fly to Antarctica on the third WinFly flight but when I arrived in Christchurch the Antarctic program representative that met me at the airport told me that neither of the first two WinFly flights had made it to Antarctica yet. One of the flights did take off from Christchurch and flew all the way to Antarctica only to find the weather at the ice runway was too bad to land. I feel bad for the people on that flight as they spent more than 10 hours inside a military C-17 cargo plane only to get off at exactly the same spot they boarded the plane earlier in the day.
The current plan (and these plans change frequently) is that the first two WinFly flights will be combined into a single flight (likely at the expense of a bit of cargo that was going to be sent south). Once that flight gets to Antarctica we’ll be on the next flight south. Hopefully the first flight will be successful today and we’ll be heading to the ice tomorrow.
Since arriving in Christchurch I have met up with the rest of our field team – Shelley Knuth, a graduate student that works with me at the University of Colorado, and Nick Logan, Paul Herrmann, Peter Kernebone, and Cameron Hall from Aerosonde (the Australian company that builds the unmanned aircraft we will be flying). I’ve been to Antarctica before with all of them except Cameron. Nick, Paul, and Peter were with me during WinFly 2009 and Shelley and I have worked together repairing automatic weather stations (AWS).
We are making the most of our time in Christchurch. We’ve all been enjoying the good food in Christchurch since the food in McMurdo won’t be quite as tasty. I’ve also been getting as much of a biking fixing as possible since there won’t be much chance to ride once I get to Antarctica. Riding is always a great way to see a city and my rides over the last few days have given me a chance to explore a bit of Christchurch. There is still a lot of damage from the big earthquakes that hit Christchurch in 2010 and 2011 although more and more is being rebuilt – even since I was last here in February.
Despite enjoying my time in Christchurch I’m anxious to get back to Antarctica. I love the cold and dark Antarctic winter. It is the most beautiful time of year in Antarctica in my opinion.
Unlike my summer trips to Antarctica I’ll also see the sun rise and set every day. When we first arrive the sun will only be up for about 4 hours but the length of day increases very quickly (about 25 minutes) every day. By September 21st we will have 12 hours of day and by the time I leave in early October it will never truly be dark although the sun will still be setting each day. The sun will rise for good on October 21st and not set again until February 25th.
Hopefully my next blog post will be from Antarctica. I’ll tell you a bit more about the trip south and the research we’ll be doing while in Antarctica then.