McMurdo Station, Antarctica
September 4, 2016
I’ve been in Antarctica just over a week now. We spent the first several days in various training classes and organizing the logistical support we will need for our work. That always takes about 4 or 5 days. Yesterday was the first day we were going to attempt to fly our drones. We need a little bit of wind to make the takeoff easier for the drones (and pilot) and unfortunately, and very strangely since Antarctica is the windiest continent, the wind was almost calm all day yesterday. Today is much the same weatherwise.
Despite the light winds yesterday Mark and I did drive from McMurdo Station to the Pegasus ice runway, where we will be doing all of our drone flights. The ice runway is located on floating glacier ice called an ice shelf. The ice there is hundreds of feet thick. Because of the thicker ice over the ice shelf compared to the thin snow cover over volcanic rocks in McMurdo or the several feet thick sea ice in McMurdo Sound the ice shelf is usually the coldest location around McMurdo Station. The temperature difference between the ice shelf and McMurdo yesterday was really impressive. In McMurdo the temperature was around -20 degrees F but on the ice shelf the temperature was in the -40s degree F.
If you go to Antarctica on a regular basis it helps if you like, or at least don’t mind, cold weather. As my family, friends, and students in my classes can attest, I really, really like cold weather. I always look forward to days at home when the temperature drops below 0 degrees F (which doesn’t happen often enough in my opinion). In fact, I love spending as much time outside as I can when it is really cold as you can see from the next two pictures.
One of the things I love about coming to Antarctica at this time of year, at the end of winter, is that it can be really cold. Unfortunately our first week here was mild, by Antarctic standards, with the coldest temperature we saw before yesterday being -20 degrees F. The warmest temperature we experienced was an absolutely unacceptably warm +3 degrees F.
Yesterday marked a change in the weather. The temperature in McMurdo was in the low -20s degree F when I woke up.
Before we drove out to the Pegasus runway Mark told me that the temperature at a weather station on the ice shelf, that we’d drive past, was -42 degrees F. We were both really excited to get out in these cold temperatures. As we made the 30 minute drive to the runway I held my handheld weather monitor, a Kestrel 4000, out of the van window to check the temperature as we drove by the weather station.
On our drive to Pegasus yesterday the Kestrel showed that the temperature was -47 degrees F. Both Mark and I were really excited that it was this cold and we stopped immediately to get out of the van and “enjoy” the bitter cold.
This was the coldest temperature Mark had ever experienced and was only 7 degrees F warmer than the coldest temperature I’d ever experienced. To be honest, it didn’t feel that cold. The fact that there was no wind and the sun was out helped make the temperature much more tolerable than the number would indicate. Of course, we were also wearing a lot of cold weather clothing which helps make dealing with such cold temperatures much easier. As we drove to the runway and then back to McMurdo in the evening we observed big fluctuations in the temperature from as warm -30 degrees F to as cold as -55 degrees F.
Because it can get so cold in Antarctica everyone here takes the weather seriously and there are several things that are done to help people cope with the cold. First, the weather is rated in 3 levels – condition 1, 2, and 3.
Condition 3 is “good” weather with winds less than 55 mph, a wind chill temperature warmer than -75 degrees F, and visibility greater than 1/4 mile. During condition 3 weather you are allowed to travel anywhere on station and out to the outlying areas like the runways.
Condition 2 weather occurs when the wind speed is between 55 and 63 mph, or the wind chill temperature is between -75 and -100 degrees F, or the visibility is less than 1/4 mile. During condition 2 weather you are allowed to go between buildings on the station but you must checkout for any travel beyond the base.
Condition 1 weather occurs when the wind speed is greater than 63 mph or the wind chill temperature is less than -100 degrees F, or visibility is less than 100 feet. With these conditions you are not allowed to leave the building you are in. I’m sad to say that I’ve never experienced condition 1 weather during all of my previous Antarctic trips but maybe if I’m lucky I’ll get to experience condition 1 weather on this trip. Signs in many of the buildings indicate the current conditions.
The weather conditions are also indicated on the station intranet and on the local TV channels.
There is a weather station mounted on the roof of the Crary lab and I’ll often look at the weather display for this weather station to see the current conditions.
The cold temperatures that can occur in Antartica means that if you touch metal with your bare hand you can quickly get frostbite. As a result many of the door handles are coated with a thick rubber to insulate your hand from the metal.
To help keep the buildings on station warm almost every building has two doors at each entrance. The first door leads from the outside into a small entryway. You will come through that door, close it, and then open the second door that leads to the main interior of the building.
Not only are people impacted by the cold weather here. The vehicles also suffer from the cold. All of the trucks on station have electric heaters for their engines and whenever you shutoff your vehicle you need to plug in the electric heater to keep the engine warm. If you don’t do this it is very likely that you won’t be able to restart your truck when you need it. If you need to stop someplace where there are no electric plugs you need to keep your vehicle idling rather than shutting off the engine.
When a C-17 military transport plane (like the one we flew on last week to get to Antarctica) flies to McMurdo it never shuts off its engines while it is on the ground here. After the plane lands it taxis to the end of the runway. All of the passengers get off and the cargo is unloaded and then any northbound passengers and cargo are loaded. During this entire time the engines are kept running.
Hopefully in the next day or two the winds will pick up and Mark and I will get a chance to put our drones in the air and start making some weather measurements.