25th September 2005
Day Length:
    12h 48m 23s
Length of Twilight:
    16h 15m 21s
Length of my Shadow:
Daily High:
Daily Low:

Random Pictures

Water freezing as it leaves the nozzle while working on the runway

What it would look like if I lived in an igloo

The remnants of prehistoric Antarctic dwellers

An idea of how big Mt Erebus really is--McMurdo is in the foreground, the summit of Erebus is about 40 miles away
Quirky Things

First off, I don't live in an igloo. We don't throw snowballs at polar bears for fun. And the sled dogs were quarantined in New Zealand, so we can't use them to pull the fire trucks around.

Life here is not so much different than at home. My dorm room could easily be a college dorm room anywhere. The galley food could pass for hospital food. Inside, most of the buildings are the same as their counterparts in the real world. They just have bigger coatrooms.

The modern Crary Lab, a walk in fridge on stilts
Outside though, things are, obviously, different. Very few buildings are built directly on the ground, to prevent heat conduction in both directions. It would be harder to keep something warm if it were built on a concrete pad poured in permafrost, and conversely the heat from the building would defrost the ground and make it squishy, and the building wouldn't sit still. They've gotten better over the years at designing buildings that keep heat in and don't sacrifice windows to do it; this is evidenced in old buildings like the coffee house that are pretty traditional construction with no or few windows, and in new buildings like the Crary Lab that hover a few feet off the ground on large steel stilts and look like walk-in coolers turned inside out.

Above ground plumbing entering one of the dorms
All the plumbing is above ground, for much the same reasons. The pipes are all wrapped in heat tape to keep them from freezing, and are enclosed in larger tubes for insulation. Our water is osmotically converted from seawater, and is so pure that they have to add impurities back in to prevent metal from leaching out of the pipes. Our fire hydrants are not red stumps, but pairs of connections enclosed in an insulated box. They have to be meticulously drained after use to keep them from freezing shut, so we inspect them every week.

There are a variety of different styles of doors here. All of the older buildings, and many of the new ones, have exterior doors that open inward. Fire code violation? Yes, but a necessity of doing business. If snow piled up outside a door that opens outward, you'd be stuck. Most of the newer buildings have grated stairs that won't let snow accumulate, so it isn't a problem. As you can imagine the wind here can, at times, be a bit excessive, so most of the doors that open inward have heavy-duty hasp-type latches. The doors at Crary are walk-in freezer doors.

Very few exterior doors are ever locked. Some buildings are secured, but there is a vestibule that is always unlocked. It's a safety thing. There is a light on the corner of every building, so that if you get stuck out in the weather you can find a place to get out of it. And every last little closet of a building on station has a phone, for the same reason.

Condition 2
The weather situation here is indicated to us as a series of conditions: condition 1, 2, and 3, in decreasing order of severity. Condition 3 is "normal," good visibility, not too windy or cold. Condition 2 is set when the visibility drops below a quarter mile, or the temperature or wind chill are below –75F/-60C. In condition 2, all outdoor work is supposed to stop and there is no recreational off-base travel allowed. Condition 1 is set when visibility is less than 100 feet. In a condition 1, you are not allowed to leave the building you are in except in emergencies, and even then only in pairs, so it's a good idea to be careful where you are in condition 2s, in case you end up having to spend more time there than you'd hoped. We've had several condition 2s in town since I've been here. Condition 1 out on the ice isn't too uncommon, when the wind whips the snow into a fury.

As you can imagine, we drive a variety of unique vehicles here. Most of the vehicles around town are just like everywhere else: vans, pickups, earth-moving equipment. Some of these vehicles are allowed on the ice roads, but they have to have much larger tires than normal. But for getting around away from the roads, there are some unique solutions:

The Mattrack. This is a regular vehicle that has had its wheels replaced by a track unit with rubber treads. These are probably the most comfortable ride on the ice as they have comfy seats and pretty decent suspension. Our two new airport fire trucks are built on Mattracks. (Incidentally, the name is derived from the inventor—a 6-year-old named Matt, who drew a picture of a truck with tracks instead of wheels so that it could drive in the snow. His father took the idea, spruced it up a little—but not too much—and now sells the tracks for something like $30,000 per vehicle.)

Pisten-Bully. These vehicles are similar to tanks, but without the guns since we're not technically supposed to be using the wildlife for target practice. They are on two tracks and can turn on a dime. The ride in the front isn't too bad, but in the back it is about as comfortable as a tank. There are variations on this, we have a couple with flat beds on the back, one with a forklift on the front, and even a trailer—with little tracks—that can be towed behind.

Hagglund. This is sort of a Pisten Bully train—two separate cabs mounted on two separate sets of tracks. These are mostly used on longer jaunts, and I haven't ridden in one so I can't testify as to the comfort.

Ivan the TerraBus and the Deltas. Not a pop band, but a freight car on wheels. A cruise ship retired to axles. Ivan is HUGE, and probably burns as much fuel as the Queen Mary. His wheels are about 5 feet in diameter and three feet across. Ivan seats about 55 people; the Deltas, trucks built on a similar chassis, can hold three or four large pallets of cargo.

Crack spackling on the road to Ice Runway
One of the Fire Department's tasks during Winfly is to help build the ice runway and the road leading out to it. Our task is to haul water to fill in the more substantial surface cracks. This is way more work than you'd think, mainly because it's still very cold. The water needs to be sprayed over a pretty large area and allowed to freeze, and sometimes keeping people from driving through it isn't so easy. You're standing in a large cloud of mist—sometimes you can hear the water freezing with a loud 'crack' before it hits the ground, and sometimes it freezes on you. The water freezes even to the edge of the nozzle as it passes through, so as soon as the water stops flowing the hose needs to be drained and rolled up to keep it from freezing into a 50-foot long cylinder of ice. Three loads of 3500 gallons each makes for a long, cold day.

McMurdo recycles something like 70% of its solid waste, a pretty remarkable achievement. Part of the NSF's commitment to the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty, but it's also a practical necessity: all the trash has to be shipped back to the US, so if it's going back anyway it might as well pay its own shipping. The effort starts with all of us. Each
building has an array of recycling bins where we sort our own trash into mixed paper, plastics, biological waste, aluminum (cans only, foil is burnables), glass, food waste, batteries, aerosols, light metals, construction debris, and the default category, burnables. There is also a great category, called skua after the annoying scavenger birds that visit later in the season that is like a good will category. The skua items get picked through by everyone in the dorm, then by the janitors, then by the waste people, and what is left goes into a building where you can find great leftover clothes and games, and sometimes useful things like coffee makers and heating pads.

But back to the garbage. After we sort it into the dozen or so categories, it goes to the waste barn. There the waste people ("wasties," if you like) sort a few of the categories like plastic and glass into subtypes, grind or compress the metals and construction waste, and (perhaps the worst task to have on station) check through things like the burnables (which is supposed to be paper towels and the like, but often becomes the dumping ground for other things). Then all the waste gets stored in large shipping containers, food waste in refer containers so that it won't rot while being shipped back across the equator, and gets loaded on the ship to go back north in January.

Many people gripe about having to sort their trash, but I can't really understand the complaints. It takes all of about 5 minutes a week to take my trashcan with my little bit of trash to the end of the hall and divide it up into the bins. Then the janitors and wasties handle the rest, I don't have to go out in the cold. That simple action keeps three-quarters of what I generate from being shipped 8,000 miles only to be anticlimactically dumped in a landfill. I think it's pretty easy to do the right thing.

Winfly is rapidly coming to an end, and in just a matter of days the station will start filling with the rest of the 1200 or so that will make McMurdo their summer home. The next time we'll talk about what it takes to make this continent hum, and why there are so many people here.

Back to the Table of Continents

Antarctic Transportation

A Mattrack

A Pisten-Bully

A Hagglund

Ivan the TerraBus and a Delta

Most of the images on this page are mine, but a few were liberated from the McMurdo community drive.