11th October 2005
Day Length:
    16h 59m 15s
Length of Twilight:
Length of my Shadow:
Daily High:
Daily Low:

Religous Relics aroud McMurdo

Early Celtic Christian

Modern Christian



Dead Cats and Candles

Still haven't found any Jewish or Buddist relics, although there are some yoga mats in the lounge. I'll keep looking.
The Twilight Zone

A significant milestone passes today: henceforth and until February 20th, there will be no darkness, or semi-darkness, or even faint stars. Today begins the Twilight Zone, where the sun will never dip more than 6 degrees below the horizon and it will always be possible to partake in outdoor merriments without artificial lighting. It's called civil twilight, one of three classifications of twilight (I will spare you the details, Google can help those that are interested). In just a matter of a couple of weeks, the sun will invite itself to stay aloft until February without so much as winking behind the Royal Societies.

Here come the freshies
These stellar accomplishments are of less consequence to us than things happening on the ground. Winfly has come grudgingly to a halt and the procession of C-17s from Christchurch has returned. For the first time in 6 weeks planes have started to arrive about every other day, depositing a fresh batch of people, tons of cargo, and, much to our delight, some occasional some freshies. Population on station topped 800 people today. Seats can no longer be found in the dining hall. Parkas are easily lost among the chaos of the coat hooks. We have begun to say goodbye to the venerable winterovers that taught us so much in the last weeks, and by the end of this week it will be the responsibility of us 'Winfly guys' to educate the new arrivals on the ways of the Antarctic ones.

By the time we reach full capacity there will be nearly 1200 people living and working in or around McMurdo. What research is going on that there are so many scientists here? Polar alchemy. Converting ice into gold, or even more important, sea ice into crude oil.

New Zealand's Scott Base
But really. Let me tell you an illustrative story of two camps. One is a camp that is home to about 90 people, all of whom have multiple roles to play in community life, made up of one main building, a handful of vehicles and a few small outbuildings. The main building looks to be designed for efficiency and comfort: the creatures within seldom have to go outside, it burns very little fuel to keep it cozy warm inside, and everything is tucked neatly away in its place.

A good chunk of McMurdo Station
The other could be a mining camp, with buildings of fairly ordinary construction scattered haphazardly across a hillside without uniformity or apparent logic in layout. They are not especially well insulated, and not only do the residents have to go outside quite frequently, the walks between some of the buildings are quite long. This of course leads to a cascading series of problems:

  • Because the buildings are separate, there is massive repetition (not redundancy, which would be fine) of systems like furnaces, water heaters and backup generators. Since they are all smaller, one-building sized systems, they tend to be less efficient and break down more often, which means more people are needed to maintain them.
  • Electricity must be generated, water must be purified, and sewage must be treated. Because buildings are so far apart, there is a vast infrastructure in place to support them. This, in turn, requires skilled people to support and extra electricity to maintain in a non-frozen state.
  • Since some of these buildings are long walks and the climate is so harsh, vehicles are needed to move people around. Fortunately they didn't decide to just buy everyone a car; there is an organized shuttle system for regular travel and vehicles that can be checked out when the shuttle won't do, but this of course means that more people are needed to drive the shuttles. And of course since there are so many vehicles to shuttle people and the tools to do their jobs, there needs to be people to look after those vehicles. Those people can't do their job without more people to make sure there are always spare parts. With so many different kinds of vehicles here, there are a lot of parts, which means more buildings to store them in.
  • By and large, each person in this camp has only one job. Since they don't have regular community chores like cleaning or helping out in the kitchen, more people are needed to do that: janitors and dining hall attendants, in addition to the cooks and the people who run the food warehouses. At the end of the chain, there are people to collect, sort and store the waste this all generates.
  • This many people would start to get cranky if there wasn't someone to answer their questions and things to do after hours. So there is a recreation department and a store; representatives from human resources and finance; an office to oversee the 600 rooms that house everyone; a barber; a newspaper to keep us all well informed; and IT and telecom departments (and of course warehouses of computer and telephone equipment).
  • This all feeds back into the moving people around problem, so there are yet more vehicles.
  • All of this stuff had to get here in the first place, and new things have to turn up to keep us going, so there is a large cargo department to move supplies from the airplanes to warehouses and on to their ultimate end users, and of course offices full of people that specialize in keeping these things organized and moving. Not to mention the mechanics and flight crews that keep the planes moving, the weather and air traffic control people that oversee the flying, and since the aviation is largely a military affair, the bureaucracy that goes along with it.
  • Runways and piers don't build themselves, and when they are both made of ice and need to be rebuilt each year, that means a lot of equipment operators, and, you guessed it, heavy vehicles to get the job done.
  • Have you noticed that I haven't said a thing about science or laboratories yet?
  • The science groups that come here need laboratory space, and one thing we do have that the other camp doesn't is a large indoor lab stocked with every piece of modern equipment you can imagine. And, naturally, people to maintain that equipment, the building, and the supplies these scientists need.
  • Don't fly PHI
    But some scientists don't work in the laboratory; they are headed to the field to drill holes and pick up rocks. They need camping supplies while they're out there, survival training before they go, helicopters to get them there (which are scheduled by secretaries, loaded by worker bees, flown by pilots, and maintained by mechanics). They also need someone on the radio to listen for them in case they get into trouble.
  • Let us not forget that this whole effort has a couple of common threads. First, it all runs on liquid fossil fuels. Rest assured that we've got an entire department devoted to distributing these liquids, complete with another line of specialized vehicles. The other common thread is that all these people need someone to look after them, like a clinic and fire department.

Wow. You can see that parts of this are self-propagating. The end result though is that there are about 800 staff supporting 400 researchers.

Back to the other camp. There are about 90 staff supporting just about the same number of researchers. There are a few reasons for this. First, their operation focuses more on supporting field camps that collect samples for analysis at home. To be fair and thorough, if it were not for our camp their camp would have to be much larger, because many of the services are shared.
Yankee C-130s at the Ice Runway
For one, it would be silly to have two separately operating airfields, or to run separate passenger and cargo operations when there would always be elements idle. The fuels infrastructure all originates at one common pier. Since many of these activities happen at McMurdo, regardless of the nationality of the people involved (many are Kiwi), they are lumped into the American count. Scott does not supporting a massive inland base, with many of the same problems as McMurdo. Most everything that is needed at McMurdo is also needed at the South Pole station. Everything that is taken there must leave, and the only way there is by air, which explains the huge aviation presence on the American side of the island.

Even still, the numbers seem hugely skewed. When I subtract out the airfield and its supporting departments, cargo and most of the fuels department, and adjust things like the janitors and galley staff, I still come up with about 300 people to their 90. Something still isn't right.

I think it boils down to two things. This station was established and run for decades by the Navy, who tended in that era to do things on a grander scale and also had a silly need for paired facilities so that an officer should never have to dine nor lift glasses with the common man. The Kiwi station was not designed like a military outpost, but as an exploration camp by none other than Sir Edmund Hillary himself.

Secondly, New Zealand has much less of a car culture than America, so there is much more attention paid in their design to minimizing the need for movement. I think their culture is much more community-based as well; their personal spaces are quite small but the community areas are more cozy and open, and much more accessible than ours.

But that's just my opinion.

Since I have already exceeded my target word count, I'll wait until next time to explain how McMurdo is an odd microcosm of the socialist experiment, which suffers in unexpected ways from the same problems as the real thing.

Back to the Table of Continents

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