Life in McMurdo Station is probably akin to a mining town of sorts. Just mining of miniscule proportions for purely scientific reasons (as different to Japanese ‘scientific’ activities conducted in the Southern Ocean).
With a mostly young population, austere hazard filled environment, rotatiing shift cycle and limited off site entertainment, life here takes on its own pace.
We have arrived in the lead up to the busiest fortnight in the station. Numbers will soon be burgeoning to 1100 people, with the arrival of the annual resupply ship that brings in supplies, replacement machinary, and scientific equipment. On its departure, it will take out the years rubbish, recycling, equipment needing repair stateside, as well as scientific specimens and the like. Our cohort that flew down on the same day as us had several employees who were purely here for vessell offload.
Temperatures have been very temperate for the first few days, with the first day being warm enough to be comfortable outside in a long sleeve icebreaker, jeans and casual shoes. Since then, things have chilled a little, with snow falling but not settling in town. Warmer layers are needed for any longer period outside or in the wind.
Arrival prompted the first of many phases of orientation, with repeated components emphasising the importance of safety, prevention of exposure and injuries, and hygiene when living in confirmed situations. We then had a chance to meet Dr Jim McKeith, my medical boss from Texas, who is out for a couple of weeks overseeing transition from summer to winter crew, and checking up on things on the ground.
During the evening, we had a chance to meet the rest of the medical crew including compulsory table-tennis match, orientation of the basics of the base and the galley where we eat, and a chance to chat with those who are going to be the other collegues on the continent, both for the next month or so, as well as over winter.
One of the things I was most looking forward to about this trip was satisfying my inner geek with the awesome science that goes on down here. And there is no better place than at a coffee house or bar in Antarctica. That first night, we were having a yarn with our colleagues, when we were introduced to some of the crew from ANSMET – the Antarctic Search for Metiorites. As one of the richest and undistrubed environemtns to find metiorites in the world, it is a mecca for scientists who want to use these bits of rock to study other planets and celestial bodies. Con, and his colleague had spent the past 5 weeks in a deep field camp nestled along the morraine walls of the Transartarctic mountains, where the gradually moving icecap deposits all metiorites that have landed on the Antarctic plateau over the last multiple millenia. The ice hits the mountains, melts off, leaving its treasures behind. And in there, bits of the moon, mars and asteroids can be found, retrieved, sent to NASA for analysis by the same team that guards the Apollo moon rocks, and then processed to work out their origins. All done for a fraction of what it would have cost to send missions in to space to achieve the same knowledge. Awesome stuff.
And no, I can’t keep an asteroid. Even if I found one myself. And yes, I did ask.