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Dispatches from Antarctica: Part 1

Members of the NOVA team are headed to Antarctica to report on science research at the bottom of the Earth. Here's their first dispatch.

ByCaitlin SaksNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Photo credit: Arlo Perez

Science Editor Caitlin Saks and Digital Associate Producer Arlo Perez are in Antarctica for the next month reporting about science research in Antarctica as a part of NOVA’s “Polar Extremes” project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Joining them is Zac Fink, field director and director of photography. Caitlin is writing home frequently and tweeting about her adventures (@caitlin_saks)—here’s her first dispatch:

Our 12-hour international flight from San Francisco to Auckland was on a packed-to-capacity wide body plane. I slept fairly well—maybe about six interrupted hours spread out over the whole flight. By the end, I couldn’t feel my toes, my curly hair was straight, and my breath smelled like something from another planet. But I was decently well rested for our 5:30 a.m. arrival in New Zealand.

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We gathered all 600+ pounds of gear, made our way through customs, re-checked all 600+ pounds to Christchurch, and then proceeded directly to caffeine. Zac, Arlo, and I took an immediate liking to New Zealand because there is a coffee shop every 20 feet. In case they don’t have it at McMurdo Station—the United States Antarctic research center to which we’re headed—Zac and Arlo have been collecting Sugar In The Raw® for me at every coffee shop. Now I have sugar spilling out of every pocket of my backpack.

We were awake for the flight to Christchurch and used that time to get a bit of footage, and to start playing with the Go Pros that we brought along. When we landed, we were greeted at baggage claim by Elaine Hood, our Antarctic “implementer,” who has been holding my hand through the entire planning process. She came with at least three other people from the Christchurch office of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), three big carts, and a big truck. After lugging equipment around for I-can’t-count-how-many-hours, the small army of helpers was delightful.

By this point we had been traveling for 24 hours. I couldn’t have possibly done that math at the time, but I’m writing this after having had a chance to sleep. From the Christchurch airport, we walked to the USAP Clothing Distribution Center, right next to the airport. It’s called the CDC, but it’s not the Centers for Disease Control.

This place was amazing. It is like the largest, most organized closet in the world. Massive racks run the length of one room with every kind of cold weather gear you can imagine. Jackets for all variety of cold weather activity, from deep-field science work to construction in McMurdo.

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NOVA science editor Caitlin Saks dons her United States Antarctic Program jacket and shows off her name tag.

We came a day early—arriving on a Friday, a workday—so that we could get most of our camera gear on a pallet for the flight to McMurdo while people were still in the office. But this had the added benefit of giving us a few hours to have free run of the place. Nathan “Haggis” Harkness, who runs the operations, gave us a tour. I felt like a kid in a candy shop. Arlo and I tried on big jackets and boots. We got to try on these massive gloves that have furry backs to wipe your nose (Haggis promised they were very clean now). And this wasn’t even all of the gear. In the next warehouse room over, row after row after row of boxes (think Raiders of the Lost Ark) contained even more gear waiting in reserve for when the “closet” needed restocking. All of this gear will come back to the CDC at the end of the season. Haggis said it takes them FOUR MONTHS to do all the laundry.

Everyone at CDC was wonderfully accommodating. The ground-based support is run by New Zealand—this is part of the international cooperation agreement for research in Antarctica. New Zealand runs the ground operations, and the U.S. provides air support for getting to the ice.

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NOVA producer Arlo Perez dons his United States Antarctic Program jacket and shows off his name tag.

After romping around the CDC for three hours (there was a coffee break in there, too, of course), we went across the street to the hotel and had some much-needed down time. Iron-Man-Arlo went for a run. I peeled off all my clothes, brushed my teeth three times, and texted my husband to let him know I was alive and well.

Then, about an hour later, Elaine picked us up to take us into Christchurch for dinner. We met up with another artist traveling to the ice—Caitlin Scarano, a poet, who has a really wonderful first name. Also joining us were Mike Lucibella, in the communications office, and Kelly Swanson, the recreations director. Over Kiwi Thai food, they told us tales from the ice. One of the group warned that the 24 hours of daylight will make us stupid—people lose the ability to recall words. I’m not sure how scientifically accurate that assertion is. Kelly told us what sorts of recreational activities she plans—like Halloween, which was just rescheduled for early November. “You can do that?” I asked. “We can do anything down there,” she replied.

I was so exhausted by this point that I can’t recall all the wonders that we heard over dinner. I had this feeling of information overload in my brain. So many new, interesting ideas—they couldn’t all fit in my cranium! I have a hunch that I might have to get used to that feeling…the next month is going to be filled with similarly mind-warping encounters. Hopefully I won’t actually forget how to use words to describe them.

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After dinner, Elaine gave a quick tour of downtown Christchurch, which was destroyed during a 6.2 earthquake that struck in 2011. It is still a city in recovery, but has a vibrant street scene with lots of interesting arts installations. The cathedral in the center of town still sits in ruins—which is kind of a shock to see in person. Seven years later, in this developed nation, in the center of town, this beautiful building is still in shambles.

After that, it was bedtime. It took about 20 seconds from when my head hit the pillow to fall asleep. Today we have some time to adjust and digest everything we learned yesterday, and to sort out our plan for the next couple days. Most importantly, we are going to take a bit of time to take care of ourselves ahead of what is surely going to be quite a ride.