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Dispatches from Antarctica: Part 2

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

ByCaitlin SaksNOVA NextNOVA Next
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This is the gateway to Antarctica—a passenger terminal to the bottom of the world. Photo credit: Arlo Perez

We’re on a C-17 now, heading south. It’s a cavernous airplane and they seated us right in the middle. Pipes and wires and nobs of all sorts line the walls. What is all this stuff? Behind my seat is a brand-new monster snow vehicle. The plane’s cabin—if you can call it a cabin—is loud and it’s hard to talk. And it’s warm. I had always heard these flights are cold. We definitely aren’t cold! Most people are sleeping. A few are reading.

After our exhilarating first day in Christchurch, we all crashed. The following day, Saturday, was quieter and gave us a chance to recuperate. We went into the city to pick up some final supplies: a water bottle (I lost mine in Auckland), sunglasses for Arlo, and the like. And we wandered around the city. It’s a cool city, but the 2011 Earthquake rendered it a shell of its former self. The cathedral in the center of town is in ruins. Abandoned buildings and empty lots are scattered throughout the city, and construction fencing is ubiquitous. Still, in the cracks left by the earthquake there has grown a quirky and vibrant art scene. What the city has lost in historic buildings that once defined it, it has gained in street art, pop-up food trucks, and unusual architecture that fuses the old with the new.

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The cathedral in the center of Christchurch, New Zealand is in ruins; still, pop-up food trucks and street art help infuse the old with the new.

Photo credit: Arlo Perez

It was good that we had the day to rest, because Sunday was a busy day. Aside from some orientation, which took a while and was not particularly exciting, we went to the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) and were officially issued our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. Friday was a sneak peek, but this was the real deal. I tried on a whole bunch of different fleeces and boots and insulated pants and jackets. The first jacket I put on, “Big Red,” was too large—it felt like a tent. The second one fit well, but was shorter and I was afraid it wouldn’t be warm enough. I agonized for about an hour over this decision, much to Arlo and Zac’s bemusement. I went with the one that fit better but might not have been as warm.

Then it was back to the hotel for final preparations before “the ice,” as Antarctica is called. We won’t have a good internet connection once we get to the ice, so this was our last chance to downloaded documents, music, and videos. Arlo and I posted photos and sent out some updates. We tried to catch up with emails and take care of any other outstanding communications. So, there was lots to do. Soon, we’d be going back to 1990s-era internet speeds. As millennials, we find this is terrifying.

We were told to report to the passenger terminal for the U.S. Antarctic Program at 4:45 the next morning. The passenger terminal is not only the portal for American Antarctic scientists, but also for New Zealand and Italian scientists. Antarctica is a continent that no country owns, and on which no military actions can be conducted. Fifty countries, including the United States, recognize the Antarctic Treaty, which preserves the continent for the peaceful conduct of research. That is why the National Science Foundation is in charge of United States operations. And, with this treaty, nations have agreed to support each other in the operational logistics of conducting the research. The U.S., for its part, helps other nations with flights to the ice. New Zealand helps with ground operation logistics in Christchurch.

In the wee hours of the morning, a little fairy slipped a piece of paper under my hotel room door saying the flight was delayed, and that we should report at 8 a.m. Too bad I was already up and ready to go! Thus began the waiting game. I texted with Mom. The boys and I went to our favorite coffee spot, The Coffee Club. I particularly like the name of it because Arlo, Zac, and I are a coffee club, all with a mutual respect and understanding for the need to have a good cup of caffeine every morning. Around 7 a.m., we got another slip of paper under the door: delayed until 10 a.m. This was in all likelihood a weather delay, and at breakfast, we met with some U.S. Air Force guys (they operate the planes) who confirmed it. Our chances of getting to the ice today were starting to look slim.

But then we got a confirmation: Get there at 10 a.m. We did. I was running late because I had a minor jacket panic and decided that I had made the wrong decision yesterday. Fortunately, Haggis and the friendly folks at the CDC were happy to let me swap my jacket one last time. I can only imagine how Arlo and Zac were making fun of me in the hall.

We put on all of our cold weather gear—it was sweltering—and stood on a big scale with all our gear and our carry-on. They weighed our bags. And we waited some more. It was kind of just like a regular airport terminal, x-ray machine and all, except our boarding passes were plastic tags that they reuse. Also everyone is in oversized puffy clothing. We boarded buses out to our aircraft, grabbed bagged lunches as we climbed aboard, and found our seats.

Because the weather is iffy, we might have to “boomerang” back to Christchurch if we can’t land. The C-17 has enough fuel to fly the five-ish hours to Antarctica, circle for 45 minutes waiting for weather to clear, and then to return to Christchurch if it isn’t safe to land. That’s an 11-hour flight and we’d end up back in the airport hotel, having coffee at The Coffee Club the next morning. It would be a big bummer. We even had to pack a “boomerang bag” with anything that we’d need for a couple days in Christchurch, because if we do boomerang, we wouldn’t get our checked luggage back.

The U.S. Air Force team running the plane has been incredibly nice, and allowed Zac, Arlo, and me to go up to the cockpit to check it out. Multiple times. This is a particular treat because C-17s don’t have windows. And as we climbed the ladder to the cockpit, we glimpsed our first bit of ice. It wasn’t anything like I was expecting. I had always imagined that the ice started more abruptly—open ocean, and then ice. But starting at around 800 miles away from the continent, what we beheld was more like kaleidoscopic swirls, as if a mirage. As we flew on, the patterned ice gave way to more geometric shapes, and became more solid. And then, we spotted stunning ice-covered mountains that the pilots said they couldn’t identify on the charts yet.

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This truly is uncharted territory. The last great wilderness on Earth. Arlo and I were awestruck. Dumbfounded. Overpowered by the majesty of the continent unfolding before us. We can’t wait to start exploring it.

The pilots said that the weather conditions were right on the borderline of being safe enough to land. We gave them some Polar Extremes stickers, and pleaded with them not to boomerang.

At the time I’m writing this, we still haven’t landed. Gosh, I hope we get there today.

Funding for this reporting is provided by the National Science Foundation.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1713552. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.