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Dispatches from Antarctica: A Windy, Alien Terrain

As the C-17 plane door opened, NOVA’s science editor looked upon what looked like a painting of a faraway planet.

ByCaitlin SaksNOVA NextNOVA Next
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NOVA's senior editor, Caitlin Saks, looks out into the Antarctic frigid landscape. Photo credit: Arlo Perez

October 22, 2018 (written October 27):

Nothing could have prepared me for the moment the C-17 door opened into the Antarctic winds. It had been warm and toasty where we sat inside the plane's cargo hold. Then the aircraft came to a stop, the door creaked open, and Antarctic air blasted in. You could see it diffusing from the doorway through the entire cargo hold. In a matter of seconds, the whole space plummeted to minus 10 Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit). Every breath was immediately visible.

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My first glimpse of the continent was out the back door of the plane. Past the stacks of gear and equipment, I could see a white expanse with a purple mountain painted in the backdrop. It did not look real. The military gear framing the surreal landscape looked like something out of a science fiction film.

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A first glimpse of the continent | Photo credit: Arlo Perez

When we got off the plane, it was windy. The sun was low in the sky, with thin clouds veiling its intensity, illuminating the icy purple-ish mountains that surrounded us—this was the first surprise. I expected to see nothing but white, but instead, I found myself in a far more dynamic, alien terrain. To say it was like a photo would not do it justice, because a photo looks more real. This was like a painting. It was like I was walking through a painting of another planet.

We boarded a Delta—a monstrous snow vehicle that hearkens back to another era, and that the Antarctic Program seems to use like a bus. We were warned not to turn on the radiator—it would asphyxiate us. And we were asked to buckle up using ancient seat buckle hardware. I sat in the far back, next to the door, and as we lurched into motion and trundled off on the 45-minute drive to McMurdo Station, snow slowly drifted in through the cracks and covered my leg. The breath of about ten people quickly frosted all the windows, shrouding any view of the outside and adding to the mystique of the place. Not until we reached McMurdo Station would I catch another glimpse of the landscape, but the interior of the vehicle was enough to feast my eyes on. I examined the stickers that decorated the Delta’s interior—stamps left by past visitors, as if to say “I too made it to this furthest end of the Earth.”

Soon, I would discover just what wonders they found here.

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).

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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.

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