In the premiere episode of Antarctic Extremes, join hosts Caitlin Saks and Arlo Pérez as they follow in the footsteps of the brave scientists that have made McMurdo Station, an otherworldly Antarctic outpost, their research base and their second home. Five days, 12,000 miles, and seven time zones with hundreds of pounds of camera gear in tow, Caitlin and Arlo temporarily leave their day jobs as NOVA producers and go on a mind-boggling journey to the bottom of the world. They fly halfway across the planet, pick up extreme cold-weather gear (and gloves made specially for wiping away snot), and learn to withstand the -50° F Antarctic autumn temperatures. But as they touch down on Antarctic ice in a massive U.S. Air Force C-17, Caitlin and Arlo realize their epic journey is far from over.
Antarctica: Journey to the Bottom of the Earth
Published: January 29, 2020
Arlo Pérez: So, I think Caitlin and I are being hazed for some reason. They’ve got us cleaning the snow mobiles with a screwdriver.
Caitlin Saks: I can’t really feel my hands.
Caitlin: We are in Antarctica… and this, is not what we expected.
Arlo: It’s a strange place, that’s both familiar...
Caitlin: …and completely alien. You can sleep, but it’s never dark.
Arlo: You can instant message, if you know how to use a pager.
Caitlin: You can’t grow food… but you can call for a pizza.
Caitlin: So, we’ll do pineapple and half anchovies on the other half.
Arlo: That’s right, 24/7 pizza, here, in the world’s most remote natural laboratory.
Caitlin: Home to penguins and seals.
Arlo: A weird glacier that seems to spew blood.
Caitlin: And a fiery active volcano. All of which we plan to see. But right now, I’m stuck under a snowmobile, wondering how I ended up here... With this impossibly upbeat guy.
Caitlin: Normally, I’m nowhere near here… I’m here as a science documentary producer for NOVA.
Kirk Johnson: What powerful forces drove the poles to such extremes?
Caitlin: We’re working on an epic special called Polar Extremes about the climate history of our planet’s poles.
Kirk Johnson: Find out the true power of ice. This is amazing out here!
Caitlin: It got us wondering… how do scientists work all this stuff out? What does it take to live and work in these crazy remote regions? Well, there’s only one way to find out. Arlo—we’re going to Antarctica.
Taxi Driver: Let’s go.
Arlo: I make web videos for NOVA and this is my first field assignment: Follow the trail of scientists to the most remote place on Earth... and stay there for a month! Sounds fun. First stop—New Zealand. Where everyone heading as south as you can sail gears up for the cold.
Caitlin: It has got to be the biggest winter closet in the world. Stuffed with polar gear lent out to people like us heading to Antarctica.
Clothing Distribution Center Employee: They’re probably rated to about minus 40, minus 50.
Arlo: 50 below? I am not built for that. Living 16 years in Mexico doesn’t really give you an experience with snow.
Caitlin: Getting this gear is a rite of passage for traveling to Antarctica.
Arlo: Giant red parka?
Arlo: Clown boots?
Caitlin: That’s what this is for?!
Arlo: Snot wiper gloves?
Caitlin: Check and check.
Arlo: Bring on the white stuff.
Arlo: There are no commercial flights where we’re going, so we get to fly… in this: a US Air Force C-17. “Operation Deep Freeze” provides transport to the continent for the US Antarctic Program. It’s much more than just a flight—it’s a portal to another realm.
Caitlin: They just told us to turn off our electronic devices.
Arlo: We’re about to go back in time to the 1990’s.
Caitlin: Everyone going to the ice bundles up in the cargo hold. There are no windows, so the only view is this curious looking polar equipment. But when we head up to the cockpit, we catch our first glimpse of Antarctica! Patchy sea ice gives way to desolate, snow covered mountains.
Arlo: Soon we land on what feels like another planet. As the C-17 doors open, polar air blasts in. You can actually see it. We step out onto the ice, and in the distance there are these monstrous vehicles.
Caitlin: To me, it’s a scene straight out of Star Wars. Like I’ve just stepped onto Hoth. We’ve arrived… and it is truly awesome.
Elaine Hood: Okay, everybody has to have seatbelts on.
Arlo: We’re met by Elaine Hood.
Elaine Hood: Speed limit is 15 miles per hour.
Arlo: She takes us to the top of a hill overlooking our new home: McMurdo Station, the US Antarctic Program’s base of operations.
Elaine Hood: The station was built in 1955/56 by the US Navy. It’s the southernmost point on the face of the Earth where you can sail a ship. But right now, this flat white that you are looking at is the annual sea ice.
Caitlin: Elaine is more than just our tour guide…
Elaine Hood: Follow the umbrella!
Caitlin: She’s basically our Antarctic mom. She makes sure that we wear our gloves and hats.
Arlo: That we know where our pencils and our panties are.
Arlo: Elaine shows us the ropes. And helps us start to understand our new world.
Elaine Hood: So, that’s what I do.
Arlo: She tells us McMurdo is kind of a hopping off point for expeditions into the deep field.
Caitlin: We are so excited to get out thereand explore some of the wildest parts of Antarctica with scientists. But… we can’t. For now, we’re stuck in this bizarre outpost.
Arlo: It’s got like this post-apocalyptic vibe going on for it. It feels like you’re in another world.
Caitlin: McMurdo has 105 buildings with about 900 people in the summer. Just like the scientists, we’re given a lab space to set up shop. And like everyone who arrives here for the first time… before we can do what we came here to do, we’ve got to learn how to live down here.
Arlo: And it is a strange place to live.
Caitlin: It’s kind of like college. You have dorms, you have roommates. It kind of looks just like college.
Arlo: But the kind of classes we’re taking are ‘snowmobiles 101’.
Snowmobile Instructor: Who’s never ridden a snowmobile before?
Arlo: And intro to not falling down an ice crack.
Sea Ice Safety Instructor: What’s going to happen when the crack starts moving underneath the snow?
Caitlin: Even though a lot of this is pretty cool… the reality of just how extreme this environment is, starts to sink in.
Caitlin: Have you ever had to rescue someone who’s screwed up with their GPS?
John Loomis: Yeah. We’ve had to go get people who used the GPS inappropriately and got themselves into a situation where they got lost. And there’s also been people who have been lost in white outs and basically died of exposure. It is a harsh continent.
Caitlin: It’s a little windy today!
Caitlin: It really hits us: there are a lot of ways we can die down here.
Dennis Haskell: The weather can turn in a matter of minutes and be a full blizzard. Wind chill factor to negative 50 degrees and you can get frostbite super easy.
Caitlin: While in college it felt like my life depended on doing well in class. Now, it actually does. The lives of others do too.
Arlo: And it’s easy to forget even the simple things.
Arlo: Mac Ops, we have four vehicles and our ETA is 1600 hours…
Person on radio: Copy that.
Caitlin: When I first got down here, I felt like I was on top of the world. But now it starts to feel a bit more like the bottom of the world.
Arlo: Nothing seems to be going for us. Training and bad weather have kept us stuck near the station. And we can’t even claim the continent for NOVA. Because the one time we want that biting wind to blow… it doesn’t.
Zac: That’s the saddest NOVA flag possible.
Caitlin: We’ve been in Antarctica for a week. The sun has never set… but the time we have here is slipping away. I’m exhausted, disoriented, and I feel like we’re just stuck in a closet checking camera gear. Home is a world away, and we’re just a small team of three. We haven’t filmed a single scientific sequence.
I’m starting to think… I’m not sure I can do this. But then I realize... this feeling… is totally normal.
Britney Schmidt: When I got here I thought it's miserable in the most inspiring way. Being away from your family working on really hard stuff that no one's ever tried to do before. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done in the most beautiful place I could imagine.
Arlo: We are surrounded by some of the most remarkable people, who have all gone through this.
Paul Cziko: It's really challenging to do stuff down here. And because of that there's still a lot of unexplored things and unanswered questions and that's really cool. So it is really a frontier down here.
Caitlin: We came here to join them at this frontier, as they conduct groundbreaking research.
Peter Doran: SkyTEM can see hundreds of meters into the ground.
Arlo: We will soar through majestic valleys that scientists use as an analogue for other planets.
Jill Mikucki: Perhaps it’s like a deep ground water system that might exist on Mars.
Caitlin: We’ll plunge to the depths of the icy ocean with a robot that aims to help figure out how fast sea level will rise.
Britney Schmidt: It’s incredibly unstable. The grounding line is rapidly retreating.
Arlo: We’ll meet baby sealsand learn how they survive in this harsh environment.
Jay Rotella: They’re under the ice that we’re standing on right now.
Arlo: And investigate a mysterious glacier in a part of Antarctica that isn’t covered in ice.
Peter Doran: Blood falls is a bit of an obsession for a lot of people.
Caitlin: We’ll fly to the top of an active volcano to get a glimpse of what our planet was like hundreds of millions of years ago.
Caitlin: My snot is freezing.
Jessie Crain: And so is your hair.
Arlo: We’ve brought a 360 camera along, so when we meet the penguins… you will too!
Caitlin: We will plant that nova flag!
Arlo: And we’ll meet the people who make the science possible.
Peter Doran: There's this really tight knit community. It's kind of like a weird cold icy family. I still get excited every time coming down. And I get excited bringing new people and exposing them to that experience and watching through their eyes what it's like because it really is an amazing experience.
Caitlin: We aren’t simply following the trail of scientists… we’re in their shoes. Literally. Which means…we have got to get these snowmobiles out.
Caitlin: I brought some extra batteries. And spoons. Spoon?
Arlo: I’ll take a spoon.
Arlo: Antarctica… here we come.
Hosted by Caitlin Saks and Arlo Pérez
Editor: Rob Tinworth
Producer: Caitlin Saks
Digital Associate Producer/Assistant Editor: Arlo Pérez
Field Director/Cinematographer: Zachary Fink
Executive Producer: Julia Cort
Coordinating Producer: Elizabeth Benjes
Project Director: Pamela Rosenstein
Additional Editor: Emily Zendt
Post Production: Jay Colamaria
Production Assistance: Matthew Buckley, Emily Pattison, Sean Cuddihy
Audio Mix: Heart Punch Studio
Director of Audience Development: Dante Graves
Senior Digital Producer: Ari Daniel
Audience Engagement Editor: Sukee Bennett
Outreach Manager: Gina Varamo
Special Thanks: Michael H. Amundson
Special thanks to the United States Antarctic Program
Additional Footage: Alasdair Turner, Britney Schmidt, Denys Grombacher, Jay Rotella, JPL-Caltech, Mary Lynn Price, McMurdo Oceanographic Observatory, Mitch Butler, NASA, Paul Cziko, Robert Robbins, Robert Simmon, Steven Rupp, UNIT, University of Arizona, USGS
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020