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Getting to Antarctica–Or not

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s Note: Marine geophysicist Robin Bell is leading an expedition to Antarctica to explore a mysterious mountain range beneath the ice sheet. Following is the first of her updates on the effort as part of Scientific American.com‘s In-depth Report on "The Future of the Poles."

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND (11/16/08)–Things have improved since the days of ship and dog sleds, but it still is not easy to get to the center of Antarctica. It will have been a month from the time I stepped into the car on a rainy Thursday until we reach our field camp in mid-December. A month, that is, if things go well. Today was an example of things not quite going according to plan.

If you try to search for a flight to Antarctica using the web, Orbitz insists you have entered a spelling error and Travelocity offers you the choice of Al Tarek Tvl, Syria, Ankara Trz Gsa, Turkey or Antares, Trinidad Tobago. With the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), run by the National Science Foundation, the first step of a scientific trip to the South Pole and beyond can be booked both on Travelocity and Orbitz. A series of commercial flights on familiar airlines carried me across North America and then the Pacific Ocean. After about 20 hours of flying, the conventional commercial travel machine deposited me in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Here is where things get weird. 

When you step off the flight, you are met by a shuttle driver holding a sign declaring “USAP.” As innocuous as this sounds, you are soon delivered to a series of stark modern blue and white buildings next to the airport. After a series of lectures and instructional videos, men and women are separated into two dressing rooms where each person receives two big orange bags. Each bag is filled with cold weather clothing suitable for where you are going and what you will be doing. The toasty room quickly fills with the sounds of rustling clothing, as participants try on everything from the blue long underwear to the bulky red down parka.

Next comes the complicated formula of labeling bags. One bag is to carry on and must have the bare essentials of cold weather gear: parka, boots, wind pants, a hat, mittens and goggles. Just what any good Minnesota mom would dress her kid in to ski—not to mention play outside—on a blustery winter day. A second bag can be checked. That contains everything else you have brought for the next two months. A third bag is the boomerang bag – the one containing the bare essentials of life in Christchurch, toothbrush, socks, etc. A boomerang is when a flight does not make it all the way to Antarctica, but has to return. After completing the sorting and labeling, the group disperses back to the hotels across the city to catch a few hours of sleep.

The alarm clock rang at 4:30 a.m. By 5:10 a.m., 10 sleepy southbound scientists were lined up at the curb waiting for a shuttle. A three-hour process began of dressing in the cold weather gear, weighing those three bags, watching safety videos and then waiting. I have time to wander about to see the surroundings. There’s not enough time to see the exhibits at the Antarctic Museum but I do spot the “Pengiun Express” that transports tourists from Christchurch. There are penguins on the roof!

We wait; people snooze, share tales, and immerse themselves in books they have long been meaning to read. The weather in McMurdo is foggy so we wait some more. Finally around 10 a.m., we are processed yet again. Our gear is x-rayed, the drug dog sniffs us and we are screened for anything sharp or dangerous before climbing onto a white school bus for the ride to the airplane. The C-17, a big four- engine Air Force jet, is waiting. There are regular seats in the front for the government official—and the rest of us file to the temporary seats along the edge. A piece of science equipment that resembles a mobile home fills much of the aircraft. One of my friends, Shridar Andakrisnan, a Penn State seismologist, points out the ax behind our seats for emergencies. Good thing we were screened for sharp objects!

We all settle in for the safety briefing. Just like the commercial flights there is a life vest—a joke in polar waters. We all settle in, open our books, insert our earplugs and wait for takeoff. It will be a five-hour trip, we’re told. I am lost in an article about the global financial crisis and trying to understand bank capitalization regulations when I realize that we have stopped taxiing, but we are not flying. Not a good sign. The captain comes over the loud speaker to announce that a pressure valve in the engine has failed and it seems unwise to continue. We will not go south today.

It could be worse. We could have flown all the way there and been prevented from landing by a thick blanket of fog. No bus back. For the entertainment of the tourists at the Antarctic Museum, we all tromp back in our cold weather gear. Once again, we disperse to our hotels. The end of the day has me cooling my heels back in the city of Christchurch. Perhaps tomorrow we will have better luck, but today the only penguins I saw were atop a tour bus.

Dispatches from the Bottom of the Earth: An Antarctic Expedition in Search of Lost Mountains Encased in Ice

The Future of the Poles





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