40 Minutes to the Ice Shelf — Part 3

Something windy, this way comes.

The Weather

If you’re thinking about Antarctica you’re thinking about freezing, frigid wind and ice, just completely inhospitable conditions where your snow suit is almost acting like a thermal focused space suit. Or maybe the opposite version of those silver heat suits people who go near volcanoes use. But, well, it’s not that bad. Really. No seriously.

So Antarctica’s weather really has only two settings: Summer and Winter. I was there for summer, and showed up about 5 months into it. Summer there is basically like a mild North American Winter. The air temperature ranges from 20–30 degrees Fahrenheit, significant precipitation is rare, and it’s usually pretty sunny. Unlike Winter, the Summer climate is very stable…at least for relative definitions of “stable”. You’ll have the apparent weather change on a dime, but with few exceptions it stays withing a manageable range of conditions, which the NSF and USAP have conveniently categorized for everyone.

It’s a short list. There’s three conditions and, much like the forever mis-referenced DEFCON system, it counts down for severity. In summer your usual situation will be condition 3. It’s cold, sure, but you’re not in very much danger (assuming you don’t act like an idiot). It can get bad though. Condition 3 still allows for wind chills up to -50C, or -58F, and winds up to 88 kmh, or 55mph. But most of the time it hovers around 0–10F if there’s wind, and about 20F if there isn’t. Condition 2 gets dicey. You have extreme winds, and a loss of visibility, but that’s mostly an issue for field camps, in town there’s enough terrain to shield against rouge winds that it’s not too restricting. Condition 1 is mostly an issue for winter. Summer almost never reaches that point. Condition 1 is a full lock out. You don’t leave unless you absolutely have too, and extra special precautions are taken. But like I said, it’s a winter issue and I never had to experience that. So if you like normal winter, you’ll be fine. I only experienced one non-condition 3 day while I was down there, but that was more than enough for the trip.

The Storm of My Century

For the first part of my stay in McMurdo I was mostly in town, but our “office” was actually out on the Ross Ice Shelf at the balloon field camp. I’m kinda skipping around narrative wise, but we’re talking about the weather and some context is needed for this story. We’ll get back to life at the Station later.

So this camp was about an hour’s drive out onto the ice. Not a straight shot mind you. The road curved down around the land ice on the edge of Ross Island next to the Traverse, then went straight out toward Willy Field, then hooked a sharp 90 degree turn towards nothing in particular, then went straight on again for about 20 minutes before arriving in the “driveway” of LDB, short for “Long Duration Balloon”. My coworkers and I occupied an over sized tent as a work space. Now don’t get the wrong idea, it was a purpose built specialized structure designed to be used in, and withstand the weather of, Antarctica…but it was still an over sized tent.

The rest of the camp was similar. A straight line of temporary buildings set up seasonally for various projects to use as a mobile fab lab to get their experiments ready to fly. There were also more general camp facilities like a rigging/machine shop, a comms building, a bathroom building, and a galley tent with camp offices. We were close enough to not need to sleep there overnight, but we had our ECW gear with us if we needed to, and one night we almost did.

Generally you can see the weather coming. In training they said that if you saw a bad looking cloud, or storm off in the distance, you had about 3 hours before it hit you. Well that was a pretty accurate system as far I’m concerned because that’s how it seemed to happen. The day started out bright and cloudless but quickly the sky just filled in. It didn’t get dark exactly, it’s phenomena known as “flat lighting”. Since the ice and snow are so reflective, you can get a situation where the light becomes totally diffused by the snow and by ambient moisture in the clouds. This basically means you lose the horizon and past a certain point you can’t tell what is land and what is sky. This can happen on it’s own all the time, but this time it was a precursor to some bad weather.

After the clouds moved in the wind picked up, and the the wind started trying to pick us up. This was when the camp manager called around: “We’re double checking, but we may have to evacuate soon. Be ready”. No need to mince words on this one. We had to grab and change into our ECW gear. The way the storm was acting it seemed like we’d be dipping into condition 2 due to the winds, which also meant the wind chill would be dangerous. We were driving back, so if a rouge gust knocked our car over or made us crash we needed to be able to hoof it or at least be outside long enough to set up temporary shelter. No time to waste getting jackets on with 100kmh winds.

Then the snow moved in. At first it was just stinging snow. Hard, large clumps of ice that smacked your face, but that you could still see around. 10 minutes after the first notice the camp manager called again: “We’re leaving NOW”.

The visibility over those 10 minutes went from an obscured, but visible kilometer or more, to less than 100, and it was getting windy enough to impede your movement. We all piled into our lifted airport van, most certainly too many bodies for the seats available, and the camp manager got on the radio. “12 souls on board…”, standard procedure was that all movement during condition 2 or higher be reported and approved by the Firehouse, who took the role of camp security as well as fire protection.

The road was empty, as it should have been. We were the last on the road by virtue of being the last stop on it. Visibility was probably low enough to qualify for condition 1 on the ice shelf at that point. The only visible sign that we were moving were the carefully plotted red flags that lined the ice road. Nothing else was visible. I’d say that the head lights were useless, but when you’re only going 15 miles an hour you still have a good amount of time to move when you spot another set 50 meters away.

By the time we got back to Ross Island and McMurdo station the weather was slowing down a bit, but that was probably more to due with the wind shielding offered by the terrain than with the storm actually dying out. The rest of the day was spent in the safety of solid, warm buildings.

This was Part 3 in a series on living and working in Antarctica’s McMurdo Station. There’s more to come so please follow to keep up with new segments as they come out. And if you like what I write, please share and favorite.