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For those traveling to McMurdo or Pole with the USAP

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  • For those traveling to McMurdo or Pole with the USAP

    Zak's recent post in another thread asking what to expect when he gets down here made me think that this post might be a good idea, so here goes:

    For personnel coming to McMurdo or South Pole as part of the U.S. Antarctic Program, you will be coming through Christchurch, New Zealand. (There has been talk about changing this to routes via Australia in future years, but so far that is only talk - and probably just one of the many unsubstantiated rumors that tend to fly around here.) Depending on when you arrive, you may spend as little as one night in Christchurch - but weather delays are not uncommon. Some people have waited a week or more for the weather to clear up, and sometimes the planes that come down have to turn around mid-way and try again the next day - though that is less common.

    You should have at least one afternoon to wander around Christchuch, so enjoy it while you can. There are some lovely botanical gardens, and right next to them the Canterbury museum with some exhibits about Antarctica. If there are flight delays, you may have more chances to explore Christchurch. Take advantage of it! It's a lovely city. (And when you get off the ice, check out the lovely town of Dunedin, which was my favorite.)

    For those coming in at WINFLY (winter fly-in, in late August) the sun will have just risen at McMurdo for the first time since April. Days will be short, but even with the sun below the horizon there will be a good deal of daylight for much of the day. Temperatures can get pretty low in August and September - don't be surprised at temperatures of -40 or -50 Fahrenheit (-40 or -45 Centigrade), plus lots of wind. For those coming in at Mainbody, early October or later, the sun will already be up 24/7, though it will duck behind the hills at times. Temperatures will have risen, maybe -20 Fahrenheit (-30 Centigrade) plus wind. McMurdo can get quite windy - sometimes strong enough to knock you down, though when the winds get really high everyone will be required to stay indoors. However, many days are quite calm. Much more variability at McMurdo than at Pole. It makes dressing for the weather difficult, as one short walk might require putting on and taking off layers several times.

    The weather in Antarctica is quite dry. Even when relative humidity is high, the cold temperatures mean that the absolute humidity is almost nothing. One result is static electricity. Be careful with sensitive electronics! However, most consumer electronics should be fine. One good thing about the extreme aridity is that cotton undergarments are not generally a huge problem, like they would be in other cold climates. However, silk or merino wool are still better, especially for your base layer. Some people like polyester and polar fleece, but personally I consider these fire hazards. Fire-resistant Nomex fleece is now available for those willing to pay the price.

    For those going to South Pole, expect temperatures of -40 or below in late October and most of November. Winds are typically 10 to 15 knots, and almost always come from one direction. These winds are pretty steady, and a calm day is rare - but the consistency means that you can pretty much know how to dress for the day. The sun will be up 24/7 the entire summer season.

    The CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) in Christchurch no longer provides base layer clothing (long underwear tops and bottoms), so bring your own. If necessary, the stores at McMurdo and South Pole sell these. However, the CDC still issues mid-layer and outer-layer clothing that should be sufficient for most people. Even so, many participants bring their own.

    Note: You do NOT have to take all the clothing issued at the CDC. If you know what you need or don't need, you can turn it in right there and not have to carry down that extra weight. The CDC has recently changed some items, however, and if you want glove liners (and if you will be working outside, you definitely do) you now need to request them, and a few other items. They will not be given to you automatically.

    On the other hand, the CDC may give you more hats than you need (and pretty useless ones at that), so you can turn in extras IF you have made other arrangements. Hats tend to be a mark of individuality in Antarctica, as a matter of necessity, and the store in McMurdo sells a wide variety of warm and distinctive hats. When everyone is wearing the same bib coveralls and either red jackets or the brown work jackets, it is hard to tell who is who, so distinctive hats are quite nice for identification.

    The cold weather gloves and liners that are issued are not especially good. You may want to bring your own gloves and liners, especially if you have cold hands. If your job is an inside job, this is not such a priority. The issued gloves are fine for casual wear outside, even at Pole. Working on metal that is -65 Fahrenheit (as in the ice tunnel at Pole) is another thing entirely, however. Chemical hand warmers are provided.

    Glove liners wear out quickly: expect 3 to 4 weeks use maximum. (Ironically enough, I tried a brand called "Outlast", which lasted only a day and a half, but that was the exception.)

    For those who use alcohol, alcohol sales have been seriously curtailed recently. You cannot send alcohol to yourself in the mail, but you can pack alcohol in your personal luggage for the flight from Christchurch south. If you have any favorite brands, you may want to pack a bottle or two.

    You CAN send packages to yourself in the mail. This does not count towards your personal baggage allowance. However, as just noted, some items such as alcohol cannot be sent by mail. Also, new rules restrict the weight of what you can mail home by airmail at domestic rates. However, you can still send larger packages home by seamail at domestic rates - but only one ship comes to McMurdo per year, and that is in February. That may not be a problem for summer season personnel, but could cause problems to winterovers. You can also "guard mail" excess luggage from Christchurch to McMurdo or Pole at no cost, however it will probably be a little while before it gets to you. You can also leave items that you will not need on the Ice at the CDC. This is useful if you have gear or summer clothing that you will want once you get off the Ice.

    Note for the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons: McMurdo Station is upgrading its main power station, and will be relying on its backup power station, which will be running at capacity pretty much all summer. If any of the generators fail, and when a generator requires preventive maintenance, there may be partial outages. Be prepared for energy conservation measures.

    Both McMurdo and Pole have stores where you can purchase necessary items. Virtually everything you could need will either be at the store, or provided at no cost. The rest can be ordered online and shipped to you. Plan for a month's shipping time, though it is more typically two weeks.

    Be sure to bring your camera. Even if you are a photography enthusiast, you may want to bring along a small consumer camera along with your expensive set up, because you can stuff the small camera in your pocket and always have it with you when an opportunity arises. Be sure to keep it warm, however, as many models don't work well in the cold.

    That's all I can think of at the moment. There's lots of good people down here and wonderful sights you won't see anywhere else, so be sure to enjoy it while you are here - and your preparations will make your stay more enjoyable.

    If you have any specific questions, just ask.

  • #2
    Re: For those traveling to McMurdo or Pole with the USAP

    Regarding the camera, I've been looking at cameras with my dad (who is really into photography) and he's been showing me some cameras he thinks will do well there and still take good pictures. He wanted me to ask if there are any specific brands or types of cameras that do better there or if there are some that have a bad reputation of breaking. I don't want to get down there and have my camera break and be with out one, like you said there are amazing sights there you won't see anywhere else

    Thanks again for all this amazing info!!


    • #3

      There are two problems I've run into with cameras: batteries and hard drives (for a camcorder).

      To put it simply, try to avoid camcorders that use a hard drive. There are some very nice camcorders available now that use flash memory, which seems to work OK in the cold.

      For batteries - well, my first trip I brought an Olympus Stylus 1000, and it worked great, even down to -65 in the ice tunnel at Pole. The battery never conked out on me. This trip, however, I thought I would upgrade (partly because I took too many pictures of the sun with that camera, and it doesn't do so well with night time photos now), and it was a mistake. The Stylus 1030 and the Stylus 1050 both have much worse batteries than the 1000, and after 10 or 15 minutes in mild cold (-20 F, or even warmer) the battery tends to die. This is more of a problem during the winter, when I need to set the camera up on a tripod if I want a good photo. With plenty of daylight, you should be able to keep your camera in a warm pocket and take a quick shot when you need it and then put it back - plus the weather will be much warmer.

      I've worked a little on figuring out how to take good photos, but I'm a far cry from even a dedicated amateur photographer, so take my advice with a grain of salt. You will find a lot of photography enthusiasts down here, however.


      • #4
        Re: For those traveling to McMurdo or Pole with the USAP

        Thanks for posting that Alan, very useful and answers lots of questions people don't know to ask as well as ones they do.

        I've linked to it from the "Finding a job in Antarctica" thread too.


        • #5
          Re: For those traveling to McMurdo or Pole with the USAP

          Yea this has definitely answered questions I didn't know existed and answered some I had. Also thanks for the response to my extra question. The information should help a lot


          • #6

            I wanted to make one update to my earlier comments.

            It turns out that the NSF was looking at ending airmail packages from the ice, but never actually ended them. However, they do encourage participants to send packages home via surface mail, which is not a bad idea for Summer participants who can get these packages sent on the ship that comes in February.