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.