October 22, 2016 3:45AM McMurdo Station
I arrived here at McMurdo Station, Antarctica in time to witness the last sunset. About 2ish in the morning, the sun, like a timid swimmer testing out cold water, gingerly dipped into the horizon while never giving up its radiant halo of light…never taking the complete plunge. Minutes later, it jumped back into the sky, clearly unwilling to stay under for very long.
In the coming months, the sun will walk an oval path in the sky that will gradually melt the sea ice surrounding Ross Island. Yesterday, a lone seal was sunbathing on the sea ice not far from the coast. In the coming weeks, more will arrive as the ice gives way to the sea. Orcas and penguins will eventually come to feed and play here too. The emergence of life in the Antarctic Spring/Summer will continue until February, when the sun rises for the last time of the season, returning the continent into many months of darkness and cold.
The bottom of the planet is a bit disorienting. I left upstate New York in the Fall but I arrived here in the Spring. Even though it is Spring, the temperature is colder than Winter back home.
Many great adventure stories start with a disoriented protagonist. Frodo’s journey started by leaving the comfortable routines of his meticulous life in the Shire behind. Dante began his heroic trip through the afterlife by finding himself “midway through his life’s journey, lost in a dark wood.” At a similar age, the great Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton observed how the southern magnetic field made compass readings stranger and stranger. I travel here a little over midway through my life’s journey. Like my fellow fictional and real travelers, my trip starts with some disorientation. What works at home doesn’t necessarily apply here.
Out of Time
The time of day is governed by the location of the sun in the sky, not its rising and setting. No matter what time I wake up, this world is always bright. Sleep is governed by fatigue, not the movement of the sun. The clock continues to remind me what I am supposed to be doing. I’ve never before depended so completely on my watch.
While I’m at the coldest place on earth, it’s easy to get sunburn. They have advised me to put sunscreen on any exposed skin and also up my nose because the reflection of the sun’s rays off the snow is just as dangerous as direct light. Also, I need to wear my high tech sunglasses just to walk between buildings because accumulated exposure to the bright Antarctic light causes “snow blindness.” This is a temporary sunburn of the cornea that feels like you have sand in your eyes.
Antarctica is not only the coldest place on the planet but also the driest. The dry air slowly and relentlessly drains the water from our bodies. I need to drink the same amount of water daily here to stay hydrated as I do when I travel to the tropical climates of West Africa and Central America. My sleep has been interrupted by thirst every 2-3 hours. Furthermore, the snow itself is barely hydrated. In our field safety training yesterday, we learned that if we get stranded out on the ice, it will take a great deal of snow to produce a small amount of water because the snow itself is so dry. If we have to melt it on our field burners, we need to start by adding water before adding the snow. Otherwise, the snow will “burn” and it will taste horrible.
There’s Cold, and then there is COLD- Yesterday the high temperature was -2 degrees Farenheit. The low, with the wind chill, was -34 F. When it was -2F, nobody said, “It’s cold.” Some even took off their heavy parkas and gloves. However, when it turned to -34F, I heard lots of people say, “It’s cold.”
Finding Our Way
Back home, if I walk in a northerly direction, turn West and walk, then South and East, my footsteps will trace the shape of a rectangle. At the South Pole (a little further south of McMurdo), if I walk towards the North, then turn West and then South, I arrive back at the same point, therefore making a triangle. The convergence of longitudinal lines requires a new mindset for finding your way in this strange world.
Working with the Environment
The station community is always in motion. The galley is open 24 hours a day, feeding 4 meals a day to the 768 members of this community (that will swell to 1000 soon). Maintenance workers, fire fighters, Air National Guard soldiers, medical staff, hairdressers, pilots, divers, tech support specialists, hundreds of scientists, and a composer like me all do their duty based upon what the environment demands, not upon what we demand of the environment.
The contours of snow, ice and volcanic mountains are veiled in variations of fog, sky, blowing snow, and sunlight. The landscape possesses a beauty like I’ve never seen. A world of white and blue makes all the subtle shades between them more visible and more alluring. However, this is a dangerous beauty. It is a terrible beauty that we can only enjoy by methodical protection against the powerful forces that create it. We are aliens here, needing to artificially provide the basics of our biology that Antarctica does not provide. We can admire its powerful beauty only from the shelter of our warm buildings, our parkas, our gloves, and our goggles. I have heard some say that going to Antarctica is the closest experience to going to another planet without leaving ours. I believe it.
While Antarctica doesn’t like to play by human rules, McMurdo creates both the conditions for survival and the opportunities to thrive. The interdenominational church down by the water is open to all and provides regular worship services. The coffee shop makes a decent espresso and Gallagher’s Bar stocks some respectable wines and craft beers. They both offer live music on Thursdays and Saturdays. Galley serves everything from burgers to tofu vindaloo. You can take yoga classes, attend scientific lectures, and watch mainstream movies. You can add your voice to book groups, take hikes, and compete in a variety of sports. There is a room filled with fine art supplies and another room filled with musical instruments for anyone to use. I chatted with one fellow yesterday who was making a beautiful leather purse for his daughter back home and another who was trying to put an Irish band together. I think I just got recruited. In addition to this flourish of activity, friendships come easily here. They seem to be born out of a sense of common purpose and common protection.
All this helps me and the rest of this isolated community find our way through a world that just won’t bend to our rules. The McMurdo humans, like the seals, penguins and orcas, thrive while the sun never sets. Most return to warmer places before the sun stops rising.