Antarctica

Summertime

Summer is in full swing down in Antarctica and I can’t believe I’ve been here for almost 3 months already. Last year 3 months felt like a lifetime, but this year time seems to be passing quickly. Coming down at winfly for August and September definitely helped the time pass, when the station was quiet and everything felt mellow.

 

One of my favorite parts of winfly was that we got one really awesome night of auroras. A primary reason I was interested in going down early (before I realized how awesome and quiet it is during winfly) was that I was hoping to see the southern lights. We got lucky in that we had a really amazing display one night. There were other nights that we got alerts that the lights should be visible, but the sky was totally fogged out and I was disappointed. Then on the night of September 11, it was an incredibly clear night and we headed out on one of the hiking trails away from the lights of town and before the sun was even completely below the horizon we started seeing flashes of green. I was worried that this encounter was going to end like the time I tried to chase the lights in Iceland, where my friend and I drove for hours and thought we were seeing something, but decided we were just delirious from staring at a dark sky while zipping down dark roads.

 

To my delight, however, the lights on this night just kept getting stronger and stronger. We probably stood and watched for a solid hour as curtains of greens and purples rippled above our heads, as the stars got brighter and as the light from the sun grew from orange to dark red and eventually faded altogether. I was ridiculously giddy and felt like I was hallucinating. Barely five minutes of silence would pass before someone else erupted in giggles, or shouted something cliché, like “LIFE MAN! IT’S CRAZY!” We all felt like we were hallucinating, but thankfully I wasn’t and I actually saw those lights with my own eyeballs.

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A picture my friend Erica took since iPhone cameras suck

Sadly winfly had to come to an end, but not before an unexpected and often frustrating two weeks of delays. At first it was fun; we were having terrible weather and we even got sent home from work early a few times and got to hole up in our dorms for the afternoon. After a while, the weather got old and it was clearly wearing on a lot of people. The winter overs were desperate to leave the continent and I personally was feeling affected by not seeing the sun for weeks. Even when there was a break in the weather, there wasn’t enough time to get the runway cleared before the weather came back with a vengeance. Finally after a full two week delay (the longest in decades), the storm that had been pinballing back and forth between two fronts cleared, and the 500 people who had been hanging out in New Zealand flew down in the period of about 4 days. It was completely overwhelming.

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A Sunday walk

Now that mainbody is here, I feel like I’ve been on the go for the past month. Mainbody started officially one month ago when the first flights landed. Everyone hit the ground running, as many sea ice groups were feeling affected by the two week delay and wanted to get started ASAP. The first week of mainbody I was running around frazzled and hardly sat at my desk for periods of more than 15 minutes while I tried to get everyone trained up on various vehicles.

Things have since slowed down and people have settled into their routines. I am participating in a lot of different activities this season and have been feeling a little stressed by it at points, but am finding time to just relax. I’m part of the hip hop dance group that will be performing at the New Year’s Eve party, our band is still practicing with our next performance likely to be at the same New Year’s Eve party, there’s a small group of French speakers getting together about twice a month to practice speaking French, and I’m part of the auxiliary Search and Rescue team and we have trainings each week.

The weather has been very warm lately, much warmer than I remember it being last year at this same time. It’s great, especially if there is no wind, it feels like summer. That statement sounds ridiculous because the temperatures I’m talking about feeling warm are between 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit. But comparing that to when I got down here and temperatures were creeping into the minus 40s with wind chill, maybe you can understand how a temperature that is below freezing might feel warm. I’m curious what these warm temperatures will mean for the rest of the season. With the warmer weather, tons of seals have appeared, and the pupping season is already close to the end. Unlike last year when there was a pup really close to the edge of town, I haven’t seen any pups so far. But the skuas have already started arriving, which is much earlier than I remember last year. You can read more about skuas in this post.

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Seals really do look like slugs
Oh yeah, one more thing…I GOT TO GO TO THE DRY VALLEYS. To anyone who hasn’t been down here this probably doesn’t mean much. But it’s a pretty big deal. The Dry Valleys are located close to Ross Island (where I work) and as you might imagine from the name, are dry. Unlike the rest of the continent which is covered in – you guessed it – ice, the dry valleys have hardly any ice. There are a couple glaciers creeping down through the mountains, but because of the arid atmosphere, ice that breaks off from the glaciers doesn’t last long, so the valley floor is surprisingly dry for Antarctica. A lot of science happens there in the summer in the areas of ecology, geology, and glaciology, so there are four designated field camps out there. Anyway, it’s a big deal to get out there because it’s helo supported (read: expensive) and the valleys are a specially managed area, which means the amount of people allowed there is limited.

 

I got to go because someone in my department couldn’t fly at the last minute. I was sent in their place to help get the solar power up and running to each of the four camps in the Taylor Valley. There was a team of three of us that went out and we flew the 45 minutes from station to the valleys, where we stayed for two nights and flew between the different camps while we got each of them set up in time for the science groups to start arriving. Not many people get to go to the Dry Valleys – the ones who do are either scientists working out there or support staff running the camps or going out there for set up/maintenance/take down. I feel pretty damn lucky that I got to go at all, especially in my second season because there are people who have worked here for much longer than I have who haven’t had the opportunity to go. It’s so freaking beautiful out there and it felt so nice to get away from station, especially when I was feeling very overwhelmed by the exponential increase in bodies. I would try and describe how beautiful it was, especially since there’s that saying that I don’t quite remember… something about words being worth 1000 pictures? Anyway, just look at these photos instead.

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Looking across Lake Bonney
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The inside of the Jamesway where we slept at Lake Bonney
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Chipping ice to melt for drinking water
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Lake Fryxell with its solar panels
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F6 camp across the lake from Fryxell
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The galley at Lake Hoare camp
I realized I somehow missed the last sunset, and only realized that about two weeks after the fact. Oh well!

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