I’m writing this from a hotel room in Christchurch, New Zealand, on November 12th – 5 days after my scheduled flight to Antarctica. We’re in a bit of a holding pattern here, as I’ll explain, but I’m hopeful of catching a ride down to join my colleagues in the near future.
The U.S. Antarctic Program
I am traveling under the auspices of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), managed through the National Science Foundation (NSF). No nation has a sovereign claim on Antarctica. The continent is managed cooperatively by the nations of the world under the Antarctic Treaty, exclusively for peaceful purposes. In many ways, scientific research is the primary activity on Antarctica. In practice, we scientists are only a small fraction of the total population (which can reach 1000 people in McMurdo Station during the summer season). The logistical operations that support human presence in Antarctica are truly massive, and that work is carried out by countless contractors and tradespeople. Nothing we do exists without their hard work.
From Champaign to New Zealand
Travel to Antartica is a lengthy process. First we travel by commercial carrier to our gateway city: Christchurch, on the south island of New Zealand. In my case this took about 29 hours, and looked like:
- Bus from Champaign to Chicago O’Hare airport
- Fly O’Hare to Houston
- Fly Houston to Auckland (15 hours in a middle seat, but at least it was a bulkhead…)
- Fly Auckland to Christchurch
Once in New Zealand, we all get assigned hotels to stay in. Mine was not walkable to the town center, but it was straightforward to Uber back and forth each day to be able to walk around and see people.
The next day we head to the Antarctic departure terminal for clothing distribution, where we attend safety briefings and get issued our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. We are given a hefty bag full of gear that will keep us warm in even the most extreme environments. In fact, some of it is too warm for our practical needs in McMurdo in the summer: the famous Big Red parka is fantastic for cold days, for example, but most days I expect to wear Little Red (an insulated windbreaker) and sweaters.
Change of Plans: The Pause
I was manifested for the next C-17 flight to McMurdo the following morning. During clothing issue, however, we started getting news from up north that something was going on with travel. The NSF soon announced a pause in all travel to the continent for two weeks, to address a substantial outbreak of COVID-19 among the station population. By later that afternoon we scientists knew that we wouldn’t be going down anytime soon – only a handful of medical personnel. I was hand-carrying some assorted bits for SPIDER, and fortunately I was able to hand them off to one of the station doctors who I met on the commercial flights south.
And so now we wait. The NSF is working through a difficult situation, working to balance critical operations, scientific research, and the health and safety of station personnel. Everyone is working hard to keep things going. In fact, I’m very happy to report that the SPIDER team on the ice is currently ahead of my straw-person schedule for the season! Those of us off-continent are keeping in close communication with the ice team to help where we can. As PI I’m the point-of-contact for our team’s logistics, and I’m happy to keep work like that off the ice team’s plate.
Christchurch is a nice town, and it’s a beautiful spring. I’m spending my days mostly with a number of colleagues from the South Pole Telescope (SPT), working in coffee shops and sharing meals and outings. I’m trying to help the ice team and keep on work back home as best I can, given the time zone difference. But it’s also a frustrating limbo, feeling like I’m on some kind of vacation when I have responsibilities at home and in Antarctica.
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