Marooned on an Island
Twelve days ago our team, B-195-M, arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand – the gateway to our final destination at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. We were bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and excited to get to Antarctica in a few days to get to work on our project.
Ten days ago, we had completed all of the required briefings, such as waste management, emergency survival, environmental stewardship and internet usage policies. Our extreme cold weather (ECW) gear had been issued, our bags were packed, and we were ready to fly south on a C-17 the next day.
Nine days ago, after being informed we were on indefinite weather delay, most of our team moved from a normal hotel to a budget, hostel-like “backpacker” hotel, with our team members alternating between spartan rooms and bunks in dormitories in order to save costs.
Five days ago marked one week that we've been marooned on the south island of New Zealand, still unable to fly south as a pattern of extremely bad weather (50-mph winds, snow, and low visibility) refused to move from our destination on Ross Island in the southwestern Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Today, a look at the weather forecast for McMurdo Station shows a few more days of snow and wind, factors that preclude landing an aircraft on the floating raft of glacier ice we call the Phoenix Runway.
Tues of next week – 14 days after arriving in New Zealand – is the earliest that we might possibly fly south. But if this bad weather pattern persists, we could be in for a few more days of waiting, pushing us closer to dubious honor of a record 3-week delay to the start of our season.
I’ve been working in the US Antarctic Program since 2002. Sure, delays are common for Antarctic-bound flights, and a week of waiting for a flight is not an unusual experience. But, I don’t remember a time when the first, arguably most critical flights of the main summer research season were similarly delayed.
A delay like this will have some impacts on our project. The length of our field research season, already constrained to a handful of weeks in Oct.-Dec. when the sea ice is strong enough to allow unfettered vehicle travel to our research sites, is quickly shrinking. We’ll have to cut back expectations a bit and work to streamline our operations.
Overall, this experience serves as a good reminder that, despite coordinated efforts and meticulous planning by hundreds of people across numerous agencies, Antarctica is a difficult place to work – a part of the world where humans take a back seat to natural forces.
It’s not all that bad on this island. They say exceptional experiences have a positive effect on bonding between team members (good!). We are making the most of our delay by planning our field work, writing computer code for the MOO, and working on scientific articles (great!).
And, I’ve joined the customer loyalty programs at the Indian restaurant and the coffee shop in the little strip mall in near the Airport.
Every fifth cup is free!