Saturday 30 November 2019

Christchurch and McMurdo

Christchurch Cathedral still showing the damage of the earthquake. 
As I type the tops of the  mountains across the frozen McMurdo Sound peak out through various layers of cloud. A few patches of blue sky are visible. Looking out over the sound the Sound everything is a shade of blue, white or gray; the colours of Antarctica. I am back South. I am currently back at the main USAP (United States Antractic Program) base McMurdo near the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf at about 77 degrees South. I am down here this year as one of two field guides working with nine scientists planning to do some research on the Lower Thwaites glacier in West Antarctica. This is one of a number of joint BAS/USAP projects working on the Thwaites Glacier region this season.

I have been on station for about two and a half weeks now, and it is almost a month since I left the UK. The journey down was a long one; Heathrow to Dubai, Dubai to Sydney and they Sydney to Christchurch. The original plan had been a stop over of a couple of days in Christchurch, but weather delays and issues with aircraft meant this became a week. This gave me the opportunity to relax, and explore the city and local area.

Street art in Christchurch, in this case on the side of the cinema.
Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake in 2011. There are still plenty of reminders of the damaged done, one of the most moving ones I found to be the cathedral. The gable wall of which collapsed to leave a gaping void into the building. Over 80% of the buildings in the central area of the city either collapsed or had to be pulled down. Many building have been rebuilt in a modern style, but many empty areas where buildings once stood remain. Despite, or perhaps because of, all the damage and rebuilding the city has an upcoming vibrant feel about it with some great murals painted on the side buildings. There was also a large modern bouldering wall, a place which I visited quite a few times. I managed a couple of trips out to the coast; it was sunny and I went swimming in the warm sea; it was great. I had been keen to head up to Castle Hill, one on New Zealands best bouldering areas, but unfortunately it rained the day we had hoped to do that.
The flight South on the C-17. Not a small aircraft. 
Finally the day came when the planes were ready and the weather was suitable. The scale of the USAP operation is much larger than the BAS operation, and the planes used to take people to the continent reflect this size difference. We flew on a C-17, which can carry more ten times the number of passenger that the BAS Dash 7. I think there were about 120 people on the flight that I was on. This is more people than the total number of people at Rothera at the busiest I have seen it.
The view down to McMurdo from the top of Observation Hill. Discovery point is the  low promontory on the back left of the picture.  
In terms of the size of the base, McMurdo is also an order of magnitude larger than Rothera (and for that matter pretty much every other individual base on the Antarctic continent). There are currently about 950 people of base. In some ways it runs in a similar way to Rothera, but in some ways it has to run differently due to the different scale. There is a lot of bureaucracy,  if you need something you can't just nip over and take it, or informally ask someone a lunch time. Thing are done through certain channels here. All cargo going on an aircraft from here has to go into the cargo system three days in advance, or five to nine days if it is at all considered hazardous (which a lot of relatively benign things are). You package it up and then it disappears off to be staged ready to be loaded into planes. Due to the times when you can collect various pieces of kit, and the different ways various items are processed, you never really see all the kit that you are taking in one place at one time.  The potential for forgetting something important seems larger here than it does at Rothera.
Scott's Discovery Point hut with McMurdo Sound (still frozen solid) and the Ross Ice Shelf in the background. 
Some tasty snacks remain in Discovery Point hut. 
To make up for the delays in Christchurch, and to get the cargo in the system, as well as fit in all the required training courses, the first ten days or so that I was in McMurdo were pretty hectic. However, I did have a couple of evenings free, and manged a visit to Discovery Point hut. This was built back in 1902 by the British National Antarctic expedition led by Captain Scott.  The hut is not far from base, and I had headed down there a few times after work. It is normally locked, but on one occasion I happened to be passing when there was a tour going on which I was able to join. In the cold and dry conditions it feels like not much has changed since it was left since the days of Scott and Shackleton.

The current plan is that next week myself and three others will make up a reconnaissance group to be flown to the proposed sites on Thwaites Glacier to check for crevassing and, if suitable, start setting up camp. The first step will be to fly to Waste Divide; field camp and logistics hub similar in function to (but much larger in scale) Sky Blu. This had actually been planned for the middle of last week. However, the weather has been poor, and all the flights to Waste were delayed. This is the Thanks giving weekend which on an American base is a holiday meaning that nothing will be happening until Monday at least. The weather forecast is still pretty mixed after that, and so I am not sure when we will actually make it out into the field.

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