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Somewhere below the Antarctic circle, I catch Tatiana, the waitress from the port side dining room, in a moment of leisure.
This is the first time I've ever seen her off-duty. The galley crew on the Akademik Shokalskiy work twelve-hour days preparing, serving, clearing, and cleaning up after meals for fifty-six passengers, often in seas so bad that diners have to hold the edge of the table to keep from falling off their stools (which are prudently bolted to the floor).
I ask the cornered Tanya a few questions about her life on the ship, and she tells me she’s been working the Ross Sea circuit for the last six years.
“Is there anything you're still excited to see in Antarctica?”
“Yes. I would like to visit McMurdo.”
“Really? You want to see the American base?”
“I want to buy a Zippo.”
I am not surprised to hear this. The ship’s officers have told me all about the Zippo lighter. Portable, useful, and stylish, it is the most desirable consumer item on the Antarctic continent. Unlike the Chinese knockoffs sold in other ports, the McMurdo article is the real deal, stamped ‘Made in Bradford, PA’ on an all-metal case, with a little golden silhouette of Antarctica embossed on the side.
But you can't just buy this lighter. Getting one involves a Grail-like quest.
For starters, you have to cross the Southern Ocean from New Zealand in a tippy little ship, a two-week ordeal that leaves everyone bruised and miserable. Once in Antarctic waters, you must find a path through the belt of ice that typically guards the entrance to the Ross Sea. There is no guarantee that this will be passable—an identical tourist trip in 2008 had to go back to New Zealand without even glimpsing Antarctica (no refunds).
If you make it through to open water, you must time your arrival at McMurdo Sound between the time the resupply ship arrives (the high point of the Antarctic liturgical calendar, when the entire station is occupied with Offload) and the time a few weeks later when most of the staff have left for home. If McMurdo Sound is frozen over, which happens frequently and unpredictably, there are no second chances. The Shokalskiy is ice-hardened, but it’s not an icebreaker. And there’s no time in the itinerary to wait for conditions to change.
Even if everything goes perfectly, the harbor is open, and the ship is able to anchor in Winter Quarters Bay, passengers still need an invitation from the Americans to come ashore. The station is friendly to visitors, but tourism is not an officially-sanctioned Antarctic activity. Tours are conducted by NSF volunteers in their free time; if the volunteers are busy, you stay on the ship. It’s perfectly possible to reach McMurdo, sit at anchor and stare at the gift shop, three hundred meters away, without being able to come ashore. The ship’s folklore abounds in stories of such near misses.
The whole thing is like one of those Russian fairy tales, where the hero must cross seven seas and seven mountains, slay Koshchei the Deathless, find the giant oak, exhume an iron chest, open it to find a hare, cut the hare open to find a duck, dig through the duck to find an egg, and crack the egg open to reveal an enchanted golden needle, or in this case, Zippo lighter.
Even if the ship makes it to the station, the Americans are willing, and our leader Rodney allows the crew to come ashore with the passengers, dark forces can still come into play in the gift shop itself. The Third Mate tells me about a frustrating visit to the station the previous year. Every passenger who wanted one was able to buy a Zippo, but a deputation from the crew arriving moments later was told they were gone. The staff had hidden them under the counter in a fit of russophobia.
Coming around the top of Ross Island, the suspense is almost too much for me to bear.
I want that goddamned lighter.
With the exception of the small polar station it supplies, McMurdo is the southernmost outpost of American empire. It is also the only significant human settlement in the Ross Sea. Over a thousand people work here in the summer, and 250 stay over for the winter.
The ship’s officers are full of theories about why the Americans are here in numbers, and as a suggestible person who has spent three weeks staring at moving water, I find it easy to believe every crazy thing they say.
“You don't put a thousand soldiers in the middle of nowhere for science,” the Third Mate tells me darkly.
“I don't think they're soldiers. Most of them are civilian contractors.”
By now the Russians are used to my naïveté.
“So who flies these ‘contractors’ to Antarctica?"
“The Air National Guard."
“And who supplies them by sea?”
“The Coast Guard and Navy.”
He waits for me to connect the dots, but I resist.
“Why would we build a secret military base at the bottom of the world?”
“You put missiles in the ice.”
“Why not use our huge fleet of nuclear submarines?”
“The ice is cheaper.”
And there you have it. I make a mental note to approach America’s premier research station with my eyes open. But I also start to worry about what the Russians are up to at their ring of stations around Antarctica.
McMurdo Station has never completely shed its military origins. The original base (Williams Air Operating Facility, named after an unfortunate whose tractor fell through the sea ice) was built by the US Navy in the run-up to the International Geophysical Year. The IGY was all about peaceful scientific cooperation, but in a Cold War context that just meant competition by other means. The point of building McMurdo was to get Americans to the South Pole, part of an unpublicized Antarctic base race with the Soviet Union. No one had been back to the Pole since the Amundsen and Scott expeditions of 1911, and it was the obvious prestige location in Antarctica. Whoever controlled the Pole would control—well, a tiny area of featureless ice cap. But it seemed important at the time.
The stymied USSR had to settle for a base at the Pole of Inaccessibility, possibly the only place on the continent more miserable than the South Pole. The location lived up to its name. After a few difficult years, the Soviets gave up. All that remains of the station today is a bust of Lenin staring out towards Moscow from a snow drift.
Once built, McMurdo proved a useful staging area for other activities in Antarctica. After the 1959 Antarctic Treaty reserved the continent for peaceful use, the Navy handed over the station to the National Science Foundation, which oversees the entire American Antarctic program.
This program is devoted to science in the same way that the German Air Sports Association in the 1920’s was motivated by a pure love of gliding. In both cases, the terms of a restrictive treaty prevent the open pursuit of more practical goals. This fits with a long Antarctic tradition of using science as a fig leaf for ambition. Every expedition to the continent has proclaimed the purity of its scientific aims while also doing its best to stake out as much territory as possible. In Antarctica, the national flag always goes up before the weather station.
While McMurdo has been consecrated to science, its day-to-day operations are run by defense contractors (previously Raytheon, now Lockheed Martin) who gather like sharks every decade or so when the lucrative Antarctic contract comes up for rebid. The NSF is prohibited by charter from running its own facilities, so at McMurdo, the military-industrial complex is king.
McMurdo is close to the permanent ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. When the station was established in 1956, at around the same time of year as our visit, the sea ice extended for forty miles out. The supply ships had to dock at the ice edge, and tractors ferried everything the rest of the way.
This year we are lucky, and there is open water all the way to Winter Quarters Bay. Descending along the coast of Ross Island, we pass Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, Scott’s hut at Cape Evans, a long glacial finger of ice from Mt. Erebus, and reach our anchorage in front of McMurdo at the magic hour when the never-setting sun hangs suspended like a drop of liquid fire over the southeastern horizon, bathing everything around us in its transcendent, golden light.
It doesn't help.
“I am so sorry about this,” I say to the non-American passengers who have joined me on deck. They are staring across the water.
“I had no idea.”
McMurdo looks like a series of shipwrecks that people have tried to make the best of. Four diarrhea-brown dormitories dominate the landscape. Behind them is an assortment of white fuel tanks, pressed into the dirt like oversize aspirin, and between these large structures extends a chaos of pallets, antennas, earth-moving equipment, sewer pipes, and general rubble. A fat radome perches on the ridge line like a giant’s golf ball. We can hear earth-moving equipment growling in the volcanic dirt, as if the island hasn't been put through enough. The whole visible part of the peninsula has been bulldozed into terraces to try and contain the American base.
It’s not just that McMurdo station is ugly—and it is lens-shatteringly ugly—but that there is so damned much of it. After sailing for three weeks with no signs of human activity, no power lines, no chemtrails, no evidence that we exist on the planet at all except for a mournful wooden cabin at Cape Adare, it’s jarring to see this open-air museum of prefabricated regret. Only the United States could find a way to create sprawl with a thousand people.
Old-timers cheerfully concede the place is ugly, but point out that things used to be worse. Scott’s Discovery Hut from 1903, which now stands somewhat apart from the station, was until recently surrounded by a fuel farm. The fickle nuclear reactor on Observation Hill has been shut down and shipped back to the United States, along with the thousands of tons of soil it contaminated during its short but eventful life. An open-air dump that once attracted Antarctic scavengers (skua and New Zealanders from Scott Base) has been excavated clean and shipped out as well. Raw sewage goes into a treatment plant instead of icicling directly into McMurdo Sound.
Most importantly, the station no longer disposes of its dead equipment and construction debris by dragging it onto the sea ice. Shamed by a nearby Greenpeace station that was active in the eighties, and constrained by the strict 1991 Madrid protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, McMurdo sends every particle of its trash back home for recycling or disposal. Sea ice and American garbage are Antarctica’s chief exports.
There are plans for a greener and smaller McMurdo. The NSF is pushing for appropriations that would let them build a modern facility and get rid of the chaos of Quonset huts and trailers that requires everyone to be constantly going outside. But the NSF faces the same structural problem as NASA: both agencies have to carve expensive capital projects out of a modest operating budget, in a political climate that is becoming hostile to science. And there is no senator from McMurdo to fight for Antarctic infrastructure.
I'm completely unsure as to how tourism works, but I do have mixed feelings about it. The environment down there is pristine and hardly touched, and tourists don't seem to respect it nor get the training we do to keep it the way it has been for millions of years.
—buttgoblin_eater, I Am A Previous McMurdo Employee in Antarctica, Ask Me Anything!
Rodney gathers us in the ship’s auditorium for a briefing. Both the Americans and the New Zealanders have invited us to visit. Zodiac landings will be conducted with military precision, with four groups of twelve passengers sent on the half hour, and a final raft of ten picked volunteers from the crew. In a nod to geopolitical realities, the Russians will be taken directly to the gift shop.
On the other side of the continent, the question of how to handle visitors at research bases has become vexing. The boom in Antarctic tourism now brings forty thousand people a year across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. At Palmer station (population 40), smaller ships are allowed to come ashore, but kept out of the buildings where work is done. Larger ships aren't allowed to land at all. Instead, volunteers from the base come aboard to brief the passengers and awkwardly sell souvenirs in the ship’s bar. Palmer handles about a dozen ships and over a thousand visitors every summer, sometimes on consecutive days, and the staff there feels the pressure.
Things are easier in the Ross Sea. This year only two ships—the Shokalskiy and its sister ship the Khromov—will visit this side of Antarctica, bringing about a hundred visitors. There are never going to be cruises here in any numbers. The trip takes too long and cannot be made comfortable. The same rounded bottom that keeps the Shokalskiy from snagging on sea ice makes it roll like crazy in open water. On a regular cruise ship, thirty degrees of roll sends grand pianos smashing into the walls, and leads to refunds, incident reports and investigations. The Shokalskiy rolls to thirty degrees every four seconds, back and forth, all the way across the Southern Ocean. A few times a day the ship tilts past forty degrees, the angle at which the grippy foam placemats on every surface release their hold on a coffee mug. And at least twice during the voyage, we roll past fifty degrees ①. At that point it makes more sense to try to stand on the walls than the floor.
Rodney says there is no cost-effective way to build a new passenger ship that could cruise the Ross Sea. The Russian charters ② are marginally profitable, but they are getting old, and are probably not worth overhauling. Few people have five weeks and tens of thousands of dollars to spend on a trip that can't even guarantee them a glimpse of their destination. The ban on heavy fuel oil, strict limits on the numbers of people who can land, ice safety requirements, and outrageous weather mean you will never see a Carnival cruise ship at McMurdo. And that’s for the best.
The only way tourists might come to the Ross Sea in numbers would be by air, but the memory of the 1979 crash, when an Air New Zealand plane flew into the side of Mt. Erebus, is too painful. There’s still visible wreckage on the volcano. Once the Russian ships are gone, the only people touring the Ross Sea will be dignitaries flown in by the various national programs, one-off charters, and the occasional mad sailor.
Rodney puts on his stern face for the briefing. We are guests of the National Science Foundation, who have volunteered to show us around. McMurdo is a working base. That means we will not wander, we will not stop, we will not stray from the route, and we won't touch anything. He repeats that twice.
Early in the voyage I took umbrage at the infantilizing, schoolmasterish tone of these briefings. But several landings have made me a believer in Rodney’s approach. Our passengers, mostly retired engineers with their reluctant spouses, thrive on structure. They have a tendency to wander (albeit at low speed) and an almost touching capacity for misadventure once ashore.
Rodney stops for questions.
No, we are not going to see any animals, except for American scientists. There may be bathroom breaks, but it’s better to go on the ship. No, we may not walk the four kilometers to the New Zealand base. There will be a second series of Zodiac landings in the afternoon, and the people from Scott Base will come give us a ride in their own vehicles. No, he does not know the current temperature and wind speed. This is Antarctica. Dress accordingly. Wear your gumboots. You will get coffee and a snack. Remember to say “thank you” and wipe your feet.
The courteous Russians have hoisted an American flag, which the wind is trying to send back to New Zealand. Like blasting your car defroster on a cold day, wind is the price you pay for ice removal in Antarctica. Anywhere there are bare rocks, you'll find unspeakable gales keeping them that way. At McMurdo, the wind pours off the ice cap, down the glaciers, and along the Ross Ice Shelf, retracing Scott’s route to the pole in reverse. The early explorers, eager for any spot that offered an ice-free landing, found themselves building huts in some of the windiest places on earth.
McMurdo station is sheltered by a ridge line, but the ship is fully exposed. Angry little waves are forming in the few hundred meters of open water between us and the sea ice. We climb into Zodiac rafts from a metal stairway and huddle together, six to a side. Every time the raft hits a wave, the spray freezes on our clothing in a matte white shell. I arrive on shore covered in a carapace of ice. It cracks off easily, like the chocolate from a Klondike bar, and to my surprise I am much more comfortable being frozen than I would have been getting wet.
McMurdo dispatch has asked us to land at 'Sausage Point', which appears nowhere on the detailed Russian charts of the harbor. Like so much about McMurdo, the explanation turns up later in Big Dead Place:
A few tons of sausage buried in the ground during a previous era had been discovered by a Fleet-Ops operator who was drilling into the earth in preparation for a new building down by the sea ice. With the drill he struck a noxious pocket of primeval sausage slime that squirted onto his face, searing his eye with a swift yellow infection that puffed up half his face and put him out of commission for about a week. The earth-sausage mixture was excavated from the frozen ground and dumped in piles beside the road, where a squad of GAs [general assistants] was dispatched into the feeding swarm of skuas to separate the meat from the rock and throw it into triwalls that we banded up and loaded in milvans to be exported to the United States.
Today Sausage Point is an unremarkable bar of gravel not far from the ice pier. This curious piece of infrastructure, a large muddy rectangle built up over months by pouring layers of seawater over a mesh of steel cables, is the main entry point for cargo to the station. In the summer they do their best to insulate it with protective coats of dirt.
Every three years or so, despite the best efforts of the Americans, the wind and tides deal the ice pier a mortal blow, and the station has to request a waiver from the EPA to drag the pier’s broken corpse out to sea, where it melts and deposits its steel cables on the long-suffering ocean bottom.
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