Life: Morning at McMurdo

“By Antarctic standards, McMurdo was a city.  Ever since 1956 it has been, and still is, the largest settlement on the continent.  Ramshackle and desperately untidy, it resembled a frontier town that had grown up with no attempt at planning.”  –Charles Swithinbank, polar scientist and explorer, in An Alien in Antarctica (1997)

McMurdo's Main DragThe current temperature at McMurdo Station is 18-degrees Fahrenheit.  Current population: 933.  Winds are blowing from the southeast at 11 knots.  The next sunset will be in exactly two months.  Until then, the sun remains in the sky, as it is now—at 1:06 a.m. 

I’ve successfully transitioned back to the night shift (6 p.m. to 6 a.m.), so my job has me monitoring a number of different radios and communications devices for emergency/distress calls from the field.  Let’s hope that it remains hoot-owl quiet in here for the next four weeks.  I have a lot of reading I’d like to do.   

Earlier today, I took a walk up the hill to catch a few photos of this place.  I didn’t want you all thinking that Antarctica is just big and open and white.  Part of it—the part of it that is McMurdo Station—looks quite like a dump.  We live and work in battered sheetmetal buildings, and cargo lots sprawl along a half-mile stretch from Observation Hill to Hut Point Peninsula—the two land features between which McMurdo Station sits.  A central dirt road runs through town, and while there are no stoplights, two stop signs mark the intersection.      

In three frames, here it is.  McMurdo Station: 

McMurdo South

McMurdo Central

McMurdo North

Some of the original buildings were erected in 1956, when the U.S. Navy established McMurdo as the United States’ “gateway to the Antarctic.”  Its purpose, as it has always been, is the peaceful advancement of polar science.  During this time of the year, scientists and contract workers regularly work six days a week to take advantage of the balmy temperatures and the 24-hour sunlight.  Last week, I logged 63.3 hours at work.  Some people here did the same, but outdoors.  In the winter, the population will shrink below 200 people, and only essential personnel will remain to keep the place warm for the next year’s science season. 

On my way back down the hill, I passed some of the station’s choice vehicles:  a Sno Cat, parked outside of McMurdo’s Vehicle Maintenance Facility, and “Ivan,” the Terra Bus, picking up scientists for their morning commute to an environmental research site located out on the ice shelf.  The three doo-doo brown buildings in the background are dorms, which is where we all live…with a required roommate of our choosing.

Ivan the Terra Bus

This morning was a “morning coffee” day, so I walked over to my favorite place at McMurdo—the coffee shop, which is in a way-old structure called a Jamesway.  At night, the coffee shop doubles as the station’s wine bar.  Beakers (scientists) fill up the place, but it’s cozy and fun. 

McMurdo's Coffee HouseBesides the wine bar, McMurdo also has a smoking bar called Southern Exposure, and a pub called Gallagher’s.  The station store sells stuff like booze and bar soap and chocolate from New Zealand.  There is also a bowling alley here, two warped wooden lanes.  I don’t bowl, but I suppose it’s a good option when takeout pizza, movie theatres, grocery stores, and swimming pools are lacking.            

Literature:  Road Trip Picks


3 responses to “Life: Morning at McMurdo

  1. Hey – what’s the name for those little 1-room mountain huts in Chamonix area. Not the ones high up in the mountains, the ones that people regularly live in. I want to buy one.

  2. I think you should try a little bowling and practice up for your trip home….. sounds like it might be interesting on warped lanes.

  3. I am jealous! A wine bar and smoking bar–we don’t even have that here in the bush (Hoedspruit, South Africa). And we’ve only installed our third stop sign recently (still lacking in robots–aka stop lights), so I’d say we’re even with that! As for bowling, I have a three hour drive to the closest bowling alley, so I’d take a warped wooden lane any day!

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