When I padded into the bunkhouse common room this morning to get my customary Diet Coke wake-me-up, Dr Lisa was waiting to advise that we needed to pack our belongings within the next 30 minutes and hightail it to the ice runway, unless we wanted to be stranded at McMurdo until Tuesday. There was a big storm approaching, and planes would not be able to land or take off once it hit.
The C-17 that we were planning to fly home to New Zealand in the late afternoon was being held in Christchurch because by the time it would arrive at McMurdo, weather conditions would prevent it from landing. There was, though, one of the smaller LC-130s already available on the ground at McMurdo on which we could catch a lift north.
I caucused with Ola for a few minutes because the choice was not an obvious one. There is some romance to the thought of being snowed in for four days in Antarctica. And, more importantly, one of the highlights of our trip was scheduled for later this morning – a live video conference about Antarctic research with students from the Wellington area – and I hated to miss that. In the end, of course, it made more sense to go than to stay. I didn’t want us to be a lingering distraction when the McMurdo team had a storm to deal with.
So we tossed our things into our bags, jumped into the truck, and drove down to the ice field where the LC-130 waited for us. We could see and feel the weather coming in fast from the South – dark clouds, high winds, and dropping temperature. The plane was filled with other folks who would have been leaving over the next few days as well. The crew packed us in amidst the cargo, fired up the engines, and smoothly rode the wind down the ice and up into the sky.
Our airplane was the very LC-130 that we had flown back from the South Pole a few days earlier, so we knew that it would be particularly cold inside. For some reason that particular plane gets much colder than its siblings. We also knew that our flight time to Christchurch could be as long as 9 hours, rather than the 5 hours with a C-17. But, no matter. A lift’s a lift when storm clouds loom.
The video conference of course went off as planned despite my absence. We had invited about 50 secondary school students from Aotea College, Tawa College, and Queen Margaret College to come to the Embassy to see maps, other Antarctic artifacts, and the kind of clothing that must be worn on the Ice. As planned, the Embassy dialed in McMurdo Station where three of my new friends described the work they are doing in Antarctica, what led them to the continent, and what originally drew them to science careers – Dr Pauline Yu (who is studying the biological impacts of ocean acidification), Dr Mark Devlin (an astrophysicist from the University of Pennsylvania), and Gifford Wong (a glaciologist studying ice cores from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet).
By all accounts, the students thoroughly enjoyed both the exhibit at the Embassy and the conversation with the scientists. We also had an internet audience who viewed the stream from Antarctica live online. Dr Lisa filled in for me admirably, and she even swiveled the camera around so that the students could see the Antarctic icescape outside the window. I look forward to visiting the schools and having follow-up conversations with the students now that I’m back.
I am just stepping off the LC-130 now in Christchurch, still aglow from the past five days of exploration. The pilot had gunned the engines and gotten us up to Christchurch in just 7 hours, which must be a record.
But flight time didn’t matter. We had just had the adventure of a lifetime. We had seen up close what “pristine” really means. We had spent time with some of the smartest scientists on the planet. We had caught a glimpse of what the world looks like when there are no artificial lines drawn between people, and when folks organize themselves around problem-solving and exploration rather than politics and piffle.
As I step back into my regular routine, I’ll have an extra spring in my step and a wider smile on my face. There are good people doing great things out there. Things that will enrich our lives. Things that could protect our fragile planet from disaster. Things that we don’t hear about in the soundbites deemed sufficient to inform us, or in the shouting, sneering, and snark that often passes for public discourse.
Deep thanks to the National Science Foundation, as well as its counterparts from the other nations active in Antarctic science, for keeping their eyes on what matters.
Deep thanks to the U.S. Air Force and to the New York Air National Guard for the highly professional and warmly engaging support they provide to the U.S. Antarctic Program and to Antarctica New Zealand.
And deep thanks to Admiral Byrd, the teams of diplomats from various countries, and the many others who participated more than five decades ago in creating a weapons-free, science-based, multinational collaboration in Antarctica that has survived wars – both cold and hot – to the benefit of all humanity today.
Before I sign off to go take a proper shower, I just want to share a few of my final glimpses of Antarctica as the LC-130 sailed northward: