Flights headed to McMurdo Station this month to ready USAP for 2014-15 field season
By Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Sun Editor
Time to get busy.
The first flights to McMurdo Station since March are scheduled to arrive this month at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s largest science facility, preparing the way for the 2014-15 austral summer field season, which officially begins Sept. 29.
More than 200 support personnel are scheduled to arrive at the station between Aug. 20 and 22 during the annual operation known as winfly, for winter fly-in. The vanguard of mechanics, heavy equipment operators, cooks and others will help the 142 winter-overs prepare McMurdo to support scores of research projects through February 2015.
McMurdo experiences 24-hour darkness during about four months of the Antarctic winter. The sun last set on April 24. The first sunrise will be Aug. 19 (local time) at 12:22 p.m. By Oct. 24, the sun will circle the horizon 24 hours a day during the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer.
It’s become more than a bit cliché, but the 2014-15 field season promises to be a busy one.
The winter crew at McMurdo already set the tempo during the dark and cold months working on a variety of projects, including the construction of a new ice pier. Essentially a floating block of ice – strengthened by rebar and topped with a layer of dirt – the pier is used primarily later in the summer to receive the annual cargo and fuel vessels. The last ice pier broke apart in a storm earlier this year. [See previous article — Harsh continent: Storms and waves batter McMurdo Station due to absence of sea ice.]
Personnel will also be busy returning Williams Airfield to operation. This snow-covered skiway, located nine miles from McMurdo on the Ross Ice Shelf , was the major airfield used in support of intra-continental flights until 2009-10 when most flight operations shifted to Pegasus Airfield.
It has been the ice runway for wheeled aircraft that has essentially turned to slush, meaning the C-17 and Airbus A319, among other aircraft, could not land at Pegasus in January and February during the last two years. That forced the New York Air National Guard (NYANG) , which operates the ski-equipped LC-130 , to shoulder the load of flying between Christchurch and McMurdo, while also continuing its flights within the continent.
This season, Pegasus will serve as the primary airfield until late November before flight operations move to Williams Field. A third, temporary airfield usually built on the sea ice just outside of McMurdo Station will not be constructed this year.
All of those flights will brings hundreds of people to the seventh continent to support the world’s largest polar research program.
Scientists come to Antarctica to study everything from the wildlife – think penguins and seals – to climate change to the evolution of the universe using powerful telescopes at the NSF’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station .
The South Pole Station, located geographically 90 degrees south latitude, endures a much longer winter isolation than McMurdo, with six months of total darkness between March and September. The 41 winter-overs waved goodbye to the last flight of the 2013-14 summer on Feb. 14. The NYANG is scheduled to head south once again on Oct. 27.
Several large research projects are on tap this upcoming season, in addition to dozens of new and ongoing studies.
At the South Pole Station, a new ice-core drilling project will begin. Scientists plan to extract about 1,500 meters of ice over the next two years. Antarctic ice traps bubbles of ancient gases, dust and other atmospheric constituents that researchers can use to reconstruct past climatic conditions. Such studies can also shed light on how the climate may change in the future. [See previous article — SPICE-ing it up: New project plans to retrieve South Pole ice core beginning in 2014-15.]