Nov 042011

The  intrepid painter/writer/naturalist Laura Von Rosk (see her paintings here on NC) has flown to Antarctica (it’s spring there) as part of a scientific team headed by Albany, NY, cell biologist Dr. Samuel Bowser (friend them on Facebook at Bravo! 043 or visit his blog). The team’s mission is to dive (under the ice) and conduct studies on the the single-celled organisms known as Foraminifera from a field camp at Explorers Cove, situated at the base of the Taylor Valley, in the Dry Valleys, west of McMurdo Station in Antarctica. It’s a great pleasure to be able to publish Laura’s early report (dated October 9) and some of her photos. There will be more.

Laura Von Rosk (normally) lives with her dog Molly on a lagoon just outside Schroon Lake, New York. She curates the Courthouse Gallery at the Lake George Arts Project, a gallery dedicated to the experimental and the avant garde. She’s an old friend and a wonderful landscape painter.


What it’s like living in Antarctica

From Laura Von Rosk


We arrived at McMurdo on Tuesday late afternoon. We have been very busy since, with training, reviewing plans for the season, etc., and just getting adjusted to the new environment. Each night I think I’ll get to email – but end up exhausted. Usually in bed by 11 PM, and up around 6 AM.

We weren’t sure we would get here on Tuesday because the night before we left Christchurch it was “Condition 1” [1] at McMurdo.

Today, Sunday, Oct 9th, is Condition 3 – beautiful sunny day, 0 degrees F, -18F wind-chill.

Thursday was Sea Ice Safety Training, all day.  The afternoon section was out on the sea ice with weather fluctuating between Condition 2 and 3!  I learned how to drill into 3 meters of sea ice (this is team work). We learned about the “unusual” condition of the sea ice this year – this ice is the thinnest since 1997. Last summer here the ice in McMurdo Bay completely cleared out (melted), so, much of what we have around us is “new” ice (only 1 year old). In some places around MCM (McMurdo) ice was 25 ft thick this time last year, but now some areas are only 6 ft thick.  New Harbor, the camp were we will spend 10 weeks, where Sam and the Gals will be diving, will probably NOT be new ice, and at least 12 ft thick (we’ll soon find out!).

Friday learned (or tried to learn) how to operate a snow mobile (or Skidoo, as they say down here). This was NOT fun, in the whipping wind, Condition 2, my gauntlet mittens constantly falling off… and then there was a “situation”… Cecil (my MCM roommate/ one of the divers on my team B-043, AND one with experience down here), had something happen that could have been a disaster: the snowmobile was in gear when she started it, and the throttle stuck, didn’t spring back up – so it took off full speed ahead, (she was not sitting on it). Fortunately the teacher, Toby, had parked his snow mobile about 50 ft in front of Cecil’s – so it crashed into his – which stopped it (obviously). I heard a loud noise, and when I looked up I saw it plow into Toby’s skidoo, the rear of it started digging into the snow, and looked like it was sinking! (I thought “She’s going down!”) We all, class of 9 people, stared – jaws dropped, in shock… Toby ran over and hit the “kill” switch (the off switch) and it stopped digging into the snow, and the skidoo in front of it! We all, especially Toby, were a little rattled by this (well – I was completely, yet quietly to myself – FREAKED OUT!).  He figured out what was going on: the result of them being out on the sea ice during Winfly (last weeks of Winter down here)  This never happened to him before. But he got 4 skidoos running properly, so the 9 of us took turns going thru his obstacle course. Best way to explain what happened:  there was ice in the carburetor slide. That made the throttle freeze in full gear (it is supposed to spring back when released). Does that make sense? (Lesson 1:  ALWAYS start your machine in NEUTRAL)

Learning a lot about machines… later in the day we got demos/training on ATV, jiffy drill (that’s the drill that 2 people have to hold – that can go 25 ft deep thru ice), generator, chainsaw, and the “Hotsy” (that’s the machine that melts the dive holes). So, out of all these machines – I’ll take a chainsaw over a skidoo any day! The skidoo incident circulated around the station in no time at all – funny… small community, news travels fast. The guy training us on the ATV says – “did you hear about blah blah…” – yes, yes we were there….

Another thing I am trying to figure out here – all the acronyms! Geez, it will make you crazy! The ECW (extreme cold weather gear), OAE  (Old Antarctica Explorer), and BFC, SSC, MEC, AAUS, OSL, EH&S, VMF, ATO, MCC, DNF, DA, FEMC… that’s just a few.

Saturday we had a “checkout” dive at a dive hole on the sea ice right near the station. This was with the dive experts here at MCM, Steve & Rob.  It’s to make sure all is good with equipment etc.  Sam, Cecil and Danielle went down with them.  This was Dannie’s 1st dive in cold water, and in her words: it was “AWESOME”!  (Hilary couldn’t dive because she has a sinus infection)  They went down in 2 separate groups, for about a ½ hour each.  It’s very exciting, but also uncomfortable (for me) after 20 – 25 minutes – waiting for them to surface.

Saturday after dinner Cecil & I walked down to Hut Point, where the “Discovery Hut” is located.  This was the hut used by many of the explorers in the early 1900s.  Built in 1902 by Scott, and used by him, and Shackelton, and others on their various trips down here.  At the top of the hill we saw 6 Weddell Seals lounging on the ice along one of the big cracks that juts out to sea.  About 100 yards further along the crack was another family of seals.  Apparently this is very early in the season to see mammals so close to MCM (result of thinner sea ice this year, and numerous cracks).  The seals come up thru the cracks. Penguins usually don’t show up around here till later in the season, when more of the sea ice melts.

Across the sea (McMurdo Sound)  is White Island, Black Island (south in the Ross Ice Shelf), Discovery Mountain, and to the right (northwest of that) is the Royal Society Range. Right of that (north) is the Taylor Valley and New Harbor, but we can’t see it from McMurdo. From Hut Point you can see Razorback Island (which is also not visible from MCM).  Every day the view across the sea ice is different.  Yes – mostly white!  But the clouds and wind (different “conditions”) create some interesting effects.

I can’t believe I haven’t even been here a week!  Its 10:45 PM on Sunday – and I am pooped. Time for bed – more training tomorrow!

—Laura Von Rosk






Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I pasted the 3 main definitions for weather here:

    Condition 3 (nice weather): Winds up to 48 knots, wind chill down to -75 degrees F, and visibility over 1/4th mile. Unrestricted travel and activity are allowed.
    Condition 2 (not so nice): Winds 48 to 55 knots, wind chill -75 to -100 degrees F, or visibility 100 feet to 1/4th  mile. Restricted pedestrian traffic only between buildings is allowed. Vehicular travel is allowed in radio equipped, enclosed vehicles only, and check out is required.
    Condition 1 (crazy…) Winds over 55 knots, wind chill lower than -100 degrees F, or visibility less than 100 feet. Severe weather is in progress. All personnel must remain in buildings or the nearest shelter.

    For a sample of Condition 1 visit this link:

  5 Responses to “What it’s like living in Antarctica — Laura Von Rosk at McMurdo Station”

  1. This is fascinating. My grandfather, George Russell Frazier, was an explorer with Byrd on his third expedition. He was the team doctor,there to do research on the odd ills that befell the rest of the explorers in the harsh conditions. A lot of fillings fell out when the metal contracted; he pulled a lot of teeth. But that was before skidoos and permanent habitations. My brother-in-law followed him down there for a stint on the ice, but in the winter, when it was dark 24/7. I loved reading this, Laura. Good luck to all of you.

  2. Amazing! I recommend everyone check out the Condition 1 you-tube link. And I thought it was getting chilly in NYC!

    • Actually, that video seemed almost surreal. She’s walking down a modern office corridor, then into an entryway caked with ice, THEN she opens the door and can’t get it shut.

  3. Terrific post, as I sit here shivering in San Diego with a fire going…it’s 59 deg outside. Perspective is a wonerful thing. Thanks for brining this to NC. The pictures are amazing.

  4. What an adventure, like no other on earth. An amazing picture of your teammate dropping into an ice hole! Wow!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.