Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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Exploratorium crew member Julie Konop on the sea ice.

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Lessons on Sea Ice

by Mary K. Miller

December 7, 2001

This place is called "The Ice" for good reason. Ice dominates the landscape of much of Antarctica with a thick coat of brilliant white. Solid pack ice also conceals what would be open sea just out the window of my temporary office in McMurdo Station. During winter and spring, the ice is thick enough that planes can land on it, as we did when arriving from Christchurch a few days ago.

Before anyone here is allowed to venture off the solid ground of the station and onto the sea ice on their own, they must attend a full-day safety class conducted by the Field Safety Training Program. (It’s also known as f-stop… we’re quickly learning that every building and group at McMurdo has two or more names, acronyms, or nicknames, contributing to the confusion of any newcomer for at least the first week).

Our instructor for the Sea Ice School is Ted Dettmar, chief story-teller and station historian on the heroic age of Antarctica exploration (he’s promised to give the Exploratorium crew a tour of the hut used by the Scott expedition at Cape Evans later this month, so stay tuned). Ted has been on the search-and-rescue team in Antarctica for eight years and has seen plenty of people get into trouble on the sea ice, something we definitely want to avoid.


Contents of an Antarctica survival bag.

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Before leaving the station, we get a briefing on survival in Antarctica. Weather can change quickly here, going from a clear, fine day—called "condition three" to a blizzard, or "condition one"—in a matter of hours. If you’re out on the ice in condition one weather, the only option is to hunker down and wait it out. Your chances of making it through a Antarctic storm depend on the contents of a survival bag that includes a tent, food, stove, a signal mirror, and some extra cold-weather clothing. Because storms can last two days here, the folks who put together the survival bags also include some form of entertainment: a game, crosswords, and a book. One popular title is "Survive," the real-life account of a rugby team that crashed in the Andes mountains and found an unconventional way to keep themselves nourished while waiting for rescue (the story was encapsulated in a bumper sticker I once saw: "Rugby players eat their dead.").

Storms are not the only risk when out and about on the sea ice. Weak spots or pressure ridges can open up on the ice, leaving a thin sheet--or nothing--between the water and a vehicle or person. Ted tells us the story of a group from New Zealand’s Scott Base who drove out on the ice in a heavy Hagglund track vehicle. The $500,000 vehicle broke through a weak spot in the ice and was submerged up to its emergency hatches in seawater. Luckily, Hagglunds are designed to float, and nobody was hurt, except perhaps for the bruised pride of the Kiwi driver (Kiwi is the affectionate term for New Zealanders). The incident makes for a sober lesson for anyone traveling on sea ice to always gauge the thickness of the sea ice before driving over it.

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