Today we are stuck in McMurdo due to bad weather. Snow is swirling and we can’t see much of anything out our lab window. Helicopters are on the ground, unable to take us out to the Dry Valleys.
I figured this would be a good time to explain a bit about life in McMurdo, the big city. McMurdo is the main station for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), so many people and lots of cargo end up here, either to stay for the season or to continue on to a deep field camp. Although it may seem that McMurdo is a remote outpost at the end of the Earth, it really is like any other town in many respects, with its own water treatment center, hospital, fire station, residential neighborhoods, chapel, roads, gyms, bars, and a diverse population (which currently numbers 850).
Of course, there are a few ways – both mundane and significant – in which McMurdo differs from your typical town. Waste disposal, for instance, is much more complicated, since all waste must be packaged up and shipped off the island.
Since the community lives in such tight quarters, hand washing is very important. In order to encourage residents to wash hands as much as possible, there’s even a public washing station outside the Galley (the dining hall).
But perhaps the most significant aspect of McMurdo that sets it apart from other towns (other than the location) is the fact that it exists solely for the purpose of science. Everyone here is either a scientist or works in some way to support scientific research. Crary Lab, one of the biggest buildings in town, houses astronomers, biologists, geologists, physicists, and glaciologists all investigating some aspect of this continent. When in town, we spend the majority of our time in the lab. So far, since we don’t have any samples to process, we have been cleaning and setting things up.
Another significant aspect of McMurdo is the historical context of the area, which Ali explained so well in her earlier post. Although McMurdo Station was established in 1955 in preparation for the International Geophysical Year in 1957, McMurdo Sound was named more than a hundred years earlier by the English explorer James Clark Ross. Other explorers, including Robert F. Scott and Ernest Shackleton, used the area as a staging ground for their famous expeditions. As we walk around town, we are constantly reminded of the legacy of Antarctic exploration around McMurdo. It’s a legacy that makes living here even more awe-inspiring.