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Mactown: Special People

December 2, 2014

This page is a salute to all the special people who keep things running at Mactown (McMurdo Station, Antarctica). Run by the National Science Foundation, McMurdo is the USA’s major Antarctic research center. It’s also a unique town community, built upon a blob of lava that dribbled out from Mount Erebus and solidified thousands of years ago. For my full run of posts so far, see Antarctica linkAny corrections, please report here. 1_Loomie_Sandra Loomie and Sandra have my vote for the cutest couple in Mactown. As in a college town, the work of the scientist-educators requires tremendous support from people with all kinds of skills. Loomie does special construction projects, such as building a new footbridge at Blood Falls–one of the Dry Valleys’ most famous landmarks. Studying such sites is a challenge because it requires a safe observation point for scientists, with minimal disruption of the site. Sandra  follows helo flights at the Flight Center. 2_Sandra_Flight_Ctr You can see at left the screen where two helicopters are off across the ice. The middle screen shows a plane arriving from New Zealand. At right are all the radio channels. This is an amazing amount for one person to keep track of, and keep all our travels safe. The buildings require all kinds of special maintenance. 3_Michael_Neville Michael does maintenance for Crary science lab. Here he meets with Neville, the boiler inspector. An important part of Michael’s job is feeding Neville lobster so that he’ll let the boilers pass inspection. If Neville fails the boilers, the whole station will go dark. Crary lab (which I’ll blog more about next week) requires all kinds of special maintenance. For instance, you need different kinds of water–the sink water, here, as well as de-ionized water. Keeping all the special plumbing straight is important here, just like at Kenyon where Dave Boughter does it. This photo shows the “cubitainers” for lake water collection, which I’m bringing out to the Dry Valleys today (weather permitting). The cubitainers are cubical plastic containers that cleverly pack half-inside-out, for transport. However, even the fresh plastic contains impurities that we have to wash out with acid and deionized water, before collecting lake samples. 4_Cubitainers Once samples are collected, we filter them and they need to ship back by helicopter–a lot of heavy loads for those poor helos. Then the samples need to ship off continent. This is a challenge because different samples need different conditions to stay fresh. 5_Kara_Craig Kara is an expert sample shipper. She was hired for her degree in Environmental Science, so she understands why some live samples need to be shipped on ice, whereas others need to be frozen on dry ice or liquid nitrogen. Kara’s husband is Craig, the helitech who brought me home from the field late at night last week. There are a lot of hard-working couples here. Besides cubitainers, I was instructed to bring some other essential items of field science equipment: 6_BFC Thanks, Greg, Claire, Brent, and Isaac! Here are Manuel and Karsten, in the craft room. On their own time, they are making T-shirts for the Thanksgiving night party (see below). 7_Manuel_Karsten Karsten is a steward, who keep the food in stock and cleans up the galley and mess deck. Like at Kenyon College, that’s quite a big job. Manuel runs shuttles, and drives Ivan the Terra Bus. Famous as the world’s slowest bus, Ivan drives visitors in from the planes arriving at Pegasus field (on the ice). 8_Ivan_Terrabus Here is a video I took from Ivan, the day I arrived. You can tell from the video that the bus has no shocks. The interior is wood paneled, way cool! At such an isolated post, a major challenge is to keep up morale. On a daily level, McMurdo is not exactly the most lovely place. It’s very functional, and the functional pipes are there, going every which way in the mud. Can you see the mountains? Yes, if you look closely, but it’s easy to forget. 9_Mac_road Fortunately, people are so friendly–this is the friendliest place I’ve been. And there are great opportunities for a makeover! 10_Alicia_Hair Even scientists need a haircut after the first month or so. Alicia offers the best haircut on the continent–for only ten dollars. And you can’t beat the décor. Got milk? 11_Elise_Joan Nothing beats the blues like good food. Elise instructed me how to use the cafeteria–especially never to eat on the blue tile. The galley has very involved procedures to avoid disease transmission, especially the awesome hand-washing machines. I’d like to see Kenyon implement those back home. 12_Blue_tile Everyone is friendly and glad to talk about their work. But they also work hard, and they always mind the clock. Check out this gigantic Antarctic clock; look closely at the “numbers.” 13_Clock Thanksgiving is a special holiday. There are three seatings for a very special dinner. Here you can see people lining up for the 5:00pm seating. 14_Line_Tday I was thrilled to get all the traditional turkey and pies, as well as more exotic items. 15_Tday_mealBut when I sat down alone without Michael and Daniel, I teared up. Everyone has family so far away. Fortunately a couple of old-timers invited me to share their table. They described what it’s like to “overwinter” here. Most of the buildings go dark, but the galley can be self-sufficient and survive on its own for a long time. Surprisingly, most of the renovations go on during the winter. 16_Tauntaun_poster After dinner came the party. The theme was “Year of the Tauntaun,” a monstrous creature from an ice world in the Star Wars universe. 17_Tauntaun_Party The party was full of cheerful gals and shy guys. One gentleman expressed amazement at seeing so many ladies in skirts instead of Carhartts. 18_Skua Of course, it wouldn’t be Mactown without skuas. The skua is a fierce marine bird that hunts for any item that might be edible; it will dive at food you carry from the galley. Here this skua has found a stick and is trying to eat it. Come to think of it, scientists are like the skua: We dive for data wherever we can, desperate to find meaningful patterns we can publish. And we’re always grateful for Mactown.

Next post: Kiwis of Scott Base — And Seals!
Index: Antarctica

  1. December 3, 2014 11:26 am

    Saw an Antarctica Obit on the news–worried about you till I saw it was at the other, non-McMurdo station. Sorry you couldn’t be with your family this holiday. Are you spending xmas there?
    (btw, loved that “It’s all North from here” clock!)

    • December 3, 2014 8:05 pm

      The death at South Pole had nothing to do with Antarctica, though it makes a bad headline. NSF’s safety record is really remarkable, considering all the things we deal with here.

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