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Antarctic Journal: Welcome to Mactown

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Matt Siegfried

A view of Observation Hill near McMurdo Station. The hill is home to a memorial to British explorer Robert Falcon Scott's fatal Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole.

Matt Siegfried is a glaciologist on the ROSETTA-ICE field project in Antarctica. For the next several weeks, he'll be writing a blog for Nature about life in the field.

Between the 24 hours of sunlight and the cookies available 24 hours a day, my first week back at McMurdo Station has felt like at least a month (or two). I’m going to conveniently skip over the first two-and-a-half days of trainings and jump right into the fun of living and working in “Mactown”.

Matt Siegfried

A row of US Air Force cargo planes — ski-equipped LC-130s — lined up at McMurdo Station.

Careful where you sit

Right now, McMurdo is a bustling town of about 900 people (73% male, 27% female as of this writing) that operates 24 hours a day. With long work days (typically 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., six days a week), meals become a nexus for social interaction outside your project (for scientist “grantees”) or outside your work centre (for contractors).

Read more of Matt's Ice Diary

With few exceptions, you can sit down with anyone on station for a meal in the galley (our cafeteria-style dining facility), which is one of the coolest parts of this whole experience. I’ve eaten breakfast with the dean of a major university, had lunch with one of Carl Sagan's colleagues, and dinner with a livestock farmer. Over breakfast on Monday, I even got an introduction to particle-physics lecture from someone building a muon detector (I didn’t even know a muon was a thing that existed until this week).

But it’s not all fun and games in the galley. Scientific idols, potential postdoc advisors, and, perhaps the scariest, National Science Foundation programme managers (the people who make the final decision on funding grant proposals, the lifeblood of academic science) also eat their meals in the galley. Early-career scientists don’t typically have the opportunity to sit down with this group of people, but here in McMurdo, you can get to know your programme manager over long lunch. Or, alternatively, your programme manager can get to know the real you over a breakfast before you’re properly caffeinated.

Sitting down with these people who can significantly impact your future career is an equally exciting and terrifying prospect. While I’ve thrown myself out there in past seasons, I have yet to take the dive this year.

Matt Siegfried

Matt's roommate, oceanographer Dave Porter, in their dorm room at McMurdo Station.

Surrounded by history

But the best part of McMurdo (science aside, of course) is the constant reminder of the history surrounding the station (and, more generally, Antarctica). When I use the back stairwell of my dorm, I’m greeted with a view of Hut Point and Discovery Hut, built by Robert Scott in 1902 and used by various Antarctic explorers until World War I.

The view from McMurdo

Matt's dorm at McMurdo has a great view of Hut Point, where British polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott built Discovery Hut in 1902.

When I walk to my office on the other side of town, I look up at the Memorial Cross that was placed on Observation Hill in 1913 to commemorate Scott’s fatal journey to the South Pole. You can spend days hiking around town reading all the various plaques celebrating people and events that impacted the area over the past 100 years. Even the fact that I’m currently governed by the first arms-control agreement of the Cold War is remarkable to me (I think that makes me a geopolitics nerd).

Science update!

I could probably write a few thousand words on the crazy, frenetic existence that is a first week in Mactown (which, this year, included a contradance). The to-do lists are seemingly endless as science ramps up, but once the first data are collected, all that madness starts to melt away. The team starts to focus on the prize: collect as much data as possible within the short time allotted by USAP.

Here's the big news: after a week of unpacking and troubleshooting,  ROSETTA-Ice has started flying!

Matt Siegfried

Radar engineer Tej Dhakal and oceanographer Dave Porter troubleshoot electronics problems on the ROSETTA-Ice team's research plane.

Matt Siegfried

A close-up view of Icepod, the bundle of instruments that will measure the Ross Ice Shelf from aboard the ROSETTA-ICE team's research plane.

Matt Siegfried

Gravimeters sit, ready for the ROSETTA-Ice team's first research flight.

Matt Siegfried

The ROSETTA-Ice team got a great view of White Island on the Ross Ice Shelf as they prepared to land their research plane.

Our first flight was short thanks to some bad weather rolling in, but today we completed our first full eight-hour “mission”. Thirty-five more and we will have mapped the entire Ross Ice Shelf with Icepod, the set of instruments that fly on our military plane. Half of our team, myself included, is in the process of “swinging” our schedule to nightshift, so that starting Monday, we can be ready to fly two eight-hour missions per day.

You can track our progress covering the Ross Ice Shelf with the Lamont-Doherty ROSETTA-Ice Flight Tracker.

Follow along on Instagram to see daily pictures of what night-shift science is like in Antarctica. And if you’ve got questions, I’ll be online to answer them on Friday, 20 November, at 9 a.m. US Eastern time (3 a.m. Saturday in McMurdo); you can pre-register for the chat.


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