Transantarctic Mountains

View from McMurdo, Transantarctic Mountains in the distance.

Last night I left our lab at 1 in the morning. The sun was hanging low to the south and the light was filled with violet-blue-orange hues. A recent storm had left thin strands of clouds and snowdrift along the horizon, and the mountains to the west looked very striking covered in flowing glaciers and slanted sunlight, so I decided to walk out onto the sea ice just outside of town. The frozen surface of McMurdo sound strecthes westward for dozens of miles before running into the Victoria Land coast, where the Transantarctic Mountains rise directly out of the ocean and stretch all across the Antarctic continent. The flat sea ice and ring of mountains reminded me very much of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where dry, bone-white playa lake beds gleam in the desert sun, circled by reddish peaks and streaked by passing sand storms and the occasional dust devil. Right in the middle of both of these surreal landscapes humans have brought the strangest contraptions. In the Black Rock Desert people try to break land speed records, build and burn art, and build a city once a year that vanishes completely after one week (the ephemeral Black Rock City is where Burning Man takes place). Here, in one of the harshest places in the world, people land on the frozen sea in big cargo planes, fly around in helicopters, and use strange instruments to study ice, sea, rocks, birds, sea creatures, lichens, the atmosphere, Mars (the most Mars-like environment on earth is in the nearby Dry Valleys), foraminiferans, volcanoes, and meteorites, to name a few. Between me and the big mountains, on the flat frozen sea, were five LC-130’s (planes with skis that can land at the South Pole), snow mobiles, a large red and white radar dome, and a few fish huts; it seems like a small, insignificant speck of the human realm in such a vast, frozen, inhospitable, and fantastic landscape.

We’re scheduled to fly to Cape Crozier at 9 tomorrow morning. If all goes as planned and the weather is good we should be in the penguin colony by the afternoon. Our wireless connection is getting installed later this week, so we’ll be out of contact for a few days.