There are two ways to travel to the icy continent if you are a guest of the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). If you are heading to the USAP's largest research base, McMurdo Station, and then on to the South Pole Station, you fly to Antarctica from Christchurch, New Zealand. If you are heading to the USAP’s Palmer Station, which is located at the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, you travel by research ship from Punta Arenas, Chile.
But before you set foot on either ship or plane, your first stop is always USAP’s warehouse of Extreme Cold Weather gear. After all, certainly the most obvious—and important—issue facing a visitor to the coldest place on the planet is what to wear. Since TFK will be visiting both the McMurdo and the South Pole stations, we began the last leg of our journey to Antarctica at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) in Christchurch, a beautiful city that was severely damaged—and is still recovering—from a powerful earthquake that hit in 2011. At the CDC, Marlene McLennan shows newcomers the clothing checklist that includes gloves or mittens, hats or ski mask, fleece jackets, extra-thick socks, wind pants, and long underwear. Her advice: “Make sure everything fits!” In the warehouse are arranged row after row of specially insulated footwear, called bunny boots, hundreds of overalls, jackets, and the special parka, known as Big Red, that is standard for the scientists and visitors. Protective snow goggles are also required.
Safety is critical because Antarctica is “an environment unlike any other on Earth,” as the orientation video that all visitors watch points out, and the extreme cold is the biggest challenge. “No one controls the weather in Antarctica,” the video’s narrator says, “but what we do control is our activity level. It’s a matter of understanding and respecting your environment and your limitations." Another feature of weather in Antarctica is that it can change suddenly. Ferocious winds can create white-out conditions. It is not uncommon for flights from Christchurch to McMurdo Station, which take about 8 hours, to get half way to the base only to have to turn around and head back to New Zealand because of storms that suddenly make landing at the research station impossible.
Suiting up is step one. Loading up and strapping into the military cargo plane comes next.
David Bjerklie is traveling to Antarctica with the National Science Foundation. He plans to file daily reports. Track his progress and learn all about the icy continent at TFK’s Antarctica Mini-Site.
To see a live web broadcast on January 23, teachers and parents can join the TFK community at edweb.net/tfk. All participants will receive printable worksheets with maps, time lines, and more.