12/17/19 – 12/20/19 WAIS Divide

As I am writing this, I am currently sitting on an LC-130 en route back to McMurdo from WAIS Divide. We boarded about an hour and a half ago, and I just woke up from a nap and decided this would be a good time to write. First I guess I’ll give a little background about where I’ve been the last 3 days, before I get to what I’ve been doing. The West Antarctic Ice Shelf Divide (WAIS Divide) is a Deep Field Camp located at 79.46 S, 112.08 W, about 1021 miles from McMurdo. The trip is approximately 3 ½ hours by LC-130. AWS has many weather stations near WAIS – the station just outside base, Byrd, Kathy, and Bear Island (Peninsula*). Looking back on the last couple days, I wish I could have spent more time there. There was no cell phone service, no internet, and almost nothing to do but play cribbage. The community is very small, around 57 people. Everyone pitches in their part in the form of house mouse duties, such as doing dishes, cleaning, sweeping floors, and even shoveling snow to melt for water. That’s right, all of the drinking water at WAIS is shoveled melted glacier ice from the “Snow Mine”, and it tastes very good. The food is also pretty good. The two cooks, Jesse and Cat, cook for everyone on camp. It’s definitely the same frozen base ingredients as McMurdo food, but better prepared and spiced.

The environment in WAIS is a complete change from McMurdo. The first and most obvious change was the landscape. WAIS is literally in the middle of nowhere. Besides random softball size snow-chunks scattered thru ought the surface, the area is fairly featureless in every direction. WAIS is located on top of more than a mile of glacier, an ice shelf which extends between the Transantarctic Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. This altitude (6000ft) brings me to the second biggest change, the weather. WAIS Divide is much cooler and windier than McMurdo. The air is also much drier, with a relative humidity around 5% and much lower dew points. The weather was pretty variable for the short time I was there. I saw everything from sunny and clear skies, to heavy blowing snow, to freezing fog. The temperature also varied quite a bit, from 15 to -4 degrees Fahrenheit.

There aren’t nearly as many amenities in WAIS as there are in McMurdo. The camp is only active during the summer months and is taken down during the winter, so all camp structures are either temporary “rac tents” or “modules”. These structures serve for all of the primary staging areas for the functions of the camp. Rac tents are large, half-cylindrical thermally insulated tents with a wooden infrastructure. The main rac tent is The Galley. Here, breakfast, lunch and dinner were served. The camp also held daily morning meetings after breakfast around 7:30am. The galley also contained the glacier water melting system. Near the back door, on the other side of the rac tent as pictured on the left, a large 500-gallon drum was nearly full of fresh drinking water. Other rac rents included the Pilots rac tent, and the Rec. These rac tents were each about 1/3 the size of the Galley. 


Modules are basically stripped out double-wide ice fishing shacks on sleds. Modules serve many purposes for WAIS. There is Comms, which provides a workspace, power outlets, and VHF radios for research groups. The Wash module, where there are showers (only cold), sinks, and a single washing machine. The Medical module, where a single physician assistant on is on duty. Other structures included the bathrooms, which were very memorable unheated outdoor outhouses. 

Originally, only 7 of us were manifested to fly on December 17th. It didn’t really work out the first try though. Low visibility and low cloud cover had pushed our transport time from 6:30am to 9:30pm, then 3:30pm. After more attempts, the flight was cancelled, with a new transport time rescheduled for 9:30am the next day. This is somewhat typical for flights in and out of WAIS. As I found out later in the trip, conditions in WAIS can change quickly. Weather forecasters are looking for stable weather to activate flights, especially expensive and long-distance ones like this. Fast forward to the next morning, I woke up around 7am and quickly ran to the galley to check the flight manifest screen and to catch breakfast. On checking, the flight read as “Activated”. I was slightly surprised as we were told the flight may not activate due to weather. After eating, I grabbed my things and reported to building 140 for transport. Lee, 9 others and I rode in a “Delta” to Willie Field. A Delta is basically a diesel tractor with massive wide snow tires and a sheet metal crew cab bolted 6 feet off the ground. The inside of the Delta was lined with every kind of sticker one could imagine. Everything from NASA, to In-And-Out Burgers, to the old AWS sticker. Arriving at the airfield, our LC-130 was being fueled. We were told we had about a half an hour before departure. In the meantime, we hung out in the galley and chatted with the other groups flying with us. It was now time to depart. We loaded ourselves back into the Delta and were driven to the plane nearby. Once we were off, we grabbed our things, stopped for a few pictures, and boarded the airplane. It was going to be a tight fit; WAIS had just recently had a 14-day flight blackout. The plane was stuffed full of crates of supplies. We sat along the sides of the plane in netted seats and stacked our carry-on bags into a pile in the middle of the isle. The doors closed, and minutes later we took off, beginning our flight to WAIS. The flight was smooth, and the sky was clear. Not a whole lot happened during the flight. There was only endless ice tundra to see out the windows. Most of us took a nap or read books/tablets. Coming into WAIS, low fog prohibited visibility and I wasn’t able to see much out the window. 

We touched down, and we began taxiing into base. About halfway there, the back hatch of the LC-130 opened up. The Air Gaurd loadmaster and his crew began untying crate loads which they shoved off onto the taxi-way as we were moving. We came to a stop and were told we could exit out the front of the plane. I stepped off and looked around. We were in front of a supply field, with 2 Twin Otters and a Basler parked maybe 100 yards away. Yellow tents and some rectangular metal structures could just barely be seen just beyond the airplanes through the fog. We were greeted and told to meet in the galley, the main staging area of WAIS Divide. There, the camp operations manager James introduced himself, then gave us an overview of how things work at WAIS. We then went around the room introducing ourselves to the rest of the camp.

I slept in a 7 x 5 foot mountain tent thought the trip. It was surprisingly warm. Since the sun never sets, the tent is constantly soaking up heat. The tents bottom tarp, two base layer thermal pads and a thin thermal insulated air mattress separated my fleece lined REI sleeping bag from snow and ice below. Since we were technically in Denver time zone, peak sunlight occurs around 3am McMurdo time. The extra sunlight would cause my tent to heat up to 60 or 70 degrees and wake me up to take a layer off. All USAP bases and camps run on New Zealand time to avoid confusion. Otherwise one would be passing a time zone for every 80 miles of latitude or so, with all time zones converging at the South Pole.

to be continued…

2 thoughts on “12/17/19 – 12/20/19 WAIS Divide

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